May 27, 2012

LAS VEGAS -- Historically, the UFC heavyweight championship has been something rented, not owned. More than in any other division in the fight organization, the title belt gets passed around from one big guy's address to another big guy's address with notable frequency.

Well, the shiny brass-and-leather strap still has a home with Junior dos Santos. And if the raging assault of his second-round TKO victory over Frank Mir in the main event of UFC 146 on Saturday night is any indication, it might stay right where it is for quite a while.

Then again, the man dos Santos dethroned last November, Cain Velasquez, was a savage in annihilating Antonio Silva in the co-main event, and judging by the noise generated by the 14,592 who rocked MGM Grand Garden Arena, it would seem a rematch is in order.

"That's a good idea," UFC president Dana White said when dos Santos vs. Velasquez II was suggested during the postfight press conference. "I like it."

Pressed to be more definitive about making an imminent rematch, White just smiled and said, "I told you Cain deserves the next shot. What do you want me to do, tell you the date and venue?"

That'd be nice, but really, there's not a whole lot of difference between a definitive Dana White fight announcement and a vague one. As fighters and fans have learned, UFC matchmaking is never set in stone.

Velasquez, for one, will gladly settle for the loose commitment he got. He smiled when a questioner asked him how it feels to hear the boss say he's deserving of a shot at regaining the belt he took from Brock Lesnar back in the fall of 2010 but never successfully defended. "Feels great," he said. "The whole reason I got into this sport was to be champion, and I just don't feel right now."

That is of no concern to Dos Santos. "Cain Velasquez is very dangerous," he said. "But I don't care who they put against me."

Dos Santos (15-1), the seventh man to hold the UFC heavyweight championship (outright or interim) in the last five years, began his first title defense tentatively. For much of the first round he kept his distance, his potent right hand mostly targeting the body. "I tried to make him a little bit more tired in the first round," said the champ.

It appeared that dos Santos was trying to get Mir to drop his guard to give him a bigger bull's-eye once he started headhunting. The strategy didn't pay off right away, and in fact it was Mir (16-6) who launched the first dangerous offensive, grabbing Junior's leg along the cage and trying to sweep his other foot out from under him. The challenger, a two-time UFC champ who began his MMA career back in 2001 (dos Santos was 16 at the time), was trying to take the fight out of Junior's wheelhouse and into his: the mat. After all, Mir has nine wins by submission, including in his last fight, when he broke the arm of jiu-jitsu ace Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, a training partner and mentor to dos Santos.

But the Brazilian striker maintained his balance, and after Mir dropped to his knees in a last-ditch effort for the takedown, Junior pulled his leg loose and scampered away. Then he turned to face Mir, who was still on his knees, and he shook his finger at him. Uh-uh.

It was in the last minute of the first round when everything changed. Dos Santos staggered Mir with a wide right hand, and seeing that the challenger was hurt, the champ swarmed. He unleashed a bantamweight-speed flurry of lefts and rights along the cage, and Mir, once he realized that the storm he was weathering was not abating, lunged forward to grab a leg. Dos Santos avoided him easily, the horn sounded and Mir slowly made his way back to his corner. The scuttlebutt along press row was that someone in Frank's corner asked him if he knew where he was and he answered, "Mandalay Bay." The hotel down The Strip does host UFC fights, but Saturday's were at the MGM Grand. Yikes.

Mir did come out for the second round, but the first time dos Santos threw a right hand, Frank moved to block it ... after it already had landed. Seconds later, another right hand floored him, and dos Santos stepped away and motioned for Mir to get up. He obliged, but soon was knocked down again, and referee Herb Dean moved closer. Mir again grabbed for a leg, dos Santos again backed away and Mir tried to get up. He couldn't. And as he clumsily rolled over onto his back, both dos Santos and Dean moved in. The fighter got there first, landing one last shot to get an "oooh" from the crowd before the referee ended it at 3:04.

"I'm feeling awesome!" dos Santos said afterward in the cage, a Brazilian flag wrapped around him.

