Canadian mixed martial arts stars Georges St-Pierre and Mark Hominick have garnered most of the media attention in the buildup to UFC 129 on Saturday, but the Toronto event marks a historic night for a number of Canuck fighters who have toiled for years in relative obscurity.
Ten of the 12 bouts on the card feature Maple Leaf content, with the Ultimate Fighting Championship using its first sanctioned event in Ontario to give Canadian athletes an opportunity to perform on the sport's biggest stage.
Toronto native Mark Bocek, a lightweight who once trained UFC president Dana White in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is in the first pay-per-view bout of the night, against Ben Henderson.
"I always wanted to fight in my hometown," Bocek said. "It has been a dream of mine. It's here a little sooner than I thought it would be, but I'm excited. This is a historic event, the largest UFC card in history and I kick this thing off. It's an honour just to be part of it."
Bocek said he feels no extra pressure fighting in front of friends and family.
"In my mind I'm just fighting a sack of flesh and bones," he said. "I'm ready to go."
Jason (The Athlete) MacDonald was born in Nova Scotia but now fights out of Red Deer, Alta. His match against Ryan Jensen marks his return to the octagon after suffering a broken leg at UFC 113 last May.
A 12-year veteran, he's amazed the sport he loves has grown to the point that he's fighting in front of 55,000 fans in a packed Rogers Centre.
"My first fight was in a gym, and I've fought in front of crowds as small as a couple of hundred for sure," MacDonald said. "When I got involved in the sport, I was just hoping to learn how to fight. Here we are years later and fighters are superstars - Georges St-Pierre, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture - those guys are superstars."
Sean Pierson of Pickering, Ont., who faces American Jake Ellenberger in a welterweight bout that will be televised nationally on Sportsnet, said there is a sense of camaraderie among those fighting on home soil.
"Having so many other Canadians on the card is special," Pierson said. "I feel like we're all a big family here. We've all trained together somewhat and now we're all fighting together on the big stage.
"We're a lot of the originals who have come a long way through the Canadian ranks. We're definitely going to represent our province and our country Saturday night."
An MMA pioneer in the Greater Toronto Area who had his first fight in 1999, Pierson said Ontario's sanctioning the UFC can only lead to more Canadian content. While only two Canadians - St-Pierre and Carlos Newton - have held titles in the UFC, close to 40 have stepped into the octagon.
"Now that we can compete locally, you're going to see the mixed martial arts scene blow up," Pierson said. "We're going to be able to showcase our local athletes a lot more and build fighters in the correct way, slowly. A lot more fighters are going to see opportunities now."
Hominick, who challenges Brazilian Jose Aldo for the featherweight title in the co-main event, said it's gratifying to see the sport's profile rise as Canadian fighters get media attention.
"It's nice to see guys who have stuck with it over the years are finally getting some recognition, especially locally," Hominick said. "It's been so tough over the years to fight out of province, out of country, always in someone's backyard.
"The amount of support we've received over the past two months has been overwhelming. It has motivated me to know there's a province and a country behind me."
Other Canadians fighting Saturday include Claude (The Prince) Patrick of Mississauga, Rory (The Waterboy) MacDonald from Quesnel, B.C., John (The Bull) Makdessi from Halifax, and Ivan Menjivar and Yves (Tiger) Jabouin fight out of Montreal.