MANCHESTER, England, April 21 -- In a crammed MEN arena, Gabriel Gonzaga (Pictures) became the latest in an ever-growing list of fighters to prove that in mixed martial arts, above all other sports, nothing is sacred.
Even those who felt that the Brazilian grappling standout had a chance to upset the odds against Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic had to have felt that no victory would be gained without the four-time BJJ Brazilian national champion walking through fire against the lethal hands and feet of the Eastern European dynamo.
As it turned out, "Napao" made the whole thing look relatively simple, controlling almost every second of the four minutes and 51 seconds the bout lasted, before finishing the Croatian powerhouse with a high kick to the temple.
"I knew I was aiming for a knockout in this fight," Gonzaga said. "I saw the opportunity and took it."
"Cro Cop" entered to an enthusiastic reception from a Manchester crowd of 14,921 that seemed blissfully aware of what manner of fighter was gracing the night with his presence.
Yet it was the confident-looking Gonzaga who largely controlled the feeling out process, repeatedly throwing, if not landing, a straight right hand while giving the impression he was looking at setting up something altogether bigger. More importantly, he kept the 2006 PRIDE Open-Weight Grand Prix champion from getting set for his lethal left hand and nuclear-powered kicks.
Absorbing Filipovic's first kick of the night to the body, Gonzaga scored a solid takedown to get the lighter man exactly where he wanted him.
Controlling from half-guard, Gonzaga unleashed a busy ground-and-pound attack, mixing in punches with nasty looking elbows. Gonzaga maintained position, and dealt out a solid, steady beating that almost inevitably led to bleeding, which appeared to be coming from a cut somewhere close to the hairline.
With the round over four minutes old, and "Cro Cop" pressed against the fence eating punches, referee Herb Dean (Pictures) requested a surprising and somewhat controversial stand-up. The arena crackled with excitement as the bout entered Mirko's territory. The crowd waited for a bomb to drop, and sure enough, it did -- but it was the Croat that was the surprising recipient.
As soon as Gonzaga's leg smashed against Filipovic's temple, one knew there could be no possible way back. Falling limply to the canvas, out cold, the force of the kick almost turned the southpaw inside-out; there were a few worrying moments until, thankfully, he was able to come round, sufficiently enough to graciously deliver a post-fight interview.
The ecstatic Brazilian had delivered an almost flawless performance, and barely taken so much as a punch in anger for his trouble.
"I was right mentally and physically and I knew the knockout would come," Gonzaga said afterwards.
Sitting ringside was UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture (Pictures), who had likely been licking his chops at the prospect of taking on "Cro Cop" later in the year, will now likely have to contend with the powerful Brazilian instead.
As for Filipovic, it's unclear where he goes next, a fact duly acknowledged by the MMA legend moments later.
"I don't know," came his stoic response during the post-fight interview. It's likely he just had a bad night, but what is certain is that Gonzaga had a very good one.
Belarus' former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski (Pictures) and Brazilian PRIDE veteran Fabricio Werdum (Pictures) cancelled one anther out in a somewhat tepid three round heavyweight encounter, won unanimously by Arlovski.
After dropping Werdum with a grazing right uppercut in the first, Arlovski stalked throughout behind his jab, while working steady, if not particularly heavy low kicks.
It was clear that while the Belarusian wanted no real part of Werdum's ground game, Fabricio, bar the occasional flurry, was in no mood to stand toe-to-toe with the heavy-handed "Pitbull."
The bout slowed to something of a crawl by round three, and the heavyweight contenders endured the booing and slow-hand clapping of the crowd.
The bout served as a reminder of the fickleness of an MMA crowd; Arlovski, thunderously cheered into the ring, some 18 or so minutes later, found himself booed during the post-fight interview. Showing on-the-spot PR skills, the former UFC champ offered a heartfelt apology to the Manchester throng, which appeared to do the trick, as warm applause and cheering accompanied his departure from the cage.
In a night that he will never forget, Liverpool's immensely popular TUF 3 winner Michael Bisping (Pictures) entered the Octagon to an unforgettable roar of approval from the adoring MEN crowd.
The charming, quick-witted slugger had stated beforehand that he had every intention in relishing the occasion of fighting so close to home in a famous sporting arena like the MEN. He had also promised fireworks and his 14th straight stoppage victory, and achieved both aims in stopping Elvis Sinosic (Pictures) of Australia at 1:20 of the second round, though not without a few scares along the way.
Being an underdog and fighting away from home is viewed as little more than a minor occupational hazard for the Australian veteran, but he must have felt like a Christian being thrown to the lions with the sheer weight of the partisan reception he was subjected to.
After a bright start on the feet, Sinosic was quickly taken down by the Englishman and endured a heavy, one-sided pounding for the majority of the opening session. With Bisping blasting punches body to head from the half-guard, it wasn't long before the Australian's hair was dyed crimson red from cuts inflicted by cruel barrages from the British fighter.
Despite a couple of slick submission attempts from the bottom it had been a largely one-sided opening session, and ended with Bisping in the top position raining down more punishment on the gutsy Australian.
So brutalized was Sinosic from the five minutes of punishment he'd endured, he appeared unable or unwilling to rise from the canvas between rounds, while his cornermen feverishly worked on his cuts.
Moments into the second session, shockingly, it was Bisping on his back from a perfectly placed Sinosic knee, and now it was the Australian's turn to go into overdrive, landing punches on the downed local and quickly securing what looked like a tight Kimura.
