Despite no headliner, UFC delivers from Sweden
The other night I turned on the TV and there was a college lacrosse game on. I instinctively, even robotically, went to the channel guide and started foraging for something more up my alley. But as I did, the lacrosse was still going on up in the corner of my screen, and pretty soon I found myself engaged. So I watched the rest of the game, then ended up getting involved in a Europa Cup soccer match between English and Russian sides. I had no dog in this fight, either, but it kept my rapt attention until the ref blew the final whistle.
Sometimes you just have to like sports, no matter who's playing.
Such was the case with Saturday's UFC event in Stockholm. If you were drawn in by the driving story line of Alexander Gustaffson gunning for a light heavyweight title shot before his home fans, well, you were out of luck. The big Swede sustained a facial cut in training last weekend and was declared unfit to fight by the sanctioning federation. The show would go on, of course, but without the locally grown star power, without the big-picture implications, without the buzz.
Fans had to find another reason to watch. Such as: Sometimes you just have to like watching a fight, no matter who's fighting.
Those who like to watch were rewarded. Not so much with the reconstituted main event, in which the highlight was watching Ilir Latifi, a late substitute largely unknown outside Sweden, walk out to the Rocky theme (of course).
After that it was all Gegard Mousasi. The former Dream and Strikeforce champion, also making his UFC debut, didn't fall into any Apollo Creed pitfalls. He calmly picked apart "The Sledgehammer" and left the guy's face a bloody mess on the way to a ho-hum unanimous-decision win at Ericsson Globe Arena.
There was plenty more fighting, however, for those who like to watch. There was the bout that over the last couple of days had got an online buzz going as "the real main event." There was the appearance of a man whom blow-by-blow announcer Mike Goldberg referred to on the Fuel TV telecast as "Sweden's most popular fighter." (What have you done for us lately, Alexander Gustaffson?) There was a brief "Meathead" sighting. There was a fight involving a guy named Couture ... and it was his UFC debut.
The real main event: Conor McGregor, an Irish featherweight who came in with 11 knockouts in his 12 career wins, did what he does. A day after getting riled up at the weigh-ins and inciting a shoving match with Marcus Brimage, he calmly stalked his opponent, connecting with a series of uppercuts which finished the job in just 1:09. It was his 10th first-round finish.
"You can't let emotions get in the way, and I think Marcus got a little bit emotional with the Irish supporters getting on his back and all," he said afterward.
What about his own emotions after stepping off the scale? "This is the first time I've ever experienced something like this, you know?" said McGregor. "It was like the WWE to me. It was all a little game. I was playing a game. When I get in here, it's the same thing. Just keep calm."
Sweden's most popular fighter: Reza Madadi is Iranian by birth, but apparently he's endeared himself to the Scandinavians. Perhaps it's because of his toughness, as he was rocked by a Michael Johnson head kick late in the first round, but survived and went on to choke out Johnson at 1:33 of Round 3.
Or maybe what's made Madadi so popular is his sense of humor.
How hurt was he in the first round? "Very hurt. He got me. Not 100 percent. Ninety-nine."
That bad, eh? "I was totally gone. But, you know, when you don't have any brain in your head ..."
So who do you want next? "Doesn't matter. Whatever Dana White or Mr. Joe Silva offer me." A brief pause, then: "But I really wanna go, 'Give me the belt!' Nah, just joking."
Hmm, maybe what Goldberg meant to say about Madadi is that he's Sweden's most popular standup comedian.
Meathead: That's the nickname of Matt Mitrione. It's a name that a lot of people would be bothered by. But Mitrione doesn't seem to mind. So maybe it's the right nickname.
Meathead or not, Mitrione was smart enough to know he needed a win. After starting his career 5-0, he'd lost his last two bouts and was out of the game for a long spell in between. His last victory was way back in June 2011. That's a good way to be a forgotten man, especially in the current UFC environment, with the body count mounting as the roster trims.
Mitrione wasted no time in making his continued presence known, flooring Phil de Fries and pummeling him until the referee pulled him away just 19 seconds in.
Couture debut: Ryan Couture looked a little like his illustrious daddy at times in his co-main event lightweight bout with Ross Pearson. A little. In strategy if not success.
Couture, who'd won four straight before the demise of Strikeforce, spent much of the fight bullying the Brit against the cage. But unlike the withering dirty boxing of Randy Couture, Junior's was unable to inflict any damage or even wear down Pearson.
That ended up costing the younger Couture, as Ross patiently waited for his moment to pounce, then did in the second round when Ryan fell to the mat after missing a kick. Pearson jumped on him and softened him up, and even when Couture regained his feet, it was a temporary stay of execution. Pearson floored him with a wild left hook, and flurried until the fight was waved off at 3:45.