EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Dana White stood strong at the podium in the bowels of the IZOD Center nearly an hour after Nate Diaz wiped out Jim Miller in the main event of UFC on FOX 3. Defiant to begin with, White had just cause in addressing a certain segment of the populace that’s never happy.
When the UFC made its long-awaited debut on network television last November, the introduction to a new audience was old school, a heavyweight championship fight. Junior dos Santos knocked out Cain Velasquez in 64 seconds to capture the title. Alas, people complained it was too short and wondered if this marriage would work after all.
By the time all pacts were signed for the second FOX show to air January 28, an injury to top welterweight Mark Munoz forced White to reshuffle a main card that replaced Munoz with Michael Bisping to face Chael Sonnen and call middleweight prospect Chris Weidman to step in against Demian Maia – Bisping’s original opponent -- on 10 days’ notice. Weidman cut 32 pounds in those 10 days and defeated Maia, a former No. 1 contender at 185 pounds. Sonnen grounded Bisping to secure his rematch with middleweight champion Anderson Silva. Rashad Evans became the top challenger at 205 pounds by taking young Phil Davis to school.
Another segment was underwhelmed, making the UFC-FOX partnership 0-for-2 in perspective You will never satisfy anyone, but the shots taken got ridiculous, as if the Gray’s Sports Almanac was a real document and the Zuffa executives were able to see what fights would be deemed instant classics. When the third FOX show was put together, it was built on not necessarily "star power," but matches with a greater probability each would deliver.
White’s first question was for feedback on a main card that, eight miles from New York City, produced the Knockout and Submission of the Night, the former that ended a heavyweight explosion which could have won Fight of the Night, and the emergence of the next elite lightweight who in 4:09 of the second round made someone once a winner of seven straight and 17 out of 18 tap out for the first time in his career. Unsolicited, White brought up the chronic complainers. His message was succinct: Take that.
"These guys delivered – they did," White said. "Even on the previous FOX card, I know people are bitching about it. They’ve got nothing to bitch about. It’s free and they were great fights, so shut up."
Showcased as part of the refurbished heavyweight class, Lavar Johnson opened the telecast with fireworks and blasted Pat Barry. Free television was the forum for Alan Belcher’s emotional story to take its greatest quantum leap. Johny Hendricks earned himself a mention in the same breath as Georges St. Pierre. Diaz dissected Miller, the kid from Whippany, N.J., like no man before him – and that includes lightweight king Benson Henderson.
Contrary to initial reports, Diaz isn’t mandated to fight Anthony Pettis for the right to face the winner of Henderson’s rematch with Frankie Edgar tentatively planned for this August. White explained that Diaz was given a choice, stay active and fight Pettis or wait until at least the end of 2012 and retain your status as No. 1 contender.
Diaz selected the latter. He’s winner of three straight, each conquest better than the one before, and has a legit chance at dethroning either Henderson or Edgar. His decisions inside the octagon have been near perfect, so why doubt him now?
"I’m down for whatever, whatever they say," Diaz said. "But that sounded great to me."
While the lightweight title picture is cut and dry, White needs time to clear his head and sort out the situation at welterweight. Hendricks made his argument with a narrow split decision victory over Josh Koscheck, a crafty veteran who faced GSP for the title in December of 2010. Hendricks has won four straight, the last two over Koscheck and Jon Fitch (in 12 seconds), but Jake Ellenberger and Martin Kampmann will compete June 1 in a fight with major title implications. The winner could fight No. 1 contender Carlos Condit for the interim title if St. Pierre isn’t recovered from surgery to repair a torn ACL by November. If he is, Hendricks may not fight again until next year if he decides to wait it out.
"That's a long time," White said.
Belcher took a big risk accepting a match with the deadly Rousimar Palhares. White, like many, was convinced Belcher was done for when Palhares applied his signature heel hook. While preparing for Palhares, Belcher studied film of him "tear legs off" at an Abu Dhabi tournament. His coaches drilled him on escapes, forcing him to tap endlessly for one week until Belcher figured it out and took the pain.
In Jersey, Belcher escaped – twice – and mounted Palhares with relentless ground and pound to finish the fight. He then told Joe Rogan that GSP’s title was coming home to the Bayou.
"You just have to ask the boss man where I’m at," said Belcher, motioning towards White. "I feel like I’m the best in the division, so whatever happens, let’s do it."
One would think even the most stubborn of followers expecting the big bang in everything and anything can be open to whatever White and Joe Silva create for later this year. What the UFC has now is young blood, the next generation ripe to invade the GSP and Spider Silva eras. The scariest thought is that Diaz may one day prove he’s better than Henderson or Edgar, or perhaps his close friend Glibert Melendez, in the lightweight class. Three fights into the FOX era, White has a reason to strut. His weight classes have depth, and as Louis Gaudinot showed, the flyweights are coming. The FOX four that aired on network TV said so, in spite of the ones who are never happy.
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