UFC 83: The Montreal Story

Elton HobsonCorrespondent IJuly 29, 2009

Were standing somewhere in the middle of an impossibly long lineup that seemed to stretch around the whole of Montreal’s Bell Centre when I notice a murmur of excitement shoot through the crowd like a charge of electricity. It starts as whispers, curious, wondering, spreading through the line like wildfire. The same excited words on everyone’s lips. “Is that GSP?” “Where?” “GSP is here?” Quickly, excited whispers give way to shouts and whoops of excitement, all heads turning to a black SUV unloading passengers to what I assume is a service entrance across the street. And there he is, walking casually into the building with a gym bag slung over one shoulder, his team flanking him on all sides. Georges St. Pierre. Perhaps he doesn’t hear the crowd, perhaps he’s too focused to acknowledge the massed humanity behind him, perhaps he’s just so used to this reaction over the last few days that it doesn’t faze him. The crowd doesn’t care, losing itself in a multitude of joyous cries. “GSP! GSP!” “Kick his ass, Georges!” “RUSH!” I’m shouting as well, before I’m even really aware of it, lost in the collective excitement of the crowd. I think, fleetingly, that this is how people must have felt in the presence of the Beatles, Elvis Priestly, or the like, the sudden overwhelming rush of seeing, actually seeing, that towering idol who had existed previously only on a television screen, now rendered in the flesh. And just like that, he’s gone, disappeared into the building, and the crowd dies down to a casual level of chatter once again. “Was that really him?” “I can’t believe he’s here.” “I could have sworn he looked right at me!”

It’s Friday, April 18th, in the early afternoon, and this almost impossibly large crowd is lined up to see the weigh-ins for tomorrow nights mega event, UFC 83: Serra vs. St. Pierre 2, the first UFC event ever held on Canadian soil. There is a palpable buzz in the air, and not just amongst this group of hardcore MMA fans. The whole of Montreal, at least temporarily, is caught up in the excitement of tomorrow night’s event. In every restaurant, in every shop, on every street corner, the UFC, and GSP in particular, seems to be the topic of conversation. There is an anticipation in the air unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Montreal’s own Georges St. Pierre, Canada’s MMA hero, one of the finest pound for pound fighters in the world, looking to avenge a loss to his arch rival Matt Serra, looking to win back his World Championship, looking to defend his honor and the honor of Canada in a heated rematch with Serra that carried a lot of bad blood and trash talking and nationalist emotion. He had to prove he was better then Serra. He had to prove he was the true world champion everyone believed him to be. He had to defend the honor of Canada that had been slandered by Serra in pre-fight interviews. He had to live up to the hopes and expectations of all these fans who gathered in this long line for hours just to see him. He had to.

I had been awake since five o’clock that morning, when me, my friends, and my girlfriend had all piled into my crappy old Chevy Astro Van to make the six hour drive to Montreal in time to see the weigh-ins. The road trip was wonderful in all the ways a road trip between six broke 20-something’s should be: cramped spaces, taking turns driving, a constant rotation of music in the CD player, stale donuts passed around as a snack, everyone crossing their fingers that this old tub doesn’t break down before we arrived at our destination. Everything going well so far. Now, standing in line, our numbers are halved, and I am joined by my girlfriend Michelle, and my friend Mark. In many ways, this trip, in the specifics if not in the general, is due entirely to these two people.

More then a year ago at this point, my friend Mark had been diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a kind of cancer, and had been in a battle for his life ever since. Mark was one of the healthiest people I knew, didn’t smoke or do drugs, and was the one who originally introduced me to working out and encouraged my healthy lifestyle in the most supportive, non-judgmental way anyone could ever ask of a mentor and a friend. He was a natural athlete in the extreme, such that my only peeve with him was that he was too good at everything, too quick a learner, too natural a sportsmen, too towering a success at everything he tried. Despite this, he never made you feel small, never made you feel bad for not lifting that weight or missing that shot or tiring out on a run. Not a braggart, or an egoist, or an asshole. Quiet, reserved, confident. The cancer, though, and the numerous chemo and radiation treatments it had entailed had taken their toll. He was very pale now, bald, and his once muscular frame was now deathly thin, no more then 125 pounds. Despite this, his eyes still shone with determination, with the quiet confidence they always held. Keeping his pain and suffering, the depths of which I can’t imagine, locked inside, never letting his illness or his despair defeat him, always keeping strong for everyone around him. I admired him back when he was the star athlete in school and I was the chunky kid trying to get in shape to impress girls. I admired him even more now. When we heard UFC was going to hold an event in Montreal, my friends and I knew we had to go, no matter how big a drain it would be on our meager finances. We also knew it was a chance to do something truly wonderful for our friend, who we often felt powerless to help. Not knowing how much time we had left with him, my friends and I had decided to surprise Mark with a ticket, which we had each pitched in equally to buy for him.

