I love body shots. There is a horrible, wonderful noise generated when a professional athlete hits another professional athlete in the torso, a thudding slap of skeleton and meat. It sounds like a Foley artist's garish exaggeration of what you think a body shot should sound like. I love this sound.
Body shots deflate fighters. Sometimes this is a slow, gradual crumpling, like a helium balloon left hanging around your living room after a party. Over a series of hours or days, you check on it, and watch it wrinkle in time lapse. This happens to fighters over a matter of seconds. Their deadpan slowly contorts into just the slightest of grimaces, their hands inevitably work their way down, and their elbows pinch towards their sides, shielding their cores only half-voluntarily. Their breathing becomes labored and their movement slows. Sometimes this is catastrophic failure; sometimes it's momentary agony. Facial expressions range from agony to disbelief to terror. Fighters fold in half, jackknifing, reeling, or looking as though they may implode. There is a part of me that loves these reactions.
Wednesday night's UFC show in Atlantic City was the kind of really good card that the promotion occasionally runs out, seemingly just to show it can. These weren't, for the most part, significant fights, and lot of them were theoretical mismatches, ways to keep fighters working toward the fringes of title contention busy. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing. This card featured a whole lot of body shots, and nearly all of them were great.
The UFC has been widely criticized lately for just running too damn many shows, and there are all sorts of abstract reasons why this criticism is generally on point, ranging from concerns over cards padded out with regional-level fights to the difficulties the schedule poses to anyone who wants to track significant fighters across 10 different weight classes.
If this is true, though, it's also true that one of the reasons the promotion is running so many cards is that the sport has quickly outgrown what it was. Not only are there vastly more quality fighters around than there were a few years ago, even a lot of fairly routine fights feature techniques and moments that would, not so long ago, have been regarded as exceptional. Wednesday, this happened a lot, and when it happened, it tended to involve body shots.
There was bantamweight Aljamain Sterling showing off impressive athleticism in the opener, gripping Huge Viana's leg in a scramble as he blasted a shin across his belly. There was veteran Leslie Smith unleashing a ridiculous Tekken combo, including a series of knees and hooks to the body, to break prospect Jessamyn Duke's hand and fell her against the cage. There was lightweight Edson Barboza—a man whose résumé is, basically, "kicks things hard"—seeing an opening under Evan Dunham's arm and brushing his foot against his ribs with such force that Dunham's body decided it was time to shut down and call it a night.
This was all great, and it was great that these fights were among nine on the evening that ended in decisive finishes. Maybe the best two finishes, though—and certainly the best body work—came in two fights that were, actually, significant.
John Lineker is an imperfect fighter. He racked up a string of losses at higher weights earlier in his career, can be smothered by dominant grapplers, and has a storied history of repeatedly missing weight. While the weight issues have been ridiculous, and have held him down in the rankings, they're easy to forgive, because John Lineker is fantastic.
For fans of sports populated by huge bodies, like basketball or football, watching professional athletes who are 5'2", 126 lbs is unusual. Many fight fans dismiss the smaller weight classes out of hand. This is unfortunate, because they are missing all kinds of things, including John Lineker being fantastic.
The first thing you'll notice is the speed, which is so astounding that it can actually make the action hard to process. (In Lineker's case, this manifests most apparently in his hands, an anime blur of multi-level hooks and fluid uppercuts.) And then there's the scrambling permitted by a low center of gravity, and the coordination that often isn't seen in larger frames. Lineker's hips are tremendous, and he transitions from striking to grappling in a blink. But most importantly, if you were to avoid watching John Lineker solely because he is a tiny man, you would be deprived of witnessing surreal power.
Lineker is 5-2 in the UFC. Four of those wins are by (T)KO due to punches. He generates power that appears to be physically impossible for a man of his size. That power is coupled with blinding hand speed, and suffocating volume. This is a completely different force than the glacial crushing power of someone like Shane Carwin or Roy Nelson. This is sharp, and crisp, and it happens over and over again, very quickly.
On Wednesday, Lineker punched Alptekin Özkiliç very hard, many times, for 14 minutes and 51 seconds. He threw so many punches to the body that when the producers flashed a graphic for the statistic in the third round, it already read "29." Özkiliç is an incredibly tough guy, who put on a very entertaining fight, but he wasn't able to reliably secure takedowns, and nine seconds shy of 15 minutes is a very long time to get punched by Lineker. He collapsed just before the final horn, leaving Lineker ecstatic and everyone hoping that he can continue making weight and stuffing takedowns, so that we can partake in more of this tiny, violent joy.
If most of the night's bouts were minor affairs, the main event, between Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller, wasn't. The stakes here were straightforward. Coming in, Cerrone and Miller—two of the toughest and most consistently entertaining fighters in the game—were ranked no. 6 and no. 7, respectively, at lightweight. With both in their 30s and carrying a lot of wear on their bodies, it was obvious from the moment it was announced that this was the kind of fight that could, if things went a certain way, set the winner off toward a serious run at a title shot and consign the loser to a sort of no-man's land.
From the bell, it went basically as we had all hoped, given their propensities for technically sound violence. Miller, the somewhat more straightforward fighter, won an excellent and high-paced first round, in part by landing some solid punches, but Cerrone laid groundwork for a win, setting the tone early with step-in knees and front kicks—two techniques he's always excelled at—targeted low on Miller's abdomen. It was a head kick that finally stopped Miller, but it was body shots that beat him.
In the second round, Cerrone landed a series of sharp front kicks to the stomach. Miller sagged. He cringed and desperately shuffled, looking for space and time. Cerrone, who has superior finishing instincts, gave him neither, crowding in on him even as the referee, apparently concerned over a phantom low blow, stepped in to give Miller a moment to recover. Miller threw desperate punches, maybe in the hope of catching an overconfident Cerrone on the way in, but he was on a timer. Cerrone mixed up his kicks, and when Miller's hands dipped, he took the opportunity to crack Miller in the head with a high kick, notching his fourth straight win (and third this year) and walking away as casually if it had been a friendly, half-drunken brawl out behind some Colorado bar.
The UFC doesn't always make it easy to be a fan. Between the constant shouting about lab-created monsters and killers who are perpetually about to engage in the greatest fight of the year and the general sense you get of the promotion as a sentient #brand, it can be easy to forget that under all of it is an actual sport. Worse, it can be just as easy to forget that at its best, that sport can make for really compelling viewing. These moments of sports greatness don't always require championship belts, and don't always occur on a blockbuster PPV. Sometimes, pretty good fighters landing body shots on an average Wednesday night is all it takes.
Josh Tucker sometimes writes words. He mostly enjoys watching humans fight professionally, but is pretty conflicted about it. He's on Twitter @HugeMantis.
Photo via Associated Press