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By Matt Pelkey, MMATorch Columnist
Now that's more like it. No, not the ratings for UFC on Fox 3, which settled in at a disappointingly low 2.4 million viewers (or roughly one fourth of the number of people who watched the first UFC fight on Fox: Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos), but rather the action inside the Octagon. We knew the problems with this card going in. It was under-promoted and it lacked any true star-power to get casual fans to tune in. However, what wasn't given much attention was that this card was loaded with fun match-ups.
The first event on Fox was a one fight card, with the in-cage action lasting just over a minute. The general thought coming out of it was that it was seen as a disappointment despite nearly ten million people tuning in to watch the heavyweight title change hands. The second event had three fights, headlined by a five round, number one contender(ish) bout between Rashad Evans and Phil Davis, and bolstered by a middleweight bout between Chael Sonnen and Michael Bisping. The in-cage action on the second show was in stark contrast to that of the first. Instead of one minute of fighting, fans were treated (ok, that's stretching it) to eleven full rounds and fifty-five minutes of underwhelming action. Sure, the star power was there, but if the action in the cage doesn't deliver, does it matter?
Saturday's event was the total opposite. Despite the lack of names, fans were treated (no sarcasm here) to four fights of blistering action. The only fight that fell short of that praise was the Johny Hendricks-Josh Koscheck bout, and even that was a close, tough, three round battle between two very similar, very evenly-matched fighters.
All four fights saw new contenders emerge in their respective divisions. In the main event, Nate Diaz used his superior size, length, striking, clinch work, and grappling (yeah, he was better everywhere) to hand Jim Miller his first loss inside the distance in his career. Remember several months ago when now-lightweight champion Ben Henderson out-muscled Jim Miller for three rounds and we all thought, "Holy shit! No one has ever done that to Jim Miller before. He beat Miller WAY worse than Edgar or Maynard did"? Well, the beating Nate Diaz put on Miller Saturday made Bendo's performance pale in comparison. I was firmly on the "ANTHONY PETTIS FOR LIGHTWEIGHT TITLE SHOT!!!" bandwagon before Saturday. Not anymore. Nate Diaz's destruction of Jim Miller was the best win anyone has had at lightweight since Frankie Edgar's second fight with B.J. Penn. He jumps straight to the front of the line at 155.
I almost feel as strongly about Alan Belcher after his win over Rousimar Palhares. I've always had a soft spot for Belcher. His fights are always straight-up dynamite to watch, and his routine of calling out Anderson Silva after every win for the past three years always made me chuckle. Again, not anymore. Now I take it quite seriously. He looked to be playing with fire on Saturday, willingly engaging in not only a ground battle with Toquinho, but a leg-lock battle. Belcher proved that he could not only hold his own on the mat with Palhares, but that he's flat out better, at least in terms of MMA grappling (i.e. once he was out of danger, he got to, you know, punch dude in the face and stuff). We knew his stand-up was some of the best in the division, but we now also know that his sub defense is on point, and his ground-and-pound is brutal as well. He's passed all the tests he needs to pass for me to think he's as ready as he'll ever be for Anderson Silva, now he just needs one true top-10 win to solidify his case as the #1 contender.
An unlikely contender also emerged in the heavyweight division Saturday night. Lavar Johnson and Pat Barry were merely expected to put on a heavyweight slugfest (you know, the one we didn't get from Velasquez-Dos Santos), and while we certainly got just that, I wasn't expecting the heavyweight version of the Chuck vs. Tito I finish at the end, and that's what makes Johnson stand out. After surviving an early submission scare from Barry, Johnson got back to his feet and unloaded on "HD" in the last minute. After a heavy head kick wobbled him, Barry found himself backed up against the cage with no way out. Johnson leveled him with an absolute blitzkrieg of shots. Lefts, rights, elbows and knees. Barry took about twenty strikes in total against the cage before he collapsed to the mat a beaten man. Johnson is now 2-0 in the UFC with devastatingly brutal finishes of mid-level heavyweights Joey "I used to be unfinish-able" Beltran and Pat Barry. He has clear holes in his game (ahem...he was mounted and nearly kimura-ed by Pat freakin' Barry), but he's huge, he loves to bang, he has a great story, and he's lucky enough to reside in the always contender-starved heavyweight division. Let's see him against someone the ilk of Matt Mitrione next time out. Repeat his finishes of Beltran and Barry, and it really will be time to start taking "Big" Johnson seriously at the top of the division.
The ratings have to be disappointing for both the UFC and Fox, but part of that blame has to be placed on the two crap cards that preceded it. This is the right way to go. I guaranteed the 2+ million people who tuned in didn't change the channel disappointed. Cards like these build goodwill with the fans. Give them another one like it and the numbers will pick up event after event.
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Jamie Penick, editor-in-chief
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