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Fight City

This Saturday's UFC headline bout in Atlanta could vault MMA into the mainstream. Or not.

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The final frozen image of the movie Rocky III, the one that signals the credits scrolling to the song "Eye of the Tiger," is a fan's dream of what can occur when two valiant warriors do battle for our amusement. Rocky Balboa's powerful straight left and Apollo Creed's overhand right are freeze-framed before impact, and we imagine they will each connect in simultaneous glory, each man taking the other one out, solving nothing and everything at once.

In real life, that's not how it works. In real life, two punches, thrown at seemingly the same moment, will arrive at their target milliseconds apart. Which is another way of saying, one will arrive, one will not. Thus, one man, not two, will go down. And he will go down hard.

This is what happened on September 6, 2008, at Philips Arena in Atlanta. That's the night that crowd favorite Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell, arguably at that point still the biggest star in UFC history, threw a second-round powerful right uppercut too late by a skosh (in neural-firing terms). Because his Light Heavyweight opponent, severe underdog "Suga" Rashad Evans, landed his overhand right just as Liddell's punch was reaching its target. Liddell's head and neck jerked to his right with such force it seems comical in slow motion. Liddell went down to one knee, then onto his side, unconscious before his head hit the floor.

The punch stunned UFC fans — 14,735 of them went silent in Philips Arena. (One did not: Evans' pregnant wife, who screamed so loudly for so long the bout's announcers had to acknowledge to the Pay Per View audience the source of the shrieking.) This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen, in their minds. The story line was supposed to be: beloved longtime champion takes out brash, arrogant newcomer. In actuality, it propelled Evans into his status as one of the game's top fighters (albeit one who still has to endure his share of claims that he won on a "lucky punch" and that he's "a 'B' fighter.")

If the punches were reversed, perhaps that would not have been the case. But just as in boxing (the sport to which MMA-style fighting is most often compared, for obvious reasons), the story lines that lead up to a fight are always in danger of being erased and rewritten by the small matter of the fight itself. As it was true that night for UFC 88 in Atlanta, so could it be true this Saturday at UFC 145 at Philips Arena. The highlight bout that evening again features Rashad Evans, once again a steep underdog. But this time he's the old man (34) going against a young (24), charismatic champion — his former friend and training partner, Jon "Bones" Jones.

The buildup has everything: comparisons to the greatest boxing fights of the century (Ali-Frazier and Ali-Foreman); the young star actually being compared to and mimicking Muhammad Ali; allegations of stealing moves from each other, of fakery, of ass-kissing, of loutish ignorance; as well as the requisite number of compelling elements to any mixed martial arts fight, namely that a punch or elbow or knee could send someone into dreamland before you get settled in your ringside seat.

It also has the game within the game: two fighters at once trying to embrace the marketing surrounding the match, knowing that (most) all publicity is good publicity for a fledging sport, and reflexively distancing themselves from the Ali-Frazier comparisons.

All of which makes this Saturday's UFC card a seemingly seminal moment in the maturation of a sport that even the UFC President, Dana White, acknowledges is not yet "in the mainstream." (See sidebar interview, p. 34.) But it sure feels as though UFC is at mainstream's door, boasting record TV ratings (UFC signed a multi-channel seven-year broadcast agreement with Fox Sports last August) and an expanding global reach (last week's big UFC event was in Sweden). This is fueled by an impressive UFC marketing machine that expertly tells its story through social and traditional media means, and that works hard to keep negative images of the sport out of the conversation. Example: For this story, UFC would not give us any of the more violent images we requested, understanding fully that we love hyping that noise. The UFC rightly points out that, violent as it is by its nature, its only serious injury has been a broken arm.

Besides, the Jones vs. Evans story line is pretty dramatic on its own, and the real animosity the men have for each other, coupled with the circus that surrounds such large-scale events (be they boxing, pro wrestling, or MMA bouts), could substantially aid UFC's continuing efforts to invade the national sports conscience.

Which is something UFC President Dana White understands. "The next two years are more important than ever with getting new viewers," he says. "But at the end of the day it's still up to them [the fighters] to perform."

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