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For fans, nothing beats meeting fighters at the UFC Fan Expo

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Jon Jones is besieged by fans for autographs during the UFC Fan Fest at Mandalay Bay Friday, July 5, 2013.

UFC 162 - Fan Fest

Dawn Marie poses for a photo in front of magazine posters during the UFC Fan Fest at Mandalay Bay Friday, July 5, 2013. Launch slideshow »

UFC 162 Weigh-In

Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman touch lips as they face off during the weigh in for UFC 162 Friday, July 5, 2013 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Launch slideshow »

The line to take a photo or get an autograph from UFC fighter Lyoto Machida was more than 200 people deep Friday at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

His loyal fans didn’t mind. Neither did fans in lines to meet other fighters at the UFC Fan Expo, the annual two-day event for the mixed martial arts league in its home base of Las Vegas.

The expo, which continues Saturday, is expected to attract more than 40,000 fans. About 150 fighters, including eight of the UFC’s nine current champions, are scheduled to appear.

For the fans, there’s nothing like getting a little face time with their favorite fighters. Notables such as Jon Jones, Georges St. Pierre, Ronda Rousey and Machida drew the largest crowds Friday afternoon.

“For a picture with (Machida), I’d be here all day and night. He’s just so awesome, so perfect,” said Isabel Melendez, who drove in from Los Angeles to attend the expo.

If the fighters seemed overly accommodating, it’s because they realize the UFC’s success is largely due to the public. It’s much different from the organization’s earlier years — something UFC Hall-of-Famer Matt Hughes can attest to.

The retired Hughes, a former welterweight champion, was greeted like a rock star when he walked through Mandalay Bay. He’s considered one of the fighters who helped lead the massive growth to a worldwide brand, but he is humble about his place in the unprecedented expansion.

“It is amazing to see all of these fans out here,” said Hughes, who defended his welterweight belt a record seven times. “Young. Old. What I love, and I know I’m a little off topic, but I love going through an airport and some 70-year-old grandma gives me a kiss on the cheek and tells me I’m her favorite fighter. Whether they are 13 or 80, that is what makes the UFC what it is.”

Hughes, who is the UFC’s vice president of athletic development and government relations, still remembers his initial fight in the UFC.

The fighters had no media obligations because the events weren’t covered, they received little pay and the prospects of making the sport a career seemed bizarre.

That was in 1999 at UFC 22 — about two years before Las Vegas-based Zuffa LLC purchased the struggling league from Semaphore Entertainment Group. It took a few years to become profitable, but with fighters such as Hughes leading the way, it continued to reach new heights each year.

The madness of the expo serves as a perfect example of the popularity.

“The expo is always cool. This is my third expo — you can’t beat it,” said Ernesto Gonzalez, 24, of Northern California. “It’s just something to do. It’s good to get away for the weekend for something like this.”

The event also included UFC president Dana White taking questions from fans for nearly one hour, answering everything from when the organization would be bringing a fight card to a certain city to whether they plan to design a UFC-themed bandana.

One young fan asked White about the adrenaline rush of being on stage at a weigh-in, which prompted the energetic promoter to say how one of the best parts of his job is the stare-down between fighters after they tip the scales. And rather than try to detail the weigh-in, White invited the fan to be his guest on stage for the UFC 162 weigh-in.

White is perhaps the most popular commissioner in all of sports, in part because he fosters the interaction with fans. On Friday, he signed autographs, posed for photos and didn’t hesitate letting his guard down to make the experience memorable for all.

UFC 162, which is headlined by a middleweight championship fight between Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman, is Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The week brings millions of dollars to the local economy, through things such as hotel rooms, taxis, restaurants and entertainment.

“Vegas is one of those cities where, it’s been the Fight Capital of the World for as long as it has been, because people love to come here,” White told media earlier in the week. “They like to come here for the weekend because there’s so much to do. It’s just the best.”

The expo also included mixed martial arts seminars and demonstrations, apparel and equipment exhibitors, a UFC octagon for photos, trading card and UFC collectables exhibits, and more.

Tickets for Saturday’s fan events are $50 and available online or in person at Mandalay Bay.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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