It was a tiny moment, its significance barely noticeable during 15 minutes of fighting in the main event at UFC 130 Saturday in Las Vegas. Quinton Jackson and Matt Hamill were standing against the cage, pressed chest to chest, locked up in a clinch. Jackson threw a knee to the midsection. Hamill threw a knee to the midsection.
Sure, Hamill's knee landed, just as Jackson's had. But it didn't move "Rampage" an inch. And no less important, the mere sight of him echoing an incoming knee with one of his own was visible evidence that "The Hammer" was playing Jackson's game.
Maybe that's because his own game plan wasn't working at all.
Hamill, even while developing a decent standup game over his MMA career, has always relied on wrestling as his bread and butter. Before Saturday night, the three-time NCAA Division III national champion had been successful on 72 percent of his takedown attempts in his 10 UFC fights. Now, I'm no math whiz, but I'm fairly certain that impressive batting average is going to take a big hit after Hamill tried to take down Jackson 16 times, according to CompuStrike stats, and was unsuccessful in every single attempt.
Jackson fought the fight where he wanted to fight it, remained in control throughout, and won all three rounds in a unanimous decision, a victory that could earn Rampage a bout with Jon Jones and an opportunity to regain the light heavyweight belt he lost three years ago.
"I was a little shocked by Rampage's hips and his ability to defend the takedown," Hamill said afterward. "I wanted to bait him in so that I could secure the double leg. He defended well and [was] strong, just like we expected. Hats off to Rampage. He fought a really smart fight."
Jackson (32-8) not only fended off Hamill's every attempt to take the fight to the mat, he made him pay a price most every time for closing the distance. He bloodied Hamill's face with counter right hands and lefts and weakened his will with knees to the gut. Hamill (10-3) did continue to come forward right to the bitter end, but after his shots for takedowns became increasingly sloppy, he seemed to resign himself to fighting a standup battle he was ill equipped to win.
A knee to the belly and a return knee to the belly were followed by a lot of Rampage stalking and a lot of Hamill covering up. Some fans cageside didn't find it the most entertaining fight they'd ever witnessed.
"I didn't get taken down?" Jackson said afterward in an interview in the cage, his eyes wide in mock surprise. "Good!"
He'd heard the boos from the crowd, though, so he added, "I have to apologize for not putting up a better fight. I wanted to, but I came into this fight with a fractured hand. So I apologize. I apologize I couldn't put forth the type of fight I wanted to."
It's hard to justify booing any fighter who steps into the cage for a fight. But one who walks in with a fractured hand and controls the bout from start to finish? Ah, the finish. That's the bone of contention for some fans, who get their kicks by watching a referee pull a fighter off a defenseless opponent. Well, that Jackson didn't get a KO fighting with a fractured hand seems like a small detail in a successful outing, not in any way a failure.
"I did what I had to do," Jackson said later. "I scraped out the W. But Matt is tough, man."
Observing the holiday: I cringe whenever I hear or read about an MMA fighter -- or any athlete, for that matter -- being referred to as a warrior or combatant. No matter how tough they looked in a cage or a ring, on a gridiron or a rink, they didn't go to war. With a few exceptions, one being Brian Stann.
Stann fighting on Memorial Day weekend was a graceful touch by the UFC, which in recent years has shown an obsessive allegiance to the military. (In this case, obsessive is a compliment.) Capt. Stann won a Silver Star for his valor while leading a Marine platoon into combat during in the Iraq War. He's no longer on active duty, but he was during his time as WEC light heavyweight champion three years ago.
Even though Stann's middleweight prelim against Jorge Santiago was the first bout on the pay-per-view, we'll stick it at the top of the undercard report as a nod to this poignant weekend and as a tribute to the men and women who continue to put their lives in danger in the military. (To my fellow peaceniks I say, 'Let's voice our protests to the politicians sitting home as safely as we are, while offering our soldiers nothing less than respect.')
Stann knew he was representing something larger than himself in his fight with Santiago, and he did not shrink to the challenge, scoring a second-round TKO after beating his opponent to the punch -- and especially the kick -- all fight long.
Stann (11-3) was a step ahead the whole way, but it wasn't until late in the second round that he seized full control. He landed a straight right that sent Santiago (23-9) onto his back, and followed with six right hands before referee Herb Dean jumped in to push Stann away at 4:29.
"It means so much to win today," Stann said. Then he turned the focus away from himself, saying, "The attention that's bestowed upon me is misdirected. It belongs to the active military personnel and those who lost their lives fighting for this country."
Turf battle goes to the ground: Fighting in the hometown they share, after training in a gym where they also share time, Frank Mir and Roy Nelson had more than Vegas bragging rights on the line in their heavyweight fight. Both have championship ambitions, of course, and each fancies himself a well-rounded fighter who's as dangerous on the mat as he is on his feet.
In Nelson's case, any advantage he had in well-roundedness was only in physique, as Mir stood up to the standup of "Big Country" and continually took him down and controlled position on the mat, on the way to a unanimous-decision win. Mir was successful on six of eight takedowns, CompuStrike stats tell us, and three times had dominant poisition.
"Wrestling was my main focus in this camp," said Mir (15-5), "and I think it worked out well for me tonight." Nelson (15-6) didn't disagree, saying, "His wrestling was something I wasn't expecting. And I just got tired."
Reaching higher and higher: Over the course of four minutes and 11 seconds, Travis Browne grew up.
At 6-foot-7, Browne hasn't heard that kind of talk for a long time. But in the early going of his heavyweight bout against Stefan Stuve, he looked like a small man. Struve can do that to you, as he stands 6-11. He also has the second-longest reach in the UFC, at 83 inches, which allows him to remain (relatively) safely outside the striking range of many fighters. For Browne, this was something new to deal with.
It took Browne a while, as Struve controlled distance and landed the better blows for much of the first round. Even after Browne scored a takedown, Struve was the one looking for a finish, locking in a couple of chokes.
But then Brown escaped the submission attempt and climbed to his feet, it was as if he'd unlocked a secret that he'd never before explored: In order to reach a guy so long and far away, you've got to move forward. Browne did just that, tagged Struve with a couple of punches that sent him backward, then dropped the Dutchman with a superman punch for a KO at 4:11 of the first round to remain unbeaten (11-0-1).
"He's been hit hard before, but I believe I'm the only one to ever put him out like that," Browne said of Struve (21-5). "I think I'm in the mix now in the heavyweight division. A few more wins and I think I can find myself in the top five of this division."
The Story was not Alves: Midway through the first round, with Rick Story swarming Thiago Alves against the cage, the thought occurred that maybe this was another example of Alves showing up for a fight depleted by a weight cut. But pretty soon it became apparent that that was not Alves' problem. Story was. He's a relentless and powerful middleweight.
Story (13-3) won his sixth straight fight, and 12th in his last 13, by punishing Alves (23-9) with an aggressive clinch game, insistent takedowns and a tight standup, earning 29-28 scores on the cards of all three judges.
It looked a little like a reincarnation of Randy Couture's MMA career as Story did his dirty work along the cage for the better part of the first two rounds, before a desperate Alves stepped up his aggression in the final round. The Brazilian caught Story coming in with a knee to the chin early in the third, and landed some shots right afterward, but was unable to turn the fight his way with the dramatic finish he needed. Story never wavered, kept working at close quarters and countered Alves to the end.
"My goal was to be explosive, because I think that's his kryptonite," Story said. "I wanted to stay on him and let him know that I wasn't going anywhere."