For its opening night, FOX Sports 1 chose the UFC. For the sport, it was the chance for a showcase. At its best, athleticism, action, and unpredictability are common threads that weave through it in equal measure, though those are not always givens. The last time mixed martial arts saw this kind of opportunity was in 2011, when the UFC and FOX smashed the champagne on their maiden voyage to mixed reviews. This time around, there was nothing to criticize. It was all there on full display, highlighted by a stunner of a headliner, which saw Chael Sonnen force Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to tap out to a guillotine choke.
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Yes, Sonnen, the man who had been criticized for his problems with submissions, the man who had never beaten a former UFC champion, and who had spent most of the last seven years as a middleweight, tapped out a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and the last fighter to hold the light-heavyweight belt prior to the Jon Jones era.
The official time of the finish came at 4:47 of the first round, snapping Sonnen’s losing streak at two.
Afterward, Sonnen (28-13-1) took the spotlight to once again call out his longtime target, Wanderlei Silva.
“Six feet tall and 205 pounds, until I met you I never knew they could stack crap that high,” he said, before challenging him to fight in three months.
Before the end of the night, Sonnen would have offers to fight from Vitor Belfort, Lyoto Machida and Phil Davis.
“I think the whole country of Brazil wants to fight him,” UFC president Dana White said.
After his adrenaline wore down though, Sonnen told FOX Sports he didn’t know whether he’d stick at light-heavyweight or move back to middleweight, as he insisted he would before the fight.
According to FightMetric, Sonnen out-struck Rua 58-9 and scored two takedowns. The end, though, came with Rua digging low for a possible takedown of his own. Instead, Sonnen wrapped his neck up with his arms and then jumped guard, locking up the choke hold. Rua held off for a few seconds in hopes of escaping but eventually tapped with his right hand.
The finish was a stunner, given Rua’s pedigree with submissions. Sonnen told FOX Sports that it was the first time he’d ever jumped guard in a fight.
“I had the lock. I knew I had the lock,” he said. “I didn’t know if I’d get a submission or not, but I had to go for it.”
It was only the fifth submission victory of Sonnen’s career. He dedicated the win to his grandmother and others who had fought or were fighting cancer.
Rua (21-8) had only been forced to tap twice previously in his career, and only once in the last decade, in a 2007 loss to Forrest Griffin. The only other man to pull the trick, Renato “Babalu” Sobral, was in his corner for the bout, but even his tutelage was not enough. Rua, who was considered the world’s best 205-pounder before joining the UFC, is now 5-6 in the octagon.
If Sonnen’s win was surprising due to its method, Travis Browne’s was shocking due to its execution.
In the early moments, it seemed like Overeem was on his way to reestablishing himself as a UFC contender. Halfway through the first, he corralled Browne against the cage and let his offense fly, swarming with right hands to the face and knees to the body. Browne was in big danger, with referee Mario Yamasaki watching intently, but after surviving the hellacious barrage, Browne managed to return to his feet. Within two minutes, the fight was over. Browne threw a front kick that landed flush to the jaw and knocked Overeem down.
He followed with ground strikes for the finish at 4:08 of the first round.
The front kick was brilliantly set up as Browne used a kick-heavy offense in the fight, going early to the body and getting Overeem to lower his elbows to protect his chest and ribcage. On the last one, Browne changed his target and found pay dirt.
“He throws knees like I’ve never felt before,” Browne (15-1-1) said afterward. “He hit me with a couple body shots, too. I was there mentally but my body was shutting down. I heard my corner say move, so I got to my feet and moved. I felt him start to slow down, and as soon as I did, I raised my game.”
Overeem’s loss came on the heels of his February knockout defeat by Antonio Silva. With two straight disappointing losses, a drug scandal behind him, and a high salary, it’s possible he has seen his last days in the octagon. Though White wouldn’t confirm his exit, he didn’t exactly offer a vote of support, either.
“I have no idea,” White said when asked if Overeem would see another day in the octagon.
Meanwhile, the career resurgence of welterweight Matt Brown continued with another statement. This time, it was Mike Pyle on the wrong end of his onslaught, as Brown crushed him in a 29-second knockout.
Brown floored him with a right and then followed with ground strikes for the finish, capturing his sixth in a row. Prior to that, Brown (18-11) had been in danger of being cut from the promotion after losing four of five.
It’s been a complete and decisive turnaround, with four straight knockouts on his ledger.
“I’ll fight whoever they want me to, but obviously, I’m only in the sport for one thing and that’s to beat [UFC welterweight champion George St-Pierre’s] ass,” he said.
Of all the fighters on the card, perhaps no one received as much attention as Irish lightweight Conor McGregor, a relative newcomer to the scene who had gained momentum so quickly, the UFC scheduled him his own media day.
The expectations were massive, and though he didn’t keep his finish streak intact, McGregor dominated Max Holloway en route to a unanimous decision win.
Showing a rangy standup game with a varied repertoire of punches and kicks, McGregor controlled the first two rounds, bloodying his opponent before spending most of the third on the ground. McGregor (14-2) said he might have hurt his knee and was disappointed in his performance, but cruised to the win, his 10th straight.
“I come out to finish every time,” he said. “Max is tough, I wanted some exchanges. I’m blown away but let’s get the next one in because I’m ready to whip someone real quick.
In a key bantamweight battle between two top-five ranked fighters, Michael McDonald battered Brad Pickett, scoring two first-round knockdowns and then finishing him with a triangle choke in the second. McDonald, who was fighting for the first time since losing an in interim title match, looked sharp throughout in upping his record to 16-2.
The brilliant performance also won McDonald $100,000 in bonuses for Submission of the Night and Fight of the Night.
Fellow bantamweight and perpetual contender Urijah Faber also won, taking a decision over Iuri Alcantara by scores of 30-26, 30-26, 30-27. Faber (29-6) said afterward that he thought he broke or dislocated his jaw on the fight’s first exchange, and was pushed by a sense of urgency. Though he couldn’t finish, he rode his superior grappling game and ground strikes to the win.
With three sub 1-minute knockouts and plenty of surprises, the show delivered on the expectations that mixed martial arts brings, delighting White so much that he gave out two more bonus awards than usual.
Once upon a time, White and the UFC considered starting their own channel. With the launch of FOX Sports 1 with the UFC as an anchor property, that desire has faded.
“I think I got my own network,” he said with a smile.