I’m hanging my head in embarrassment buying a pair of bright pink Skull Candy earphones from a downtown LA Target. They’re the only ones within my price range, and I need a pair so I can hear the audio from my interviews later. I took the 7:30am flight from NYC. My girlfriend’s mom works for JetBlue. She got me a buddy pass so I could fly out here standby. It’s the only way I could’ve afforded it. I landed in LA at 10am, took two buses to meet my friend who then drove me to Hollywood where I took the subway eight stops to the closest location to the Staples Center, still a 20 minute walk away.
This isn’t glamorous and it certainly isn’t as cool as I make it look on my Instagram, but for me, this is fight night. UFC 227. And, despite all the bullshit, I couldn’t be happier.
— Luke Touma (@LukeTouma) August 4, 2018
UFC 227 is by far the biggest and best fight card that I’ve been accepted to work press for. The card is headlined by the heavily anticipated rematch between UFC Bantamweight Champion TJ Dillashaw and his arch rival Cody Garbrandt, two former teammates whose falling out was highlighted by reality TV show brawls and leaked videos of old sparring sessions. The wake that’s followed Dillashaw’s controversial exit from Team Alpha Male has had all the drama, betrayal, and pettiness of an episode of the Real Housewives. And while this drama outside the ring has no effect on what happens in the ring, it definitely generates excitement for the card.
Also on the card is Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. The clearcut best flyweight of all time, Johnson broke new ground in his last fight by defending his title for a UFC record 11th consecutive time. Tonight (Aug. 4) he faces Henry Cejudo, a former Olympic gold medalist who Johnson finished midway through the first round in their first outing. Cejudo is out for revenge and Johnson is looking to further cement his legacy as the best flyweight of all time.
Even with all that traveling, I still get to the Staples Center relatively early. I’ve held out on eating because I knew there would be free food in the media room. I check in at the venue, made my way to the media room, set up my laptop and camera, and piled a plate high with cold pasta and fun-sized M&Ms. Even the free meals I get are within my budget.
I quickly make friends with the guy sitting next to me. His name is Anthony and he’s a journalist at Sherdog, a popular combat sports blog and brand. While Anthony has worked in the MMA world for much longer than me, he’s as green as I am when it comes to working press for the UFC. Just like me, he’s only worked two or three UFC events before this. Anthony and I get deep into a conversation about what we love and hate about the UFC, what we each do for the companies we work for, and our fight predictions for the night. Talking to Anthony makes me feel more comfortable in a room full of bigwig MMA journalists like Ariel Helwani. He’s friendly and honest and he’s not wearing a fucking three piece suit.
The fights kick off and their exciting right off the bat. A scrappy bantamweight named Marlon Vera wins an exciting prelim fight and dedicates his victory to his seven year-old daughter who was born with a nerve condition that rendered her unable to smile up until recently when she got an expensive surgery to correct the problem. Marlon is clean cut despite coming from rough beginnings in Ecuador. While I’m interviewing him after his fight, he watches his training partner Alex Perez win via knockout in the fight after him. Marlon screams with joy watching Perez finish his opponent.
He’s full of love.
Perez comes back next and reciprocates these feelings. He gives us more detail on Marlon’s tumultuous childhood and the struggles that Marlon’s daughter has had dealing with her nerve condition. He tells us that seeing Marlon win nearly brought him to tears and inspired him to go above and beyond in his own fight. Based on their personalities, you’d think these guys were social workers or special-ed teachers. But no, they’re gladiators. Their job is to put their lives in danger multiple times a year in front of millions of strangers while they try to pummel their opponents unconscious. What you start to realize after spending enough time around fighters is that doing this job does not make someone a violent savage, but instead a person of respect and gratitude.
They cherish the moments when they can kiss their wives and pick up their children even more than the average person, because when the average person clocks into work, they’re not risking never getting to do those things again. They have admiration and appreciation for the people that play the same dangerous game that they do. They develop a kinship with their fellow fighters, even their enemies.
This respect between opponents is present when Tyron Woodley and Darren Till come into the media room separately to talk about their upcoming welterweight championship fight. Till comes in first and immediately starts praising Woodley. He says in their face-off the other night, he didn’t sense any fear in Woodley. He also criticizes Colby Covington for not bending to Woodley’s desire to fight sooner rather than later. He calls Colby a “c**t” and says, “Woodley is the kingpin of the division.”
Woodley comes in next and shows a similar level of respect and admiration for his opponent, Till. He says Till is young, hungry, and truly believes deep down in his heart that he is the best welterweight in the world. Woodley even sees similarities between Till and himself, stating, “Sometimes it just takes that young fighter that reminds you so much of yourself… to just re-light that flame”.
You can feel that flame burning inside Woodley. When he answers my questions he stares into my eyes with an intensity I have not felt elsewhere. Woodley knows what’s at stake. He knows what it means to be the champion. He feels the pressure that comes along with defending the belt. He knows that Darren Till is a massive, 25 year-old savage from the slums of Liverpool who will do anything in his power to take that belt away from him. Woodley understands and respects the consequences of this game and he’s willing to face them head-on on September 8th at UFC 228.
There are more great fights throughout the early portion of the night. Ricardo Ramos heroically beats an Asian fighter named Kyung Ho Kang. Pedro Munhoz outlasts Brett Johns in an absolute war. Thiago Santos beats a young, cocky fighter named Kevin Holland who, even in losing, thoroughly entertains the crowd, the press, and the A-list Hollywood celebrities in attendance at the Staples Center.
