Most sports fans can secure an athlete’s autograph without too much effort. But try getting a passing lesson from Aaron Rodgers or some one-on-one shooting tips from LeBron James. Unless you win a big-money charity auction, that ain’t happening. However, if you’re a mixed martial arts fan who’s interested in having a legend teach you some self-defense techniques, you need only buy a ticket to the UFC Fan Expo, scheduled for July 5-6 at Mandalay Bay Event Center.
“I like to brag that we have the closest relationship with our fans out of anybody,” says Forrest Griffin, the retired UFC Hall of Famer. “It’s not just a little two-second autograph like other sports; you actually get to interact with your favorite fighters.”
Griffin is one of several Hall of Famers expected to hold training sessions for fans at the Expo (others include Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell and Stephan Bonnar). In addition, more than 50 current UFC fighters, including Cain Velasquez, Georges St.-Pierre, Johny Hendricks and Junior dos Santos, are slated to participate in exhibitions, sign autographs and interact with fans. It’s all part of UFC’s International Fight Week, which is highlighted by UFC 175 on July 5 and the Ultimate Fighter finale July 6, both at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
The Fan Expo, which returns to Mandalay Bay for the fifth time since it was launched in 2009, has become immensely popular because of the rare all-access pass given to MMA aficionados. “We are trending upward,” says Lou Lauria, vice president of International Fight Week and Governing Body Relationships. “Ticket sales have gone up since last year; everyone wants to be involved.”
That Griffin and Bonnar are part of the experience seems only fitting. Their 2005 bout at the inaugural Ultimate Fighter finale is considered one of the greatest fights in the sport’s history and ultimately proved to be a landmark event for UFC, helping it break big into the mainstream.
At the time, the Fan Expo didn’t exist—“I don’t think UFC was quite big enough yet,” Griffin says—but as the decade went on and the sport continued to grow, doing something to bring the fans closer to their idols was a natural next step. “People identify with our athletes, Lauria says, “and the Fan Expo provides our fans touch points with them.”
Indeed, Expo attendees aren’t just fans of UFC; they are a part of it. After all, who in the hell wouldn’t want to learn a rear-naked choke hold from Forrest Griffin?
UFC Fan Expo, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. July 5; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. July 6, $45-$65, UFCFanExpo.com, MandalayBay.com.