Thursday, July 6, 2017 | 2 a.m.
In past years, the UFC held open workouts during International Fight Week at exclusive clubs and drew overflow crowds that poured out of the building.
The conditions went from cramped to cavernous this year, as the UFC’s annual July event kicked off Wednesday afternoon at Park Theater at Monte Carlo. The 5,200-capacity venue was less than a tenth full as the six headliners from this week’s two cards, Friday’s “The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption” finale and Saturday’s UFC 213, publicly went through part of their training routines.
They didn’t seem to mind, as most of them were particularly spirited at an appearance where fighters aren’t always fully engaged.
“This is the most special event, the most important event,” top-ranked middleweight contender Yoel Romero said of International Fight Week through a translator. “Being a part of the most important organization for mixed martial arts in the world, how can that not feel special?”
Part of the UFC’s genius has always been making every event feel special, but it’s no secret that this year’s International Fight Week is scaled back compared to the five previous installments. It’s trimmed from three straight nights of fights the last two years to only two this year.
The UFC Fan Expo that had taken over the Mandalay Bay Convention Center and the Sands Expo and Convention Center in past years has been repurposed as the UFC Fan Experience at Toshiba Plaza in front of T-Mobile Arena.
There are many reasons for the change, and most of them unavoidable. Not the least of which is not having a fight big enough to anchor the level of attention International Fight Week has generated in the past.
The UFC wanted to build this weekend around Georges St. Pierre’s comeback in the middleweight division for a fight against Michael Bisping, but the former welterweight champion wasn’t ready in time. It then focused efforts around a classic friends-turned-foe matchup between Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw before the former went down with an injury.
That left women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes’ title defense against Valentina Shevchenko as the weekend topper. It’s a fine fight between rivals, but not one anyone was clamoring for with Nunes having beaten Shevchenko less than a year and a half ago.
Even at the open workouts, the biggest response was saved for the UFC 213 co-main event between Romero and Robert Whittaker, a collision that will determine the interim middleweight champion. It’s a pairing that greatly appeals to dedicated fans of mixed martial arts, with both fighters getting their due after two of the most impressive runs in the sport.
The 185-pound division has been backed up ever since Bisping won the title in May 2016 and conspired with the UFC to seek the biggest-name opponents rather than the most deserving. Romero and Whittaker were the most victimized parties by the decision.
The 40-year-old Romero has won all eight of his fights in the octagon dating back to 2013. Whittaker just racked up his seventh straight win in April, knocking out Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza with a head kick.
He planned to take a break to let the weight class sort itself out before the UFC 213 opportunity arose.
“The division was really backed up,” Whittaker said. “There wasn’t enough reason to fight at the time but now the interim title is opening up this division again and there’s a reason to fight.”
The couple hundred fans at Park Theater oohed and awed as Whittaker boxed around the stage Wednesday, swiftly hitting his training partner’s mitts with a thudding force. Romero’s workout was less traditional and more hybrid, as he stretched out and bounded around.
“Stand-up is my strength and that’s what I’m going to try to push on him because I think wrestling is his strength,” Whittaker said.
The crowd slightly swelled when it was Romero’s turn onstage, and welcomed him with a warm ovation. It was enough to draw a wide grin, as Romero’s journey to the sport’s apex has been a long one.
The Cuban native defected to Germany 10 years ago after a wrestling tournament and started fighting two years later. He always believed his championship moment would come; he just didn’t know it would be at International Fight Week.
To Romero, it’s as grand as ever.
“I feel so blessed to be in this position,” Romero said. “I feel blessed all around.”