There’s something on this card for every fight fan. You can feel in the air that it’s a special night.
The flyweight title bout between Demetrious Johnson and Henry Cejudo is now upon us. Everyone in the press room is nearly rolling their eyes at the idea of this fight. We all know how unstoppable Mighty Mouse is. Johnson is on a 13-fight win streak with 11 straight championship title defenses. The last time he and Cejudo fought, Johnson was victorious inside three minutes.
Cejudo doesn’t stand a chance.
Johnson takes the first round as expected, but Cejudo shows much more resilience here than he did in their first fight. The second round starts and Cejudo surprisingly seems to be getting the better of Johnson. He keeps up this pace throughout the round and clearly takes this one 10-9. Johnson takes round three, but Cejudo shows no signs of slowing down. He’s more calculated in this fight than their first bout. He’s fighting intelligently, being aggressive when necessary, but not simply rushing at Mighty Mouse. He’s letting Johnson initiate some exchanges, trying for counters, and completing takedowns. Cejudo clearly takes round four, looking as fresh as he did at the beginning of the fight.
My new friend Anthony and I are watching the fight together. We both have it scored 2-2 going into the fifth round. We’re on the edge of our seats at this point. Neither of us expected the fight to be competitive and now it’s anyone’s game going into the final round.
What a night.
This fifth round starts a bit slow. Both fighters are engaging, but both seem to be aware of the fact that the fight has been even through four round. Joe Rogan is commentating on the fight and states that Cejudo has been able to take Johnson down multiple times so far, and that if he can successfully land one more takedown in this final round, he could seal the victory. Cejudo tries multiple takedowns, utilizing his Olympic level wrestling abilities, but Johnson scrambles brilliantly. Johnson’s technical abilities as a fighter are showing now more than ever. Cejudo does not give up though. He tries again, wraps his leg around Johnson’s, and after a struggle, is able to take Johnson down.
Anthony and I both stand and yell. Holy shit, Cejudo might win this thing. The round ends and both fighters show a respectful embrace to one another. This was a fantastic fight.
“We go to the judges scorecards for a decision”, says Bruce Buffer. First judge scores it 48-47 Cejudo, second scores it 48-47 Johnson.
You can hear a pin drop here in the media room. We’re all on our feet. Third judge scores it 48-47.
We’re all waiting to hear Bruce Buffer yell either, “and STILL” or “and NEW”. These three seconds between those two words last a lifetime. Then Buffer shouts, “NEW!”. All the journalists go wild. My god, Cejudo snapped the longest title defense streak in UFC history. I can’t believe I’m here to watch this.
— Luke Touma (@LukeTouma) August 5, 2018
I also can’t believe this card isn’t over yet. I spent all my emotions on that fight and now I have to watch the Dillashaw/Garbrandt rematch? I might have a heart attack.
Both Dillashaw and Garbrandt make their way to the octagon. You can cut the tension in this place with a knife. Both fighters seem confident and ready, but you can feel their hatred for each other. They come to the center of the octagon, the referee gives the ground rules, Dillashaw puts out his gloves to touch Garbrandt’s, Garbrandt shakes his head no. The crowd audibly yells, “Ooooooh!”
Round one starts and out of the gate Cody is throwing more kicks than he did in their first fight. Dillashaw is displaying his usual dynamic footwork. Garbrandt starts to throw some big punches until one of them connects and rocks Dillashaw. Dillashaw wobbles, you can tell he’s hurt. Cody moves in for the kill. He starts swinging for the fences. It’s like he’s trying to knock TJ’s head clean off.
I lean to Anthony and say, “God, he’s really leaving his chin out there”. Immediately next, Cody throws another massive right hand, TJ ducks it and throws a right of his own over Cody’s bizarrely low left arm. The punch connects and Garbrandt goes down hard. TJ hops on top of him, starts grappling and throwing more punches. Cody gets up but he’s clearly stunned. TJ keeps punching, but more guarded that Garbrandt was when he was looking to finish. TJ catches Cody with another big shot. Garbrandt’s out on his feet. Dillashaw pushes him up against the cage, lands a barrage of quick punches and a big knee to the chin.
He’s out. That’s it. TJ throws his arms in the air and screams like a banshee.
In the octagon interview, Rogan quickly brings up that TJ can now lay claim to being the best bantamweight of all time. TJ grabs the mic and says, “I AM the best Bantamweight of all time!”. I can’t disagree there.
TJ was fantastic, this whole card was.
I’m texting my Fight Fist Podcast co hosts Dan and Diego about how amazing this night was. They’re back on the east coast because, unlike myself, they don’t have a middle aged woman working at JetBlue who’s willing to schlep their broke asses around the country. Even from their homes, Dan and Diego both can see how historic of a night this was.
I’m just thankful I got to be there for it. In the media room, we finish up our post-fight interviews with the champions, Dillashaw and Cejudo. Dana White comes back to talk to us about the card and what’s next for the UFC.
I finish editing and uploading my videos and close my laptop. I look to Anthony. We’re two of the last guys left in the media room, but he’s still working. I shake his hand, tell him I had fun hanging with him, and we exchange social media handles. I make my way out. Right near the exit, there’s a big bowl of popcorn. I grab a heaping handful and shove it into my pocket. Because, as amazing as I feel right now, I still know there won’t be free food when I get back to New York.