There’s no debating the UFC’s ever-growing popularity, and one primary factor for its rapid ascension from niche sport to mainstream America is the link that has been created between fighters and fans.
In an effort to continue to cultivate this relationship, UFC President Dana White is holding the second Fan Expo at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on May 28-29 in conjunction with UFC 114, which will take place at the MGM Grand Garden on May 29.
While light heavyweights and bitter rivals Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans are headlining the fight card, the Fan Expo will provide a chance for loyalists to mingle with their favorite UFC, WEC and Pride fighters in a relaxed atmosphere, something unheard of in the world of major professional sports.
One of the more popular draws at the Fan Expo is sure to be former light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin, who was part of the UFC 114 fight card before withdrawing earlier this month with a shoulder injury. Griffin, who lives in Las Vegas, says he enjoys meeting fans but doesn’t often get the chance to do so in an ideal setting, creating some awkward moments.
“I’ve been guilty of being a jerk to a lot of people, and I apologize for that,” he says, “but the reason is people come up to me when I’m in my ‘office.’ I’m working and I’m concentrating and I’m thinking about the fact that the [guy] there is going to try and beat the shit out of me. And people try to talk to you and make lighthearted jokes, and I’m just not there. But at the Fan Expo, I’ll be in a good mood.”
About 30,000 people attended last year’s Fan Expo, and that number is expected to grow to about 50,000 this year. The UFC announced on May 20 that another Fan Expo will be held in Boston on Aug. 27-28 to coincide with the first UFC card in Massachusetts.
“The UFC has done a great job at making personalities,” Griffin says. “And there’s somebody out there for everyone. There’s somebody you can relate to.”
Griffin first gained popularity in 2005 competing in the first season of Spike TV’s The Ultimate Fighter, where he defeated Stephan Bonnar in the finale in what has been called one of the best fights in UFC history.
He has mixed feelings about pulling out of UFC 114, knowing that his shoulder ultimately had to be repaired but wondering if he should have postponed the surgery.
“I could have pushed through it and fought,” he says. “It wasn’t one of those things where it was going to do further damage. The damage was already done and it wasn’t really going to get a whole lot worse. … I probably should have fought the fight.”
Griffin is scheduled to sign autographs at the Fan Expo from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. May 28, but fighters on the card will not take part in the Fan Expo.
Besides the autograph sessions, the Fan Expo will have interactive training and development sessions focusing on strength and conditioning, nutrition and various MMA skills; a grappling tournament that will include four “superfights”; more than 100 exhibitors; and a number of special events, including a Dana White look-alike contest.
“I’ve seen a few [possible contestants] walking around looking like Dana White, most likely by accident,” Griffin says. “So it’s going to be interesting to see people do it on purpose.”
Fan Expo hours are 10 a.m.-7 p.m. May 28 and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. May 29. Tickets are $30 for May 28 and $35 for May 29, and a two-day ticket can be purchased for $50.
While looking forward to mingling with fans, Griffin says he’s had to learn how to deal with people who think they have a shot to beat a professional fighter.
“I explain to them very calmly that they don’t have enough money,” he says. “I get paid real good money to fight in the Octagon now. And although I’m thrilled at the prospect of not having to make weight for a fight, they still can’t afford me. But if you had a cashier’s check for, like, $100,000, I’ll probably fight you.” For more information, go to ufcfanexpo.com. To purchase tickets for UFC 114, go to ticketmaster.com, or to watch the card on pay per view, go to ufc.com.