Junior Dos Santos delivered the biggest hit Saturday night, dropping Cain Velasquez with a looping right hand that connected just behind the left ear late in the first minute of the long-awaited clash of heavy hitters. The Brazilian followed up on his consequential punch by pouncing on the heavyweight champion, landing four hard left hands, followed by four rights of no less ferocity before referee John McCarthy jumped in at 1:04 to wave off the fight. Knockout.
"I have no words to say what I'm feeling," Dos Santos said softly through tears afterward in the cage. "It's amazing, my life."
Life is good, indeed, when you're 27-year-old, you're 14-1 and you've won your last nine fights, the most recent victory coming on your sport's grandest stage and earning you a coveted belt of leather and shiny brass.
"I think Cain Velasquez was for sure my toughest opponent," said Dos Santos, who next will face the survivor of the Dec. 30 meeting of former champion Brock Lesnar and ex-Strikeforce titlist Alistair Overeem. "I was afraid to fight with him, you know, because he's very tough. I was not 100 percent for this fight, so I was scared."
Dos Santos was asked at the post-fight press conference about that "not 100 percent" comment, especially with there being rumblings from his team that Junior came into the bout with a torn meniscus. He would not elaborate on an injury, instead saying simply that he was happy to not have to go deep into a fight with Velasquez because "he has great stamina."
Velasquez also has a great following. The Honda Center was rocking with a heavily pro-Cain crowd of 14,019, sprinkled with many pockets of Chicano fans who'd come to root on one of their own. When the fight suddenly ended, and Dos Santos raced to the center of the octagon and dropped to his knees, arms spread wide in exhilaration, there was a hush in the building. The place didn't exactly fall quiet, but the ambiance instantly was toned down from deafening. Velasquez finally climbed to his feet and stood facing the cage, his head hung low, wearing the face of one who does not believe what has just happened. Defeat is something Cain (9-1) had not yet experienced in MMA.
"I just want to say sorry to all my fans, family and friends," the dethroned champ said moments later, still shaking his head in disbelief. "I disappointed you. I'm much more than this. I will be back, and I will get that belt back."
Velasquez's downfall might well have been his confidence-building start. He landed a hard kick in the opening seconds, then another, then held his own in a short flurry of punches with the dangerous striker, no real damage done. Though Cain confessed in the post-fight press conference that his game plan was to close the distance and put on pressure with his wrestling, he seemed content to stand. When Dos Santos threw a kick of his own, Velasquez did grab his leg and move into position for a takedown try. But Junior quickly scrambled away, and the next time they came together, the Brazilian landed the punch that changed everything.
"He has a lot of power," said Velasquez, born up the California coast in Salinas. "He went in and did what he was supposed to do, so my hat is off to him tonight."
Velasquez, 29, had not fought since winning the belt a little over a year ago, when he swarmed all over the indomitable Lesnar for a first-round TKO. But that victory was not without a cost. The two-time All-American collegiate wrestler tore his right rotator cuff, requiring surgery and arduous rehab.
Cain's shoulder injury actually hurt Dos Santos as well, since the native of the Brazilian state of Bahia was next in line for a shot at the belt. With Velasquez shelved, Junior opted to risk his No. 1 contender status by taking on Lesnar after coaching alongside him onThe Ultimate Fighter reality show. That bout never came about, as Brock had a relapse of diverticulitis. At that point, some fighters might have seized the second chance to sit back and wait for his title bout. Instead, Dos Santos agreed to throw caution to the wind and fight Shane Carwin, who'd run off a dozen first-round victories before succumbing to Lesnar. Dos Santos dominated Carwin for a unanimous-decision victory, bringing about Saturday night's showdown on the big stage.
Isn't that what this whole evening was about -- changing this sport forever?
The Ultimate Fighting Championship began its journey along the often bumpy, sometimes sparsely traveled back roads of American sports back on Nov. 12, 1993, when eight martial artists took to an octagonal cage for a one-night tournament that would be won by a slim, baby-faced 170-pound future legend of the sport. Royce Gracie was a master of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and that evening in Denver he mystified a boxer into terrified submission, then choked out a wrestler and a karate specialist before either knew what to make of him. That was mixed martial arts back then and for years to follow: practitioners of various training disciplines engaged in combative one-upmanship -- my fighting lineage is superior to yours.
It's all different now. For one thing, everyone who steps into the cage these days knows everything -- striking, grappling, submissions or at least the avoidance of them. They're all mixed martial artists. And as cage skills have expanded, so, too, has the audience. Over time, the UFC paved a smoother, more-spot lit road for itself just on the periphery of the sports mainstream.
On Saturday night, with its UFC on Fox telecast, the fight organization sped onto the sports superhighway. Network TV is a whole different ballgame from Spike or Versus, and certainly casts a far wider net than a $55 pay-per-view. When ratings numbers are crunched, they'll no doubt show that a lot more eyes were on this UFC event -- the one fight -- than on any that have come before.
That doesn't go just for the Fox telecast, either. While the early undercard was playing out to a smallish crowd of diehards inside the arena, there was a brightly lit red carpet set up outside, where celebrities from MMA to the TV B-list -- most from Fox programs, naturally -- passed through a gauntlet of cameras, asked the same questions by every microphone wielder, smiling the same smiles for every lens. Inside, once the preliminaries were out of the way, the building had filled with a deafening roar, the octagon mat was cleaned of undercard blood stains. Don't want to make a bad first impression with squeamish new viewers.
So what kind of impression did the UFC make on those folks at home who were curious enough to tune in? The one fight they got was over in a flash, and there wasn't anything in it that a casual observer might view as anything more skilled than a barroom brawl. Of course, that's not a fair assessment of these fighters, both well-trained and elite. But viewers new to the sport wouldn't necessarily recognize that. They might have had a better chance of "getting" the UFC if they'd got to see the co-main event, a heart-thumping back-and-forth between Ben Henderson and Clay Guida. By winning the unanimous decision, Henderson earned a shot at lightweight champ Frankie Edgar on the UFC card in Japan in February. You didn't see him earn it unless you were at FoxSports.com or the UFC's fan page at Facebook.
That the UFC's time under the network TV spotlight involved just 64 seconds of fighting did not bother company president Dana White. "Tonight couldn't have gone better," he said. Dana was focusing not so much on the work of Dos Santos and Velasquez but rather on the things he and his team could control -- that is, the event production, particularly the inaugural UFC-Fox collaboration on the telecast. He'd confessed earlier in the week to being more nervous than he'd ever been since taking over the helm of the UFC a decade ago. But at the press conference afterward, he was smiling and saying, "I felt awesome. It was the perfect night."
"I agree," said a voice next to him. The speaker, with a smile spread across his face, was the new UFC heavyweight champion.
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