"He's the champ," Mir said after being attended to. "He's fast. I couldn't get out of the way. He hit me hard."

Returning with a vengeance: It took him 196 days to get back in the octagon after dropping his title to dos Santos last November. Once he made it to the cage, Cain Velasquez didn't waste any time.

Barely five seconds into the co-main event of the all-heavyweight main card, Velasquez made it clear that he hasn't gone anywhere. He caught an Antonio Silva kick and dumped the big Brazilian on the mat, and with the crowd exploding, he pounced. The fight was not over, though, as "Bigfoot" did manage to tie up the former champion for a spell and even landed a nice up-kick to the face when Velasquez postured up to unleash a big punch. But Cain took the shot and kept on coming, and what followed was as brutal -- and bloody -- a beating as the octagon has seen in a while.

Before the fight was a minute and a half old, Silva's face was a mess and the canvas where he lay, with Velasquez pummeling him from half-guard top position, was a sea of red. Referee Josh Rosenthal halted the action just before the three-minute mark, sending Velasquez to a neutral corner and calling a doctor to the cage to check the source of all the blood. The fight was allowed to go on. But Silva had no chance.

Velasquez kept up the relentless pressure, and after he'd delivered a succession of elbows and punches and "Bigfoot" turtled up, Rosenthal finally saved him at 3:36 of the first.

"It's definitely a step in the right direction," Velasquez said. Within the hour, he would learn that the direction he was heading was back toward dos Santos.

One is the loneliest number: Roy Nelson threw four punches, landing two. He needed only one.

"Big Country" unloaded on Dave Herman so hard with an overhead right hand that "Pee-Wee" thought he was in his Playhouse. Herman collapsed face first to the canvas as if shot by a cannon. Which he had been, in the form of a right hand as big as Nelson's belly before he went on a diet. Referee Steve Mazzagatti jumped right in, ending it at 51 seconds.

Herman, who'd kept Nelson at a distance with front kicks for much of the fight's first minute, jumped right back up to his feet and protested the stoppage. He ought to look at the videotape. He was out of it when he hit the canvas.

Afterward, Nelson was asked how he's become so accurate with his big right hand, which has similarly crushed Stefan Struve and Brendan Schaub with one-punch KO's. "A lot of eating," he said. "You don't want to miss your mouth."

A little extra damage: The most telling part of the Stipe Miocic-Shane del Rosario fight came not during the fight itself but in the aftermath. After Miocic had dropped a succession of short elbows onto the noggin of his grounded opponent in the second round before referee Yves Lavigne jumped in at 3:14, del Rosario tried to get up. But his legs weren't comprehending whatever scrambled message his brain was trying to deliver. He staggered like a late-night tourist on The Strip.

It was only after a couple of nearby officials steadied del Rosario that we got to see the rest of the damage. His face was battered. It was astounding, really, since there was no windup in Miocic's ground attack, just short shots. But these guys are heavyweights.

The sudden finish was a wake-up call for the arena crowd, which had gone fairly quiet as the bout entered a second round that, in terms of action, looked like a fourth or fifth. But that's what happens when you allow heavyweights to work a double shift. Then everything changed when Miocic took del Rosario to the mat and, to the rhythm of both fighters' heavy breathing, started landing elbows.

Big and tall ... and short: Lavar Johnson took the fight with Stefan Struve on short notice and with short rest, having fought just 21 days ago. So Struve didn't make him work long. But the 6-foot-11 Dutchman didn't do "Big" Johnson any favors.

After feeling the power of Johnson in an opening flurry and in a clinch against the cage, Strufe leapt into air while the fighters were tied up, wrapped his legs around Johnson and pulled guard. The fight was 50 seconds old ... and 15 seconds from ending. That's how long it took Struve to win the fight from his back, securing an armbar and eliciting a tapout at 1:05.

"He's a heavy hitter," said Struve after his third straight victory, the 24-year-old's eighth overall in the UFC. "So why give him any chance of all to beat me?"

