"It's packed in here!" it read.
It was one of many bars packed that night in Greeley. There were hundreds more in the Greeley Stampede, our annual county fair, even if it likes to think it's a little bigger than something like that. And I got at least three invitations to viewing parties that would draw dozens to someone's house.
All of them were there to watch the UFC.
That's right. The UFC. The Ultimate Fighting Championship. That's why we were in Applebee's, among people Kate and I have long since left behind in our world now dominated by our minivan, Pixar and overly sweetened snacks.
There are 10 good reasons to be in Applebee's at 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday night with your spouse, but until a couple years ago, watching the UFC wasn't one of them. But that was before Shane Carwin got big.
Shane Carwin, the Greeley native. Our Shane. Our fighter.
We were in Applebee's in Belton, Mo., because we were back home on my annual trip to Kansas. I mean "Kansas" in a home sort of sense because, really, heading back to Belton and also Overland Park, Kan., to see my parents is a return trip home. It's a chance to spend time with my folks, eat nostalgic food (mmmm barbecue), get away from work on the cheap and let my kids see a little of my old life, even if a lot of my past life is really no longer there.
We had suffered a bit to get back home, as we usually do. Jayden does pretty well in the car, but the girls, now 3, still whined quite a bit, and one of the whining sessions escalated into a full-blown meltdown, one so bad I thought about leaving them at a rest stop. The only thing that saved us was the girls now watch DVDs better than last year (and, really, how did my parents get us across a road trip when we were kids when all we had was an Etch-A-Sketch to keep us entertained?).
I really look forward to going back home. Yet all those texts were making me miss Greeley.
Carwin was doing that to me.
I understand that the UFC is more popular than ever, perhaps more popular than boxing now, but it's not quite mainstream. Many of the uninitiated still see it as a brutal, bloody match between two tattooed fighters with bizzare haircuts and few teeth. Still, more and more people in Greeley were becoming fans. The geeky engineers Carwin works with. Runners. City officials. Me. People, in other words, you would not expect to see at a gruesome cage fight.
Why? Well, first of all, Carwin's a pretty interesting guy. He's a hydraulics engineer who still works for a water division. He's also quiet and humble and classy. So he's a smart, likeable guy who also happens to be one of the true badasses in the world.
If you want, you can read more about him in one of my favorite stories of this year.
Carwin was also a monster in MMA. He had destroyed all his opponents in the first round. People, I think, love dominant sports figures even in sports they may not understand. Look at Tiger Woods' popularity, even after he cheated on his wife with porn stars.
But the real reason everyone in Greeley, it seemed, was watching a sport that, until a couple months ago, many knew nothing about, or even avoided, was because Carwin was our guy.
He was Greeley.
Carwin was a big deal. He was fighting for the heavyweight title against perhaps the most famous current fighter in the UFC right now, Brock Lesnar. Lesnar was also a beast, like Carwin, and both were huge guys, bigger than anybody else in the UFC.
There were so many storylines - good vs. evil, Lesnar's year-long illness, how it seemed both were fighting a doppleganger, Carwin's and Lesnar's speedy rise to the top - and most of them were, of course, exaggerated by the media. Yet all those storylines made this the biggest fight of the year and one of the biggest fights in the UFC's history.
Carwin was like our college playing in the national championship.
I felt it too. Just before the bell rang I had big-time butterflies, as if Kansas was playing against Memphis for the title all over again.
Most of Greeley, too, seemed to be watching, and that's why Shane Carwin mattered that night.
Let's face it. Greeley is a city of about 100,000. We are a town famous for the way it (used to) smell like cows, for being close to Fort Collins and Boulder and Denver and for things like the Stampede.
But, dammit, I love it there. It's also a place with Colorado's beautiful weather and an incredible view of the mountains and several very cool little parks and places to run, in addition to many of the best friends I've ever had. It's a great place to live. Yes, it needs work, but so do many other cities our size.
And that's just it. There isn't much residents of a city our size can rally around. We don't even have a minor league baseball team. We've had some tough things happen to us lately, too, like a 12-year-old who vanished and was later found murdered in a ditch, and no town wants to make the news for something like that.
Yet Carwin marched down in one of the biggest events of the year with Greeley attached to his name. And yes, the fight lasted like 10 minutes, and he lost an amazing battle thanks to Lesnar's sheer guts, but man, we were all yelling for him, full-throated, in that first round when he battered Lesnar and gave him the test of his life, all of us together. Even if we were far away, like I was.
Wishing I was home.