Deep in the recesses of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, down a long cinder-block corridor, a 33-year-old jiu-jitsu expert from Rio de Janeiro, Vitor Belfort, is gnashing his teeth like a wild dog as he gets ready to make his way to the Octagon. Beyond a set of blue curtains, 11,000 obstreperous fans have paid an average of $373 a ticket to watch tonight's instalment of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the mixed martial arts circuit that's evolved from money-losing sideshow to billion-dollar sports juggernaut in less than a decade.
At six feet and 185 pounds, the man they call the Phenom is an intimidating sight. He won his first match as a teenager, knocking his opponent senseless in just 11 seconds. Since then, Belfort has won 19 of his 28 bouts, including 13 by knockout.
Belfort says nothing as he waits for fight wrangler Burt Watson-a heavy-set 62-year-old who once worked in Joe Frazier's camp, back when boxing still mattered-to give him the signal. Listening intently to the squelch of a walkie-talkie pressed to his ear, Watson looks up and delivers his standard battle cry: "All night long, baby! This is what we do, this is why we do it! All night long..." It's showtime.
Belfort pops his mouthguard into place, nods in Watson's general direction and, with entourage in tow, begins the slow march out to the Octagon-a canvas mat surrounded by black chain-link fence. He's accompanied by a booming Portuguese hip-hop beat.
The man who arranged this fight, 41-year-old UFC president and promotional mastermind Dana White, cuts through the crowd like a shark. Packed into a Tom Ford suit, he is constantly on the move, shaking hands, greeting fans, talking to the athletes, shaking more hands. Bald-headed and barrel-chested, White looks as though his shoulders have swallowed his neck. If he didn't have a personal net worth estimated at more than $100 million, he could just as easily be bouncing at the door.
But to fans of mixed martial arts (MMA)-a ruthless mashup of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, karate, Muay Thai kickboxing, Greco-Roman wrestling and more-White is as much a celebrity as his fighters. And tonight he has promised his legions (including 1.3 million followers on Twitter) something special. The matchup between Belfort and fellow Brazilian Anderson Silva is part of a plan to stage the biggest fight in UFC history. If all goes well-that is, if Silva pummels Belfort into the mat-it could set up an epic showdown between the middleweight champion and Georges St-Pierre (a.k.a. GSP), the welterweight champ from Saint-Isidore, Quebec, to decide the world's best MMA fighter.
Diehards can't agree on who is more lethal: GSP or "The Spider" Silva. But White knows he can pack the biggest stadium in the world, and make tens of millions of dollars from pay-per-view and ticket sales, trying to find the answer.
First, though, he needs Silva to beat Belfort. White settles in to his seat, not far from Jaime Pressly, Steven Seagal and a few other celebrities who dot the front rows. The ref asks each fighter if he's ready to go and, with a nod from both, they're off. For the next two minutes, though, neither of the headliners attacks. Silva and Belfort dance around, each man throwing fake jabs and fake kicks, waiting for the other to make a mistake. White is losing his mind; after weeks of talking up this fight, he's helpless. This looks like a boxing match-a boring boxing match. The crowd starts to boo.
Things look up momentarily when the two men tangle, but they quickly separate and resume their defensive postures. More booing. Then, suddenly, Silva launches forward with his left leg and catches Belfort squarely in the jaw. No one saw the kick coming, least of all Belfort. From three rows back, you can hear the smack of foot on skull. The Phenom's legs turn to jelly. The referee steps in just as Belfort's eyes are rolling back into his head.
The fans leave happy, but no one is more relieved than White. "Ohhhh shit," he cackles. "I've only seen that in a video game." It was a good night for the UFC, he confirms: The gate pulled in $3.6 million. Another 700,000 people around the world paid about $50 each to watch it on pay-per-view, with an undisclosed-but presumably very healthy-cut of the $35-million action going to the UFC.