It’s a sport that combines the tradition and respect of martial arts with the strategy and explosive excitement of boxing. It’s a sport, which has taken its cues from professional wrestling and created stars out of its fighters. Most importantly, it’s a sport on the cusp of mainstream acceptance. It is the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and it’s a show like none I’ve ever experienced before.

Up until a few months ago, when you mentioned mixed martial arts, or MMA to most people they would frown and talk about how brutal the sport is, how violent and dangerous it is, and how it was banned. There was a large, and very loyal following of fans of the sport, but mainstream acceptance, that intangible by which every sport lives or dies, was never there.

The Ultimate Fighter on SpikeTV helped to change that and the announcement of a season two and three will certainly help to give added spotlight to the sport. A terrific card on free TV also helped, as did the phenomenal battle between finalists Stephen Bonnar and Forrest Griffin. Many have called the evenly matched contest the greatest UFC match in the sport’s history, and even last weekend it was the buzz of the building.

My friends and I had fallen off the UFC bandwagon, having lost interest somewhere around #20, we paid a little attention from time to time, checked out the odd DVD, but it wasn’t until the Ultimate Fighter TV show that the UFC grabbed our attention again. Gone were many of the names that we had known, Frye, Severn, Coleman (although Ken Shamrock has made a return to the octagon), and in their place were a new guard including Liddell, Couture, and Hughes.

We managed to purchase three tickets to the already sold out MGM Grand Garden Arena, and headed down to the arena to see the weigh in. The first thing that struck me was the size of the athletes. The legendary Dan “the Beast” Severn, who was there to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, and while he’s massive, Bonnar and Griffin, who looked small on TV, were pretty big in person.

Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian were both up on stage signing autographs, as was Rich Franklin who faced Ken Shamrock the week before. Despite the pounding that Bonnar and Griffin had dealt to each other, they both looked pretty good. Bonnar had a couple of black eyes, and Griffin had some stitches in his nose, but neither man looked like they had been put through the meat grinder that they went through just seven days earlier. Diego Sanchez and Rich Franklin didn’t appear to have suffered any bruising from their fights.

Many of the other participants of the Ultimate Fighter TV series were seen walking around the area, with Alex Schoenauer, Sam Hoger and Josh Koscheck all attracting fans asking for autographs and pictures.

The fans were a great mix of young and middle aged good-looking people, a group that you’d expect to run into at one of Las Vegas’ many lounges, with at least a quarter of the crowd comprising women.

The night of the fight itself, there was a buzz in the air as we crossed the skyway bridge between New York New York and the MGM Grand, as we stood in line at the sports book to place our bets, and as we walked through the casino to grab a quick bite to eat. Pretty much all of the conversations we overheard had something to do with Liddell/Couture, Hughes/Triggs, or last weekend’s Bonnar/Griffin fight.

When we arrived at our seats, and were blown away by the size of the arena. Patterned after New York’s famous Madison Square Garden, the MGM Grand Arena is huge. 17,000 seats huge. On this particular night the arena was filled to its UFC capacity of 14,562 seats. The audience impressed us with everyone around us talking to each other about fights and styles, while during the fights themselves, people commented on what was happening, and cheered on their favourite guys. On a couple of occasions I had a question about something, and guys were only too willing to impart their knowledge over the roar of the crowd.

Canadians were well represented in the under card, with four Canadians battling in the octagon. Patrick Cote, of Rimouski, and Joe Doerksen, of New Bothwell, put on a great battle, with Doerksen forcing Cote to tap out at 2:35 of round 3. Canadian Georges St. Pierre, of Montreal, faced off against the “unconventional” (to say the least) Jason Miller, who refused to give up even when locked into an arm bar on two occasions. When knocked down at one point, Miller attempted a “kip up”, which only really succeeded in making the crowd laugh. While St. Pierre wasn’t able to finish Miller off, he won the decision unanimously. Ivan Salaverry, from Toronto, finished off Joe Riggs with an impressive triangle choke at 2:42 of the first round.

Several times during the night various contenders from “The Ultimate Fighter” were shown on the big screens, and a chorus of cheers (for most guys) or boos (for Josh and Sam in particular) erupted from the crowd.

The Welterweight championship saw Matt Hughes defeat Frank Trigg at 4:05 of the first round via submission. Trigg held his own early in the match, and almost had Hughes defeated with a rear naked choke. When Hughes escaped from the hold, the entire packed arena leapt to their feet cheering. Less than a minute later Trigg gave up his back to Hughes, who sunk in a rear naked choke of his own to finish the fight.

The main event of Chuck Liddell vs champion Randy Couture had been hyped well in advance. Both Liddell and Couture were trainers on the Ultimate Fighter series, and each man spoke of tradition and respect during the series. Couture and Liddell put on an amazing fight, with Couture attempting some strikes at Liddell in the early going. Couture’s grappling however was no match for Liddell’s striking, and the Iceman landed a punch to Couture’s chin, which buckled the champion’s legs. Liddell pounced on his prone opponent and delivered two more punches before referee “Big” John McCartney jumped in, threw Liddell off Couture, and covered the downed man to prevent any injury.

The sound of the crowd erupting during the Hughes fight was nothing to the deafening roar of the crowd after Liddell’s victory.

UFC has turned Las Vegas into the home base of the promotion, while the company has had a few forays outside of Vegas, it has built a reputation and a loyal fan base in and around Las Vegas, however the next card, UFC 52, will be taking place in Atlantic City on June 2nd.

This sport is gaining momentum, and a groundswell of support is happening. There’s talk of a weekly TV series, and there are two more season of The Ultimate Fighter already locked up. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if within the next 12 months UFC crosses the corner from fringe sport to mainstream success.