BOSTON -- The TD Garden was rocking at the sight of the No. 33 Celtics jersey. The guy wearing it was closer in stature to Nate Robinson than Larry Bird, but the crowd gave him a standing ovation like he was a one-man Big Three.
A slight smile broke through Kenny Florian's solemn fight-week face, and for a moment it looked as if the fighter out of Dover, Mass., was standing taller than anyone who's ever set foot in this building, capable of reaching up and touching the green-and-white championship banners hanging from the rafters.
He was home.
The crowd's cheers for Florian drowned out even the deafening entrance music, an impressive feat considering that the Garden wasn't even close to full. The UFC was not the least bit concerned with the empty seats, though. UFC 118 isn't until Saturday night (first fight at 7:20 ET, two prelims on Spike at 9, pay-per-view at 10). This was just the Friday afternoon weigh-ins.
Yes, a couple of thousand fans had come to watch nothing but a bunch of fighters step onto a scale to an eardrum-shattering soundtrack of testosterone-laden hard-core music. The free event lasted all of 20 minutes, with one mixed martial artist after another walking onstage, stripping down to gym shorts or underwear to weigh in, then squaring off with his opponent for a quick photo-op while ubiquitous UFC president Dana White smiled in the background.
Two by two the fighters came and went, the music thumping, nothing of consequence happening -- except when Amilcar Alves came in a pound over the welterweight limit, then made weight by going au naturel (behind a white towel with a UFC logo on it), with the octagon girls onstage politely turning their backs.
If there was news to be made, it was across town at Hynes Convention Center, site of the UFC Fan Expo. The two-day event, which continues Saturday, filled two huge exhibition halls with booths on which companies displayed MMA-related gear, apparel and memorabilia, enticing fans with fighters on hand for autograph sessions.
In another vast hall downstairs, was a grappling tournament where beginners could sign up to compete on the same mats as highly decorated jiu-jitsu players. The exhibitor area was elbow-to-elbow all day, and it's only going to be more crowded on Saturday after the UFC announced late in the day that Shaquille O'Neal -- a big (yes, big) MMA fan -- will take part in a question-and-answer session with fans at noon. It will be O'Neal's first public appearance in Boston since signing with the Celtics earlier this month.
The entertainment just keeps coming.
The most entertaining moment at the Garden weigh-ins was provided by Gabe Ruediger, whose résumé includes being kicked off the Spike TV reality show "The Ultimate Fighter" and being Paris Hilton's MMA trainer. When the man nicknamed "Godzilla" squared off with his Brockton-born opponent, Joe Lauzon, who fights out of Bridgewater, Ruediger handed Lauzon a big white box with a cake inside. The inscription: "Sorry for your loss." Lauzon got a good laugh out of it.
Next up on the scale was Marcus Davis, a welterweight from Bangor, Maine, who fought on the final fight card at the old Boston Garden when he was a pro boxer back in 1994. Davis will face Nate Diaz on Saturday night.
Then came Florian, who takes on unbeaten lightweight Gray Maynard, with the winner next in line for a title shot.
The New England fighters out of the way, the video screen behind the stage suddenly came to life with prerecorded hype for the fight that, despite having no title or even championship implications on the line, has stolen the UFC 118 spotlight: James Toney versus Randy Couture.
Toney, who turned 42 this week, has won boxing world championships in three weight divisions. He's a star in his sport, but an MMA neophyte making his UFC debut after going after Dana White for months, badmouthing the UFC and its fighters until White finally arranged a date in the cage for him with Couture, a UFC Hall of Famer.
After the video, Toney emerged from backstage to loud boos, which put a smile on his face. He cupped one hand behind an ear and motioned with the other hand for more noise. What he got wasn't what he was asking for, though, as there were chuckles around the arena when Toney stepped up to the scale, dropped his drawers, and his underpants drooped from his paunchy frame. He weighed in at 237, looking less than in shape.
Couture, 47, weighed in at 220 and was as chiseled as ever.
The main event fighters seemed like an afterthought, although the challenger, B.J. Penn, received a hero's welcome as though he were from Hull, Mass., instead of Hilo, Hawaii. Frankie Edgar, who took the lightweight title from Penn in a huge upset in April, heard a smattering of boos. That might have had to do with five blasphemous words the New Jerseyan spoke at a news conference last week: "I am a Yankees fan."
Among the fans at the Garden was Jim Early, a Californian. Asked about his "Lauzon MMA Team" T-shirt, he said, "I used to live in Brockton, and Joe is my nephew." He didn't need to be prompted for his assessment of the fight. "I predict Lauzon," Early said, "and if I'm wrong, I'll eat that cake the other guy gave him."
Then Early pointed to a nearby man in a matching T-shirt -- Joe's dad, who looked a bit awestruck by the Garden ambiance.
"I've been to my son's fights all over the country," Joe Lauzon Sr. said, "and this one here is a lot more electrifying than anything I've seen."
As Lauzon spoke, a couple of young men walked past, each carrying a bag of UFC merchandise. "See, I told you," one of them was telling his friend. "I told you this would be worth leaving the Hynes for a while."
Across town at the Fan Expo, it was a madhouse all day. The lines for autographs snaked around the exhibition halls endlessly, it seemed, especially for getting a poster signed by Arianny Celeste. She's not a UFC fighter but a ring girl -- which means she walks around the cage between rounds holding up a big card with the next round's number on it, providing the fans with both information and eye candy. Twitter has been atwitter this week with the news that Celeste will be on the cover of the November issue of Playboy.
The reason the lines were so long was that they moved slowly. The fighters weren't just staring down at the table and scribbling their names, one after another after another. These guys are in the sweet spot of pro sports: popular enough that a lot of fans want to meet them, yet not so big-time that they'd turn down an opportunity to shake hands, chat and take a picture with every last person in line. It was eye-opening to see menacing-looking MMA stars cordially interacting with their public as though the fans were the VIPs.
The grappling area was eye-opening, as well.
Along with various levels of amateur competition, the Expo scheduled a few "superfights" between world-class competitors. For an afternoon matchup between former UFC fighter Hermes Franca and much decorated jiu-jitsu player Ryan Hall, a few hundred people encircled the mat. The fans cheered loudly during the introduction, but as soon as Franca and Hall got themselves pretzeled on the mat, the place went silent.
When Hall took the advantage, there was polite applause, as if the competition were in Symphony Hall. Apparently when you take the punching and kicking away from a fight, the crowd noise goes, too. Only when Franca made a late but futile try to turn the tables did the fans come to life a bit, with some in the crowd shouting instructions in Portuguese to the Brazilian Franca.
Saturday night at TD Garden, UFC 118 promises to be a wee bit louder.
Jeff Wagenheim writes an MMA blog for thefastertimes.com.