Donald Trump gets hero’s welcome at UFC event in Las Vegas

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Las Vegas: Here, in the T-Mobile Arena on the Las Vegas Strip, I’m about to watch my first UFC event, and while it’s all terribly exciting, the star on this night isn’t a fighter but Donald J Trump.

All week, American welterweight challenger Colby Covington talked up the prospect of Trump sitting in the front row to support him.

He vowed to claim the championship belt from Englishman Leon Edwards and when he did, the former US President — Covington’s “biggest role model” — would be on hand to put it around his waist.

Covington also wanted Trump to accompany him on the traditional pre-fight walk from the dressing-room to the octagon, but UFC supremo Dana White torpedoed the idea because it would require too many Secret Service agents clogging the floor.

For hours, there had been doubts that Trump would turn up at all. Suddenly, after one of the preliminary fights, he emerged from a tunnel flanked by White and ageing American rock star Kid Rock.

The crowd erupted with approval. As Trump walked towards the middle of the arena to Rock’s 2000 song American Bad Ass, fans chanted “Donald! Donald!” before replacing it with “USA! USA!”

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump arrives to watch the UFC 296 event in Las Vegas.Credit: AP

Trump shook hands with podcaster and MMA analyst Joe Rogan then plopped down in his seat for the four remaining lead-up fights to Covington’s fight.

Unfortunately, Trump’s entrance was a greater spectacle than the fight, with the combatants dancing around for the first two of five rounds, prompting boos from the crowd.

Edwards always looked in control with his superior grappling skills and retained the belt courtesy of a unanimous decision from the judges.

He was emotional when Rogan interviewed him in the ring. At the weigh-in the day before, Covington had referenced Edwards’ father, who was killed in a London nightclub when Edwards was 13.

Trump’s man Colby Covington lost the decision to welterweight champion Leon Edwards of the UK.Credit: AP

“On Saturday night, I’m gonna bring you to a place you never want to be,” Covington said. “I’m gonna bring you to the seventh layer of hell. We’ll say, ‘What’s up?’ to your dad while we’re there.”

Fighting back tears, Edwards said after his victory: “This guy used my dad’s murder as entertainment. It took a lot for me to calm down and concentrate on the fight.”

Boos rang out across the arena as Covington spoke, saying he’d had a “great” fight even though he’d lost and repeatedly saying “Trump is going to come back stronger and make America great again!”

When the booing didn’t abate, he said: “Thank you for the hate. You’re all a bunch of broke bitches anyway.”

Perhaps the best fight of the night was between middleweight champion Sean Strickland and top challenger Dricus du Plessis when they started throwing punches while sitting near each other in the ringside seats.

Donald Trump watches the flyweight bout between Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil and Brandon Royval of the USA.Credit: Getty

Earlier, Gold Coast fighter Casey “King” O’Neill fought Brazil’s Ariane “Queen of Violence” Lipski in a preliminary in the women’s flyweight division.

Lipski won the fight via submission but only moments earlier had set up the win by sitting on O’Neill’s chest and landing a flurry of punches to her opponent’s head — without the referee stopping her, as per the rules

This is where I’ve struggled to follow UFC, as much as I’ve tried.

Make no mistake: the athletes are a special breed, mastering the various Mixed Martial Arts disciplines while also achieving the unique levels of fitness needed to compete at the highest level.

Wollongong’s Alex Volkanovski, who holds the featherweight title, is one of Australia’s bravest and most successful athletes. The cheer for him when his face was flashed on the big screen was only marginally quieter than the one afforded Trump.

Yet UFC is the most brutal of sports. When a competitor is repeatedly punched and elbowed in the head, their face turning to a bloody pulp when they have no way of defending themselves because their hands are pinned, it can be hard to watch.

But who cares what I think?

Not the 700 million who watch the sport globally. Interestingly, 37 per cent of those are women. Australia has four million UFC followers and just over a million are female.

It will, in time, become Australia’s most followed sport: according to the federal government’s YouGov study, 48 per cent of young adults (18-34) who watch sport are UFC fans — well ahead of the World Surfing League (36 per cent), boxing (32 per cent) and the traditional football codes of NRL (31 per cent) and AFL (28 per cent).

State governments understand the value in bidding for UFC events. Since 2010, UFC has held 17 live events in Australia, including sold-out shows at Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena.

Collectively, these events have attracted over 300,000 fans in attendance and hundreds of millions worldwide watching on pay-per-view and broadcast TV. They have raked in a cumulative gross gate of more than $62 million.

The UFC event in Sydney last September was an outrageous success.

Tickets sold out within 13 minutes after going on sale to the public, and the gross ticket revenue of $10.75 million smashed the previous highest-grossing event at the venue — the Rolling Stones — by 92 per cent.

This sort of tearaway popularity is why the NRL has fostered a partnership with UFC to promote its season-opening double-header at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on March 2.

Trump is a long-time supporter of the UFC and Covington. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get anywhere near him after the main fight. To be honest, I couldn’t even get on the same level.

From what I could see, though, he sat intently watching the fights from the best seat in the house, barely saying a word to anyone — even when a section of fans chanted “F— Joe Biden”.

The author travelled to Las Vegas courtesy of the NRL.

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