Cageside at UFC, so close you can smell the blood!

With Super Bowl weekend off I was desperate to find a shoot. My wishes were answered when one of my editors from ESPN.com called and asked if I wanted to travel to Las Vegas to shoot UFC 94. I knew nothing about the sport, haven’t even watched it before but of course I acted like I knew about it and gladly accepted the gig. From there it was time to start asking friends with experience how to shoot it.

The fight lineup was supposedly one of the best UFC fight events ever and nearly all my friends were jealous I would be going so that helped me get somewhat excited but to be honest I was more excited to shoot a spring training game than this event because I just have never had any interest in these type of events. Little did I know at the time but this should would turn out to be one of the more unique events I have ever shot. The fight was on Saturday night but I needed to be there Friday afternoon to shoot the weigh ins. After getting in town the first thing I did was check in at my hotel, the Tropicana Hotel and Casino which was right across the street from the MGM Grand where the flight was to take place. I had a few hours before the weigh in so I took my luggage and gear to my room. Much to my surprise I had a nice room that included mirrors on the ceiling! I have stayed in countless hotel rooms around the world but never a hotel with mirrors on the roof. So I did what any self respecting human would do……I shot a picture of myself reflecting from the mirror above.

After that terribly lame photo I headed across the street to shoot the weigh ins.

Things got off to a pretty unexpected (and funny) start as UFC fighter Akihiro Gono wore a big black afro as he stepped up to be weighed. Even the girls in the background couldn’t keep a straight face. If only we knew how he would show up for the actual fight tomorrow!

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/320th

When UFC fighter Nate Diaz weighed in I shot loose to include the big screen behidn him for some variety.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 2500iso, f3.2, 1/320th

After weighing in Diaz stood face to face with Clay Guida for their posed portrait. While several inches shorter Guida had no problem getting right in Diaz’ face.

Nikon D3, 400mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/400th

Below UFC fighter Lyoto Machida (left) stands face to face with Thiago Silva following their weigh ins for their light heavyweight bout at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino.

Nikon D3, 400mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/400th

Below Georges St-Pierre (left) poses with BJ Penn following their weigh ins. Since these two were the main fight I was glad to get a decent shot of them face to face.

Nikon D3, 400mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/400th

After transmitting the weigh in photos to my editor it was off to go bar hopping with a few former military coworkers, Sam and Paul….and a cute girls foot.

The next morning greeted me with this beautiful thing called a massive hangover, luckily I had about 6 hours to get over it before picking up my assistant and heading to the fights.

First up was to stop by the media check in to pick up my credential with the octagonside photo access sticker!

After getting all set up in the media room it was time to check out the venue to see what I would be dealing with.

First we went up high to see the view from the elevated photo spot.

Canon G10, 1600iso, f2.8, 1/60th

Obviously that spot wasn’t gonna be very good for shooting since the entire floor was obstructed by the fence, luckily I had an assigned position cage side. While you may see complaining later in this blog about the issues I would deal with it could have been much worse had I been stuck in the elevated spot.

Next up I headed down to the octagon to find my assigned spot right next to the fence.

While it was as close as you could be to the action, I would still have to contend with the fence in front of me.

While the main 6 fights weren’t to begin for a few hours they had several smaller level fights that would allow me to get a feel for this sport.

Right off the bat I learned a valuable lesson. Autofocus does NOT like trying to work through the fence. Even with the lens right up to the fence the camera would go in and out of focus and never lock on. Below is a great example of what the autofocus was giving me for my shots.

What I ended up having to do was a combination of manual focus and allowing the autofocus to lock on and then turning the button to manual focusing and shooting until the fighters moved and I would switch back to autofocus to lock on before going back to manual and so on.

