weather icon Clear

Gloves off: Ultimate Fighting has boxing on ropes

The national magazine covers were important. Critical even. The obsession from a fan base that borders on demented in its hunger for violence only increases the level of insanity. But if you want to know what has brought UFC from a dying niche sport six years ago into a worldwide mainstream of interest that today reaches beyond some fixed demographic, it’s this:

Of five fights on the UFC 71 card at the MGM Grand Garden on Saturday night, four were won by underdogs.

This is what UFC has all over boxing (besides undercards that don’t put you to sleep quicker than Tylenol PM), a truth that the sport’s most critical figure, its dominant fighter and the face that has introduced mixed martial arts to millions, can be floored not two minutes into a main event and no one is all that shocked.

Chuck Liddell lost his light heavyweight belt to Quinton Jackson because he made a mistake, got caught by a right hand he never saw and didn’t realize the fight was over until the referee saved his face from all sorts of potential damage. The last time Liddell looked this lost in a cage, he was trading lines with Johnny Drama on “Entourage.”

It would have been like Oscar De La Hoya knocking out Floyd Mayweather Jr. on May 5 with a flurry of first punches, had a flurry of anything been thrown that night.

Not an hour before Jackson proclaimed himself the world’s best UFC fighter (and who’s crazy enough to argue with someone with a chain hanging around his neck large enough to secure a warehouse?), some guy named Houston Alexander made his UFC debut with a less-than-intimidating media bio that spoke of his community work and job as a radio broadcaster.

He was a plus-300 underdog in fighting Keith Jardine in a three-round bout that was thought to be such a huge mismatch even some individuals from the Nevada Athletic Commission felt it unworthy of pay-per-view stature.

Jardine is a rising UFC star. People spoke of him as a future opponent for Liddell. Alexander knocked him out 48 seconds into the first round, meaning some previously unknown guy made anyone willing to bet on him some money.

It’s important that UFC fighters Saturday threw more punches getting their hands wrapped than either De La Hoya or Mayweather did during their over-hyped fight. It’s exciting to think of the possibility for more blood spilling over three rounds than in an entire night at your average hospital emergency room.

But the not-yet-hooked fan undoubtedly will love this fact: In the last four UFC pay per views, the main event underdog has won.

It was Thursday afternoon when UFC president Dana White held those two magazines up like a proud new father of twins. His smile was bigger than you would see on any toothpaste commercial. Niche sports officially enter the mainstream about as often as De La Hoya runs low on cash, so the moment’s significance was hardly lost on the man who has delivered UFC into the kind of national spotlight few would have forecast when he purchased the fading discipline.

“We’ve made it,” White said. “We’ve gone over the tipping point.”

This is what making the covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine in the same week does for a sport that has waited and hoped and demanded and now deserved such exposure. Right or wrong, the perception is now that UFC matters to a far larger audience than before. The reality is even more promising.

UFC 71 wasn’t just another large step forward for a sport whose ceiling for advancement is still too high to clearly identify. It was the first event after the recent torrent of publicity it had yet to receive, critical to a sport that is still new in the sense its first pay-per-view card was in 1993.

Liddell was fighting and everything. The face of UFC. The ultimate star.

He was down and done not two minutes into the first round.

“The only problem we have is that we’re growing too fast,” White said. “I did envision this. I really did. Now, we finally have the acceptance from a mainstream audience.

“We’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I don’t care what you are — baseball, football, basketball, boxing, UFC — that’s a big deal. We’re climbing, man. We’re climbing and climbing.”

With no clear picture of who might win next. It’s what UFC has all over boxing.

One of many things, really.

