By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
They won’t be lining up outside Baxter’s Sports Grill in Mill Creek two hours before the preliminary bouts of Ultimate Fighting Championship’s nationally televised event in Seattle on Saturday. It’s not like that at Baxter’s anymore — not since UFC has gotten so darned popular.
Snohomish County’s original home for pay-per-view UFC fights doesn’t get nearly the crowds it used to.
“Four years ago we were the only (sports bar) who showed it. Now there are 13 in a nine-mile area,” Baxter’s owner Ralph Heitzenrater said, adding that his establishment would get 200 fans and make $7,000 to $8,000 per night in its heyday. “We were so packed everybody jumped on the bandwagon. It’s really watered it down. Some fights, we’re glad when we break even.”
One of the fastest-growing sports in the country has come a long way since Heitzenrater tried televising a UFC match back in 1993 — when it was, in his words, “just like cage fighting.” The UFC has since become not only a reputable sport, but so popular that it has replaced boxing as America’s favorite hand-to-hand combat sport.
Cable stations charge more than $40 per fight, and Heitzenrater has to pay $1,750 when he televises a pay-per-view event.
Saturday’s event at KeyArena, which begins at 12:35 p.m. and will have multiple bouts shown live on Fox television, won’t cost Heitzenrater a cent to telecast — it’s free to the public. But that also means he probably won’t have much of a crowd.
“Truthfully, we’ll be lucky if we have 50 people (at Baxter’s to watch) the UFC this weekend. I’d be happy to see 30,” he said, “because they can watch it at home for free.”
Not only are people watching the UFC in droves, they’re also taking aim at competing in it. The most popular league featuring mixed-martial arts (MMA) has helped spawn a huge network of up-and-coming fighters. While MMA stars such as Lynnwood High School product Randy Couture had to move to places like Las Vegas just to find quality training partners, there are now MMA gyms all over the country.
Jeremy Pidgeon, a 34-year-old former high school wrestler at Everett and Mariner, recently opened Team Mean MMA gym in Snohomish and said interest is at an all-time high.
“I have a lot of families that do it — dads and sons that do it together, moms and daughters,” he said. “It’s become a recognized sport instead of just cage fighting.”
Since commissioner Dana White took over the UFC in 2002, the sport has grown into one of the most popular events in our athletic society. MMA has catapulted past boxing as the biggest pay-per-view draw, and stars such as Couture, George St. Pierre and Anderson Silva have become as popular in American culture as just about any individual sports star not named Tiger. A reality television show called “Ultimate Fighter,” which features up-and-coming mixed-martial artists vying for a UFC contract, is in its 15th season.
Saturday’s event at KeyArena features the latest trend for the sport — that is, being telecast on cable television. Benson Henderson, a product of Federal Way’s Decatur High School, will headline the event while defending his lightweight title against Nate Diaz.
Thursday’s press conference showed both sides of the UFC, with the charismatic Henderson winning the crowd over with his grin and sport coat while Diaz mostly donned a bad-boy pout. About 100 media members were gathered in a pavilion adjacent to KeyArena, while dozens of fans stood behind a rope to gawk at their heroes.
The sold-out event’s top eight competitors fielded questions Thursday, mostly giving benign answers while White, the commissioner, entertained the onlookers with his wit and occasional foul-mouthed barbs. The signature moment came when veteran B.J. Penn was asked about his upcoming bout with Rory McDonald.
“He said I’m probably going to die in the ring,” Penn said before leaning forward to look across the podium at McDonald, “and he better back up everything he said.”
The stone-faced McDonald, dressed in an expensive suit and carrying an umbrella, stared with steely eyes as he responded: “I’m ready. Don’t worry about that. You’ll see.”
The sport certainly has come a long way since Heitzenrater first broadcast a UFC event almost 20 years ago, but it’s still really about testosterone and attitude.
Come Saturday, any curious fan with a television set can watch for themselves from the privacy, and security, of their own homes.