My girlfriend Michelle, however, took it many steps further. She was convinced she could arrange a truly special event for Mark, could arrange a meeting with a fighter or a backstage tour for our friend. I thought she was crazy, but she was determined, and set off to make this special event a reality. With dogged determination and a multitude of e-mails, she eventually got in contact with Laura (last name withheld), an executive with Zuffa LLC, the parent company of UFC. She told Mark’s story, and implored her to provide something, anything, that might make this event truly special for him. To my great delight and astonishment, she arranged a backstage visit for Mark, and a meet and greet with the fighters and possibly Dana White and maybe, just maybe, GSP himself. That is what brought us to this lineup today, as we waited for Laura to come find us in line and whisk us backstage for the full tour. In truth, we didn’t know if this special offer extended only to Mark, or to others as well, which accounted for our reduced numbers. In all honesty, I didn’t care if only Mark were allowed to go, so overjoyed was I just to be here, just to see a UFC live, just to do something special for someone who truly deserved it. Then we saw her, walking towards us, waving us towards her.

We greeted Laura, a round of handshakes and introductions all around. I didn’t know what to expect from her, as I had only to this point read the e-mail conversations she had conducted with Michelle, and didn’t know what to expect from her offer, or from her in general. I expected we would just be a fly on her corporate radar, and fully believed our meeting would last minutes on the outside. Instead, she was incredibly accommodating, walking and talking with us, engaging Mark and Michelle and I in easy conversation, totally at ease, as if she makes 20 year old kid’s dreams come true every day. I was wholly surprised. It wouldn’t be the last time today. Then the first snag.

“Unfortunately, the backstage passes are for two people only.” She sadly informed the three of us. This was worst case scenario as far as I was concerned. If she had only taken Mark, that would have been fine, but now we were forced to choose which of us would accompany him. Michelle had made this whole thing happen, had worked against the odds and created this whole event and nursed it carefully to this moment. She was a massive GSP fan (you know the list all couples have - that list of people your allowed to sleep with, if you ever get the chance, celebrities and the like, that won’t be considered cheating - GSP was right at the top of my Michelle’s list), she deserved this more then I did, no matter how big an MMA fan I was. I turned to face her. She had to be the one to go. Then she spoke. “Go.” She said. I protested. But she would not hear it. “Go Elt. Come on. This is a once in a lifetime thing, it’ll mean more to you then it will to me anyways. Go.” Just at the moment of truth, after months of making this dream come true for Mark, Michelle made a dream come true for me too. It was an incredible act of generosity, one I will never forget. And just like that, we were hustled out of line, into another set of doors, past security, given all-access passes, and shepherded into the bowels of the Bell Centre.

We were led into a series of corridors that seemed to snake deeper and deeper into this massive 21,000 seat stadium. People were bustling everywhere, coming and going and building and moving and coordinating to make tomorrow night’s card happen. I am surprised at the lack of panic or even apprehension on the part of the people working. They joke casually, stop to say hi to us and Laura, shoot the shit with each other and drink a coffee before going about their work. Don’t these people know what a big deal this is? How can these people be so calm, so business as usual, when outside there’s 1000 people crawling all over each other just to get a glimpse of a fighter and a city of people holding their collective breath? It is astonishing, seeing this well oiled machine go about their business. The whole time, Laura talks casually with us, as if we were old family friends, undoubtedly feeling our increasing apprehension, our feeling of holy shit were really backstage holy shit this is really happening holy shit what am I going to say? She brings us to an open door leading to a casual office/lounge area and leads us inside. And there, standing in the far corner, attired in a custom Montreal Canadians hockey jersey, talking casually with a group of businessmen, is Mr. Dana White.