The future is now: All 16 fighters from this season's cast of The Ultimate Fighter: Live were in the arena, and they got a life lesson by watching the final prelim before the octagon was reinforced for the heavyweight main card. The fight featured Diego Brandao, the winner of last season's featherweight competition.

And no doubt some of the TUF guys were thinking "That could be me" when Brandao swarmed Darren Elkins at the start. But what were the young fighters at cageside thinking when Elkins turned things around?

After weathering the storm of the Brazilian's attack for the bulk of the first round, Elkins took control in the second and battered Brandao, who was fighting for the first time since winning the TUF finale in December.

"I'm gonna try and change my head," said Brandao. "He beat me in the mental game. I need to be more focused out there, so I'm going to work on that."

The learning never ends.

Bringing a good noise: An MMA crowd is fickle. One moment the fans, almost as one, were cheering "Barboza! Barboza! Barboza!" And then, in a flash, Jamie Varner was a beloved matinee idol. How'd the former WEC lightweight champion manage that? By battering Edson Barboza, a human highlight reel who came into the fight at 10-0 with four UFC wins, the last three of which earned him Fight of the Night bonuses. No bonus this time.

Varner first put Barboza on his back after catching a high kick, but while Varner delivered some shots on the ground, he wasn't able to keep a good man down. So Barboza got to his feet, and that was when the "Barboza!" chant began. But Varner ended it by staggering the Brazilian with a punch, flooring him with another, then dropping hammer fists until referee Steve Mazzagatti had seen enough at 3:23 of the first round. The arena exploded into cheers.

The fight was over, but Varner wasn't finished being a crowd pleaser. Expressing gratitude for being in the octagon for the first time since 2007, he said, "I didn't care if I won or lost. I wanted to fight for the fans." What reaction do you imagine that elicited?

A puncher's chance: The building wasn't even close to filled when Dan Hardy entered the cage for his welterweight prelim, but his ovation was nonetheless thunderous. What makes "The Outlaw" a crowd favorite is also what makes him a UFC survivor, still employed despite four straight losses: He likes to bang. So it was appropriate that he would be sent to the cage with Duane Ludwig, a man whose very nickname is "Bang." And bang-bang it went for much of the first round, until Hardy dropped Ludwig with a compact left hook.

It was such a solid shot that Hardy immediately raised his arms in victory celebration. Problem was, Hardy's a fighter, not a referee, and Dan Miragliotta wasn't declaring it over. So Hardy, suddenly realizing he still had work to do, swarmed Ludwig on the mat and unloaded with punches until Miragliotta pulled him away at 3:51.

Hardy then went to the center of the octagon, got down on his knees and kissed the canvas. When he got up and his hand had been raised, he explained the premature celebration. "You know when you've landed a good shot," he said. "You feel when it connects." And then you live to land another one.

Hail from the chief?: Barack Obama was probably way too busy being the most powerful man in the free world to watch the Facebook telecast of the early prelims, but if he did happen to sneak a peek on his laptop in the Oval Office, the President would have seen his chronic antagonist, Jacob Volkmann, come out wearing a "Volkmann for President" T-shirt. But even though Volkmann was a three-time NCAA All-American wrestler, when the fight went to the canvas CNN immediately projected Paul Sass as the winner.

Indeed, the Brit ate a few shots from bottom position, then did what he always does. He remained unbeaten by wrapping up Volkmann in a triangle armbar and eliciting a tapout at 1:54 -- Sass's12th submission among his 13 wins. Deserving of a Presidential Medal of Freedom, you think?

Something old, something new: Glover Teixeira has been around MMA for a decade, and after a 2-2 start he'd won 15 straight. Have you heard of him? If not, it's because none of those wins came in the UFC. Well, now he's won 16 in a row, after an explosive, if brief, octagon debut. The Brazilian, who trains with Chuck Liddell and team in California, attacked Kyle Kingsbury right from the get-go with a flurry of punches that made the Yankees' Mark appear to be only the second-best hitter named Teixeira. Glover dropped "Kingsbu" with a short left, followed him to the canvas and finished at 1:53 of the first round with an arm-triangle choke.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.

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