EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Three nights earlier, the arena down the road in Newark belonged to Bruce Springsteen.
Saturday evening, the Izod Center here in the swamps of Jersey was rocking for another native of the Garden State.
Jim Miller did not turn out to be The Boss of the octagon, however, as Nate Diaz picked him apart when they were on their feet, then choked him out when they went to the mat, finishing the main event of UFC on Fox 3 with a rear-naked choke at 4:09 of the second round.
With the victory before a modest crowd of 10,788, Diaz (16-7) steps to the front of the line of contenders in the lightweight division. UFC president Dana White last week promised the 27-year-old a shot at the title if he won. Diaz will have to wait for it, though, as champion Benson Henderson must first fight a promised but as-yet-unannounced rematch with Frankie Edgar, whom he dethroned in February. But when Nate's title shot comes, he will have earned it.
He's only 6-5 since the beginning of 2009, but Diaz has now won three straight against ever stiffer competition. Before Saturday night, he'd beaten Donald Cerrone and Takanori Gomi since his return to lightweight after a 2-2 stretch at welter.
"I'm trying to be No. 1 lightweight in the world," said Diaz in the cage afterward.
He certainly took a big step in that direction by handling Miller (21-4) like he'd never been handled before. All three of his previous losses had been by decision -- competition as mettle-testing as it gets in the 155-pound division. Henderson earned his shot at Edgar with a win over Miller last August. Before that, Jim had gone on a seven-fight winning streak following a 2009 loss to then-unbeaten Gray Maynard, who'd go on to fight for the belt twice. And Miller's other defeat came against Edgar when the two Jersey guys were learning their trade on small local fight cards.
"He had my number," said Miller, who walked out to his usual music by Creedence Clearwater Revival -- who hail from Diaz's neck of the woods in Northern California -- rather than treating the home fans to a stroll down E Street. "Nate is a tough guy. He was just landing strikes and hurting me."
Miller held his own in a tight first round, alternately remaining out of Diaz's range or closing the distance and muscling his lanky opponent against the cage. Two of the three judges gave Nate the first five minutes in a bout that was scheduled to go 25, but the third was not out of line by calling it a 10-10 round.
In the second, however, Diaz hit his stride. And hit Miller. Over and over. Until Miller, taking punches with his back against the cage, lunged forward in a sloppy takedown try. He ended up in a Diaz guillotine, and when Nate rolled backward while holding onto Miller's neck and ended up on top, the choke secured even tighter, there was little that Miller could do was pause for a few seconds to consider his short-term health, then tap out.
"It was going to be five rounds," said Diaz, "so it was him or me. I'm glad it went the way it did. My time to shine, I guess."
Indeed it was, with more shining moments to come.
Working for it: This time it took him 14 minutes and 48 seconds longer. His victory was not as thuddingly emphatic, but Johny Hendricks took another step up the ladder.
Coming off his 12-second KO of perennial No. 2-ranked welterweight Jon Fitch back in December, Hendricks followed up with a split-decision win over Josh Koscheck, Fitch's longtime teammate, in the co-main event.
It might not have been anywhere near as dramatic as his last win, but it was good enough for Hendricks to be promised a shot at the title -- if he's willing to wait for Georges St-Pierre to heal his knee, then defend his belt against Carlos Condit. That fight might take place in November in Montreal, GSP's hometown. As for Hendricks, he's headed home to Dallas to spend time with his family and consider his options.
He earned that right by evading Koscheck's heavy leather while putting a welt beside Josh's right eye. Hendricks, the two-time NCAA Division I national champion wrestler, also took down Kos a few times, although it was Johny who was on his back and eating punches when the final horn sounded.
"I'm never one to bitch about the judges," said Koscheck, "but I thought I won the fight."
Hendricks thought his striking and takedown numbers helped him carry the day, but he acknowledged that "you never know what the judges want. You just have to do what you can do."
And then you wait. And when one judge sees the fight for you, another sees it for your opponent and the third and deciding vote results in your hand being raised, you smile.
Playing the heel: It's over. Oh, wait a second.