The shock of this initial sighting is hard to describe. Anyone who watches UFC regularly is immediately familiar with White, the president, spokesmen, and kingmaker of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The man responsible for MMA’s explosion into the mainstream. That person you see each week on the Ultimate Fighter, see each time you watch a pay-per-view, see in news interviews on CNN, Fox News, Sportsnet, and a host of others. Laura tells us to wait, and goes off to speak with White. I look over at Mark while were waiting. He looks so nervous that he’s about to pass out. “Dude, you have to talk, alright?” he says, eyes shifting uncertainly between White and the floor. “I don’t know what I’m gonna say, you have to talk man.” Like hell I do. I mean, what does a scared 20 year old college student say to a billionaire who probably thinks the world revolves around him? What could we possibly have in common? Before I can answer any of these questions, Dana’s meeting ends, he speaks to Laura briefly, then they both head in our direction. “Oh man.” Mark says beside me. I have no idea what to expect, what to say. Here we go.

“Hey guys, hows it going? My name’s Dana.” He says, shaking each of our hands in turn. As if he needed to introduce himself. I get the feeling Laura has just briefed him on who we are and why were here, and a quick look at both of us reveals which of us is battling cancer. Still, he seems to be more…I supposed quizzically puzzled would be the right word, by my appearance. A brief explanation here. For months leading up to the road trip, I had let my hair grow, forsaking my standard buzz cut (best hair cut in the world, if you ask me). Then, on the night before we left, I shaved my hair into a Mohawk, and dyed it bright red. If you had asked me at the time, I would have said it was to show support for GSP (red being a Canadian color…get it?) but I think it was more just to do something wild, something out of the ordinary, to commemorate this once in a lifetime, only-when-your young event. That’s my explanation, anyways, for why I stood before one of the richest, most powerful men in sports looking like a roadie for the Circle Jerks. But I digress.

His voice is hoarse, and he talks much more quietly and softly then when we see him in the house on the Ultimate Fighter, berating the contestants, asking them if they want to be a “fucking fighter!?” He explains that he has a terrible flu, and has been bedridden for the last few days, living off antibiotics and chicken soup. He had to crawl out of bed today, of course, to get about the business of holding the largest MMA event in North American history. As we talk, I find it increasingly easier to just shoot the breeze with him. I make fun of his Montreal Canadians jersey, accusing him of sucking up to the hometown crowd (an assertion he openly confirms) and pointing out that he is from Boston (Montreal and Boston were in a playoff series at the time), making that sucking up all the more important. He is as from the hip, as average guy from the street as he comes off on television. He is clearly aware of Mark and his condition but makes no mention of it, delivers no overly false sentiments or empty platitudes, and for this I am very grateful. For the half hour or so that we talk to him, he doesn’t seem at all like the big shot, center of the MMA universe that he most certainly is, and is happy to BS with us about just about anything. We tell him about our trip, about how we drove from Toronto and are attending the weigh-ins, and he promises us prime seats on the floor for that and his Q&A. The longer we talk, the more Mark finds his voice, and it is a great relief to see him ease up and return to the easygoing, confident person he usually is. He tells us he wishes he could bring UFC to Canada “every week”, so strong has the fan response been, and he promises us a show “we’ll never forget” tomorrow night. As the conversation ends, he gives us both his autograph, bids us farewell, and goes back to running his billion dollar business. In the MMA world, there are few figures as controversial as Dana White. He draws much criticism from some quarters for his business decisions, for his unprofessional conduct, and faces many accusations of letting his ego get in the way of business. I can’t comment on that, because honestly, I don’t know enough about the specifics of his business to second guess a man who has done what he’s done for the sport. What I do know is, that on a day that was undoubtedly one of the most busy and stressful of his whole year, when he was feeling like shit with a million things to do, he took half an hour out of his day to talk to a kid with cancer and his star struck buddy, and I’ll never forget it.