The fence was black, which helped it not show up as much in photos, but it was also shiny which totally screwed up pics by adding highlights to the fence.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

One exciting part of shooting UFC was seeing the gorgeous ring girls between rounds. Can you say HOT? (more from them later)

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Below are some random photos from the early fights.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

In one of the early round fights between Jake O’Brien and Christian Wellisch I got to witness the blood and gore that a UFC fight can provide. Wellisch took some big hits to the face which resulted in lots of blood which got messier and messier as the fight continued on.

Look at all the blood flying from his mouth as he threw a punch at O’Brien.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

If thats not nasty enough lets zoom in on that photo to really see how nasty it was.

Nothing really grosses me out much but when they were fighting a few feet from my face and I could actually smell the blood it made me wanna puke.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

I liked the below photo where the camera focused on the fence but you can obviously make out a beaten and bloody Wellisch as he laid against the fence.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

The below shot is pretty gross but I just love the photo, with the UFC written on the gloves and the beaten and bloody fighter it really is an accurate depiction of this very wild and crazy sport.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm, 2500iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

At the beginning of this blog I showed UFC fighter Akihiro Gono, who came to weigh ins with a big afro wig. Well he outdid himself when he entered the arena for his fight, dressed in drag with a shiny white sequined dress on! The crowd went wild with laughter as they played some fruity music that he danced around to as he prepared to enter the octagon.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/160th

Television actor Wilmer Valderrama had a good laugh as he looked on at the spectacle.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/125th

After a few minute break things got underway with the main card which had millions of viewers live on pay per view. First fight was between Clay Guida and Nate Diaz.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1250th

After being announced the winner Guida ran around the octagon screaming like a psychopath.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

The next fight was between Karo Parisyan and Dong Hyun Kim.

Kim liked to do high kicks, which made for cool photos.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1250th

I liked the below photo as Parisyan did a nice reverse toe flip (name of move © Mark J. Rebilas)

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1250th

Thats gotta feel good on your back!

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/400th

The next fight up was between former wrestler Jon Jones against Stephan Bonnar.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/800th

Jones busted out a great wrestling move (which also made for a great shot!)

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1250th

After Jones won the fight I got probably my favorite shot of the night as he leaned against the fence directly over me surrounded by his trainers. The dramatic light made for a cool photo (in my opinion).

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/640th

The next fight was between Thiago Silva and Lyoto Machida.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

In the first fight of the night not to make it through all the rounds Silva got knocked out.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

With the win Machida leaped up on the fence and celebrated.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Several friends throughout the evening had been texting me talking about how hot the ring girls were so I figured I could piss them off by getting my photo taken with them.

Photo by Francis Specker

With that the arena got quiet for a few minutes, then it progressively got louder and louder as spotlights circled the crowd and music blared throughout the arena to hype the crowd up for the main fight between BJ Penn and Georges St. Pierre.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/200th

Countless fans had their point and shoot cameras out as the fighters entered the arena.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/100th

I couldn’t get any good shots of Penn due to the massive sea of people on the floor. Luckily I got a clear shot of St. Pierre as he entered.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/100th

St. Pierre stepped into the ring as the crowd went nuts and drank some water and spit it out a few feet into the air.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

The fight got underway and it was quickly clear that this would be a one sided bout.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Below is probably my best action photo as St. Pierre delivered a punch right to Penns face. It happened fast because he didn’t even see it coming.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Zooming in tighter really shows the moment and how cool of a photo I was lucky enough to get.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

The fight would end with Penn on the ground being pummeled by St. Pierre.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Look how lifeless Penns face looks as he was pounded continuously by St. Pierre.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

After St. Pierre was announced the winner with a 4th round TKO he celebrated with a backflip.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/1000th

Then he was handed his championship belt and celebrated for the photographers.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/800th

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/800th

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/640th

In the post game press conference St. Pierre had a headache but otherwise looked fine.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 3200iso, f2.8, 1/640th

Penn on the other hand was at a local hospital being reated for his injuries.

So that ends my first experience shooting UFC. It was without a doubt the hardest sport I ever shot. Towards the end I was starting to get the hang out it but I still missed numerous great photos due to focus, fence, referees, etc..

