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|| News Item: Posted 2009-07-27

Cool Gig: Cage-side at UFC 100
By Martin McNeil

Photo by Martin McNeil

Photo by Martin McNeil

Michael Bisping reels from the thunderous right hand of Dan Henderson at UFC 100 "Making History" at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada on July11, 2009.
Here's some numbers: 5,468 miles or 16 hours and 17 minutes (including connections); that's the distance and time it took to get me there.

Over 11,000 fans spent a total of $5.1 million on tickets; that's the number of people who generated the electric atmosphere inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center for a recent Ultimate Fighting Championship event.

Twenty-two fighters coming from as far afield as England, Brazil, Canada and Korea and yes, the United States; that's the athletes who put it all on the line to entertain the crowd and stood ready to make history with the UFC's centennial event on July 11, 2009 in the heat of Las Vegas, Nevada. Yes folks, UFC 100 was in town and I was one of sixteen photographers whom were cage-side to record the highs, lows, blood, sweat, tears, defeats and victories that took place that night.

This was not my first time in the U.S. to cover a UFC event; I'd been three times before; I'd shot UFC 84 and 86 in Las Vegas and then UFC 88 in Atlanta, all in 2008. Before UFC 100, I'd shot a total of twelve UFC events; two for wire agencies and ten for ESPN.

My relationship with ESPN started back in September of 2007. I had shot UFC 72 for WireImage and had only just found out that they were no longer accepting sports imagery. Having only been with WireImage for three months, this news came as a surprise for me and it was more than a touch inconvenient - I'd already paid for my travel and hotel down to London in advance of shooting UFC 75 for them and now had no-one to credential me for the event. The UFC had long since stopped freelancers from self-credentialing so I stood to lose a fair bit of advance expenses if I couldn't fix this, and fast

I had noticed from my WireImage sales reports that ESPN had used a few of my shots from UFC 72 so, taking the bull by the horns, I looked up their contact details online and eventually got the phone number for one of their photo editors. I simply asked if they'd prefer to have their own direct coverage of the fights in London. Luckily they decided to take a chance on me and credentialed me for the show.

Getting the assigned to shoot UFC 100 wasn't really much different. Way back at the start of the year, I started bouncing ideas around with my editors as to how ESPN might cover the event. We talked about having a team of two or three photographers to shoot it, one shooting cage-side, one shooting from an "overhead" slot (also in charge of remote cameras) and perhaps one backstage in the fighters' locker rooms and warm-up areas. Through my enthusiasm and passion for the sport I hoped that they'd see fit to put me in as part of that team.

As the months progressed and it got closer and closer to the event date, it became clear that the photographic budget for ESPN was becoming limited as a result of the recession. Any thought of sending a group of photographers went out the window and I was almost certain that there'd be no way I'd be in the running to shoot it when there were at least a half dozen freelancers within driving distance of Las Vegas who could do the job. To say that I got a bit of a surprise when I heard they wanted to send me was an understatement.

Consider this: I'm 35 years old and have only been working as a photographer in earnest for the last four years. I have no formal training in photography other than a short six-week course back in high school nearly twenty years ago. The town in which I live - East Kilbride - is a smallish one about eight miles south of Glasgow with a population of around 80,000.

Photo by Martin McNeil

Photo by Martin McNeil

Playboy centerfold Holly Madison makes a guest appearance as an 'Octagon Girl' at UFC 100 "Making History" in the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada on July 11, 2009.
My wife Claire tells me that all of these factors are outweighed by the fact I'm good at what I do; that my love of the sport of mixed martial arts comes across in my pictures. My editors seemed to share the same opinion when they emailed me asking me if I could cover UFC 100 for them and their request was an awakening for me; I finally believed in myself the way that all my friends, family and colleagues in the MMA media did.

Ten days after their email, I found myself sitting on the first of two planes that would take me to Las Vegas.

Many photographers and fans alike ask me what it's like shooting at a UFC event; it's no cakewalk to be sure and, even as a "veteran" photographer of twelve previous shows, I'm all too aware that getting A+ material from a mixed martial arts fight is part skill, part luck. I've learned some harsh lessons in short order in shooting this sport

Never take your eye of the action, even in the closing seconds of a round (I missed the CroCop knockout at UFC 70).

Make sure that your ability to manually zoom and focus at the same time is spot on (autofocus + MMA Cage material = not the best of friends) Shoot loose, crop tight - the action can and will go anywhere at a moment's notice (arms, legs, heads, feet all out of frame on account of the fast nature of the sport).

To top this off you're hemmed in to a very narrow space, which literally puts you elbow to elbow with the other photographers shooting. You're not allowed to deviate from your spot, you've to keep as low as possible at all times to remain "invisible" to the broadcast cameras and, between rounds, keep from tripping up the Octagon Girls (the scantily clad femmes who parade around the cage apron holding the 'round cards') on 70-200mm f/2.8 or other gear that you're juggling.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself though - the "fun" starts for me two days before fight night with the pre-fight press conference. Not content with getting the standard fare of fighters talking at the podium, eyeing up their opponents and eventually posing in a staged face-off for the cameras, I also lug a few light stands, speedlights and other strobist tools in my best efforts to get portraits of the fighters themselves. All my gear is set up and tested well in advance with the approval of UFC staff and, if I'm lucky enough to find a fighter whom is free from doing TV or radio interviews, I can quickly rattle off four or five headshots of them that may be used to anchor a feature in the future. Sometimes I luck out, sometimes I don't... but it doesn't stop me from trying.

