Two title fights. Two champions heavily favored. Only one walked out of the octagon still in possession of the belt.
After Dominick Cruz successfully defended at bantamweight, “The Dominator” living up to his nickname in a slick unanimous-decision win over nemesis Urijah Faber in the co-main event of UFC 199 on Saturday night, the crowd at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., witnessed an exhilarating upset in the evening’s marquee fight.
Michael Bisping, who had been chasing a title shot for the entirety of the decade he’s been in the UFC, and who came into this fight on two weeks’ notice as an injury replacement challenger, knocked down Luke Rockhold with a left hook and finished him on the mat at 3:36 of the first round to seize the middleweight championship.
Here are five thoughts (since title fights are scheduled for five rounds):
1. Don’t count out The Count
During the short leadup to fight night, Bisping had sounded like he was either delusional, which seems to be a helpful attribute for the men and women who do combat in a cage, or he was making lemonade out of the bittersweet opportunity presented him. The 37-year-old known as “The Count” insisted that the short notice would work in his favor—that he wouldn’t be worn down like he is after the usual eight-week camp, that he already knew what Rockhold had, having fought him just a year and a half ago and would be ready for his long-awaited moment.
He turned out to be right. Bisping (29–7) was relaxed from the start, keeping his distance until he had a combination to throw. He was in no rush, yet he wasn’t wilting under the spotlight either. This seemed to lull Rockhold (15–3), who was making his first defense of the belt he won from Chris Weidman in December. The 31-year-old Californian always has a more lackadaisical appearance than what’s typical for fighters, but this time it wasn’t simply that he looked like he was no hurry. More alarmingly, he stood in front of his challenger fully upright, his chin in the air.
Bisping caught him right after both fighters had missed with right hands. As Rockhold turned away from the Brit’s punch, he didn’t see the left hand that followed from Bisping. The champ collapsed to the canvas, and the challenger charged in, just in time to see Rockhold get up, at which point Bisping floored him with another left. Bisping pounced on him against the cage and landed three clean punches before referee John McCarthy pulled him away.
2. Now what? So many possibilities
Will there be an immediate Bisping-Rockhold III (Saturday’s bout was a rematch of a 2014 meeting won by Rockhold via second-round submission)? Will “Jacare” Souza get the first shot at the new champ on the strength of last month’s dominant TKO of Vitor Belfort, the Brazilian’s ninth win in his last 10 fights?
There’s another possibility that appears tantalizing. Now that MMA is newly legal in New York, and UFC 205 is scheduled for Nov. 12 at Madison Square Garden, why not put Bisping in the cage with ex-champ Weidman, who hails from Long Island?
Maybe it’s not fair to give Bisping an “away game” in his first defense, but what a showcase that would be. And all of those Irishmen who made plans to fly to New York to watch Conor McGregor fight in the Big Apple can just sell their nonrefundable plane tickets out of Dublin to fans from the north of England.
3. Cruz control
Dominick Cruz spent the better part of 4 1/2 years away from the fight game, healing from a succession of knee surgeries—he had ACL tears in both—and a groin tear. Yet he insisted that there is no such thing as ring rust, and he appeared to prove it back in January when he beat T.J. Dillashaw to regain the title he’d been forced to vacate during his inactivity.
On Saturday night, however, he demonstrated that there’s more to his game than what he’d showed last time. Cruz (22–1), who has won 13 in a row since Faber choked him out way back in 2007, essentially paralyzed his challenger with movement and switching up strategy, coasting to a unanimous decision in which Faber won just a single round on one judge’s scorecard.
Cruz came out looking for takedowns, which seemed to play into the one aspect of the game in which Faber might have an advantage. But rather than putting the champ in peril, it put him in control of where and how the fight would take place. The fighters scrambled on the mat several times in the opening round, Cruz mostly getting the better of it. Then, in the second, a cautious Faber was vulnerable to a big punch that floored him and put him in survival mode.
From there, Faber (33–9) kept his distance for the most part, and while that stunted Cruz’s offense, it gave the challenger little chance to get the job done. Without engaging in the pocket, Faber was unable to consistently touch Cruz. He landed only 21% of his significant strike attempts, hitting double digits with his strikes only once. Cruz was unable to finish him, either, but it was a dominant performance.
4. What a way to go out
“I appreciate you guys giving me that extra energy to keep going, that extra drive,” Dan Henderson said to the crowd after coming back from the brink of defeat to knock out Hector Lombard in a brutal 6 1/2 minutes of middleweight fighting. “I definitely felt your warmth in my heart, and I appreciate that.”
The appreciation was mutual, judging by the loud roar from the crowd for the 45-year-old, one of the sport’s alltime greats. “Hendo” soaked it all in and waited for quiet, at which point he revealed that this was the first time all three of his kids were in the arena to watch their father fight.
A momentous swan song, maybe? Henderson wasn’t committing to that, although he hinted, “I’m not sure what’s going to happen after this fight. I’m going to see what happens, but that could have been the last one of my career.”
5. Amateur hour
The UFC should be basking in the glow of having the loquacious Bisping as a champion, of having Conor McGregor back in the fold after announcing the he’ll finally get his rematch with Nate Diaz on Aug. 20 at UFC 202 and that none other than Brock Lesnar is also back.
Instead, the dark cloud of unprofessionalism hangs over an organization that is already scoffed at by many in the mainstream sports media.
Minutes after the main event ended, MMAfighting.com reporter Ariel Helwani was escorted out of the arena by UFC staff. His crime? Earlier in the evening, he had reported that Diaz-McGregor II was in the works and that Lesnar was returning. His reports, which he attributed to multiple sources, were published hours before the UFC could make its official announcements.
“I love this sport and this job with all my heart,” Helwani wrote on Twitter. “Did nothing unethical. I reported fight news. That’s it. And then told we’re banned for life.”
Petty, UFC. Petty.