BOSTON -- And so now it begins.
The UFC has always yearned to be on a major television sports outlet. Not merely on a once-in-a-blue-moon basis, as was the case for the first year and a half of the fight promotion's deal with Fox. The network airs a lot of sports, of course, but its flagship must fit a nourishing diet of NFL, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR amid a menu whose signature entrees are American Idol and The Simpsons. As of Saturday, though, there's the shiny, new all-sports-all-the-time channel known as Fox Sports 1.
And how did this antidote to lonesome old ESPN make its debut? With the UFC. And more UFC. Five hours of fisticuffs and chokes.
So for Dana White, who famously has said he expects the UFC to be bigger in America than the NFL, bigger worldwide even than soccer, it was time for his behemoth mixed martial arts promotion to stand and deliver.
It did so, in a way, even before the first punch was thrown. The UFC put together a 13-fight card that seemed guaranteed to rock the Garden. Five former champions, if you count not just the UFC but its cousin promotions the WEC and Strikeforce. Five onetime UFC main eventers. The hometown fighter who'd pocketed more performance bonus checks than anyone this side of Anderson Silva. And let's not forget the Irishman on whom the promotion has shined a spotlight usually reserved for men or women with brass-and-leather belts around their waists. This deck was stacked.
Of course, that assessment is in the oft-cited but ultimately meaningless sports venue known as "on paper." Sure, the list of fights looked mighty impressive. Would the fights be?
Well, let's start with the main event, which the UFC innovatively presented early in the evening. When the lights dimmed, the first strains of Boston band Dropkick Murphys' iconic "Shipping Up to Boston" filled the air and Conor McGregor started toward the octagon ...
Oh, wait, that wasn't actually the main event. It was just a prelim, eighth down on the bill. But we've got some momentum going here, so let's continue with what we can at least safely designate as the Boston fans' main event. During the Irishman's walkout, the thought occurred that Garden officials would have been wise to have roofers on hand to install a new one atop the home of the Bruins and Celtics after fans blew the current ceiling to the sky. Then McGregor put on a performance that didn't exactly provide his adoring public with what it wanted, but did give the UFC featherweight division something to think about.
McGregor won, all right, but he never threatened to knock out Max Holloway as he had 12 of the previous 13 men he'd beaten. Conor was stepping up in competition in his second UFC fight, so there was that. And he revealed after his unanimous-decision win that his knee had popped in the second round. Which explained his decision to take the fight to the ground for the latter part of the fight, after being his stalking, talking standup self early on. So maybe the hype train now will hit a slow stretch of track, but watching McGregor take the combat where he needed it to be and gracefully advance position -- despite working with one leg that had him limping out of the cage afterward -- showed that he's got game no matter what and where.
But we digress ... which is easy to do when discussing a fight card whose real main event was a light heavyweight battle between one fighter who'd already said he's headed right to middleweight and another who'd noticeably slowed since steamrolling to a brief reign as champion. Still, Chael Sonnen vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua is a fight no one is going to ignore, and for not averting our eyes we were rewarded with a virtuosic performance that answered a question: What does a two-fight losing streak really mean when those two losses were to the two greatest fighters on the planet?
That question was resoundingly answered by Sonnen, who back in April had been pummeled by Jon Jones in a light heavyweight title shot he'd earned, in the bizarre world of UFC matchmaking, by being knocked out last summer by then-middleweight king Anderson Silva. Well, on this night Chael showed that he belongs at the top of the heap, or at least in the vicinity, by simply outclassing Rua. The 36-year-old had the Brazilian on his back while octagon announcer Bruce Buffer's "It's time!" was still echoing in the rafters. And even after "Shogun" worked his way to his feet and put Chael in an unfamiliar position, on his back, the relentless wrestler quickly reversed position. Then Rua tried to get to his feet again, and this time Sonnen clamped on a guillotine choke. And pulled guard.
Hadn't seen that one before. Apparently "Shogun" wasn't expecting it, either, because he had no defense for the choke and tapped out at 4:37. The only other time the 31-year-old had been finished in the first round was when he broke his arm in a fight with Mark Coleman way back in 2006. His reputation is that of one who's too tough to be finished. Sonnen changed that by making this entirely his fight.
