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Bloody battles come to Causeway with UFC Fight Night

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UFC president Dana White signed UFC banners during Fight Night on Sunday evening.Dina Rudick

The hardest, dirtiest, most punishing job he ever did cannot be found on his tidy, estimable UFC résumé. Nor is it directly related to the sport. By contrast, a goatlike kick to the gut or a knockout punch landed squarely on the jaw might seem like light lifting.

The job was asphalt, lugging it, in a wheelbarrow, as fast as his feet could fly. Long before Dana White was named UFC president in 2001, he lived in South Boston and worked each summer for EJ Paving in Wakefield, where his most challenging task was racing around with hot asphalt to aid crews in shaping curbs at edges of roads or sidewalks.

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"The key piece to all of it was the berm machine,'' recalled White, 46, whose hugely popular UFC machinery made its third visit Sunday night to TD Garden. "If it stops because there isn't enough asphalt in there, then the curb falls apart, and everyone has to go put it back together by hand. And you know what? The guys will kill you if that happens, man! I mean, they will Kill You!''

UFC, the most violent, demanding, and bloodiest of professional sports, brought some of the world's best mixed martial artists to the Causeway Street octagon.

The third match of the night's 13-bout card was among the best of the early clashes, with Peabody's Charles Rosa defeating fellow Massachusetts featherweight Kyle Bochniak, favorite son of Gloucester, in a three-round decision.

Rosa, who goes by "Boston Strong'' bloodied Bochniak in the early going, a red river streaming from Bochniak's nose. With 2:00 to go in the final round, Rosa staggered Bochniak momentarily with a solid left hand, but it wasn't enough to finish him.

Both brawlers hammered away in the final 30 seconds, the crowd frenzied for the favorite sons. Rosa was awarded a tight unanimous decision, 29-28, 29-28, and 30-27.

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"He's a super tough kid and he forced me to fight a little bit smarter,'' said Rosa, who fought here a year ago in his Hub UFC debut. "Being able to fight in Boston again was a dream come true.''

The quickest bout of the night followed immediately when light heavyweight Ilir Latifi rubbing out Sean O'Connell in a mere 30 seconds of the first round.

Latifi connected with a pair of right hands in the center of the ring, the first one sending O'Connell skittering backward and tumbling to the canvas. As O'Connell began to fall to the mat, Latifi pounced with his next right hand for the finish and the referee jumped in immediately to call it quits.

O'Connell was visibly upset that the bout was stopped, but had it not been, Latifi could have hammered him into early summer, if not foliage season.

"That went exactly the opposite of how I planned it,'' O'Connell said in a more sober moment later in the evening.

In the main event, which started after midnight on Monday morning, Dominick Cruz beat TJ Dillashaw in a split decision. Broadcast on Fox's FS1, the Dillashaw-Cruz bantamweight battle was the non-pay-per-view title bout ever offered by FS1 to UFC's ever-growing, voracious audience.

It's that berm-machine-like work ethic, learned by White when he was a sinewy 130-pound twentysomething in search of a career, that in part helped him shape the UFC into what has become a multimillion-dollar enterprise, seen all over the world. According to White, he never worked harder or grew weaker on a job, rendering him some days too hot, too depleted even to eat.

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"You would just drink,'' he recalled during an oft-animated and thoroughly engaging 45-minute interview with the Globe prior to Sunday's bouts. "You didn't even want to think about food, it was so hot. Just the idea of food would make you sick. I will credit that job to a lot of my success. No doubt about it.''

Tommy Evangelista, president of EJ Paving, recalled last week that the young, hard-driven White often arranged wrestling matches among the paving crew during their breaks on job sites.

In turn, White credits the 52-year-old Evangelista, a former UMass-Lowell hockey player, for creating competition at those same sites — and it's easy to see that it all served as a template for the sports-entertainment behemoth that White and partners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta would construct after buying the sagging UFC brand for $2 million in 2001.

"EJ [Evangelista] was really good at getting all these young testosterone-filled guys to try to compete against each other, find out who was best,'' noted White, his UFC, if nothing else, the sports world's premier showcase for the male hormone. "He was good at playing guys like that to get them to work harder for him.''

