“It was a calm night. No fights broke out,” said a security guard as I exited Madison Square Garden in New York City last night after the exciting premiere of the inaugural National Pro Grid League (NPGL) competition, where the home team New York Rhinos dominated the visiting Los Angeles Reign with a final score of 20-15 in their first-ever throw-down.
That's not to say the fans were tame. When the so-called “Flex Cam” took to the crowd of some 4,000 people, everyone from a senior citizen and muscle men to hot women and a six-year-old little girl were jumping out of their seats to proudly show off their guns on the jumbo-tron. No, the house wasn't as packed as previous events held here, like the Stanley Cup, NBA championships, or a performance by the Beatles. No painted faces, chants, human wave, or sea of color representing one team or another. And no one lost their temper thankfully, but you could definitely feel that something was brewing—and it was more than just excitement over personal fitness.
Watching CrossFit's superstars—including Rhinos' team captains two-time “Fittest Woman on Earth” winner Annie Thorisdottir and 2014 CrossFit Games runner-up Mathew Fraser—compete against Reigns' captains 2013 CrossFit Games runner-up Lindsey Valenzuela and Tommy Hackenbruck in the world’s first co-ed sports league was inspiring, thrilling...and somewhat confusing. During the two-hour event, it wasn't always clear what to expect out of each of the 11 races, which consisted of impossibly hard workouts. The jumbo-tron, however, did help spectators follow a little more than the rambling announcers did.
Though NPGL has to work on setting the stage better for fans to fully grasp the concept of these races—for example, explain why a man and a woman sometimes go head-to-head but in other races team players were separated by gender—all in all, the event was entertaining as hell and that was the point. Even if you didn't always know what was going on, it was hard not to clap and cheer for the Rhino's Rachel Martinez's effortless handstand walk that looked more like a full-on sprint or Irving Hernandez's 90 double-unders (fast jump rope) in 37 seconds. To put that into context: That's freakishly fast, folks. Hernandez wowed the crowd twice more last night. He executed 40 unbroken chest-to-bar pullups back-to-back (in both race 5 and race 6!) at rate that that ultimately set his team on track for an the overall victory.
“In practice, Hernandez did it once and I asked him to do it again. He said, 'That was really hard, but I get it.' He's a great asset to have and I knew he could do it,” says Rhinos coach Ian Berger, who worked with the team during a week-long training camp that ended just a few days ago. The camp was the team's first meet-and-greet and only opportunity to train together before this event. Berger's job was to find out who was best at what and then play up those strengths. With such a strong roster, the Rhinos will prove hard to beat.
How does the Grid compare to CrossFit? For one, CrossFit is the NPGL's Lord Voldemort. The sport must not be named—for legal reasons. So while the stars are familiar faces thanks to you know what, we have to pretend like the Grid is a totally new concept. And in many ways it is. “It's a little different from when you're competing as an individual because you can find a pace and just keep it. If you mess up, you have a longer time to make up for it," explains Thorisdottir, who may be the Rhinos' most reliable player. "On the Grid, everything is so high intensity that you need to move fast while you're out there. If you start slowing down, it's time to rotate and trade places with a teammate. That's what makes the Grid really challenging. You need to be moving full speed the whole time.” And that team-effort makes this event so special.
What also made last night's match feel historic was the legendary location. “We didn't know what to expect. We didn't know who, if anyone, was going to show up. But when we started the races and saw the seats fill up, it was incredible. For me, I always move faster when I hear people yelling,” Fraser says. “Icing on the cake is that my parents competed here in Madison Square Garden in pairs figure-skating when they were athletes. It felt great.”
You think baseball and basketball made total sense to spectators during their debut games? Probably not. With a little time, patience and a few tweaks, we may get to see this league evolve into something as big as MLB or NBA—or maybe bigger since it's co-ed. Tune in to watch all eight national teams, including the NY Rhinos, compete on NBC Sports October 5 when an encore broadcast of the championship held at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on the Las Vegas Strip (October 1 to 3) will air at 1 p.m. ET/PT.