Years of lobbying and a great deal of money finally pays off for the Ultimate Fighting Championship today.
The Las Vegas-based organization has worked tirelessly to get mixed martial arts sanctioned everywhere, but along with New York, Ontario has been one of the main targets.
"We've been waiting for this for so long. It's such a huge market for us," UFC president Dana White said. "We always knew it would be big."
They were right. With sanctioning officially passed this year, UFC 129 takes place at Rogers Centre in Toronto today with more than 55,000 tickets sold, well over twice as many than have ever been sold for a UFC event.
Now comes the true test. If all goes well logistically with the first attempt at holding a card in a stadium rather than an arena, the UFC can begin eyeing even grander venues, potentially including Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
"I'm not going to say I've never been this excited for a card, because we've had a lot of major events and a lot of major fights over the last 10 years, but I get goose bumps just thinking about it," White said. "I made our plane land in crazy fog just because I was so excited to get to Toronto."
The UFC has always valued the viewing experience of the live audience and has been hesitant to try to scale it to this level, but officials insist the video and sound enhancements in the stadium will enable all 55,000 fans to enjoy the fights.
One thing is for sure: It will be loud. Especially for the two Canadians fighting for titles on the card.
"Well, I've never experienced that in my life. The loudest crowd I had in my life was in Montreal, and it was like 24,000 people," said welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, who will defend his belt against Jake Shields. "But the thing is, I need to be focused on the main thing ... to win the fight. That's my main focus. I'm not going to try to care about the crowd."
Mark Hominick, an Ontario native, said essentially the same thing: He's excited to be part of the event, but the crowd support won't help him much when he steps into the cage as the challenger to featherweight champion Jose Aldo.
Shields and Aldo will hear the other side of the massive crowd, particularly Shields, who isn't necessarily beloved even when he's not fighting on an opponent's home turf.
"I've never had 50,000 people booing me, so I'll find out," he said. "It's one of those things, yes, it could possibly motivate me to fight harder. It could screw up (St. Pierre), you know maybe the crowd going crazy might make him nervous. You don't really know what the factors are going to be. So all we can do is go out there and fight and find out."
The card could be significant for more than just the location and attendance. UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture has announced that his bout with former champion Lyoto Machida will be his last. Not everyone believes the 47-year-old Las Vegan, but Machida, who has lost two fights in a row, is honored to possibly be Couture's final opponent.
"I have so much respect for Randy Couture; I am honored to match up my skills with a legend, especially in front of the biggest crowd in UFC history," Machida said through a translator. "If this truly is Randy's final fight, it is truly an honor, because people always remember the final fight of a legend."
The five-fight main card begins at 6 p.m., the UFC's new pay-per-view time. The card also features a light heavyweight bout between Jason Brilz and Vladimir Matyushenko and a lightweight fight pitting Ben Henderson against Mark Bocek.
Two fights will air live on Spike (Cable 29) at 5. The rest of the card will stream live on the UFC's Facebook page at 3.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509.