Saturday September 6th, 2014

LEDYARD, Conn. -- In fighting terms, the UFC has been taking its lumps.

Pay-per-view telecasts, the fight promotion’s bread and butter ever since the brawlin’ beginning nearly 21 years ago, have been burnt toast lately. No one has reported the buy rate for last week’s UFC 177 yet, but judging by the fact that there was little undercard appeal lurking beneath a fractured, stopgap main event, the numbers can’t be good. Better than those of UFC 176, though, as the Aug. 2 event was canceled altogether after losing its lonesome marquee fight.

We can go back even further -- July’s UFC 175, featuring two title bouts, was a PPV knockout, yes, though June’s 174 was called “the worst in modern era” -- but you get the point.

The drinks are watered down, and not as many paying customers are bellying up to the bar.

Then along comes a fight card like Friday night’s here at the Grand Theater at Foxwoods Resort Casino. It was on so-called free television -- notwithstanding that pesky cable bill -- and it had not a single shiny brass-and-leather championship belt on the line. But top-to-bottom, the main card of this UFC Fight Night -- which played out in front of a sellout crowd of 4,086 -- was stellar. Make that Stellar to account for the capital “S” splashed across its chest.

That’s not to say things were tightly competitive. The main event, like the two fights that preceded it, was pretty much a one-man game. But in the marquee bout that one man put on a performance that earned him a date with The Man. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza had his way with the somnolent Gegard Mousasi with a slow-paced yet relentless demolition. It ended at 4:30 of the third round, officially, but this was Souza’s night from the moment he and Mousasi were waved together.

It can be challenging to grasp how a Mousasi fight is going, because no matter how dire or desirable the circumstances, the Dutchman exists as a miracle of science. The man has no pulse. He shows no emotion. He moves in slow motion … when he even moves. Yet he’s been a champion in Strikeforce and in Dream, and he was on a run of only one loss in 21 fights when he arrived in the UFC last year. But now he’s dropped two of three, thanks to a throttling by the brawny Brazilian.

Souza, a jiu-jitsu black belt and Abu Dhabi grappling champion, executed takedowns in all three rounds and went to work each time, patiently yet persistently working toward submissions. Both of the first two rounds ended with “Jacare” close to getting a kimura, Mousasi having just enough strength to survive to the horn, and the crowd holding its breath.

Finally, with both men slowing down in the latter stages of the third, Souza took the fight to the mat once again and locked in a guillotine choke. Mousasi (35-5-2) could resist no more, and when he resignedly tapped out, the fans no longer needed to hold their breath. They exploded with a ramped-up exhilaration that sports crowds tend to reserve for moments of greatness.

That moment lingered, in fact, until the press conference a half hour later, which began with Souza (21-3, 1 NC) stating the obvious. “Surely this puts me in line for a title shot,” said the winner of seven in a row. “I will fight the champion.”

Souza is a middleweight. The champion of that division is Chris Weidman. So the night’s big winner was asked how he must fare against the New Yorker. “He has to get through Belfort first,” he responded, referring to Weidman’s Dec. 6 defense against Vitor. But after that? “I will train to fight for the championship,” said Souza, giving away nothing. Just like in his fights.   

That beatdown was the culmination of a main card that got off to a deafening start the moment Joe Lauzon stepped into the cage. The 30-year-old lightweight was tied with the great Anderson Silva for most performance bonuses and with the legendary B.J. Penn for most lightweight finishes, so everyone knows he brings the fight. On this night he also brought the fans, as he hails from just 95 miles up the highway in East Bridgewater, Mass. The building was rocking as Lauzon and Michael Chiesa, the Season 15 winner of The Ultimate Fighter and a caveman if MMA fans ever have seen one, took each other apart for a round. Then, at the start of the second, Lauzon opened a nasty gash over Chiesa’s right eye, the fight was paused for a doctor’s look-see, and it was waved off. The Lauzon faithful went wild, though deep down even they wanted to see more of this.

Still, the 13th career finish and 13th career bonus constituted a lucky number for Lauzon.

Next we saw two heavyweight bouts, meaning it was Don’t Take a Pee Break Time. Matt Mitrione, the former NFL player whose ascent in the big-boy division had hit some speed bumps, got his momentum rolling with his second straight win, this one a 41-second demolition of Derrick Lewis, who’d called out Mitrione a couple of months ago after running his unbeaten streak to eight straight. “I was highly offended when he called me out like that,” Mitrione calmly said after his berzerker blitz had already made that point.

It took Ben Rothwell a bit longer to get his KO -- 2:19 of Round 1 -- but he was taking on a decorated veteran. Alistair Overeem, like fellow Dutchman Mousasi, is a former champion in Strikeforce and Dream, and he’s a K-1 kickboxing champ as well. He’s also the guy who battered Brock Lesnar into retirement. But after a Rothwell right hand over the ear crumbled him, Overeem now is just a guy who’s lost three of his last four. And as if that weren’t bad enough, “The Reem” then had to watch Rothwell dance a lumbering jig over him in taunting celebration. It was a Dancing with the Stars moment … only the stars were in Overeem’s discombobulated head. “I was not worried about what he was going to do,” Rothwell said. “I knew what I was going to do.”

Speaking of the concept of knowing, we knew the night was going to be like this. OK, maybe not quite. There are fight cards in the UFC and elsewhere that look good on paper, but after a bunch of bouts play out in slow motion or in hug-it-out humdrum, you end up crumpling up that fight card sheet and tossing it into your mind’s trash can. But the thing is, on Friday night, what we surely knew beforehand is that we were getting something we craved to see. And that’s what makes fans want to watch, isn’t it?

So why did the UFC bring such a deeply gratifying fight card to the woods of southeastern Connecticut? Why on a Friday, no less? Because these same woodlands and this same evening were also the time and place of another fight card. And with Bellator MMA doing business -- or trying to -- just 10 miles down the road at another Indian casino, the Mohegan Sun, there was no way the UFC was going to lose grip on this evening.

If you liked what you saw, then, maybe you should send a thank you note to the man responsible. The thing is, the UFC isn’t going to forward it for you. And he’s no longer in good standing over in the Bellator offices, either. But in some small way, friends, this was Bjorn’s doing. Think about it. The minute Rebney scheduled his promotion’s season-opening card on this night and in this place, you just knew his archenemies in the UFC were going to pounce. And they did. And the fans won.

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