Ed Graney’s column is published Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Covering The Cage Videos
Dana White signs four fighters to the UFC - Video
Four fighters were put under contract with the UFC following their performances at Dana White's Contender Series on Tuesday night at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas.
Contender Series fighters react to being signed to the UFC
After making history as the first batch of winners to all earn contracts following their performances at Dana White's Contender Series, the fighters react to making it to the UFC.
Dana White signs all five winners at Contender Series
For the first time in the three-season history of Dana White's Contender Series, every winning fighter earned a UFC contract. Maki Pitolo, Joe Solecki, Antonio Trocoli, Hunter Azure and Jonathan Pearce impressed the UFC brass and were awarded contracts by the UFC president.
Jones says he was confident he secured a win over Santos at UFC 239 - Video
UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones continued his reign by taking a split decision victory over Thiago Santos at UFC 239. He discusses the close call and entertains the idea of a trilogy bout with Daniel Cormier. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
UFC 239 recap: Jones and Nunes retain their titles - VIDEO
Jon Jones and Amanda Nunes both retained their titles at UFC 239. Jones took a decision over Thiago Santos in the main event and Nunes scored a first-round knockout of Holly Holm. Jorge Masvidal also made promotional history on July 6 by scoring a 5-second knockout over Ben Askren. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Amanda Nunes on her win over Holly Holm at UFC 239 - Video
Amanda Nunes talks about continuing her reign as a two-division champion in the UFC after defeating Holly Holm with a head kick in the first round of their title bout at UFC 239. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
UFC 239: Masvidal makes UFC history with 5-second knockout - Video
Jorge Masvidal discusses his history-making knockout of Ben Askren at UFC 239 and makes his case for a shot at the welterweight title next. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fighters at UFC 239 react to the 7.1 earthquake - Video
Fighters at UFC 239 talk about what they experienced when the 7.1 earthquake was felt in Las Vegas on Friday night. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
UFC 239 Ceremonial Weigh-in Staredowns - Video
All fighters competing at UFC 239 on July 6 at the T-Mobile Arena faced off against each other one last time before their bouts take place. In the main event, Jon Jones will put his light heavyweight belt on the line against Thiago Santos. In the co-main event, Amanda Nunes will look to continue her reign as the women's bantamweight champion when she takes on Holly Holm.
UFC 239: Jon Jones says he wants to make a statement - VIDEO
Prior to UFC 239, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones says he's trying to challenge himself, set his own records to establish his legacy and explains how he's become comfortable with where he is in his career. He will put his title on the line in the main event against Thiago Santos. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
UFC 239 Official Weigh-in Results
All 24 fighters competing at UFC 239 on July 6 at the T-Mobile Arena made weight at the official weigh-in at the New York-New York hotel-casino on Friday. The main event features UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones putting his belt on the line against Thiago Santos. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
UFC 239 Preview: Jones vs. Santos
Prior to UFC 239, the Review-Journal's Adam Hill and Heidi Fang break down the main event between Jon Jones and Thiago Santos for the light heavyweight title, the co-main championship tilt between Holly Holm and reigning bantamweight queen Amanda Nunes, and preview a feature bout between Ben Askren and Jorge Masvidal. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
UFC 239 media day: Masvidal says he has faced tougher competition than Askren
Ahead of facing rising UFC welterweight Ben Askren, promotional veteran Jorge Masvidal says he's faced tougher opponents in the past. Askren says don't be shocked by his approach to the fight at UFC 239 on July 6 at the T-Mobile Arena. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
UFC 239 open workouts: Jones thanks fans for support through his dark times
At UFC 239 open workouts, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones thanked fans for their support during his "controversial moments" and says he wants to be more active through 2020. His challenger Thiago Santos says he will "shock the world" on July 6 and be the new division champion. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
UFC 239 open workouts: Holm wants to shock her naysayers
Holly Holm will look to reclaim the UFC women's bantamweight title when she faces two-division champion Amanda Nunes in the co-main event of UFC 239 at the T-Mobile Arena on July 6. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
White: I'm looking for different things on this show - VIDEO
UFC president Dana White spoke with media following the second episode of the third season of his show "Dana White's Contender Series". He explained why he signed the two fighters he did after their performances and discussed the heat he's taking for not signing Brendan Loughnane last week. (Heidi Fang / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
UFC's Francis Ngannou says he never doubted himself after losses - Video
UFC heavyweight Francis Ngannou will face Junior dos Santos at UFC on ESPN 3 in Minneapolis, Minn., on June 29 in a bout that could determine the next title contender. After losing in a title bout to Stipe Miocic in 2018, Ngannou says he never doubted himself. He also talks about meeting former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dana White on Contender Series contracts: "I'm looking for killers." - Video
On opening night at the UFC's newest facility, the UFC Apex, the promotion signed Punahele Soriano and Yorgan De Castro to contracts after their performances on Dana White's Contender Series. UFC president Dana White explains why he signed the fighters he did. (Heidi Fang / Las Vegas Review-Journal)