Although the UFC has travelled to Brazil twice in around six months, there can be little doubt that Dana White will want to take the promotion to South America sometime in the near future. For, like UFC 134, the first main card of 2012 had something of everything for the 17,000+ capacity crowd and the millions of people who watched the event live across the globe: spectacular submissions, knock-outs, and a wealth of controversy both in and outside of the octagon.
The drama began early the previous evening when Dana White announced that American wrestler Anthony Johnson- who recently moved up a weight-class to middleweight- would fail to meet the agreed non-title limit of 186lbs. Eventually, although his opponent Vitor Belfort accepted the bout, Johnson- whose team had contrived a spectacular narrative of excuses for the fighter- weighed in at an almost preposterous 197lbs and had to weigh in again the next day at no more than 205lbs.
As with the previous Rio show, the catalyst for the excitement in the cage was the raucous atmosphere created by the Brazilian fans which, by the time the preliminary bouts had concluded had already reached fever pitch. The first maincard fight between Liverpool’s Terry Etim and Brazil’s own Edson Barboza provided and auspicious start; both men boast accomplished Muay Thai, but early on it was apparent Etim would need to get inside Barboza’s outstanding kicks to win the striking battle, which he failed to do. Subsequently unable to take the supremely balanced Barboza to the mat, the Englishman had to fight in his opponents range, and was heading for a decision loss when in the third round he was struck by a spectacular round-house heel kick that left him out cold. Etim will build again, but Barboza will now move into the upper echelons of the division, having scored one of the organisations greatest knock out victories.
Further controversies reigned in the following match-up between Eric Silva and Carlo Prater. The hotly tipped Silva floored Prater with a knee to the body in the opening seconds before swarming him with powerful hammer-fists. It appeared to the commentary team, the thousands in the stadium and millions watching on television, that referee Mario Yamasaki had intervened to allow Silva a spectacular stoppage. Everyone us was wrong as the veteran official disqualified Silva for strikes to the back of the head. The decision was shown to be a poor one as Joe Rogan forced the squirming official to justify his call in front of a slow motion replay that demonstrated that only one of Silva’s twelve blows had landed illegally in the flurry of battle. Everyone within the stadium- including Dana White- was rightly incredulous, and Silva would be likely to win any appeal.
The following match between Mike Massenzio and vicious BJJ phenom, Rousimar Palahares, was as impressive as it was predictable. Though Massenzio is a gifted grappler himself, it was plain he knew he had to keep the fight on the feet- he failed spectacularly. The bout was barely into its second minute when “Toquinho” pulled guard after an exchange, immediately wrapped up Massenzio’s leg, and drew a submission from a devastating heel hook which appeared to have torn the tendons around the American’s knee. It takes a brave man to step into the cage with Palhares, and the next time someone does it is likely to be for a shot at the middle-weight belt.
And so the co-main event saw the now villainous- and huge- Anthony Johnson finally make his was into the octagon to face local hero, Vitor Belfort. For all Johnson’s pre-fight talk of “breaking” the former champion, it was plain he was aware that his botched weight-cutting would mean a short window to overwhelm his opponent with sheer bulk as he maniacally pursued take down after take down. A couple of times he did so, although unable to endanger the Brazilian in his guard, did launch a dangerous flying elbow over the top which visibly swelled his opponent’s right eye. But all these explosive exertion took their toll as he ended back in Vitor’s guard, head on chest, as he wheezed and considered his next move.
Referee, Dan Miragliotta, was in no mood for such stalling and quickly stood the fighters up, and two stuffed take-downs later it was plain that AJ was struggling. It took all this bulk to get Belfort to the fence whereupon he determined to regroup and was once more separated from his opponent by the referee. There was one more take down by Johnson who, by now, was demonstrably playing for time, did little, and was separated soon after. Encouraged by his corner to exploit the wearying American, Vitor rained down punches mercilessly before taking the fight to the floor, himself. Shortly after, the victory belonged to Belfort by rear-naked choke and Johnson was left searching for a new employer.
The UFC had yet to see the best of former WEC featherweight champion Jose Aldo. Although he had successfully defended his belt twice against quality competition in Kenny Florian and Mark Hominick, neither bout had properly demonstrated the spectacular and devastating skill-set on the floor or feet that led many to label him as the best pound for pound fighter in the world. Against one of MMA’s best wrestlers in Chad Mendes, Aldo laid these lingering doubts to rest with an outstanding knockout victory.
There were few doubts about Mendes game plan- to put Aldo on his back- and the few that remained were eliminated when the champion landed enough of his trade-mark leg kicks to leave the challenger wincing. Aldo’s exquisite balance was in evidence as he fought off two take-down attempts. As the round drew to a close, a frenetic exchange enabled Mendes to take his opponent’s back in a standing position; Aldo instinctively grabbed the fence, but upon admonishment from the referee removed his hand do the takedown to be completed- it mattered little. The champion sprung immediately back to his feet spun out of the challengers grip before delivering a knee to his temple that sent him crashing to the mat.
As the bout was hurriedly stopped by the referee, Aldo ran beyond UFC security team deep into the midst of the Rio crowd for the sort of raucous, joyous, celebrations that would seem unimaginable anywhere else. It was some time before the fighter made his way back to the Octagon for the official decision as he was carried aloft by the fans in among the most memorable scenes in the history of mixed martial arts. Other countries- including the UK- may feel somewhat hard done by that the UFC doesn’t visit their shores more often, but the atmosphere that drives the show in Rio is nearly impossible to match, and it will be little surprise if Brazil becomes a regular part of the promotion’s annual roster for many years to come.
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