LAS VEGAS (AP) - By early afternoon, the line was 15 people wide
and hundreds deep, stretching the length of a cavernous corridor near the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Hundreds of boisterous mixed martial arts fans of every age, race, fitness level and tattoo taste whooped and fidgeted in the refrigerated casino air.
They queued for hours Friday just for the chance to attend a brief weigh-in for UFC 100, Saturday night's landmark show in the league's hometown. And though this line was long, the really big crowds were in the nearby convention center, where the first UFC Fan Expo is expected to draw well more than 20,000 this weekend.
UFC's self-celebratory weekend also includes big fights, of course. Heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar's bout with interim champ Frank Mir is the headliner, while pound-for-pound candidate Georges St. Pierre has a dangerous meeting with Brazilian kick specialist Thiago Alves.
UFC 100 is shaping up as a benchmark for how far MMA has progressed in the nearly 16 years since the first event - and a gauge for just how big it still might become.
"I always believed in the sport and our athletes," UFC president Dana White said moments before the weigh-in. "The questions were always if the timing was going to be right."
That time already has arrived. A sport that wasn't allowed on pay-per-view just seven years ago because of its brutality will be shown live in 75 countries, while the local crowd will fill the Events Center, a large closed-circuit telecast at Mandalay Bay and another ballroom on the Strip.
The Fan Expo - a combination of an MMA convention, a grappling tournament and a reunion for some of the sport's most successful fighters - has been even more popular than White suspected. Thousands of fans paying at least $40 apiece gathered autographs,
cheered on grapplers and perused booths offering everything from
nutritional supplements and MMA gear to golf equipment and college
The hoopla culminates with a card that provides a neat cross-section of the sport's various draws, including a nod to UFC's popular weekly television show, "The Ultimate Fighter," with the season-ending showdown between Michael Bisping and Dan Henderson, who coached the teams in the program's most recent edition.
Lesnar and Mir are hulking musclemen who would look at home in
an NFL locker room, a spot Lesnar briefly occupied with the Vikings. They've met before, with Mir handing Lesnar the only loss of the former pro wrestler's impressive transition from showbiz to competitive sport.
Mir, a Las Vegas native, has a better perspective than most on the sport's growth and maturity. He remembers his slack-jawed childhood wonder at seeing MMA pioneer and UFC 1 champion Royce Gracie's multifaceted skills on television. Mir immediately wanted to know more about the sport.
"I think that we're kind of genetically wired at birth to be a certain type of individual," Mir said of MMA fighters. "The same kind of guy that will jump out of an airplane, or go bungee jumping. The same kind of guy that signs up to go into the military and doesn't just sign up to go fix cars, but he wants to sign up to be a Ranger and be the first guy into battle."
Lesnar combines that mentality with a temperament that leads White to describe him delicately as "a grouch" during fight week. Before White talked Lesnar out of storming away from a recent news conference several times, Lesnar (3-1) repeatedly spoke about his evolution into a well-rounded MMA fighter in recent months, rather than an incredibly strong wrestler with a heavy punch.
He'll have a chance to show his growth against Mir (12-3), who beat Lesnar by submission in the first round of their first bout in February 2008.
"I've improved dramatically since my first adventure of even thinking about getting into MMA," Lesnar said. "I'm not going to leave any stone unturned when it comes to submission, submission defense, striking and learning to defend everything. You're going to give some punches, and you're going to take some punches."
While Lesnar weighed in right at the heavyweight limit of 265 pounds, St. Pierre and Alves both are sleek, versatile athletes. St. Pierre's remarkably well-rounded skills in each of MMA's several disciplines are his biggest asset, but Alves is an outstanding striker who could cause trouble for Canada's popular welterweight champion.
"The pressure is always there for me," said St. Pierre, who has won his last five fights. "I'm always very nervous, and I think it's that nervousness that keeps me sharp and is going to make me perform better on the night of the fight. I'm learning better to deal with it."
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