The Strip runs 3.2 miles north to south along Las Vegas Blvd and is home some of the most lucrative real estate in the world. There’s The Luxor, built like a giant pyramid; Excalibur, a giant medieval castle; one fashioned after New York; another one looks like a miniature Paris, The Bellagio with its dancing fountains; and Caesar’s nearby. A little further down is City Center, which was the apotheosis of the “bigger is better” school of casino building. The ambitious development ran out of money halfway through and for a while was a monstrous, multi-block, Ozmandian gash in the heart of the Strip. Eventually Arab oil money made good on the construction bonds and it was completed. Further down past the Wynn and the Encore you get into old Vegas, seedier but more colorful. Toward the end of the Strip if you take a left on Sahara you come to the Palace Station. This casino is part of the Station Casino Group, a chain of stripped down economy class establishments. The Fertitta family owns Station Casino and the Fertitta family fortune is the source of the 42 million dollars, which, along with Dana White’s media skills and bravado kept the UFC alive until the sport eventually took off after The Ultimate Fighter in 2005.
I was at the Mandalay Bay at the southern end of the strip for the finale of the 5th Season of The Ultimate Fighter and watching Roger Huerta struggling in the first round of his match. FIGHT!’s managing editor at the time, Matt Brown, and I glanced at each other nervously. Huerta was a handsome young Mexican American with a go-for-broke fighting style. We were running a big story on him in the magazine. It had been Matt’s call to do the story on Huerta in the run-up to the fight. Writer Mike Chiappetta had pitched him on Huerta’s backstory: a Mexican kid escapes crushing poverty, walks across the border, is adopted by an American family and becomes a star fighter. It was a great personal interest story and I knew the UFC planned to push Huerta to get access to the Mexican American market. He’d become a lot more famous if he won and FIGHT! would have made the scoop. As Matt and I looked on, Huerta was losing the first round and the master plan to make him a star was in jeopardy.
In the second round Huerta stormed back to win the fight via TKO. No one, except maybe Huerta, was more relieved than Matt and I. Matt made some good calls while we worked together. He first put me on Urijah Faber as a breakout star, long before Faber was getting the kind of attention he deserved. He is also the one who came up with the name of the magazine. We’d all puzzled over what to call it for days (MMA CHAMPION, CAGESIDE, CAGESIDE CHAMPION, MMA CAGE, blah, blah blah, everything seemed corny) until Matt came in my office one day and asked me,
“What about just: FIGHT?”
“ I love it,” I said and suddenly we had a name.
Before the match I’d seen UFC Broadcast Announcer Mike Goldberg talking to a man slumped against a column in the casino lobby. I said hello to Mike and his broadcast partner, a red eyed and bleary Joe Rogan. Rogan first hit it big as the host of Fear Factor, a reality television show popular in the early 2000s in which assorted vulgarians did things like eating animal entrails, live bugs, and whatever other debasements the show’s producers could come up with. Loathsome as it was, Fear Factor made Rogan famous before the UFC did. It is to his everlasting credit, to my mind at least, that he’d been involved in MMA longer and, even when the UFC was in the doldrums and Rogan’s career was taking off, he remained a loyal and authentic voice in the sport. It will be his significant contributions to MMA broadcasting for which he will be remembered, when all is said and done.
He was also a stand up comic and did shows in conjunction with the UFC events when they’d go on the road. Everyone else seemed to love seeing his standup routine but I never got it. Rogan had a quick mind and was at his best when he took down hecklers and improvised, but usually the themes of his routines were way too grim for my taste. I once saw him go on a long riff about watching a video on the Internet of a guy being killed by a horse in an act of bestiality. The crowd laughed uproariously but I found the whole thing morbid and dark. Sitting in the theater that night, those parts of Rogan’s performance and the reactions to them, felt to me less like entertainment and more like a bunch of people whistling in a graveyard.