The harder they competed, Evangelista said, the harder they worked, the faster the jobs were completed, the greater his company's earnings.

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"No prizes, other than ego,'' said Evangelista, who first met White by chance encounter, when the latter was working the door as a Black Rose bouncer. "Maybe an ego prize, I guess. It gave them bragging rights for the ride back in the truck.''

The crew competitions, Evangelista recalled, included who could push the most wheelbarrows full of asphalt in a day, also who could get through the day without spilling a load — known as a "fallover.''

Impressive, Evangelista agreed, that one of the kids who once bought into wheelbarrow bingo now is part owner and overseer of a UFC enterprise valued in the billions. According to White, he and his partners have turned down multiple offers to sell, with recent bids reaching $4 billion.

"He invited a few of us out to Vegas the first year he was getting it off the ground,'' Evangelista said. "Amazing to see how it's grown. Just a great guy, too. He stays in touch with a bunch of us, has not changed a single bit.''

The long-ago EJ Paving competition for bragging rights remains weaved through all of White's UFC shows, with fighters on every card vying for four $50,000 bonuses above their contractual take.

Two of those bonuses go to the pair of fighters deemed to have put on the card's best fight. The other two are doled out for delivering the knockout of the night or scoring the event's best submission. The UFC is a hungry man's game.

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The money theme is also central to a pre-event speech White delivers after the event's weigh-in, which took place here Saturday afternoon at the Wang Theater.

A man of boundless energy and a driven passion for a sport he almost singlehandedly resurrected from renegade to mainstream, White gathers all the fighters around him and focuses their full attention on their next day's performance and what it might mean.

"I tell the guys what's at stake, why we are here, what everyone is coming to see,'' White said. "If [fans] see what they have come to see, what the repercussions of that are, how this can build. Sometimes I will throw in a story about other [fighters] it has happened to. I mean, I love this [expletive]. I love this [expletive]. I love it.''

Fighting on the UFC "Fight Pass'' pay platform before the live show began to play on FS1, Philly Irishman Paul Felder, with a degree in theater arts from Philadelphia's University of the Arts, scored a dramatic submission of Daron Cruickshank late in the third round.

As Cruickshank stood up from the mat after a prolonged grapple, with Felder sealed to his back like a sea barnacle, he fought to shake the death grip of a chokehold Felder wrapped around his neck. Cruickshank bravely tried to hold up, but eventually slumped to his knees, out of time and, more important, out of oxygen.

Felder, ecstatic over his win and fighting off tears, jumped from the mat and hopped on to the top of the fence to revel in his win.

''He was going to go to sleep if he didn't let go,'' said Felder.

Felder said he has heard the White pep talk four or five times, and it has yet to grow old.

"He just lays it right out there, I'm telling you, he can light up a room,'' said Felder. "And man, coming from him, you believe it. You're thinking, 'You're right, I'm here because I am one of the best fighters in the world.' And he'll say it, flat out, 'Go get it if you want to cash those checks and bonuses.'

"It's crazy. I think he could make a living just as a motivational speaker. He tells you, 'Go out there and lay it on the line,' and the guys who do are the ones who get paid. The first couple of times I heard it, I got goosebumps, man.''

White's traveling salvation show will be back in Boston, although no date has been fixed on the calendar.

The sport, too bloody and gruesome and unregulated to play nearly anywhere when he and the Fertittas took ownership, now plays in every state save for New York. A recent event in Australia drew more than 50,000 and produced a gate, White said, of more than $12 million.

Everyone in the world loves a good fight, White said. He likes to think the fight gene is in everyone's DNA.

"It's the one sport that crosses all cultural barriers and language barriers,'' he said. "I don't care what color you are, what country you come from, what language you speak. We are all human beings. It is in our DNA. We get it, and we like it.

"There isn't a place on this planet that you will go, that someone doesn't know Mike Tyson, that someone doesn't know who Muhammad Ali is. Bruce Lee died in the [expletive] '70s, and everybody knows who Bruce Lee is. Everybody! Kids today know who Bruce Lee is! Because as humans, we are fascinated by who the toughest people in the world are. We are fascinated.

"It's the one sport that works everywhere, and everybody gets it.''

Fighters Rob Fort (left) and Joey Gomez grappled during their bout Sunday.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.