Sunday September 28th, 2014

You’re not going to believe me when I tell you this, but here goes anyway: I watched the entirety of UFC 178 while standing on my head.

OK, not really, but I might as well have. A headstand was the best way I could think of to attain proper perspective on a fight card on which the clock ran counterclockwise and the bottom of the bill transcended what was expected. An early-evening prelim bout that wasn’t part of the five-bout pay-per-view was ostensibly the main event on Saturday night in Las Vegas, and the show-ending title fight that had been billed as the MGM Grand Garden Arena’s main event provided about as little intrigue as a first-on-the-docket squash match.

Amid all of this upside-down, what went down had a definite upside. On a night when the flyweight championship was being defended, two other weight classes emerged with UFC president Dana White-certified next-in-line challengers, and a couple of other divisions now have legitimate top-of-the-food-chain contenders.

And, oh yeah, there was one other up-and-down dichotomy: A star rose like a notorious beacon to the sport’s stratosphere, with all of the grumbling doubts and disquiet that’s surrounded him falling to the wayside with a thud of drum-roll finality.

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Let’s get the shiny brass-and-leather belt business out of the way first. Demetrious Johnson, the magical 125-pound champion, made 10-1 underdog Chris Cariaso look like a 10-1 underdog in defending his strap for the fifth time with a second-round submission. “Mighty Mouse” was workmanlike, relentless, dominant … and not at all the story of this night.

That multi-chapter story began playing out a good three hours earlier, when the last man to defeat Johnson took the stage. The loss came way back in 2011, when there was no flyweight division and Johnson was competing as a bantamweight. He was 14-1 at the time and had earned a shot at the WEC’s 135-pound belt — the corporate-cousin UFC didn’t have bantams, either. Dominick Cruz was just a little too much for him that night, but Johnson would soon go on to smaller and better things.

As for Cruz, he wouldn’t fight again until Saturday night, a 1,093-day inactivity brought about by injury upon injury. Finally, he was healthy and ready to return, and when it was his time for the final fight of the non-PPV prelim card, “The Dominator” didn’t walk to the octagon. He ran.

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Then he ran over Takeya Mizugaki. Their fight was barely 30 seconds old when Cruz, his nonstop movement looking as fluid as it had prior to two knee surgeries, threw a right cross, ducked under a counter and exploded into a double-leg takedown. He pounced on Mizugaki, fired off a dozen left hands, some short, not all of them connecting but enough that the Japanese fighter was desperate to change position. When he tried to get up, Cruz dropped him with a left-right, then went with right hands, dropping another dozen before the referee jumped in at 1:01.

“What the [expletive] happened?”

That wasn’t the dazed Mizugaki talking. It was Cruz, a look of shock frozen on his face as he stood near TV analyst Joe Rogan in the cage while awaiting the result to be announced. Moments later, Rogan was interviewing him about what we’d just witnessed, aggressiveness unlike anything we’d ever before seen from “The Dominator.” That finish!

“I don’t remember any of that,” said Cruz. “I was blacked out in there.”

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The surgically repaired version of Cruz looked new and improved. But the man who reigned among WEC/UFC bantams for a year and a half before having his title stripped because of inactivity insisted that nothing in his approach to the game has changed.

“I just look forward to beating up more ‘Alpha Fails,’” Cruz said, referring to archenemy Urijah Faber's camp, Team Alpha Male. Cruz will get his chance to do just that and get his belt back at the same time, as White announced later in the evening that Cruz will be the next challenger for Faber’s teammate, champion T.J. Dillashaw.

White also made another title fight matchup, announcing that Cat Zingano, who TKO’d Amanda Nunes in her first fight since undergoing knee surgery a year ago, is first in line to take a whack at Ronda Rousey. Before the injury, Zingano had been set to challenge “Rowdy Ronda,” with the pair to first coach on The Ultimate Fighter. Finally, thanks to a comeback against Nunes that she finished with a bouquet of elbows in the third round, a tearful Zingano was able to tell Rogan, “It’s my time. I’m ready.”

So there you have it. Two title fights booked, pending date and venue. And should the UFC grant Donald Cerrone a shot at the lightweight championship on the strength of his breathtaking beatdown of Eddie Alvarez, the former Bellator champ making his debut with the promotion, it wouldn’t be a travesty. With the 155-pound division packed with contenders, though, “Cowboy” probably needs another win before the belt will shine on him.

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The same is true for Conor McGregor, who legitimized all of the self-generated hype surrounding him with a thoroughly stunning TKO of Dustin Poirier. It took the Irishman only 1:46 to get the finish, but legitimacy came in less than half of that time. It became apparent within the first 30 seconds that the 26-year-old, whose three-fight UFC stint had seen him physically vanquish lower-level foes while he continued to verbally vanquish bigger fish, was the real deal. He’d not yet been in with a top 10 fighter, so Poirier, No. 7 in the featherweight rankings, was going to be his first big hurdle. He turned out to not even be a speed bump.

McGregor floored Poirier with a left hand that some felt was dirty since it landed behind his ear. But Poirier had ducked into McGregor's line of fire, and the shot looked legitimate, anyway. The effects of the punch and its followup were far-reaching. Poirier was stunned to the point where the fight had to be stopped. Suddenly, all of the brashness that McGregor had been spewing over the past year and a half was transformed into poetry. He’d backed up every syllable. He’d truly become a full-fledged star.

As telling as his octagon performance was McGregor’s insightful explanation of what all of the verbal jousting really means to him.

“I feed off this," McGregor said during the postgame show on Fox Sports 1. "I love this stuff. This is what gives me energy. Saying I’m going to do something, putting it out there for the world to see and then going out and doing it. There’s no better feeling in the world than that. And it’s as easy as that. Say what you’re going to do, and go and do it. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Beautiful and starry.

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