Friday would normally see a long wait until the official weigh-ins for UFC 100 and the fighters hitting the scales in their smalls. Not this time, though, with their hundredth event, the UFC saw fit to host the first ever UFC Fan Expo within the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Starting at 10 a.m., anything and everything to do with MMA was on show with over 150 exhibitors and a whole host of fighters, past and present, scheduled to meet and greet the fans.

One of the biggest announcements of the day was the unveiling of the "cast" whom would be in Spike TV's season 10 of "The Ultimate Fighter" - and former street brawler turned internet legend Kimbo Slice (real name Kevin Ferguson) naturally stole the limelight from the fifteen other contestants with a throng of reporters, cameramen and expo attendees waiting to see him.

I chanced my arm with the Spike TV media rep and asked if I could get two minutes alone with Kimbo... a 40-minute wait ensued but sure enough, I was eventually led upstairs to an area of their booth where interviews were being conducted and, using a speedlight mounted ringflash, got four quick shots of Mr. Slice's attitude - after all what difference would there be in hanging around for just over half an hour when I'd traveled for sixteen to get there?

So on to the weigh-ins at 4 p.m., in a completely separate part of the expanse that is the Mandalay Bay. All 22 fighters would step on the scales to see if they'd made it down to their fighting weight. Sometimes theatrics ensue, rarely there's pushing, shoving or head-butting when the fighters square off (lack of food does that to me too) but this time around it was only Floridian Tom Lawlor who provided some colour - literally - by having his chest and head adorned with paint, much to the delight of fans.

Photo by Martin McNeil

Photo by Martin McNeil

Kimbo Slice
Saturday at 10 a.m. saw the second day of the Fan Expo roll around; I had a free roaming brief to capture the energy of the crowds and one of the biggest events of the day was the culmination of a nationwide competition to find a new "Octagon Girl"; sweet-talking the press liaison at the Spike TV booth again, I managed to get up to the top of their display to shoot an overhead view of the crowds queuing up to see the hopeful contestants and eventual winner. Three hours later it would be Las Vegas native Natasha Wicks (24) who would walk away the winner.

The rest of the day was spend wandering the booths, checking out which fighters were signing where and inevitably shooting some of the models that adorn the stands to entice fans to check out the vendors' wares. It turns out that fighters aren't shy of posing with models either; Wanderlei Silva happily mugged for a few shots with three girls on his arm - a show record, I think? - whilst other athletes were merely there as fans, such as former WWE star Bobby Lashley.

When 4:00 rolled around, it was time to make my way to the media center and get set up for the fights themselves. With the first fight kicking off at 5:15pm, I thought I'd have plenty of time to grab a bite from the always-good buffet that they lay on for the press. Except it wasn't there. That was hitch number one, as I now had to contend with a grumbling stomach protesting that I hadn't eaten since breakfast.

Hitch number two was finding out that not only was the media's WiFi access in the arena not working, but my fallback option of a 3G card for my laptop refused to find a signal as well. My mood isn't brightened by Getty staffer Jon Kopaloff on my right handing his cards of to a transmit technician with a working 3G card, and Fight! Magazine friend and MMA veteran Paul Thatcher to my left having a clean signal on his laptop's own 3G dongle. Note to photo equipment rental agencies - stock working 3G cards for traveling photographers to hire... you'll make a killing.

Doing my best to put these glitches out of my mind, it's on to the fights. The six fights on the undercard sail by fairly quickly; two end in the first round, one in the second and the three others go the judges scorecards - a fairly good balance overall. A glance at my laptop sees that I have time to make a quick jog back to the media center to grab some food from the now-arrived buffet! Wolfing down some nondescript - but very tasty - meat, vegetable and cheese medley, I make it back cage-side for the main show. The Canadian contingent whom are down to support Georges St. Pierre are beginning to lap up the atmosphere with maple leaf flags flying seemingly everywhere I look. I begin to get a thrill of excitement - I'm not only a photographer of the sport after all... I'm an ardent fan too.

With the broadcast segment underway, special guest star Holly Madison took a turn around the cage as an "Octagon Girl" for the night. Being a Scot I still have no clue who she is but the audience and a few of the other photographers certainly seemed to have the knowledge I lacked! As for the fights, the results of the night were fairly predictable going in: both Brock Lesnar and Georges St. Pierre retained their belts, Michael Bisping got caught and knocked out by Dan Henderson and the other two bouts (Akiyama vs. Belcher and Fitch vs. Thiago) went to the scorecards.

Once the event had wrapped I made a mad dash to the media center to file what I could via FTP; I'd shot just shy of 3000 frames of action and quickly whittled it down to 130 selects that were transmitted as fast as my connection would allow back to ESPN's office in Connecticut. Checking the website, I see that only one wire agency image has been used so far to anchor the story of Lesnar retaining his belt, so I might yet have conquered the challenge of the missing arena WiFi.

My job done, I pack my gear up and make my way back across to my hotel, the Luxor, and the neatly turned down bed that awaits me. I'd decided to book a days rest in Vegas on the Sunday so as to properly recharge my batteries after a hectic shooting schedule: my 5,468 mile hop home wouldn't happen until the Monday night. As my head hit the pillow, I allowed myself a moment to wonder what UFC 100 would eventually mean in the history of MMA - right before sleep claimed me and thoughts of anything were replaced with the marshmallow like feel of the bed.

(Martin McNeil is based just south of Glasgow, Scotland. You can view a sample of his work at his Sports Shooter member page:

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