Unable to force the tap, he quickly transitioned to Bisping's back, looking for a rear-naked choke. Bisping showed good defense, and reversed to the top position, while thousands of Brits breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Bisping had almost found himself on the losing end no fewer than three times in less than a minute, so with dominance regained, he wasted little time in pouring on a fight-ending flurry of strikes to force Steve Mazzagatti's timely intervention, much to the relief of the crowd.
"I didn't see the shot, I was like, what the **** was that?" admitted Bisping in reference to the knee strike that dropped him.
Bisping has been dubbed the "Ricky Hatton of MMA" and on the evidence of the frenetic battlers passionate support and the sheer energy and emotion of his performances, it's not difficult to see why.
Heavyweight's Cheick Kongo (Pictures) of France and Assuerio Silva (Pictures) of Brazil fought to a close majority decision edged by Kongo by two scores of 29-28 and one dissenting card of 28-28.
The first two rounds were virtual carbon copies of each other, with Kongo's stand-up dominating early before heavy slams saw the Frenchman deposited on the canvas in each round. Silva controlled from top position without doing any real damage.
Depending on whether you preferred Kongo's short spells of clear striking dominance, or Silva's longer but less effective control from the ground, it was easy to see why each round was open to interpretation.
The third round saw Kongo pressing the attack with a heavy assortment of strikes including high kicks, knees and a barrage of punches. Kongo found himself deposited on his back courtesy of another slam from the Brazilian strong man, but again Silva did little to advance the position and was quickly stood up, only to absorb more of the Frenchman's heavy leather.
He responded with another takedown, however this time Kongo reversed the position and ended the fight in control, dropping punches and elbows on Silva in steady but unspectacular fashion to eke out the victory.
Undefeated Brazilian phenom Ryoto Machida (Pictures) scored his second UFC victory with a steady, one-sided unanimous decision victory over undefeated American David Heath (Pictures).
In a similar manner to his previous bout against Sam Hoger (Pictures), Machida's defensive wiles and quick hands completely shut down a dangerous and useful opponent.
Machida's canny southpaw pot shots bring to mind boxing's former four-weight titlist Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whittaker. Much like Whittaker, when Machida decides to stay in close and punch away, he can do so almost unscathed while lightning reflexes and footwork that carry him harmlessly out of the way of the counters.
Heath was game, but just that one step behind throughout, and found himself on the canvas courtesy of a series of knees in the final round.
Machida dropped a few punches and elbows before effortlessly transitioning to side-control and then the mount before almost ending the bout with a rear-naked choke in the last few seconds of the round. Two judges scored 30-27 for Machida with the third tabbing him a clear 30-26 winner.
Machida may not be the world's most exiting fighter, but if there's a smoother craftsmen operating at 205 in MMA I can't think who he is.
Welterweights "Relentless" Paul Taylor (Pictures) of Walsall, England and Edilberto de Oliveira (Pictures) were the first men into the Octagon and the British fighter delighted the crowd by scoring a spectacular high kick highlight real of a KO over his Brazilian opponent.
Taylor largely dominated the stand up, showing excellent takedown defense, and solid composure when de Olivera briefly had his back in the standing position late in the first.
Crocata's jab and occasional overhand right proved little match for Taylor's crisper stand-up and greater variety. With Taylor gradually chopping away at the weakening Brazilian, the third round finish came as no real surprise, with the enthusiastic Taylor having to be virtually prized off his beaten opponent by the referee. The official time was 37 seconds of round three.
London Pancrase's head coach, Jess "The Joker" Liaudin had an easier time than expected with German-based Russian judoka Dennis Siver (Pictures).
Liaudin absorbed an early takedown before wrapping up the visiting fighter with a slick armbar to score an impressive victory at just 1:21 of the first.
Italian Alessio Sakara (Pictures) bounced back from consecutive UFC defeats to score a surprisingly easy first round stoppage over Canada's usually durable Victor Valimaki (Pictures).
After hurting Valimaki with a right, and dislodging his mouthpiece, the end came moments later when another thumping right dropped the Canadian in a heap against the cage. A brief follow-up flurry forced the intervention at 1:55 of the first.
Sakara, a 25-year-old former boxer, will be relieved to get back to winning ways after being quickly submitted by Dean Lister (Pictures) then blown out by Drew McFedries in his previous UFC appearances.
Terry Etim (Pictures) of Liverpool, England and Matt Grice of the USA put their 9-0 records on the line in an exciting lightweight clash. Etim staggered Grice early only to be taken down heavily and endure some stinging, ground-and-pound from the sharp fists and heavy elbows of the visiting fighter.
After enduring a rough three minutes or so, the lanky Etim finally escaped, and quickly secured a standing guillotine choke. The submission was locked in tight, and it took all of Grice's strength to bravely battle his way out. Cleary still dazed, a few more hammer fists followed before Etim secure a second guillotine, this time from the bottom, to put the American to sleep for a technical submission victory at 4:38 of the first round.
Spare a thought for London's David Lee (Pictures). The likeable lightweight submission fighter would be the only Englishman on the bill not to emerge victorious in his bout. American-based Brazilian Junior Assuncao (Pictures) saw to that with a dominating second round victory.
Assuncao rocked Lee early in the first and had his way with the brave Englishman before scoring a fight-ending rear-naked choke at 1:55 of the second. The aftermath told the tale of these two fighters who had both attempted to rebound from debut UFC defeats: Lee beside himself in tearful dismay with Assuncao knelt in prayerful repost just a few feet away.