Special thanks to my assistant Paul Perkins for the help, fellow photographers Ed Muholland, Martin McNeil, Francis Specker and Eric Jamison for tolerating all my stupid questions and Matt Kartozian for loaning me a lens.

Here are a few web clips.

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My site was nominated for Best Photography Blog!



24 Responses to “Cageside at UFC, so close you can smell the blood!”

  1. Michael says:

    Hi Mark,

    Great shots as always. I see you are using that new D700, what do you think of it so far?

  2. Dani says:

    Nice photos……
    Superb results in spite of the annoying fence.

  3. Joe Thorn says:

    Mark, I always look forward to your sets, and as a huge MMA/UFC fan this was such a treat. Amazing photographs for an amazing card. Great stuff.

  4. Thank you for posting! I enjoyed looking at your shots and reading your story!

  5. Tanya Plonka says:

    WOW WOW WOW! Amazing shots. We were watching on HD and amazed at the detail we were seeing, but your photos are even better… that blood is intense.

    No picture of St. Pierre when he missed the landing on his first flip? :P

  6. Philip says:

    Mark kick ass photos! I like the backflip the best! Keep up the good work and feel free to invite me along anytime.. i fly free and I could be your right hand man.. ya know part of the camera krew!

  7. Mark-

    I have followed the UFC & most of the major MMA websites for the past 6 or 7 years. Your shots of UFC 94 are by FAR the best I’ve ever seen. Fantastic job!!! I truly hope to see you covering all of their Main Events!!! I really enjoy your work & blob. Keep up the good work.

  8. Tim O says:

    Looks like you’re a real amateur shooting those UFC for the first time…

    DUDE.

    WICKED Photos! Seriously awesome… The punch shot is killer…

    The rings girls aren’t bad either.

    Thanks for bringing us into your world.. I love seeing updates in RSS for your blog! Please never stop doing what you do.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Good job on the photos. I should note, though, that you have have accidentally swapped O’Brien and Wellisch around. Wellisch is the one bleeding through his nose.

  10. Anonymous,
    Thanks for the heads up. I fixed the error.

    Mark

  11. JayT says:

    Mark,
    Awesome job on this event!
    Man you have the best job in the world. Thanks for inviting us along for the ride.
    More pics of the ringside girls next time (LOL).

    Jay

  12. dom says:

    How did you manage to work around the issues with the fence ? is it simple of a case the DOF has allowed you to shoot straight threw it with out cause too many issues with the image

  13. Ben says:

    I am also a UFC fan and these are top notch. Maybe it was a good thing you were not at the Super Bowl.
    Thanks for taking the time to post these.

    Ben

  14. Like I said I’m in envy of you. hahah

  15. [...] courtesy of Mark J. Rebilas.) For nearly two years, UFC 66 — which featured the light-heavyweight title bout between [...]

  16. Mark Buffalo says:

    Mark, these are awesome photos. I’d love to try shooting this at least once in my life. Plus, you got to see Fez and Frez rules. I just love your blog.

    Mark B

  17. TC says:

    Brilliant photos, amongst the best I’ve seen for mma.

  18. Jeremy says:

    Wow dude, these are great…

    That shot of Penn getting a face full of fist is epic!

  19. Julien says:

    Shooting MMA myself, I have to say those are incredibly impressive shots!!!

  20. Hea Mark,

    How you doing Bud…

    The fight pics along with the others are Amazing!!

    See you in Bakersfield in a few weeks~~~

    Joe ;-)

  21. joshi daniel says:

    wow! great shot!

  22. John says:

    hey mark love the shots but you should have used karo hip throw that was beautiful probably the prettiest thing that whole night! LOL since I’m a judo guy I love his style and his amazing throws that no one has!

  23. Peter says:

    Hey Mark, love the shots. Great work by the way. Love to see great works from another professional photographer. But the photos seem a bit too warm for my taste. But nonetheless, great job. Keep them coming!

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