Monday, Aug. 3, 2009 | midnight
- What: UFC's first show in Philadelphia (Lightweight title fight between B.J. Penn vs. Kenny Florian; 205-pound bout with Anderson Silva vs. Forrest Griffin)
- When: Saturday, Aug. 8
- Where: Wachovia Center
- TV: Pay-per-view
Burt Watson knows the fight game.
The 60-year-old has been in and around boxing his whole life. Watson cut his teeth in the ring as a pro, albeit only briefly as his 1-1 career mark attests.
The veteran Philadelphia fight man was the longtime promoter and manager for the legendary Joe Frazier and has worked with some of the biggest names in the sport, including Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Oscar De La Hoya.
Now, Watson is making his mark in the Ultimate Fighting Championship as the organization’s site coordinator. Wherever the UFC goes, so does Watson.
He’s the liaison between the fighters and the UFC for anything and everything that can pop up on fight week.
The Vietnam veteran and his team of “Buffalo Soldiers,” the UFC’s nickname for his crew of facilitators, make sure the fighters are on time for their events and that their needs are taken care of in a new city.
The newest city, Philadelphia, the home of Saturday’s UFC 101 event, is extra special to Watson.
“It’s going to be a complete thrill to be part of an event in my hometown,” Watson said. “Just awesome.”
That’s a word often used to describe Watson, who puts in 16-hour days during fight week.
“As soon as I get to the new city I do my little ground survey. I go around and find the nearest hospital, a market where these guys who like whole foods can go, a pharmacy, shopping, all the places the fighters would need to go in a normal week,” said Watson, who usually arrives a day before the fighters, on Sunday or Monday of fight week.
“There shouldn’t be one thing a fighter comes and asks me that I don’t have at least a clue about.”
While Watson’s primary function is to take care of the fighters’ physical needs, his job often puts him in the role of counselor, tending to the emotional needs of the warriors in the Octagon.
“It’s tough sometimes cause you’ll be in the changing room trying to comfort a guy who is bawling right after a loss,” Watson said. “I really become attached to all the fighters because they really all are good guys.”
Gregory Sirb, the executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, says no matter the circumstances or pressures of an event, Watson is a constant, calming influence.
“He’s one of the most organized guys I know. Even when it’s hitting the fan and the pressure is on and things are going down, Burt just gives you a little smile,” Sirb said.
“If you’d ask him to sell the popcorn, he’d do that, too.”
Sirb, a longtime PSAC member, said he hasn’t seen excitement for a fight in the Keystone State since 1995, when Mike Tyson knocked out Buster Mathis Jr.
“It’s the biggest thing we’ve had and we call ourselves ‘Fight Town U.S.A,’” Sirb said. “I can’t believe the level of support we’ve had for this thing.
“But what I think is unique about Pennsylvania is it has as good of college wrestling schools as anywhere in the country. I think that level of wrestling and its fan base is a big reason the level of excitement is so high for the UFC.”
The commission sanctioned mixed martial arts in February after a two-year struggle over regulation issues. In June, the Ultimate Cage Fighting Challenge held an event at Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena that drew 5,000 fans.
Sirb was in the crowd and said he was impressed by fans’ excitement. But having attended several UFC shows in Las Vegas, he’s not sure if Philadelphia fans are prepared for next weekend’s extravaganza.
“These guys are like rock stars, people go crazy when they see stars like Randy Couture or B.J. Penn,” Sirb said. “I think the cool thing about it is the fighters really seem to enjoy the interaction with the fans.”
Watson says that attitude, something boxers stopped embracing years ago, is the biggest factor in the UFC being a part of the fastest growing sport in the world.
“When I worked with De La Hoya or Tyson or someone of that level, not very often did fans have access to those guys unless it was mandatory or scheduled,” Watson said. “Even then it was limited. Whereas with the UFC, the average guy could sit down and have dinner with Georges St-Pierre or have a beer with Chuck Liddell and talk about families or just shoot the breeze.”
“You don’t see that in boxing. The UFC made their fighters really appreciate their fans.”
Boston’s Kenny Florian, who will take on Penn for the lightweight title in UFC 101’s main event, is anxious to compete in a major East Coast city for the first time.
“You know, it’s awesome,” Florian said. “I’ve had the opportunity of fighting a couple of different places -- California, Colorado, Minnesota -- and now finally over here on the East Coast. You know, I know how much people are crazy for the UFC over here.
“So to get close to Boston or to have it on the East Coast, it’s definitely an honor to be fighting over here and to have the opportunity to have the company of family and friends there to support me.”
Sirb said he expects a few New Yorkers will make the 100-mile trek to attend the event, and that it won’t be long until New York and Boston will be hosting their own UFC events.
“When they see how well the big market of Philly does, it will only be a matter of time until the remaining states hop on board,” he said. “(Sanctioning) New York will definitely be done by next year.”
Watson doesn’t care where the UFC goes, because he knows he’ll be there.
“I absolutely love what I do. I love working with the UFC, I love working with the fighters,” he said.
“I still get a thrill when I see 5,000 people there at the weigh-ins, and get goose bumps on fight night. I’m just having a dang good time on this ride with the UFC.”
Andy Samuelson can be reached at [email protected] or 702-948-7837.