Millions to watch New Zealand UFC gladiators

BIG OPPORTUNITY:  Kiwi MMA fighter James Te Huna.
BIG OPPORTUNITY: Kiwi MMA fighter James Te Huna.

Around two o'clock this afternoon, a ringmaster will take the stage in Las Vegas and the crowd will roar.

Fists will connect with jaws, knees with chests, elbows with foreheads. Blood will splatter across a canvas proudly sporting a sponsor's logo.

There will be victors. There will be losers. There will be more cheering, and social media chatter. Millions will watch on television. Money will be made. Welcome to the UFC - the world's premier mixed marital arts showpiece.

UFC - isn't that that sport that John McCain called "human cockfighting"? That blood sport that is still banned in New York? Yep, that's the one . . . you either love it, or hate it.

But today, you've got to acknowledge it. Why? Two Kiwis, Mark Hunt and James Te Huna, will be centre-stage at the MGM Grand Hotel in Vegas for UFC160, in what will be the biggest day in New Zealand MMA history.

Make no mistake, UFC is poetry for the video game generation. The beauty of fighting has always been the connection to the primitive - to prove your strength and resilience in the most basic manner.

For so long boxing, the sweet science of patience, power and durability, held the throne.

It had characters, men like Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, who lived fascinating lives, and possessed supreme ring skills.

But boxing no longer has that lustre. The constant Don King-style hype and proliferation of meaningless titles have ensured the continued eclipse of the sport they seek to promote.

The world no longer holds its breath for heavyweight title bouts. Crowds no longer gather in lounges or around shop windows.

True wordsmiths like Norman Mailer and Mark Kram no longer bash out on reports that made a left hook from Frazier sound more like a sonnet from Neruda.

The UFC hasn't created that fervour yet, but it's building. Sure, the thing can get like a circus.

UFC supremo Dana White loves the limelight, and is just as famous as his top fighters. He works the crowd like a Barnum & Bailey ringmaster - White has more than 2.5 million worldwide followers on Twitter - and they love him for it.

The hype machine is big, bold and American, with fighters paraded in front of fans and media for weigh-ins and press conferences. Blogs are dedicated, and thousands of words written on the internet.

But there's clarity too. UFC enforces strict anti-drugging rules on its fighters. Work hard, and fighters get the fights they deserve.

White harps on about the safety of the UFC: "When you know you have two healthy athletes getting ready to compete, they get the proper medical attention before and after, it's the safest sport in the world, fact."

While this isn't completely true - the first generation of UFC fighters are only just retiring now, and the possible brain injuries will soon become apparent - the worst damage ever done to a fighter in the Octagon was a broken arm. Far better than rugby, even.

The stories are there in UFC, too. You need only to look at the two Kiwi boys wearing the fingerless gloves in Vegas today.

Hunt is a man who had conquered the planet, becoming the K-1 world kickboxing champion, before crashing and burning. UFC has been his second chance.

The 39-year-old Auckland-raised heavyweight, who got his original break into fighting after knocking a bloke out in front of a K Rd nightclub, now stands two victories away from a title fight.

Former world champ Junior dos Santos will be tough. He's fast, heavy-handed, and has a far superior ground game, but Hunt has heart, can take a beating - and keep smiling at you.

Te Huna was born in Darfield, grew up in Cromwell and Huntly, and became a bricklayer in Sydney before getting into MMA. His is a true working-class hero story.

Te Huna, too, has heart, and a hugely under-rated power in his fists. Win or lose against light-heavyweight Glover Teixeira today, the humble Ngati Tuwharetoa lad's stock is on the rise.

Sunday Star Times