June 02, 2012

Considering the storyline that had played out right before, the main event had anticlimax written all over it. Then the headlining fighters showed why they were the stars of the show, delivering the kind of drama the UFC thrives on.

Martin Kampmann and Jake Ellenberger walked into an octagon whose canvas was tear-stained Friday night, the crowd at the Palms in Las Vegas just having seen a fairy tale come true in the finale of The Ultimate Fighter: Live. Michael Chiesa, who lost his father to leukemia during the first week of the reality TV show, saw his perseverance pay off on this night when he submitted Al Iaquinta to earn a trophy, a motorcycle, a UFC contract and, perhaps most emotionally rewarding, a tight, lingering we-missed-you hug from his still-grieving mother and sister. That scene was a tough act to follow.

But then the headlining welterweight contenders took the crowd on a roller-coaster ride, climaxing with Kampmann reprising his familiar role as comeback kid by finishing Ellenberger with a flurry of knees at 1:40 of the second round.

The victory was Kampmann's fifth his last seven bouts, with the two losses -- to Jake Shields and Diego Sanchez -- being uber-tight decisions that easily could have gone his way. He's also had some tight wins, such as his March submission of Thiago Alves in a bout in which he'd lost the first two rounds. But however you break it down, Martin is on the kind of run that will inject a fighter into the title picture. With champion Georges St-Pierre still healing his knee and interim champ Carlos Condit waiting for his shot, Kampmann might next find himself in a No. 1 contender eliminator against Johny Hendricks, who was promised a title shot after last month's win over Josh Koscheck but perhaps would rather take a fight instead of waiting eons.

Kampmann approves of that idea. "Man, I like Johny," he said. "I used to train with Johny. He's a good guy. And I think me and him, we could make a hell of a scrap."

It'll have to be a hell of a good one to match the scrap between Kampmann (20-5) and Ellenberger (27-6), who within the first 30 seconds landed a left hook that dropped the 30-year-old Dane. Jake swarmed, as he always does, but while he threw a lot of punches with vicious intentions, fighters don't do damage with intentions alone. Ellenberger's rapid-fire attack misfired more than it found its target. On top of that, the heavy-handed Nebraskan put so much of his focus on punching out Kampmann that he didn't protect his strong top position, and before long his neck was in a guillotine choke. Ellenberger didn't succumb to the submission attempt, but the tide did turn against him.

It turned back in his favor, however, in the first minute of the second round. Despite eating a couple of well-timed counterpunches, Ellenberger continued to push forward and his aggressiveness paid off when he connected with a combination from in close, sending Kampmann into wobbly retreat, his face suddenly a mask of red. But as Ellenberger gave chase, he once again put more stock in speed and power than he did in accuracy. That allowed Martin, cut above his left eye and on his nose, to settle down and find his range. And a minute and a half into the round, as Ellenberger wound up for a big punch, Kampmann clipped him with a short right to the temple. Jake immediately started doing the Tommy Hearns dance, and Kampmann went all Hagler on him -- that is, if Marvelous Marvin knew how to throw knees to the head. Kampmann landed three in quick succession, and Ellenberger crumbled to the canvas. Referee Steve Mazzagatti, who earlier had given Kampmann some leeway while he was on his back and under assault, jumped right in this time.

Rightfully so, even if Ellenberger didn't agree. "The stoppage was terrible," he said at the post-fight press conference. "It's not my decision and it is out of my hands, but I knocked him down in the first round and he kept fighting. I didn't get the chance to keep fighting."

That's because Ellenberger, who saw his six-fight win streak end, had no fight left on this night.

Some might have wondered if Chiesa would have any fight at all left for his TUF finale. After all, he'd been riding the crest of wavering emotions for the 13 weeks he'd been sequestered in a house with 15 other hungry fighters, away from his grieving family. He finally was reunited with his mother and sister during the week leading up to the fight, and the emotion dump that resulted could very well have sapped him of the unrelenting ferociousness that had carried him to this day.

Not to worry.

Chiesa (8-0) held his own with the slick-striking Iaquinta (5-2-1) while the fight was standing, and when it went to the mat with two minutes gone, the 24-year-old from Spokane, Wash., went to work. He quickly took the back of his teammate on Urijah Faber's team, immobilized him and clamped on a rear-naked choke to get the finish at 2:47.

"You know, this is exactly what I wanted," he said afterward in the cage, the glass Ultimate Fighter trophy in his clutches. "It's been such a journey, and there was no way I was going to sell myself short by losing tonight. I wasn't making it an option. There was no way I was going to lose this fight."

With that his mother came rushing over to give her boy a hug. "It's been a long journey," she said. "It's hard to talk about. I'm so proud. I couldn't be any more proud of him."

She's not alone. At the post-fight press conference, after Chiesa spoke quietly about not the past but the future -- a future in the UFC, for which "I've already got my next line of goals set up" -- the last word was left to Iaquinta, the 25-year-old New Yorker whose job it had been to go into the octagon and try to spoil a fairy tale ending. "My hat's off to the guy," said Ianquinta. "He's been through hell. I'm happy for him."

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

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