Following this meeting, we are once again shepparded back into the bowels of the Bell Centre, until we are standing on the floor of the arena, where we can see the crews erecting the octagon itself. We speak for awhile with the man in charge of setting up the cage in each location the UFC travels to, and discover to my surprise that there are only four or five octagon-builders who travel from location to location, with the rest of the crew hired in each town they go to. Makes sense to me. Again, I am surprised at how laid-back they are, happy to talk and joke, seemingly knowing everyone by name. Before we went backstage, I imagined the behind the scenes at UFC resembling a large corporation, faceless drones doing tasks with cold efficiency, each independent of the other, but I am surprised and taken aback by the familiarity, the family atmosphere the bigwigs seems to have. Yet another surprise.

So we are shown to our seats, in the taped off “VIP” area of the seating, for the Fight Club Q&A and the Weigh-ins. We are surrounded on all sides by MMA stars and their friends, families, and associates. Roger Huerta sits only a few rows above us. Kenny Florian is nearby, as is Dan Henderson. My head is spinning as I recognize face after face sitting in close proximity to us. Part of me wants to approach each, pen and paper in hand, keen smile on my face, and politely beg them for autographs and pictures and whatnot, but neither of us can bring ourselves to do it. For my part, this is because I have heard story after story of celebrities who are rankled by fans approaching them in private settings, interrupting them and demanding autographs. Many of these fighters are sitting with family and friends, with their trainers and other associates, in a specially separated section where they are free of exactly this kind of intrusion. Wish as I might, I just can’t bring myself to be that fan, that asshole who taps Hendo or Huerta on the shoulder with a napkin and a Sharpie and a “Can I have your autograph sir? Puhlease?”

So Dana White comes out, and does his Q&A. He’s clearly loving it despite his illness, basking in the attention and adulation of his adoring public. He answers questions in the same casual, brash style you expect him to, giving good answers to good questions and ridiculing every fourth person in line with their stupid Fedor questions (“No, numbnuts, I don’t think my heavyweight title is meaningless unless Fedor has it.” I mean, what answer did that guy expect him to give). I am petrified when Michelle (who had attended the Q&A and weigh-ins alone as part of the general crowd and ended up having a great time) gets up to ask a question about Herb Dean and bad refereeing, afraid she might face his and the crowds ridicule, but she gets a good answer and an approving round of applause. The crowd is on fire, easy to cheer, easy to boo, easy to laugh, ready to make noise and vent excitement at the drop of a hat. Bode’s well for tomorrow night. We have to wait sometime after the Q&A for the weigh-ins themselves, and I see Mark growing increasingly uncomfortable. Long periods of sitting, without food or drink, without a bathroom break take their toll on the average person, never mind the cancer patient. We are afraid if we leave to get him something, however, we won’t be able to get back in, the door to Shangri-La shut behind us forever. Eventually, we throw caution to the wind, leaving to get a drink and relieve ourselves, and find out to our great surprise that the passes are magic, enter anywhere cards. Very cool. We return just as the weigh-ins themselves begin.

We are taken from our seats to the floor, right beside the stage where the fighters will weigh in, standing shoulder to shoulder with a who’s who of the UFC. Kids, in a land of giants (with guys like Matt Hamill and Cain Velasquez there, this is quite literal). The crowd response is great, strongly cheering the hometown fighters, excitement building as the main event weigh-ins loom closer. Unfortunately, we have been placed right next to Ray Longo and Matt Serra’s camp, so I have to keep my pro-GSP and anti-Serra comments to myself. Then, the moment the crowd has been waiting for. He steps through the curtain, attired just like we had seen him earlier, to a hero’s welcome, so loud you can’t hear yourself scream over the noise. He weighs in on point, makes the “get my belt back” motion with his hands on his waist, and the noise is so loud, it hurts to listen to it. Once again, I’m swept up in it, in the collective excitement and enthusiasm of this hot Montreal crowd. Then Serra steps through the curtain, and those deafening cheers turn to thunderous boos and jeers instantly. It is the polar opposite crowd reaction, and you can feel the animosity radiate off the crowd. As the two men square off for the final “face to face” photo op, the crowd cheers, this time out of sheer anticipation. Nothing else can happen now. The dream is going to come true, in 24 hours time. This is really going to happen. Then it’s over, fighters and their camps making their way backstage and away, when Laura finds us and leads us through the curtain backstage once again.

