An hour earlier, Rousamir Palhares had done what Rousamir Palhares does, and had wasted no time in doing so. The Brazilian bowling ball collects legs. Of his 15 career wins, 11 have been by submission, and seven of those tapouts were caused by Palhares torquing someone's lower extremity. On Wednesday night, early on in a UFC Fight Night event in Barueri, Brazil, Rousimar needed a mere 31 seconds to secure a heel hook that had Mike Pierce howling in pain and tap-tap-tapping as fast as he could.
"If I win Submission of the Night," Palhares said afterward, speaking backstage to a UFC representative, "I'll donate my bonus to Doctors Without Borders."
A noble gesture, to be sure. But the key word there was "if."
You see, coming up four fights later, in the welterweight main event, was Demian Maia, owner of multiple world championships in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and perhaps the most virtuosic submission game in mixed martial arts. And if the evening didn't end with him twisting Jake Shields into a pretzel, Palhares had to figure, it might well be Shields, a fellow black belt, ripping off a Brazilian limb with what he likes to call "American jiu-jitsu." Someone's going to play taps before the evening was over, right?
Maia and Shields went after each other for 25 minutes, spending much of that time tangled on the mat, where they belonged. Neither man ever had the other in serious peril, but Jake got the better of the ground positioning and walked out of the cage with a split-decision upset victory.
Maia (18-5) came in having won all three of his previous fights at welterweight, and UFC president Dana White had said he'd "definitely" be considered for the next 170-pound title shot with a win. Shields (29-6-1, 1 NC), on the other hand, was fighting for career survival -- despite also being unbeaten in his last three bouts -- and now will surely live to do battle on another day.
More on that in a moment, but let's go back to Palhares, who as it turned out walked away with the evening's only submission -- but no $50,000 bonus check. In tapping out Pierce, he had held onto the leglock even after the taps, even after his opponent had screamed in pain, even after referee Keith Peterson had dived into to loosen the hold. The fighter known as "Toquinho," which is Portuguese for "little tree stump," had been quick to get a hold of the limb but not quick enough to let go.
"Right now we are not awarding a Submission of the Night," Marshall Zelasnik, the UFC's Director of International Development, said at the postfight press conference. "Obviously, Toquinho had the submission, but the commission is investigating the length of time he held the submission. So pending that investigation, we're not actually issuing a Submission of the Night bonus."
Palhares has been down this road before. In 2010, he received a 90-day suspension by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board for holding onto a submission even after Tomasz Drwal had tapped at UFC 111. Well, it happened again and, as Zeleznik put it, "Dana reacted very strongly to it."
It's safe to say the UFC president didn't react so strongly to the main event, though, and neither did the crowd of 6,621 a Ginásio José Corrêa. Even in the cradle of this Brazilian martial art, fans were booing the jiu-jitsu back-and-forth before the midpoint of the second round. They should have been cheering. Not necessarily because two high-level grapplers were so gripping to watch -- I enjoyed it, for the most part, but to each his own -- but because every moment spent rolling around on the mat was a moment that we didn't have to watch slow, awkward standup.
Maia started out looking determined to take advantage of an edge in standup, aggressively stalking Shields. Before the fight's first minute was done, Demian had worked for a takedown and secured top position. He couldn't do much with it, but nonetheless did better with this takedown than he did with the next. After he ended up on top again midway through the round. Shields reversed him and went right into half-guard, from where he landed an appetizer-size serving of elbows. Not too many, but enough to get Maia's attention.
Rounds 2 and 3 went much the game, with Shields gaining top position, advancing to half-guard and jockeying for more. There was no more, it turned out. Shields was good enough to win the positional battle, even when it was Maia getting the takedowns, but was unable to accomplish anything resembling a finish.
"In the fifth round, in my mind I had it two rounds apiece," said Shields, who called this bout one of his toughest, right up there with his battles with Georges St-Pierre and Dan Henderson. "I mean, you never know how the judges are going to have it, but I thought we were even. I was really tired. I tried to open up the standup more. I thought I edged it out there."
The victory might not vault Shields into the welterweight Top 10, and the loss might not plummet Maia too far down the rankings. There were moments of brilliance, such as on the several position reversals by Shields. (He was just 1 of 12 on takedowns, yet was on top for a significant chunk of the bout.) But this was a fight that would have been better served to play out under the less glaring spotlight of a co-main event -- not because these fighters are anything less than masterful on the mat, but because a three-rounder might have produced a grappling fest for the ages ... without all of the sloppy standup.