That was the thought when this middleweight prelim went to the mat and Rousimar Palhares secured a hold on the ankle of Alan Belcher. The Brazilian is a submission specialist, with 10 of his 14 prior wins coming by tap out. He especially loves the heel hook, which produced six victories. The fans knew this. They roared.
But Belcher didn't panic. He was in with a mat master, but he knows his way around the canvas, too, having been subbed only once in 23 previous fight. The man known as "The Talent" then showed some, fighting off every leg grab like a feisty stripper at a drunken frat party. When he finally freed his limbs, he didn't retreat to his feet. He attacked on the ground, landing punches and elbows from Palhares's full guard until there was no fight left in the Brazilian and referee Dan Miragliotta jumped in at 4:18 of the first.
"Why don't you ask 'Toquinho' who the baddest man on the ground in MMA is?" Belcher said in a joyful/boastful interview in the cage after scoring his fourth straight win. "Not him no more."
Ground, then pound: It ended pretty much the way everyone expected, with Lavar Johnson wailing away along the fence, landing heavyweight shot after heavyweight shot until Pat Barry finally wilted to the canvas and, before Miragliotta could move in to stop it, Johnson raised his arms to the sky exuberantly.
The only other way it could have ended, most figured, would have been for Barry to be wailing away along the fence, landing heavyweight shot after heavyweight shot until Johnson finally wilted to the canvas and, before Miragliotta could move in to stop it, Barry raised his arms to the sky exuberantly.
The latter scenario did not come to be, of course, but before the end came at 4:38 of the first round, Barry did do some damage. On the ground.
No one expected both of these guys to go to the mat at the same time, but there they were midway through the round, with Barry moving from side control to full mount and back again, clamping on a tight kiumura and nearly pulling off his first career submission.
But there's a reason Barry doesn't fit in a gi. Johnson managed to escape the sub and get to his feet, and from that point on there was no escape for Barry.
Life beyond reality: Back to back prelims featured winners of The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show. Both found a dose of a whole new reality.
Season 13 winner Tony Ferguson was beaten to the punch -- and kick -- for three rounds by a fellow TUF alum, season 12 runner-up Michael Johnson, who took a unanimous decision in a lightweight fight that ended with Ferguson, rattled and backpedaling, eating straight punches. In losing for the first time in six bouts, Ferguson never seemed to get in an offensive rhythm, and his counter strikes only sporadically found the mark. Back to the drawing board.
Before that bout, Season 14 winner John Dodson was pushed to the limit but took a tight unanimous decision from UFC newcomer Timothy Elliott. It was a flyweight Bolshoi Ballet, complete with spins, jumps and rolls by both fighters. That's not to say it was all poetry in motion, though, as Elliott had a herky-jerky style that at times had Dodson back on his heels, trying to figure out how to counter. That didn't slow the action, however, as Elliott moved ever forward. His eight-fight winning streak could not, however.
Getting things off to a flying start: UFC on Fox 3 officially began at 4 p.m. ET, but it really got started closer to 6:15. It was then, in the event's fifth bout, that flyweights Louis Gaudinot and John Lineker got the house of early arrivals rocking.
Gaudinot, a green-haired TUF alum who fights out of nearby Hoboken, ended the bout with a slick guillotine choke, with the referee pushing him away at 4:54 of the second after Lineker went limp rather than tap out.
But don't get any ideas about this being a grappling match. The first round and most of the second had me thinking back decades and trying to remember whether either of the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots from my childhood toy box had green hair. Gaudinet and Lineker went toe to toe from the start, slinging leather from their heels. And Gaudinot had the disadvantage of having his long hair falling into his face like a Cousin Itt Sesame Street character. He got hit flush so many times that I got the distinct feeling that Lineker's nickname, "Hands of Stone" (or, in his native tongue from Brazil, "Mão-de-Pedra"), was untruth in advertising in two languages. If those hands were indeed stone, we'd be burying Gaudinot today.
"He's called 'Hands of Stone,' but he should be 'Head of Stone,' " said Gaudinot, who landed his share of hard shots as well, but couldn't put Lineker in trouble until he clamped on the choke. "My hands are killing me."
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