UFC 152 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto
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UFC 152 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto

A mixed martial arts love story.

Jimy Hettes tries unsuccessfully to trap Marcs Brimage in a rear naked choke during a preliminary bout of UFC 152 in Toronto. Photo by Nancy Paiva.

UFC 152, held on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre, began much sooner than the pay-per-view event’s scheduled start time—even earlier than the first televised prelims went live. Starting at 6:45 p.m., three preliminary bouts were broadcast exclusively on Facebook, and these opening matches were incredibly fine examples of the diversity and excitement that categorized the card as a whole.

Facebook prelims

A mere 45 seconds into the very first welterweight bout, Kyle Noke somewhat controversially defeated Charlie Brenneman with a technical knockout (TKO). Brenneman was adamant that although his body briefly went limp he was not unconscious, and the ref’s stoppage had been premature; his frustration was palpable and would provide fodder for debate throughout the night. Next, barely over a minute into the second match, Mitch Gagnon caught fellow bantamweight Walel Watson in a crushing rear naked choke. The third Facebook prelim made it all the way to the fourth minute of the first round before welterweight Seth Baczynski defeated Simeon Thoresen with a devastating knockout punch that left us, and those audience members that arrived early, screaming. All three finishes were sudden and dramatic, but each was the result of a completely different strategy. The Facebook prelims neatly highlighted how unpredictable the sport can be, and how sudden, careful sizing up of one’s opponent can erupt into a spectacular display.

The rest of the night featured more decisions than finishes, which many—preferring clear finishes settled in the cage over fights that go to the judges—found frustrating. Nonetheless, the experience throughout was riveting.

FX prelims

After those first matches, featherweight Marcus Brimage defeated Jimy Hettes by unanimous decision, the result of Brimage effectively stifling his opponent’s every effort to execute his game plan, refusing to allow the grappler to keep him on the ground, and instead turning the fight into a stand-up affair. Canadian welterweight Sean Pierson won a dramatic decision over Lance Benoist: after dominating the first two rounds, Pierson was caught with a nasty left to the jaw in the final minute of the round that sent him into survival mode, hanging on for the victory.

Lightweights TJ Grant and Evan Dunham put on a vicious performance that would ultimately take fight-of-the-night honours. At the conclusion of the bout, Dunham’s face was covered in blood after one of Grant’s knees opened a nasty cut in the middle of his forehead. The only finish of the second set of prelims came via submission when the returning Vinny Magalhães caught Igor Pokrajac with a beautiful arm-bar a little more than a minute into the second round, demonstrating with confidence that he has the skills to survive in the UFC.

This set of fights was full of drama and excitement, to be sure, but also illustrated the bloody chess match that MMA can be, as each fighter pits his specific skill set against another combatant with as much precision and forethought as possible, while simultaneously being flexible enough to respond to whatever his opponent throws at him.

The main card

The main card proved to be a near-perfect example of why fight fans will gladly bear the expense of pay-per-view to catch UFC: some events are so absorbing in their intensity and operatic in their narrative drama that waiting to see them, or missing them entirely, is simply not an option.

The first fight of the main card kicked off with fireworks, as Cub Swanson caught Charles Oliviera with a vicious punch to the temple that caused the fighter’s body to fold up as if all his joints had been suddenly clipped, but on a weird second-and-a-half delay after the blow actually landed. Swanson would later say he had “never seen a guy fall like that in an actual fight.”

The closest thing to a dull moment came in the following light heavyweight match. Matt Hamill slowly ground out Roger Hollett over the course of three gruelling rounds, which displayed both Hamill’s ring rust (he hasn’t competed in over a year) and the fact that he, coming to the UFC after a stint in Bellator and Canada’s MFC, was completely outclassed. Luckily, the drama of the middleweight match between Michael Bisping and Brian Stann quickly reignited any cooling emotions. While the smack talk frequently flew between the two fighters leading up to the event (mainly from Bisping), the fight was an absolutely beautiful example of two intense, driven, physical fighters pushing themselves to their absolute limits. While Bisping eventually defeated Stann by unanimous decision, the profound respect the two men had for each other as competitors stood out as strongly as Bisping’s hand speed and footwork. The win puts Bisping firmly in the upper echelon of the middleweight division, and possibly in line for a title shot.

History was made at UFC 152 when Demetrious Johnson defeated Joseph Benavidez in a wild and action-packed five-round fight that displayed both fighters’ inhuman speed, endurance, and guts. In the end, Johnson was simply faster, more dynamic, and more technical than Benavidez, though both men kept the fight intense and incredibly competitive to the end (a fact that was reflected in the split-decision victory, with one judge apparently rewarding Benavidez’s heart). Although audience members were hungry for a finish and at times expressed their frustration in the form of some unwarranted booing, this fight proved definitively that the featherweight division is an exciting addition to the UFC.

The light heavyweight championship battle

The main event of UFC 152—a title fight to decide the fate of the light heavyweight belt—was guaranteed to be entertaining, but no one could have anticipated to exactly what degree. Former champion Vitor Belfort, who last held the belt five years ago and was considered by many to be outclassed by the new breed of competitor, embodied in his opponent Jon Jones, put up more of a fight than anyone could have anticipated. He surprised Jones with an arm-bar in the first round that nearly ended the fight; Jones was ultimately able to free himself, but not without sustaining significant damage to his elbow in the process. The fight lasted well into the fourth round, with Belfort surviving more than one round of vicious elbows and Jones’s lanky striking and reach advantage; he was eventually forced to tap out due to an Americana (arm lock), which earned Jones a submission of the night nod as well. The fight was more competitive than critics predicted, with the near-shocking submission by Belfort on the dominant champion, and nerve-wracking to the end, a testament to the skill and courage of both men.

The skill behind the sport

MMA is very much a sport designed for the contemporary attention span. The matches are short and sharp, containing the promise and tension that something extraordinary could happen at any moment. As well, there’s the appeal of the fighters themselves, the very human stories and dramas that form the background to these events. While the spectacle, pageantry, and outlandishness of the UFC give it a great deal of flash and fun, it is the sport’s humanity and skill that will ultimately make it successful in its bid for mainstream status.

There is more to the UFC’s reaching for this much-mystified “mainstream” than simple financial success. It is also a matter of reaching a larger and more varied audience, and turning more of them into passionate fans. There is, in other words this problem: MMA is a somewhat misunderstood sport, and the reality of competition doesn’t match the expectations of someone who might be unfamiliar with its specifics, intricacies, and nuances. The prevailing notion—that MMA is a vicious and brutal sport that’s as straightforward as it is violent—still remains. Many people assume, falsely, that the primary pleasure of watching a mixed martial arts match derives from sheer bloodlust—the cathartic, gladiatorial pleasure of watching two men do their best to physically beat and dominate each other—and that somehow, the enjoyment of such a sport is base and primal, something to be vaguely ashamed of.

There is violence in mixed martial arts, of course—it is a combat sport. But there is also grace, strategy, honour, and intelligence. It requires rigorous training and extraordinary mental fortitude, a combination of disciplined preparation and sheer heart. Fighters need to be extremely well-rounded athletes, possessed of both endurance and power. As a sport, MMA is a precise balance of ceremony, celebration, and risk.

It’s a balance that many Torontonians got to see in person this weekend, and hopefully UFC 152—remarkable for its exciting and varied action and for its subtlety, marked by drama, and extraordinary performances—made it easier for them to see just why MMA can be so compelling.

Additional reporting by David Demchuk.

CORRECTION: September 24, 2012, 3:56 PM In a previous version of this post, we misspelled David Demchuk’s name. Torontoist regrets the error.