And standing there, surrounded by his entourage, is Georges St. Pierre.

Its not an exaggeration to say that I went blank at this moment. I mean, its not every day you meet the closest thing you have to a sports hero. I had known the whole time it was a possibility, but had still refused to let myself believe it, or look forward to it. And now it was about to happen. I was going to meet GSP. The man himself, standing there, eating a banana and drinking from a bottle of Gatorade, calm as can be, as if the hopes of a city and a country didn’t rest on his shoulders. I can’t imagine how Mark feels. Laura makes the introduction, though its more like a preamble. “Guys, this…is Georges St. Pierre”.

Were face to face now. And my initial reaction is…surprise. I know it’s a cliché, but I had perceived him as at least seven feet tall, 300 pounds, even though I knew his actual height and weight. I couldn’t help but fall into that old cliché despite myself. So when I met him, I am surprised at first by his height. He is as tall as I am, maybe a half inch taller. And a similar frame to me as well, except slightly longer with about twenty more pounds of muscle packed onto it. He introduces himself in his distinct Quebecois accent, and I am surprised again to see that he seems to be familiar with Mark and his situation, greeting him by name without reminder and shaking his hand with a smile. He turns to me, and though he has no idea who I am, he is polite and cordial, shaking my hand as well with a “Pleasure to meet you, my name is Georges.” Surprisingly again, Mark finds a voice right away, telling him he is a huge fan, has watched all his fights, that he is his favorite fighter and he has always supported him, while I nod along like an idiot with repeated yeah’s, mhm’s, and me too’s. Georges responds by telling Mark he is happy for his support, that it gives him strength in training and in the octagon, that he fights for fans like this. It may be a canned line, but it sounds genuine and earnest, and I can tell a moment is being shared between two men, fighters both, both in their own ways grateful for the other. He asks if Mark wants an autograph, and signs his backstage pass. He turns to face me. “Do you want one too?” he asks, pen in hand. My mind is still racing, so I come out with “Well, yeah, but I don’t want to be an asshole and just ask for one.” Nice work Elt, you just swore in front of a guy who could kick your ass while signing Mark‘s autograph. To my surprise, he laughs, says “It is no problem my friend” and signs my pass as well. After another round of handshakes and thank you’s, he walks away, off to deal with an interview or training or one of a million things he has to do before tomorrow, while we are shown to the exit of the Bell Centre. We profusely thank Laura, and then just like that, were back on the street, two average kids again, off to tell our friends about what had just happened. See this here? That’s Dana White’s autograph. And that? That’s GSP’s, motherfucker!

The rest of the weekend was great. We saw Montreal’s old town, had a fancy dinner courtesy of my Dad (also in town to see UFC, in considerably better seats) and went to see the fights. They were better then I could have hoped, exciting and entertaining, the crowd more energetic and alive then I could have dreamed. The main event was the loudest, most intense crowd experience I have ever been a part of. Of course, true to form, GSP did not disappoint his hometown crowd, dominating Serra for the whole fight, controlling the fight on the feet and crushing him with his ground and pound. In the second round, after delivering knee after knee to his opponents ribs, the referee stopped the fight, the crowd roared with more passion and enthusiasm and joy and relief then I could have imagined, and he won back his belt, the ultimate happy ending to his sports story. Only a day before, for a brief moment, Zeus had stepped down off Olympus, GSP has simply been Georges, the man who chatted friendlily and happily with us and signed some passes and wished us well, but now it was back, he was eight feet tall again, the conquering hero, the world champion. As he was paraded around the ring, title held aloft, I looked over at Mark. I saw a smile, a genuine smile, on his face, and for a brief moment, I knew he was forgetting his cancer, forgetting his pain and anguish and despair and mortality and just being happy, really happy, for the first time in a while. Of everything I have done or ever will do, it is those two images, the champion triumphant over his greatest rival, and my friend, triumphant over his despair and anguish, that will last forever in my mind. In a sport often derided for its barbarity and inhumanity, it is those two images, two of the most tender and compelling human moments I have ever experienced, that define MMA for me, to this day.

That was my UFC 83 experience.

Editors Note: Mark Trost passed away on Feb. 28, 2009.