ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – A capacity crowd at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall roared with approval when the big screen monitor aired a close-up of boxing great Roy Jones Jr. sitting ringside shortly before the main fight card Saturday night.
But Jones Jr. wasn't there to check out the latest boxing contender he might one day face in the ring.
He was there for "Heavy Hitters 53," where 16 Ultimate Fighting Championship (search) competitors stepped inside a caged ring known as "The Octagon," for a little one-on-one mixed martial arts competition.
Jones Jr.'s presence signifies more than just another celebrity sighting on fight night. It means Ultimate Fighting has finally arrived as a serious sport.
Much of the credit for the UFC's tremendous growth over the past few years goes to league president and partial owner Dana White.
White's vision and desire for Ultimate Fighting to supplant boxing as the next big fight game has paved the way for people like Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes to become rich and famous, competing in a sport that in the past would have relegated guys like them to either illegal underground fight clubs, or as owners of local martial arts schools.
And after the huge success of the reality show "The Ultimate Fighter," on cable's Spike TV, White has seen his vision become reality.
"The show has been great for the sport," White told FOX News last month in Las Vegas, where the show's coaching stars Couture and Liddell faced off for a championship bout.
"Just look around, there are men, women, people of all ages," he said.
"The Ultimate Fighter" divides contestants into two teams that share a house together (think "The Apprentice"), and then compete against one another in challenges (think "Survivor"), and finally face off in the Octagon for a fight (think "Enter The Dragon"). The winners of the two teams are awarded a six-figure contract to fight in the UFC's main pay-per-view and live events.
"We always knew that Ultimate fighting is a great sport, and 'The Ultimate Fighter' helped us show the world what great athletes these guys are and how much heart they have," White said.
Ultimate Fighting's newest star is Forrest Griffin (search), one of the winners from the reality show.
Griffin's sense of humor and warm smile made him an instant show favorite, even before he stepped into the Octagon.
A former police officer from Athens, Ga., and a political science major at the University of Georgia (search), Griffin quit his job and sold whatever he could in order to take a chance to become an Ultimate Fighter via the reality show.
"It's easier to pick up chicks," joked Griffin in an interview on FOX & Friends last week, referring to his decision to step into the ring. "Some women dig it, anyway," he said.
His gamble paid off.
Griffin squared off against show contestant Stephan Bonnar (search) for a live fight that aired on Spike TV for the show's season finale. It was the ultimate sendoff of any reality show to date. The two traded blows for five rounds in what UFC fans are calling the greatest fight in the league's history.
Griffin emerged victorious but Bonnar's performance convinced White to award two contracts that night.
As for Griffin, he made his UFC pay-per-view debut Saturday night, with Roy Jones Jr. looking on, squaring off against Bill Mahood, a jujitsu expert, from British Columbia.
Griffin caught Mahood in a rear choke hold in the first round, and the referee called the fight after Mahood tapped out (in Ultimate Fighting, rules state that a player can "tap out" by quickly tapping an arm or leg ... think "Uncle").
The crowd jumped to its feet, satisfied that Griffin, the newest UFC hero, lived up to the hype he stirred on the reality show.
"I didn't get any uglier from this one," he said, referring to his epic bout against Bonnar. "Mahood's a tough guy," Griffin said, after hugging his opponent and shaking hands with Mahood's corner team.
"I heard him gurgle [on the choke hold] a bit so I figured let me clamp down and see what happens."
What happened was, he won.