Sunday, June 21, 2009 | 3:30 a.m.
It was audibly obvious Saturday night that most of the nearly 2,000 fans inside the Pearl theatre would cheer for anything American during the “The Ultimate Fighter” Team U.S. vs. U.K. finale.
But while many casual 'TUF' fans must have left the Palms thinking they had just watched their country suffer a British invasion as Team U.K. fighters Ross Pearson and James Wilks took home both of the glass trophies and six-figure UFC contracts, they would be quite mistaken.
Wilks is almost as much American as many of them. Although submitting DaMarques Johnson, the only U.S. fighter in the finals, probably didn’t help him win over the pro-Uncle Sam supporters on Saturday.
While the 30-year-old was born in Leicestershire, England, he calls Laguna Hills, Calif., home — and says he was appreciative of the opportunities provided to him in the states long before he won Saturday’s fame and small fortune.
“I’m proud to be British, but I appreciate everything that America has done for me,” said Wilks, who moved to the U.S. in 2000 and recently opened his own gym in Laguna.
“I feel like I’m living the American dream, really. It really is the land of opportunity.”
Despite a few smattering of boos during his final match with fellow mate Andrew Winner, Pearson said he, too, believes a big part of his success can be attributed to his brief time in the U.S.
But both Brits believe their biggest dreams, American or otherwise, have only just begun with their 'TUF' victories.
“It’s kind of like taking your driver’s test, you may pass the test but you really don’t learn how to drive until you get on the road,” Pearson said with a big smile.
“Really all the win does is get your foot in the door with the UFC. It’s an honor to be standing here, but hopefully it’s just the beginning.”
Both Brits credit their coach, Michael Bisping, for not only being a role model to mixed martial artists across the pond, but for getting his team to focus in on the ultimate goal of 'The Ultimate Fighter.'
“I think it was the first night when (Robert) Browning was acting his self. We all got together and said we would focus on what we were doing and become a team,” said the 24-year-old Pearson, who was a bricklayer back in Sunderland, England, before he got his MMA break on the show.
“There were no egos on our team. We got a long great and treat each other like best friends now. Like I said on the show, I’ve got best friends for life.”
And maybe a few more neither of them has met yet, but influenced with their success on the show.
“Basically this sport is growing like crazy all over the world. I’ve had several people come up to me from all over the place and talk to me because of the show,” Wilks said.
“I know that we represented both on the show and here tonight that the U.K. is up to the standard.”
The Pearl is the Palms premier concert venue, hosting some of the most legendary and popular names in entertainment.
Andy Samuelson can be reached at [email protected] or 702-948-7837.