What It's Really Like To Be At A UFC Fight

Can the average desk-dwelling sports fan enjoy the most brutal game in the world? Esquire finds out

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Inside an octagonal ring in Greenwich stands a man, broad-shouldered and nervous. He glances up, wincing at the halogen glare of the spotlights above. In approximately 900 seconds a knee will make contact with his face, crushing his nose and eye socket like rotten fruit, but he doesn't know this yet. Right now he just looks nervous.

Welcome to the UFC.

It took 27 minutes to sell out London's O2 arena for tonight's event, 16,734 tickets bought. Another landmark in the inexorable ascendency of the Ulti-mate Fighting Championship as it closes in on $1 billion annual revenue.

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This is thanks in part to Conor McGregor, a brash and silver-tongued Dubliner who has positioned himself as the unofficial spokesman of mixed martial arts, dragging it into the peripheral vision of the general public through an unwavering self-regard and intoxicating charisma, the press hanging off his every word. Plus, he can fight a bit.

But can watching people get their head caved in truly appeal to a granola-chewing, hand-moisturising, desk-dwelling sport fan like me? A man whose idea of a fight is a muttered comment in passing to an errant queue-jumper? Is it too violent, too brutal, too base to maintain and build upon its considerable hype?

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I suppose that's what I'm here to find out.

Thirteen fights are scheduled this evening, the main card a much-hyped bout between Michael Bisping: a 37-year-old brawler from Manchester thrust into the limelight after a decade spent feeding off of scraps from the big table. And Anderson Silva: a loose-limbed Brazilian spoken about in certain circles as the greatest mixed martial artist to ever live, looking to stay in contention as his body begins to fade at the age of 40.

The evening's attendees filter into the arena clasping plastic pint glasses, sparrow chatter filling the stands. Most are white, male and in their late 20s, ensconced in shiny blazers and shinier hair gel. 

A slick-suited and baritone-voiced announcer introduces each fighter with plastic gusto, as ring girls, fake-tanned and beaming with a kind of grim enthusiasm skirt around the perimeter of the cage; eyes locked straight-ahead while half-hearted wolf whistles carry limply from the dark stands.

The crowd ebbs between restless and enraptured as each fighter performs their bloody audition, a visceral human conveyor belt. Those who grapple for too long or hesitate receive hisses and growls from all sides, a collective schadenfreude that is grimly contagious despite its gory implications.

Britain's Arnold Allen celebrates his victory after beating America's Yaotzin Meza

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the UFC is that it is a reckless organisation. For all of its brightly lit ferocity and WWE-esque hyperbole, it has a stellar safety record. They are at the forefront of the concussion debate; head injuries are assessed within 60 seconds, compared to 10 minutes in rugby and 8-12 in the NFL.

They also enforce one of the strictest doping policies of any sport, with random drug testing ever present, fronted by the man who helped take-down Lance Armstrong, Jeff Novitzky, who has cleaned up both the fighters and the reputation of the brand after a spate of performance enhancing drugs charges threatened its integrity.

By the time the main fight is introduced - four hours in - £5.10 pints of Stella and blood lust flow freely amongst the gathered. The sporadic murmurs that greeted the earlier fights replaced with a fervent cacophony, occasionally punctuated by a "Fuck him up, you prick", or "Smash him!" from the stands.

Bisping arrives first, bull-necked and adorned in a Union Jack as Blur's "Song No 2" echoes from high speakers. Silva follows soon after, a dark spectre of Copacabana swagger sloping into the ring as boos rain down from a partisan public.

Not known for his great power or skill, Bisping has carved a career out of essentially being a hard bastard, a marked contrast to Silva's liquid talent and legend status, which he plays up to as the bell sounds for the first round.

He dances, beckons and taunts, a slick matador to Bisping's raggedy bull; his arrogance only matched by his opponent's frustration. But while Silva show-boats, Bisping's hooks and jabs begin to land.

Michael Bisping lands a punch on Anderson Silva
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That is, until the knee arrives.

It's the closing seconds of the 3rd round and amongst a flurry of punches Bisping's mouth guard flies loose. He looks to the referee to hand it back, a lapse of focus that allows Silva to fling a rattlesnake-quick knee directly into his face, 17,000 voices are instantly silenced by its languid, arresting brutality.

But, somehow, Bisping staggers back to his feet, bloodied, furious and miraculously conscious. Death, taxes and Michael Bisping's granite jaw: the three great certainties of life, a hard bastard indeed. There will be two more rounds.

Silva's knee against Bisping
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Bisping wins the fight.

Simply put he had landed more strikes than Silva, which means he scored more points, their individual severity is inconsequential. One scuffed jab is as valuable as a face-shattering knee.

Blood clotting on a broken face, Bisping stands hunched and disfigured, King Lazarus clinging to a bloodstained Union Jack. He thanks the crowd, thanks Silva, but no one really hears him, the blood lust is already evaporating as the final drop is mopped from the grey canvas.

Michael Bisping after his victory against Anderson Silva

It's gone midnight when I finally leave the O2, past chain bars, shuttered res-taurants and swarms of fans spreading into the South East London night. Two young men pass me: "That was fucking ace, mate," one says to the other.

I pause, glancing back at the arena bathed in half-light, contemplating the whole thing: So bloody, brutal and gratuitous and yet so compelling. To see two men go to war, that sense of domination and weakness, melancholy and elation.

It appealed to me on a fundamental level, an unadulterated, atavistic sense of desperate violence that I couldn't help but admire while simultaneously recoiling from.

They were right, it was fucking ace.

Watch UFC Fight Night: Silva vs. Bisping again on UFC Fight Pass

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