LAS VEGAS – The city where the party never ends was a morose and gloomy place over the last seven days.
Las Vegans awakened on Monday morning to news of the largest mass murder in U.S. history. Fifty-eight people were shot to death and another 500 more were injured in an incident that shook this gambling mecca to the core.
UFC president Dana White turned his television on at about 11 p.m. on Oct. 1, about 50 minutes after the shooting, and knew instantly he needed to step up for his hometown.
But the one thing he never considered was canceling or postponing UFC 216, which was set for Saturday at T-Mobile Arena. It would be, he knew, part of the city’s healing process. One fight card, one sporting event, no matter how significant or exciting, won’t wash away the sense of loss that so many are dealing with. But sports has a way of bringing people together, and White thought that UFC 216 could play a role in helping his hometown get back up on its feet and regain some small sense of normalcy.
The show opened Saturday with a recorded statement from White on the arena’s video boards, talking about the need for people to go on living their lives.
“It’s always time to have an event,” White said. “You can’t let a coward determine how everybody else is going to live their lives. This stuff is happening all over the world now. This is the world we live in. You just can’t back down.
“This is so crazy and so weird and it’s been driving me nuts for an entire week. No motive. Nothing makes sense. A guy 64 years old carried all this stuff up there and did it. Tom Petty just died at 66 and is this guy a super human 64-year-old? It’s crazy and I’m trying not to think about it any more, but the thing I was saying all week is that I’m really proud of the city and how everybody reacted to this thing.”
The tragedy was on his fighters’ minds and they went out and put on a memorable show. Demetrious Johnson successfully defended the flyweight title for the record 11th time when he submitted Ray Borg with perhaps the greatest submission in UFC history.
Tony Ferguson won the UFC interim lightweight belt, and a spot against champion Conor McGregor, with a third-round submission of Kevin Lee, and then spent 20 minutes at the post-fight news conference talking about how the tragedy had impacted him and what he did.
“I kept Vegas with me the entire week,” Ferguson said. “I really tried to change my whole mental game. There’s no room in my heart for anger any more. There never was, but going into this fight, I knew I had to keep myself composed.”
Johnson was composed throughout in a brilliant performance against Borg that perfectly illustrated why, in my opinion, he’s the greatest mixed martial arts fighter of all time.
There is nothing he can’t do in the cage, and he’s never complacent. He’s continued to grow as an athlete and improve his skills even as the win totals and acclaim have grown.
Even White, who has frequently butted heads with Johnson, conceded that Johnson has reached the pinnacle.
“Definitely,” White said when asked if he felt that Johnson was the greatest MMA fighter ever. “He’s the man. He broke Anderson Silva’s record. It almost seemed like in that last round he knew what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. It was pretty impressive.
“[Johnson’s coach] Matt Hume, he and I were talking about how awesome he was and he told me, ‘He does it in the gym all the time.’ That specific move, he does it all the time. It’s crazy.”
That move was a suplex that he turned into an arm bar while he was still in the air. He showed the body control of an Olympic gymnast as he made the move that finished the fight.
“He’s where he is for a reason,” Borg said.
Ferguson survived an early onslaught from Lee, who struggled to make the lightweight division’s 155-pound limit on Friday. A glum Lee said at the post-fight news conference that he has a staph infection that made his weight cut more difficult. He added that he weighed 185 pounds after rehydrating.
But he credited Ferguson’s experience and his work from the bottom, particularly his elbows, for being the difference in the fight.
Ferguson said he has grown and matured since his time on “The Ultimate Fighter” and has become a different person. But he also said he knew in light of the tragedy he had to take a different approach to fight week.
“I took all the chaos from this week, and I didn’t want to bring negativity to it,” he said. “This town had so much negativity already and it needed something different. I wanted to demonstrate I wasn’t going to let anything get to me.”
For a night at least, 17-year-old twin sisters Gianna and Natalia Baca, who were shot while at the concert, were positive and not negative. They sat next to White during the event and went into the cage before the main card, along with first-responder heroes Casey Clarkson and Brady Cook, both Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officers, and victims Ashley Quiocho and Parker Marx.
The crowd roared as they were introduced and the six people in the cage, who are from all walks of life, smiled and soaked it all in.
It won’t wash away what happened that fateful night when a madman stuck a gun out of a window at Mandalay Bay and began firing indiscriminately.
But putting on the card allowed the healing process to begin for not only the victims, but the citizens of this town who have dealt with so much.
White made the only choice he could have made.