Travel Journal (#2): Viva Las Vegas

This post is about the first leg of my U.S. trip doing research for my book, “The Political Economy of Ultimate Fighting”. It covers events from 3 October 2017 to 9 October 2017.

You can read my first journal entry explaining the project here.


My first destination on this trip, not including Shanghai where I had a 20-hour layover, was Las Vegas. It was a last minute addition to my itinerary. Originally I was supposed to start in New York, but when I saw there were still tickets available to UFC 216, I figured: why not start the journey with a live event in the fight capital of the world?

I had three connecting flights to get from Melbourne to Las Vegas. The first was a 10 hour trip from Melbourne to Shanghai followed by an overnight layover at a hotel my girlfriend Chloe had booked for me as a surprise. The second was a 12 hour flight from Shanghai to San Francisco. The final leg was from San Fran to Las Vegas, which only took about three hours.

There isn’t much to report about the first fight. It was hard saying goodbye to Chloe at the gate (we’ve been together for nearly five years and lived together for more than three), and navigating Shanghai airport to find my shuttle bus to the hotel was a bit daunting. But apart from that, it was pretty much standard procedure.

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I did hit a pretty unnerving roadblock when I arrived at San Francisco: the immigration official who checked my passport and interrogated me asked me questions about my trip wasn’t satisfied with my answers. She apparently didn’t believe that anyone would travel from Australia to the US to write a self-funded book about cage fighting, and sent me to a small, overcrowded immigration lounge to await further interrogation questioning.

The lounge (perhaps a better word for it would be “waiting-room-for-non-Caucasian-people”) was packed and the air was thick with anxiety. An elderly Indian man who was accompanied by his wife moved his bag so I could take a seat. He smiled pensively. The immigration officials, who were seated behind a large desk directly across from a row of small room where travellers were being interrogated questioned, seemed totally indifferent to the travellers. Eventually I got through after I showed them – of all things – this website and money on my travel passport. But my relief was infused with a new, albeit limited, understanding for the experience of foreign citizens and racial minorities in Trump’s America.

She apparently didn’t believe that anyone would travel from Australia to the US to write a self-funded book about cage fighting

With my romanticised expectation of landing in the U.S. thoroughly displaced, I caught my connecting flight and spent the three-hour journey attempting to sleep. When I arrived in Las Vegas, the first thing that drew my attention were the rows of pokie machines (or in the American dialect slot machines”) that were situated not 10 metres from the baggage claim area. I half-expected some of people I’d shared the flight with to run frantically over and begin shovelling quarters into the machines – gambling addiction personified – but they remained unoccupied for the time I was there.

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I managed to find a shuttle bus that took me to my hostel for only $10, and spent 75 minutes on the back of the bus, slipping in and out of consciousness. There was a noticeable decline in the quality of places people were staying. From Caesar’s Palace to some solid 3-star getaways to finally, the Las Vegas Hostel, which was situated downtown about two kilometres from the strip (i.e. where all the nightclubs, casinos and stripclubs were).

Talking to some of the locals, it was clear that many people were still reeling from the shooting massacre that took place last week barely a kilometre from where we were sitting.

Apart from being harassed for change twice in between getting off the bus and checking in to my room, which I shared with seven other travellers, I was pleasantly surprised with my first night. I met three other guys, one from New Orleans, one from Massachusetts and one from Germany, and we grabbed dinner and an incredibly cheap case of beers (when I told them about the taxes on our alcohol, they were mortified). Despite my sleep deprivation (I’d been awake for 24-hours straight when we met), we actually had a pretty big night on the town, which ended by sharing some more beers in the hot tub at 8am. After that, I slept for 12 hours, woke up for a couple to greet our new guest, a chap from Pakistan over for an engineering conference. After another brief venture to the strip to show him around, I jumped back into bed for another 8 hours.

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From the left that’s “Flow”, “A-a-ron”, Devenote and myself.

The first day that counted in Vegas was the Friday, when the press conference for UFC 217 was held at the T-Mobile arena, in addition to the ceremonial weigh ins for UFC 216. I caught a bus and arrived at the venue early – so early in fact that they turned me away – so killed some time checking out the neighbouring casinos. I also had my first bagel, which I bought for a very reasonable $2.30, and a proper latte that I had been craving since I’d gotten on the plane in Melbourne.

I’d put in some last-minute requests to interview fighters and promoters that were situated in Las Vegas but hadn’t heard any responses, so I was essentially attending the weekend’s events as a fan. The press conference was moderately entertaining – it was for the UFC’s biggest event of the year in Madison Square Garden that goes down in November – although it didn’t attract much of a crowd. Talking to some of the locals, it was clear that many people were still reeling from the shooting massacre that took place last week barely a kilometre from where we were sitting. In fact, the massacre was a consistent theme of conversation with almost everyone I spoke to during this leg of the journey.

I stuck around for the ceremonial weigh ins (the actual weigh ins were held in the morning) where the fighters square off, which were pretty fun all things considered. Afterwards, I was fortunate enough to meet Ariel Helwani, the face of MMA Media and one of the founders of the Mixed Martial Arts Journalists Association. I had already arranged to interview him when I’m in NYC, but it was good to meet in Vegas and break the ice.

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Flyweight champion Demetrius Johnson (right) squares off with challenger Ray Borg (left).
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Ariel Helwani (right) and me (left).

After a some book-shopping and a “table-for-one” dinner, I caught the bus home and had a quiet night. What would otherwise have been a strong 8-hour sleep was disrupted when a new addition to our hostel room arrived at 2:00am and decided to start watching a movie at full volume on his iPad-  but that’s what you get for $16 a night.

The next day I grabbed some breakfast at a local cafe, and was fortunate to meet and eat with a local couple, both of whom were their early 30s. One was a commodities trader and the other was a professional poker player. We shared some yarns and they gave me some tips about navigating Las Vegas – it was really nice.

After that, I caught the bus to UFC 216. Although I had to sit by myself for the first couple of hours of the event (fight cards consist of “preliminary bouts” and “main card bouts”, and often fans don’t show up for the former), there were a number of entertaining contests. I also ran into Kevin Iole, a legendary boxing and MMA reporter who writes for Yahoo Sports, who had some interesting insights on some of issues I’m writing about.

When the main card started, I was joined by a fellow fight fan, a Las Vegas native named Jeff who used to compete in strong-man competitions (kind of a watered down version of MMA) who kept me company during the fights. And they lived up to the hype.

By far the most exciting moment of the night was when Flyweight champion Demetrius Johnson broke the record for UFC title defences with a 5th round submission victory over Ray Borg. The submission he used was a flying armbar, something that’s never been seen inside MMA competition much less in the UFC. The main event, an interim lightweight title contest between Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee, also lived up to expectations. After a back and forth fight that took place standing and on the ground, Ferguson locked in a triangle submission off his back to synch victory. I left the T-Mobile arena thoroughly happy I’d made the journey to see the event.

The final day in Las Vegas I spent tying up some loose ends back home. I had offered to help out some friends with a legal matter, so I found a quiet spot in a cafe with free Wi-Fi and did some good ol’ legal drafting that took up most of the day. In the evening, some of the guys in an adjoining room to mine had cooked up a “family dinner” for everyone in the Hostel, so I ate heartily before packing up my bags for the next leg of the journey.

When I left the hostel at 3:00am for my 6:00am flight to Iowa, I was somewhat relieved to get out of Vegas. The event had delivered, but I’d struggled sleeping due to my roommates and hadn’t been able to read or write nearly as much as I had hope. I was also itching to start interviewing people for the book, which awaited me in Iowa.

One leg down, plenty more to come!






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