For more than a decade, Dana White had waged a bare-knuckled fight for respectability for his Ultimate Fighting Championship, carrying it from the days when it was banned on pay-per-view into the mainstream, a validation that arrived as a $100 million a year deal with FOX.
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And that was White’s lament Saturday night when UFC made its network television debut: that heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez didn’t bring the same type of fight with him to UFC on FOX.
As a result, the UFC’s long-awaited prime time moment was just that — a moment.
It lasted all of 64 seconds — or long enough for challenger Junior dos Santos to land a thunderous right that floored Velasquez. Dos Santos then jumped on him and landed a flurry of punches before referee John McCarthy stopped it when Velasquez could no longer defend himself.
The sudden ending stunned a sold-out Honda Center, which was overwhelmingly pro-Velasquez, and no doubt a national television audience.
Dos Santos dropped to his knees in the middle of the Octagon, then jumped atop the cage, straddling it and raising his hands over his head. Soon he was in tears.
“I have no words for what I’m feeling,” the Brazilian said. “It’s amazing, my life.”
White, bald and typically bombastic, stood nearby with his hands inside the pockets of his suit pants wearing a look of utter disbelief. With nearly a half-hour of airtime to fill on FOX, White wondered in an interview why Velasquez didn’t put up more of a fight.
“I wouldn’t say I was critical,” White said at a later news conference more than an hour after the fight. “I had an opinion. I don’t understand why Cain wouldn’t go in for the shot, pressure him and not stay in his range. But what the hell am I? I’m not anybody’s coach or trainer.”
But he is a stakeholder.
And though White raved about the production being a success, he conspicuously avoided any such flowery assessment of the fight, acknowledging that these kinds of things happen. His disappointment was understandable, given how meticulously White has worked to soften the hard edges of his sport — which years ago was described by Sen. John McCain as human cock-fighting.
There are now rules and regulations, and efforts are made to give soft-focus treatments to the fighters’ back stories; Velasquez as the son of Mexican immigrants and dos Santos as a poor Brazilian who made money as a youth selling ice cream instead of drugs.
But backstories aside, the fight lacked the drama or controversy of Manny Pacquiao’s decision over Juan Manuel Marquez later Saturday night.
“What you guys have to understand is we were talking to people who have never seen UFC before,” White said. “We were trying to educate people. Most of us live in this bubble of MMA. You have to ease these people into this. Tonight, we eased our way into national television.”
For Velasquez, the education came from the school of hard knocks.
He had not fought in 13 months, since he tore the labrum in his shoulder defeating Brock Lesnar for the title. But as Velasquez walked purposely from his dressing room to the Octagon to the strains of the immigrant anthem Los Mandados, he carried the crowd with him.
Three times during the fight, Velasquez delivered kicks to dos Santos’ legs. In the aftermath, it was easy to understand why. They served a dual purpose: Velasquez wanted to get dos Santos on the mat, where he could use the wrestling skills he developed as a two-time All-American at Arizona State, while staying away from a fighter whom he acknowledged beforehand packed the heaviest punch in UFC.
He tried once, unsuccessfully, to get dos Santos on the mat, but he quickly wriggled free and avoided being taken down. Most of the brief bout was spent with the fighters standing toe-to-toe, measuring each other.
“It was my fault,” Velasquez said, echoing White’s critique. “I didn’t pressure enough. I waited back too long. I was playing dos Santos’ game and he went into with the overhand right.”
Velasquez, who has a reputation for a soft chin, apparently is not any harder behind the ears, which is where he was clocked by dos Santos in the blow that sent him to the mat.
Later Saturday night, dos Santos revealed why he was so emotional when the fight was stopped. Eleven days before the bout, he tore cartilage in his left knee while doing jiu jitsu training. For two days, he was on crutches and underwent two hours of physical therapy every day to make it to the fight.
“I can’t miss it,” dos Santos said. “It’s the fight of my life.”
So Velasquez’s kicks to his legs concerned him, just as much as the prospect of a lengthy fight since he had done little training with his legs in the last 10 days and Velasquez is typically in superior condition.
“I was worried a little bit,” dos Santos said. “I couldn’t take anything to hide the injury, so I was worried about getting tired or a kick to the knee.”
Instead, he leaned on his greatest asset — a pair of stone-heavy hands, something dos Santos considers himself blessed to have been born with. He plans to return home to Brazil, place the gold championship belt in his living room, and have his family and training staff over for a barbecue.
As for Velasquez, he will have to work his way back for another shot at the title. If he gets there, Velasquez will not be unlike White or any of his partners as they left the arena Saturday night, hoping for better luck next time.