UFC proved me wrong with one incredible night and made a new fan

BY foxsports • April 17, 2016

TAMPA, Fla. —€” I wasn't sure exactly what to expect from my first live UFC experience. Fortunately, I got a little bit of everything Saturday night at Amalie Arena.

I came into UFC on FOX Fight Night: Teixeira vs. Evans not a fan, but an impartial observer. I'd casually watched fights (or parts of them) and could appreciate the beauty and barbarity of one of the world's most ascendant sports, but mixed martial arts never have been must-see TV for me, and I could no sooner break down the minutiae of a bout than I could execute a double-leg takedown on Glover Teixeira.

For the most part, that hasn't changed thanks to one night spent watching 11 fights from cageside —€” certainly not the latter part, anyway —€” but if nothing else, I'm leaving with a newfound respect for a sport that was, at once, both everything I figured it to be and a shocking revelation. And it all started, as all UFC events do, with the undercard.

To be honest, I didn't think I'd feel emotionally invested in the early fights. I already didn't know what to make of the few fighters whose names I knew, so paying attention to those who I didn't seemed more like a chore than a blessing. But the action in the Octagon had me gripped from the outset, starting early in the afternoon with the UFC Fight Pass prelims.

To whet my appetite, I had Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos' third-round TKO of Omari Akhmedov, and the action continued with Cezar Ferreira's unanimous decision win over Oluwale Bamgbose. Previously, as I watched from afar, I sometimes had a difficult time deciphering what made for a deserving victor in a fight that didn't end with a loser out cold or tapping out, but it becomes overwhelmingly clear who won when you're watching from 10 yards away.

You can feel the force behind every kick, the power behind every punch, the brute strength behind every hold —€” it's a wonder how anyone ever breaks free of them —€” and well before the referee raises the hand of the winner, you can see in the face of the loser that they know they've already lost.

Still, the initial bouts were somewhat lacking in the personality I'd come to expect from UFC, but John Dodson changed all that when he needed just 47 seconds to dust Manny Gamburyan. It was evident even at Friday evening's weigh-in that Dodson might be the most gregarious fighter on the card, and when he finally spoke after his win, his charm and his confidence were on full display.

"Everyone," a chipper Dodson responded when asked who's next after his move back to the bantamweight division, before vulgarly calling out No. 1 contender T.J. Dillashaw. "I will pile up as many bodies as possible to get that title. I don't care who they are."

Then over the course of the next four FOX prelim fights, I got a taste of just how powerful those submission holds can be, as both Michael Graves and Michael Chiesa won via rear-naked chokes that left me feeling short of breath. In addition, Raquel Pennington's split-decision win over Bethe Correia was the only non-unanimous call of the night, while Court McGee and Santiago Ponzinibbio traded shots at a thrilling, breakneck pace before Ponzinibbio dropped McGee and ended his night in short order.

By that point, the testosterone in the building was pretty high, but the intensity ratcheted up even more for the crowd of 11,273 with the start of the main card. But over the final two hours, it was the personal side of the fights that left me taken aback.

Like many who have never had an up-close experience with UFC, I always perceived it as somewhat primitive, and it never occurred to me that there's a softer, human element to these stony athletes and a deep respect among most fighters who step inside the cage.

I'll admit that at Friday's weigh-in, my initial reaction to Cub Swanson was an eye-roll, but you could feel how much it meant to him to end a two-fight losing streak with a win over Hacran Dias. And of all the silly things to make me say "aw" —€” a response I never thought I'd have to anything at a UFC event —€” it was Swanson's brief apologetic reaction to poking Dias in the eye that helped me see beyond the bravado and tattoos. (Chiesa's post-win shout-out to his mom was also touching in a way I didn't expect.)

One of the most intriguing fights to me going in was the bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Darrell Horcher, in part because I was impressed by Horcher's willingness to agree to a last-minute fight he had no chance of winning. And that commitment wasn't lost on Nurmagomedov, who raised Horcher's arm and walked him around the ring just moments after pummeling Horcher into the mat. There was a certain class and dignity to Nurmagomedov's gesture toward an inferior fighter that left a lasting mark in my mind.

I had a similar feeling after Rose Namajunas defeated Tecia Torres in the co-main event, as well. On Friday, I remarked to our UFC editors that Namajunas seems as tough as they come —€” a sentiment they verified —€” but there was a sweetness to her embrace with Torres after the fight that revealed who both women are beneath all the bombast. I understand that this wasn't a contentious card by comparison, but I was still shocked at how willing virtually every fighter was to make nice once the final bell rang.

At that point, my only regret was that I hadn't had a chance to see the type of one-punch knockout that I've always believed synonymous with mixed martial arts, but then Teixeira delivered with a devastating blow less than two minutes into his light-heavyweight fight with Rashad Evans, leaving me feeling like I truly had seen it all.

Now the question for me is where my newfound UFC fanhood goes from here. And while I don't know if I'm ready to join a boxing gym or start buying pay-per-views just yet, I can tell you with certainty that the sport has won a new supporter.

I came in with embarrassingly low expectations and am pleased to have been proven wrong, and I encourage anyone who, like me, hasn't given MMA a fair shake to do so. If an event comes through your town, check it out. Because while it's one of the most violent, savage things you can watch, there's so much more to it than brutality. There's class and finesse, excitement and even a hint of sweetness, and if you're anything like me, you'll leave feeling happy you gave it a real shot.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.