And then he asked for another fight. "Wanderlei Silva ..." he began, at which point we stopped listening because we'd heard that mocking callout so many times before. But even though we didn't want to hear it, we'll be watching if the UFC makes the fight.
There were plenty of other fights to think about on a card that was anything but top-heavy. And I'm not even referring back to Conor McGregor. Let's review:
In the heavyweight co-main event, we saw Alistair Overeem put a severe beating on Travis Browne ... for the first minute or so. The Reem cut down the 6-foot-7 Hawaiian with a body shot, then swarmed him on the mat with nearly two dozen unanswered right hands to the head. Browne's arms blocked many of those shots, but with him doing no more than turtling up, not returning fire, not trying to get up, the bout appeared to be close to a stoppage. Mario Yamasaki let them go, though, and eventually Travis did work his way to his feet. And he noticed something. Overeem looked to have unleashed all he had. "As soon as I felt him slow down," said Browne, " I knew it was my game." The big guy's game was to unleash kicks toward the body and face, and eventually one landed flush on Overeem's chin and ... tiiiiiiimber. The former Strikeforce belt holder went down like an old oak struck by lightning, Browne pounced, and one shot to the chin was all it took for the comeback kid to finish the job at 4:08 of the first round.
Actually, that "Comeback Kid" nickname might already have been claimed by the man usually known as "The California Kid." Urijah Faber put on one of the most ferocious performances we've seen from him. It might be difficult to comprehend how we could say we saw the best of Faber in a fight in which he was taken down and mounted in the first 10 seconds, put in an armbar, then had his back taken. Well, the former WEC featherweight champ, now campaigning as a bantamweight, escaped all of those treacherous positions and, by the midpoint of the first round, was thrashing Iuriu Alcantara. Faber, who has never lost a fight that wasn't for a championship, was an animal in there, seizing top position and throwing elbows that even when they didn't connect had the kind of pace behind them that just the breeze they created would knock you down. OK, that's hyperbole, as the "best" comment might even be. But if this wasn't the best we've ever seen of Faber, it sure was the best in a while.
It wasn't the most masterful performance by a bantamweight, though. That honor goes to Michael McDonald, who was last seen being taken apart by Renan Barão in a fight for the interim 145-pound belt in February. On this night he was the dismantler, thoroughly dominating fellow contender Brad Pickett. McDonald repeatedly beat the rock-'em-sock-'em Brit to the punch, which is a wise avenue to choose against such a thunder-fisted foe. And then, after he'd apparently had enough fisticuffs, McDonald took the fight to the mat and quickly submitted Pickett with a second-round triangle choke. He wasn't done. The 22-year-old still had to show off his American History study skills by delivering the crowd-pleasing line of the night: "I was not going to let an Englishman beat me in Boston, where the American Revolution started."
We also saw welterweights Matt Brown and Mike Pyle put on the line winning streaks of five and four fights, respectively, in the kind of fight that makes champions take notice and perhaps even take notes. No risk of writer's cramp for Georges St-Pierre, though, as it took Brown just 29 seconds to pummel and then finish the former WEC champ. It was the fastest knockout of the night, as you might guess, but only one of three first-minute stoppages, joined by Steven Siler's 50-second KO of ex-WEC belt holder Mike Brown and, in the evening's very first contest, 5-0 lightweight James Vicks' 58-second guillotine submission of Ramsey Nijem.
The downer of the night for fans in the arena was seeing local boy Joe Lauzon -- he of the six Submission of the Night bonuses, five for Fight of the Night, one for KO of the Night -- uncharacteristically give them little to cheer for, losing to lightweight Michael Johnson by a unanimous decision that included a 30-25 scorecard. Boston middleweight John Howard then saved the night for the hometown fans, sort of. In his return to the UFC after a two-year absence, he took a split decision over Uriah Hall in a striking battle that to many observers wasn't so, um, striking. But a win's a win, even if your boss, Dana White, goes on Twitter to give the performances of both fighters a not-so-boffo review.
That's just the local angle, though, what was important to the crowd at the Garden. For the MMA fans and other curious folks in the 93 million households Fox Sports 1 is said to reach, this was a fight night that was well worth watching. Can the UFC keep the momentum going now that it's on the new all-sports outlet? Stay tuned.