The UFC circus rolled into Manchester at the weekend as Michael Bisping defended his middleweight title in front of a sold-out crowd. Phil Wilkinson went along to his first UFC event, to see what all the fuss is about...
Octagon announcer Bruce Buffer is screaming into his microphone as, all around him, thousands of fans go wild.
“Introducing first. Fighting out of the blue corner-” - his introduction is a masterclass in delivery.
All gravel, punctuation and passion.
He somehow makes the final two syllables last longer than most sentences and, when he utters his last four words, the entire place erupts:
“Michael. The Count. BISSSSSS-PPPINGGGGGGG!”
It’s 4.50am on Sunday morning, inside the Manchester Arena. Thousands of fans have congregated to watch one of their own defend his title on home soil. Ask them, and they will tell you Michael Bisping deserves a place on the Sports Personality... shortlist as much as Andy Murray and Laura Trott.
The audience is made up mainly of men, mainly in their 20s and 30s. Some in their 40s.
Most have been drinking for hours but, strangely, the atmosphere isn’t hostile.
Like the concerts which are regularly staged in this arena, their shared love has brought them together. Only it isn’t music they crave, but Mixed Martial Arts (don’t call it cage-fighting. They don’t like that). And, in the world of MMA, the UFC is the premier competition.
Good thing about UFC: You know if you’re going to like it immediately. It is the Ultimate Fighting Championship and it does what is says on the tin. Combatants clash in a wire-meshed octagon in three rounds (five for the main event), punching, kicking and wrestling each other to either knock-out, submission or points victories.
The sport boasts of being the fastest growing in the world, and Bisping - a quick-witted middleweight from Clitheroe - has certainly helped swell its popularity. He may now reside in California but he is a true Brit through and through, and his headlining appearance at Manchester was to defend the middleweight title he won in June.
Despite starting in the early hours - to please TV audiences in USA and south America, where it is more mainstream - the event sold out in under six minutes.
Yep, six minutes.
Fans began arriving at 10pm and, within an hour, there is a snaking queue backed up to Victoria Station as they wait patiently to pass through security checks which would put some small airports to shame.
The octagon is positioned in the middle of the arena floor. All seats have a good view of the action, as the six-fight preliminary card gets the mood warmed up like a good opening act.
It’s hot under the burning glare of the spotlights. Loud, too, with either American-endorsements or God-awful dance music blurring through the speakers in between fights. The air smells of stale ale and sweat.
By the time the main card starts it is 3am, but the atmosphere show no signs of fading.
Outside on the concourse, some look worse for wear. Smokers are ignoring the ‘no smoking’ signs in the toilets. But most people are in their seats, counting down, waiting for the main event. Waiting for Bisping.
The third fight features another Brit - Jimi Manuwa - and the volume from the stands is dialled up. This close, the shots ring loud. They are felt. The first round ends with a knee to the head which would send most spiralling, but the fighter shrugs it off as he walks back to his stool for water and instructions.
Between rounds, two Octagon girls take turns to walk around with a numbered board informing fans of the next round. There are only three rounds, so even the drunkest fans can keep count, but the girls seem almost as popular as some of the fighters. They are blonde and good-looking and wear small, not-much-more-than-bikini outfits.
Yet as tight as skimpy as they are, there’s enough space to squeeze a sponsor on their tops - Monster energy drinks.
It seems everything is sponsored. Replays. Clothing. Corner posts. Even an area on the floor where fighters stand while a guy dressed in black rubs petroleum jelly onto their eyebrows before fights.
Manuwa wins. He knocks out his opponent with a punch which some would call awesome, others sickening, depending on their stance.
He is interviewed in the Octagon, his voice crystal clear over the loud speakers. Think what you want about the UFC, but they do it right. It’s slick and quick and polished, with action replayed on the six giant screens and fights preceeded by short previews and recorded interviews.
Earlier that night, across town, the Super League had put on a great show with the Grand Final, but this was taken to another level. No fireworks but more hype. A similar feel, but with Red Bull. Or, as the UFC may prefer it said, Monster Energy.
Another middleweight bout - Vitor Belford and Gegard Mousasi - keeps the mood ticking along before, to borrow Bruce Buffer’s phrase: ‘It’s time’.
Opponent Dan Henderson walks out first to a country music song. If his choice of music is soft, everything else about him looks hard. He is 46 - old for the UFC - but like all the fighters, he is in excellent shape.
A few American flags are waved in support, but this is definitely a home crowd, and when Blur’s anthem ‘Song 2’ kicks into life, they scream. Bisping walks out with pace, purpose, an entourage trailing behind.
And just when you think the sense of excitement and anticipation can not find another gear, along comes Buffer to find another. Man, this guy is good.
From a neutral, novice view, some of the wrestling can be a bit, well, dull.
But these two headliners keep mainly to their feet, trading blows, advancing, retreating. Bisping is doing okay but, as the first round is drawing to a close, he is caught and tumbles. Henderson pounces on top, swinging more blows.
Bisping is cut!
Blood is pouring from his face, but the referee is happy he is defending himself, and allows the fight to continue.
The crowd chant encouragement - ‘Eng-er-land’ and ‘Let’s. Go. Bisping’. It’s simple stuff but it seems to do the job, as Bisping works his way out of trouble, and the round finishes with his face covered in blood.
He improves in the second, and in the third. Their gloves aren’t as heavy or padded as boxing gloves. The shots they land are ferocious, and yet, they keep on going. Like the T-1000 in Terminator 2, they seem unstoppable, unbreakable.
And then Henderson catches an accidental stray kick right between the legs and grimaces in agony. He is human, after all.
The fight is held up while he recovers. All the while, fans continue to provide a vocal and passionate soundtrack, this time: ‘Stand up. If you love Bisping’.
And they stand, and they sing. And their man keeps in control, dodging a few heavy swings in the final round to cling on to victory. Buffer makes it all official: “And STILLLLLLL, the undisputed...”
Bisping raises his hand, takes the mic’. He is fluent in trash-talking but there is none of that here, just respect for his opponent and warm appreciation for his home crowd.
His words could sound cliched - ‘From the bottom of my heart...’ - but they are delivered with such emotion, such passion, it is obvious it means a lot to him.
Henderson next. He praises Bisping, and then announces his retirement. The English fans drown out his words with applause.
They leave the Octagon. Henderson first, Bisping next. Posing for a few selfies with thrilled fans, whose bright-eyed faces betray the fact it is nearly 6am on Sunday morning. It’s time - for bed.