PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — It’s been nearly five years since UFC came to CONSOL Energy Center for the first time. The “UFC on Versus 4” event was a memorable one, despite a number of late changes to the card.
Pittsburgh heavyweight Adam Milstead, who just signed with UFC last month, remembers it well.
“The last card we saw in Pittsburgh had some trouble getting off the ground due to injuries and cancellations of fights, but UFC still ended up putting up one heck of a card.”
Fast forward to February 2016, and history is repeating itself. Injuries, a failed drug test and even a bout of dengue fever led to changes to this Sunday’s “Fight Night” card at CONSOL Energy Center.
UFC president Dana White sounds confident his fighters can once again exceed expectations in Pittsburgh. In fact, he said his new “Cowboy vs. Cowboy” main event may be better than what was first scheduled.
“There (have) been so many times where we’ve actually been able to make a better fight,” White told UFC.com. “This is one of this times.”
Local businesses are also looking forward to a repeat of the boost in business they saw when UFC came to town for the first time in June 2011. It shared top billing in the local sports scene with a weekend series at PNC Park between the Pirates and Red Sox, but still drew more than 7,000 fans.
Antonio Brown showed up on Saturday to weigh in. The wide receiver could have a promising fighting career.
Sunday night’s card includes some intriguing fights.
The main event features UFC workhorse Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (28-6, 1 NC), whose working class persona should help him feel right at home in front of the Pittsburgh fans.
Cerrone is fighting at welterweight for the first time in his career. His opponent is another “Cowboy”, Alex Oliveira (13-2-1, 1 NC).
“It will be interesting to see how (Cerrone) fares against bigger opponents,” says Jessica Hudnall, an MMA contributor for Uproxx Sports. “This is also Cerrone’s second fight in 64 days because he’s a madman that basically fights all the time.”
Cerrone’s eight-fight winning streak ended last December, when he suffered a first round TKO loss to UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, who will face one of the most popular names in the sport, Conor McGregor, next month at UFC 196.
Milstead expects Cerrone to bounce back.
“You’re going to see a bigger and meaner Cerrone.”
Cody “No Love” Garbrandt (7-0-0) is the closest thing to a hometown favorite on Sunday’s card. He’s originally from Uhrichsville, Ohio (approximately 85 miles west of Pittsburgh) and started his MMA career in Pittsburgh.
Garbrandt expects to have a lot of friends in the area cheering him on Sunday night. Milstead will be one of them.
“Garbrandt is a friend of mine and an old teammate out of Mark Cherico’s Martial Arts & Fitness Academy Chericos Martial Arts (formerly known as Fight Club Pittsburgh). His speed and athleticism sets him apart from the others. Great dude as well.”
It won’t be easy. Garbrandt’s opponent is another undefeated fighter, Augusto Mendes (5-0-0).
Hudnall is also looking forward to what could be the end of an era.
“Tatsuya ‘Crusher’ Kawajiri (35-8-2) was a long-time mainstay in Japan’s MMA scene, using his wrestling and ground and pound to rack up wins. Now, he’s older and is facing a young, strong wrestler, Dennis Bermudez (15-5-0). I’m not saying that Kawajiri will retire here or get cut if he loses, but he’s basically fighting a younger, better version of himself.”
It may be too much to ask Sunday night’s fights to match the thrills and excitement of the first UFC card in Pittsburgh, but it’s still an important step in the growth of the sport in Pittsburgh. Milstead hopes UFC’s popularity in Pittsburgh continues to rise.
“I believe it has the potential to be up there with our city’s teams, the Penguins and Steelers, and the aura that follows them. We just need to see UFC here more often. Our small towns and cities thrive on experiencing the sport firsthand, rather than watching it on TV.”
On Friday, competitors put on a preview for fans at Stout Training in the Strip District.
“We’re a real mixed martial arts gym, owner Warren Stout says. “We’ve had a lot of the fighters here already.”
Fans say the sport is more than just punching someone out.
“You’re combining speed, strength, power, agility, toughness,” one fan says.
“I like it more than boxing,” his younger brother adds. “It’s more complex. More to it than just punching.”
Steelers Arthur Moats and Mike Mitchell, who took in the action, say they’ll take the gridiron over the fight cage any day.
“I have no real intention to get kicked in the face,” Mitchell says.
“No question I want any of it,” Moats adds. “I’ll support them, though.”
Fan favorite Cody Garbrandt spent two years training in Pittsburgh. He says he was inspired, sort of, by his older brother.
“He was always bigger than me, so I knew that iI had to get my butt kicked by him, or I had to get tough. Getting my butt kicked wasn’t an option, so I had to get tough.”
A final question for the Steelers: Who’s favored in “Cowboy vs. Cowboy?”
“Cowboy,” Mitchell says.
“No question it’s Cowboy,” Moats agrees.
Sounds like a safe bet.