“Welcome to the haunted UFC card,” Joe Rogan bellowed to the rowdies assembled at Sleep Train Arena.
The 17,000-seat facility in Sacramento, Calif. was the venue for UFC 177, but this was not fight night. It was Friday afternoon and the crowd had come to watch the weigh-ins, an opportunity to see physically fit, inked-up men and women stripping to their skivvies and to get an early pump-up for what’s to come. Or, in this case, to feel the letdown of what’s not to come.
Now, even those fans too distracted by the gaggle of taut flesh to pay much attention to the day’s breaking fight news might not have been thrown off by the strident TV fight analyst’s “haunted” remark.
After all, UFC 177 had been adorned by cobwebs and creeky staircases for weeks, with Toccata and Fugue in D minor playing in the background on a loop. So much had mysteriously disappeared through a trap door.
The event originally was to take place in Las Vegas and feature Jon Jones — the UFC light heavyweight champ and the sport’s pound-for-pound No. 1 fighter — in a rematch with Alexander Gustafsson, the only man who’s given “Bones” a fight. But then that big bout was moved to next month’s pay-per-view (for the time being) and the 177 event as a whole was moved to the California capital and given two title fights as replacement.
The headliner would be a native son whose star had just begun to shine. T.J. Dillashaw, who lives and trains in Sacramento as part of Team Alpha Male, was coming off perhaps the greatest title fight upset in UFC history. Back in May, he grabbed the bantamweight belt away from Renan Barão with a fifth-round knockout in a performance that was shockingly dominant. Their rematch was slated to sit atop bill on which the co-main event would be flyweight titlist Demetrious Johnson’s defense against Chris Cariaso.
Would that be enough to carry a PPV with few recognizable names on the undercard? We never got to find out.
First, earlier this month, the “Mighty Mouse” fight was pulled from UFC 177 to replace the lost main event of 178. That left just one title bout on the marquee of a theater with little else in the green room. And then Friday afternoon, with weigh-ins an hour away, Barão was still cutting weight and lying in a bathtub at his hotel.
When Barão rose from his bath, he got lightheaded, fainted and banged his head as he fell. That’s what the Brazilian was told happened, anyway. When he woke up in a hospital, he remembered nothing after the bath. He was out of Saturday night’s fight.
Dillashaw heard the news shortly before weigh-in. So did Joe Soto. Why would a guy buried deep in the early-evening prelims need to be briefed on main event news? Because Soto no longer was a prelim fighter. He now was a main eventer.
That was the update Rogan was delivering to the Sacramento crowd. The stirring rematch between Dillashaw and Barão was the latest rug to be yanked out from under the locals. They still would see their Dillashaw, but instead of facing the former champion who’d been steamrolling along on a 33-fight unbeaten streak before being derailed in May, Dillashaw now would be facing a guy making his UFC debut, a prelim fighter who was supposed to be performing in a bout so early in the evening that many fans might still be finding parking.
The UFC tried to sell us on Soto. He was touted as “a champion in other organizations” — specifically, Bellator MMA and the Tachi Palace Fights. He was 15-2 and on a six-fight winning streak, with five finishes. And look at that collegiate wrestling pedigree. Soto spent two years at Iowa Central Community College rooming with a guy named Jon Jones who went on to some measure of success in MMA. Also part of the Juco program was future heavyweight king Cain Velasquez. Was there room for a third UFC champ?
Not long ago, we also learned, Soto had trained in a certain Sacramento gym with a bunch of pint-size alpha males, including a kid named T.J. They’d rolled a bit in grappling drills. They got to know each other as fighters and as men. Earlier during fight week, in fact, one of the UFC’s behind-the-scenes “Embedded” videos showed Soto and Dillashaw bantering pleasantly while autographing posters for the promotion’s PR team. Soto, we were being told, didn’t come out of nowhere. He’d been there all the time, we just hadn’t seen him. Until now.
Even as the UFC tried to get us excited to see Soto, though, it seemed that the promotion’s carnival barkers were merely going through the motions, perhaps because of the lack of hype time, or maybe because they were demoralized by seeing the card having shriveled down to eight bouts. The most promotional fire we felt came from Dana White, who lashed out at “disgusting, despicable” media reports that were calling on fans to not buy the 177 PPV. No such media reports existed, of course, but the UFC president never allows reality to get in the way of a good rant.
White even took out his ire on fans, responding to an TV interviewer’s question about the watered-down PPV by saying of his customers, “Tell them to go to the movies tonight. I don’t care.” Dana also took to Twitter to call one complaining fan a “dork” and say, “Did I ask u [sic] to buy tonight’s card? U [sic] don’t want to watch fights tonight then rent The Notebook.”
Those who took White's sarcastic advice and opted for a Saturday night of Netflix actually missed some good fights. The early prelims slogged along as if being contested in a mud pit, with three bouts being asked to fill the allotted two-hour time slot on Fox Sports 1. It didn’t help that the evening’s first combat lasted but 1:12. The telecast was 53 minutes old before the next pair of fighters stepped into the cage.
But gradually the train left the station and picked up a little steam. Five of the first eight fights ended in either knockout or submission, each of them something to see in its own way — a body-shot TKO, a reverse bulldog choke submission, and so on. Those who’d opted to plunk down their $55 for the PPV, against their better judgment, were getting something for their money. But we all know it’s really about the main event. Would Dillashaw treat his hometown fans to a beatdown? Or would Soto shock the world?
As it turned out, Soto put on a solid performance, marking up the champion’s face with some well-placed punches and generally looking like he belongs in the UFC. But even though we heard more than one mention of Cinderella and Rocky, there would be no Hollywood ending. Soto fights out of Santa Rosa, Calif., just an hour and a half from Sacramento. But this was Dillashaw’s building, his crowd, his show.
Dillashaw was in constant motion, forever on attack. Before the night was done, he’d thrown an astounding 461 punches. He landed at a clip of only 33 percent, but that still added up to 156 strikes. He peppered Soto from the start, leaving the challenger little space to generate consistent offense of his own.
The most impressive strikes by Dillashaw (11-2) were the 155th and 156th to land. It’s not simply that the head kick that wobbled Soto and the left hand that sent him to the mat were the finishing blows, it was that they came in Round 5 of a fight in which he had to know he was comfortably ahead on the judges’ scorecards. That made it two straight fifth-round KOs by Dillashaw, which by all accounts is unprecedented in UFC title fights.
So Dillashaw got the job done, and it was no easy job. A first title defense is always a hurdle, and when your opponent is swapped out one day before the fight, that’s another speed bump to factor in. Even though Dillashaw was bloodied on both cheeks and didn’t end up looking like a dominant fighter, he did what a champion does: He faced down the first challenge placed in front of him. So what's next?
Dillashaw issued no callouts, nor should he, as champ. And White wouldn’t declare anyone the No. 1 challenger, either. But logic tells us it should be Raphael Assunção, who owns a win over Dillashaw and originally was slated to challenge Barão in May but was injured. He’s healthy now, but scheduled to fight Bryan Carraway in October.
If the Brazilian wins, he’s the man. Maybe. What if Dominick Cruz, the former champ who no longer owns the belt not because he was defeated but because he’s been sidelined by injury for nearly three years, puts on an impressive comeback performance against Takeya Mizugaki next month? The UFC could do some business by putting “The Dominator” in with Dillashaw.
There are hurdles ahead no matter which way Dillashaw turns. But one direction we’re certain he won’t face, at least not now, is back toward Barão. You miss weight, you get back in line. If Barão chooses to remain at bantamweight, he has a hurdle or two of his own before he will get a glimpse of the shiny brass-and-leather strap he once wore.