(Matthew Polly is the author of American Shaolin and a regular writer for a whole bunch of magazines and websites more reputable than Fightlinker. We’ve somehow managed to convince him that writing for us is somehow beneficial for him, so here’s his thoughts on the Affliction show, which he had the opportunity to attend. Above photo by BrianR, more photos here.)

Like any good Irish-Catholic American (don’t worry Harkness, I’m not claiming to be Irish Irish), I have my black moments, those dark cloudy days that settle over everything like a hangover, because more often than not they are caused by hangovers. It was under such a crusty spell that I flew from LaGuardia to Affliction’s O.C. inaugural show.

This time it was the Rampage situation that sparked my somber mood. Humor rarely comes from a happy place, but it is usually a sign of a healthy psychic immune system. So to have MMA’s funniest quote machine snap under the weight of a God complex depressed me to no end.

And so it was borderline miraculous that Affliction: Banned cured my blues, especially given the inauspicious beginnings. (As an aside, I’m assuming they chose “Banned” because “Fuck You, UFC!” wouldn’t fit on the posters.) Affliction’s PR team had turned down my Fightlinker-endorsed request for credentials. “Sorry, but we’ve had over 300 media requests,” they said. And so I bought a $200 ticket only to sit fifty feet away from media tables that were barely more than half full. In contrast, EliteXC’s CBS premier in Newark was packed.

(As another aside, “T-shirt Guy” should really hire Joe Favorito. He is as good a PR man as I’ve ever encountered. For the IFL, he was like a one-man band on its sinking Titanic.)

I don’t know when Banned inked the FSN live deal but they clearly weren’t prepared for it. Paul Buentello and Gary Goodridge (who partied like it was 1999) were introduced, stretched, kicked out of the ring at 4:35, came back five minutes later, stretched again, and finally fought for 15 minutes. And then the entire match was replayed on the Jumbotron while the announcers pretended to be calling it live for the broadcast. (Aleksander Emelianenko left the main floor in a guido suit with an expectedly hot babe afterwards, never to return.)

At that point I started to worry that the evening was not headed in a good direction. That was an hour and a thousand bucks of my life later. What turned it around?

First, it was the ring. When SEG and John Milius designed the Apocalypse Now cage, they were only thinking of the cameras. While eight padded posts, a padded locked door, and a black chain link fence are dramatically ‘outlaw’ on TV, it is a visual nightmare for a live audience. All during the evening I had to remind myself that I didn’t need to crane my neck to watch the Jumbotron, because I could actually see the fights from where I was sitting.

Second, this truly was truly the sickest fight card of all time. It was so good that nobody complained when they missed Josh Barnett’s knockout of Pedro Rizzo, because a brawl had broken out in the upper-decks and the police charged through the lower sections. While we were twisted around to check out the human cockfighting, Rizzo fell and the entire crowd had to turn back and discover what had just happened.

Third, it was the most educated MMA crowd I’ve ever had the privilege to sit with. In front of me was Steve, who flew in from Seattle because he’d missed Fedor v. Coleman in 2006 and was afraid that this might be his last chance to see The Last Emperor perform in the states. Behind me was Ryan who served as my personal play-by-play and color commentator. This was crucial because whomever Affliction hired to handle the audio should be shot. Sometimes we could hear the post-fight interviews; sometimes we could not. In his ska-addled voice Ryan would call out, “Look at Martin, dude! Vitor got him. Oh, he’s gone, bro! Sleepy time! Whooaaaahhh!”

The audience was also singularly Obama-like in its post-partisanship. If Pride 1 was Japan v. the Gracies, then Affliction 1 was the World v. Bettendorf. It was shocking to listen to an American crowd be universal in its support of Babalu over Whitehead, Arlovski over Rothwell, and Fedor over the Maine-iac. Fight fans are supposed to be tribal (see UFC Montreal / Cincinnati / etc for proof); this crowd was atheistic in its ethnic passions. I haven’t seen the numbers on the UFC’s cock-blocking free show so I can’t imagine how Dana White is feeling but Militech must be spitting gloomily into his dip cup.

The final reason, however, was not Fedor’s 38 second case study dismantling of Sylvia (At this moment, Ryan shouted, “Did Fedor even break a sweat? Shit, dude, I’m wetter than he is.”). It was the face-off between Fedor and Couture afterwards. Compared to the UFC and EliteXC’s post-fight attempts to gin up melodrama, it was a stark reminder that the world’s best combatants don’t have to play by Pro Wrestling’s rulebook. They could smile and nod and shake hands and compliment each other.

It was honorable. It was ennobling. And it restored my faith in the sport, even if the WAMMA belt is the gayest thing ever.

That said, my prayers for Quinton Jackson.