The show must go on. And it ended up being a show we will go on and on about.
The drama of UFC Live: Kongo vs. Barry began on Saturday afternoon, more than 24 hours before the first punch was thrown, back when the Pittsburgh event was called UFC Live: Marquardt vs. Story.
But there was plenty of drama -- and a whole lot of action -- left for Sunday night, from an impossibly explosive comeback in the main event to a game-changing, crowd-pleasing upset in the co-feature.
In the wake of Nate Marquardt being refused clearance to fight just minutes before the Saturday weigh-ins, Cheick Kongo and Pat Barry were elevated to the main event. And the heavyweight sluggers put on a performance worthy of top billing. Kongo ended up winning by knockout at 2:39 of the first round, and the fight's final 25 seconds were among the most exhilaratingly thunderous roller-coaster rides in UFC history.
After the two traded mostly leg kicks -- nothing to sneeze at, considering that these are a couple of the best kickboxers in the sport of mixed martial arts -- for nearly half of the first round, Barry landed a looping overhand right that collapsed Kongo to the mat at 2:14. Barry pounced and began wailing away with big shots, and while Kongo did manage to get to his knees, he was being bent backward by the assault. Referee Dan Miragliotta moved in, appeared momentarily to be reaching out to pull Barry away, but then stepped aside and let the beating go on. Meanwhile the TV guys, well, they were venting their spleens as they spoke aloud what everyone roaring in the stands at the Consol Energy Center and watching at home on Versus was thinking.
Mike Goldberg: "Pat Barry looking to finish!"
Joe Rogan: "It's over!"
But Miragliotta, still hovering, didn't jump in, and Kongo somehow climbed to his feet. Not too steadily, though.
Goldberg: "Can Kongo really survive?"
Rogan: "It looked like he was out!"
Another overhand right by Barry leveled Kongo again, and both Goldberg and Rogan screamed, "He is out!"
But he wasn't. Kongo somehow scrambled to his knees again, only to again be swarmed by Barry, as Rogan said with astonishment tinged with disapproval, "Oh, man, Miragliotta really is letting this go. That's incredible!"
Kongo continued his scramble, though, stumbled to his feet and staggered backward toward the cage. "Great job done by Cheick Kongo," said Goldberg. "He's in big trouble, though."
Indeed, Barry (6-3) was charging toward him for the finish. And the finish sure did come. Except it was Barry who was finished. First, a jelly-legged Kongo connected with a desperation right, which stopped Barry in his tracks and left both men staggered. Then the two of them tried to reload, Kongo drew his weapon first, and he landed a vicious right uppercut that flat-out annihilated Barry. He fell on top of the prone, semiconscious fighter, perhaps not willingly, and managed a couple more shots to the chin before Miragliotta called a stop to it.
"It was perfect," Kongo (16-6-2) told Rogan in the cage afterward. "I just saw the opportunity to give him the uppercut. So it gives me the chance to finish this fight at this moment with one shot."
No doubt that was the highlight of the night, if not the year, if not the millennium, in terms of fisticuffs drama. But in terms of enduring career and weight-class implications, the co-feature bout was the fight of the night.
Rick Story, only 29 days removed from a decisive victory over Thiago Alves that had established him as a contender in the welterweight division, was supposed to fight Marquardt, the longtime middleweight contender who was to be dropping down to 170 pounds for the first time. When "Nate the Great" was pulled from the card, the UFC called on a local guy to save the day.
Charlie Brenneman, who grew up 90 miles east of Pittsburgh, had been scheduled to fight T.J. Grant at UFC Live, but less than a week ago Grant pulled out with an illness. This was a gut-wrenching blow to Brennehan and the couple hundred friends and family members who'd bought tickets. Brennehan still needed to make weight in order to collect his appearance money, and showed up Saturday to do so. Then, just 45 minutes before he was to step on the scale (wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers hard hat), he learned that he was going to fight after all.
And boy did he fight. To the delight of the crowd, Brenneman (14-2), wearing Steelers gold trunks, took it to the heavily favored Story (13-4) from the start and used his superior wrestling to win a unanimous decision.
Story, who had run through everyone set in front of him while building a six-fight winning streak, did get an early takedown, but Brenneman quickly scrambled away. Then he put Story somewhere he's not used to being: on his back. Brenneman did so by landing a hard overhand right to Story's chin, then stepping forward and tripping him, landing on top. From there, it took Brenneman around 10 seconds to move from full to half guard, then another 10 to gain side control. Brenneman didn't do much from there, and Story did manage to regain full guard, but he was on his back for the remainder of the round, absorbing body punches and the occasional shoulder to the face.
Brenneman continued with his takedowns in the second round. And once he had Story on his back, he knew how to keep him there. Story attempted a couple of chokes from the bottom, but each time Brenneman escaped and fortified his top position.
Story became more aggressive in his submission tries in the third round. He had to. Brenneman was in control -- overall, he was six of nine in takedown attempts, according to CompuStrike numbers. Story locked in a kimura, then a triangle, then back to kimura. But Brenneman was too disciplined to leave an arm or his neck in jeopardy. And it didn't help that both fighters were slick with sweat. Story was relentless, but the local guy took everything dealt out. After being mounted with more than a minute left, Brennman reversed to top position to put the icing on the cake.
When the final horn sounded, the crowed erupted as the guy in the home uniform was lifted into the air, smiling widely. Story just walked to his corner, eyes downcast, and took a deep breath as he sipped some water. The judges then confirmed the obvious: Brenneman was the winner, unanimously (29-28 on all three cards).
Brenneman had dipped back into his collegiate wrestling tool box, and it served him well, as it always does.
"Absolutely, I knew that from Day 1," Brenneman said of his wrestling. "We have big names out here, like [Josh] Koscheck and [Johny] Hendricks, national champs. I put it together the best inside the octagon."
As for Story, this was not the way the night was supposed to play out. No main event. No high-profile showdown with Nate Marquardt. No chance against a guy who, a day earlier, wasn't even supposed to be in the Octagon at all. It was a real downer -- as in, slipping down a few rungs on welterweight ladder.