What started as a spontaneous event, thought up by UFC president Dana White, turned out to be a memorable night on Saturday in Las Vegas.
On a night usually reserved for boxing and Mexican champion Canelo Alvarez, the UFC took center stage with a full house of 18,700 fans filling T-Mobile Arena for the first Noche UFC event.
Alvarez waited too long to schedule his fight on Mexican Independence weekend, and the UFC stepped in for a card that was highlighted by Alexa Grasso defending her flyweight crown against Valentina Shevchenko in an epic battle that finished in a draw.
But the night didn’t just belong to Grasso. The fight card showcased the emerging Mexican talent that looks poised to become the next wave of champions, like Lupita Godinez (win by submission over Elise Reed), Raúl Rojas, (first round knockout over Terrence Mitchell) and Daniel Zellhuber (win by submission over Christo Giagos).
“This wasn’t planned and wasn’t scheduled. I changed the entire schedule to have this event and I pressured the organizers to create a great card for this event,” said White, who admitted that the event came together at the last minute.
While Canelo Alvarez is still the biggest sports star in Mexico that doesn’t have a similar rival in MMA, the UFC showed that they can create a festive vibe around a weekend dedicated to Mexican talent with great fights and successful events, like the weigh-in, which drew a large crowd to Toshiba Plaza.
Some of the events around the fights were also successful. The photo sessions with fighters Brandon Moreno and Tatiana Suárez were extremely popular with fans as was the Noche UFC merchandise, which sold out even before the fight card started on Saturday night.
“It was incredible, the entire week was wonderful. They prioritized us, respected the date and honestly knocked it out of the park,” said Godinez, who was born in México but is based in Canada. “This was a very special event.”
Mixed martial arts is a growing sport among the Mexican community on both sides of the border. While historically more devoted to boxing, the new generation of fight fans have been migrating over to MMA to support homegrown talent like Grasso, Moreno and Yair Rodríguez.
During the main event on Saturday night, Grasso had the support of the majority of the 18,766 fans, who shouted “México, México,” “Alexa, Alexa” and “Sí Se Puede” throughout the fight.
“It was such great energy, hearing all those fans. They send you so much energy and as a fighter you feel it,” said the 30-year-old Grasso. “I want to thank all the fans. I know they spend a lot of time and money to come support us and everything. I’m in the octagon and I hear ‘Viva México,’ it fills me with such energy.”
This isn’t the first time the UFC has upstaged boxing. In 2019, Canelo had to wait almost two hours to start his fight with Sergey Kovalev because the UFC fight between Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz had not yet finished. The MGM Grand Garden Arena even showed the UFC fight on their big screens during the wait, irking the hardcore boxing fans and the Mexican champion.
Canelo was not able to lock down the Sept. 16 date because the Mexican champion was between promoters while negotiating a fight with Jermell Charlo. Once he settled on Premier Boxing Champions as a promoter, the attempt was made to schedule the Charlo fight for Mexican Independence weekend, but the UFC had already beaten him to the punch. He was also blocked by an Alejandro Fernández concert at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Noche UFC was a way for the UFC to fix a previous error. White admitted that he failed to schedule a bigger card at the start of the year when the UFC had three Mexican champions at the same time: Grasso, Moreno and Rodríguez. Moreno and Rodríguez ended up losing their belts but White went ahead and scheduled the Mexican Independence Weekend around Grasso as the headliner.
With the emerging talent on display at Noche UFC and the new MMA fitness and training complex being built in Mexico City, the talent coming from south of the border will only continue to grow.
“It would be really great to start this tradition in Las Vegas or create an event in Mexico, it would be wild,” said Grasso. “In an ideal world, I would love to keep doing this.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.