The UFC, the bloody, primal, and seductive meat grinder of professional mixed martial arts, drew a crowd of 12,022 devotees to TD Garden Sunday night for some 6½ hours of boxing, jiu-jitsu moves, fence pinnings, elbow punches, and a smattering of tried-and-true rear-naked chokeholds.
When all the gore and hemoglobin oozed its way back into Aladdin's hammered lamp, former champion Dominick Cruz had reclaimed his bantamweight title, vanquished champ T.J. Dillashaw was grousing over his loss (by split decision), and the Causeway Street bull gang was in full sprint to return our city's prized floor to parqueted normalcy.
"I felt like I was countering well, I felt like he missed a lot,'' said the 30-year-old Cruz, who had ceded the title to Dillashaw because of injury and inactivity. "I had some sweet takedowns in there that were timed right. I kept the pace high, threw a lot of combinations.
"It just felt good to have the belt and know that I belong here.''
The more wiry, springy Dillashaw felt the 2-1 decision should have been his, a common lament of every fighter, bantam and behemoth alike. By his corner's count, he controlled the five-round championship bout for 18 of its total 25 minutes, and felt he pressed the fight as the aggressor, landed the more forceful blows.
"You wish the sport was a little bit better in knowing who's winning and who's not,'' said Dillashaw. "I thought I won that fight. But that's just the way it goes down, man. It's really frustrating.''
The most spirited and dramatic action between the heated foes came during a series of four takedowns, two of which Cruz scored in a span of some five seconds with about a minute gone in the second round, with chants of "Let's go, Cruz'' echoing in the building. But each time Cruz took him down, the strong and clever Dillashaw instantly slipped out, wary of being exposed to punches or chokeholds by his fellow Californian.
In the third round, Cruz again was able to tackle and land Dillashaw, right in the center of the ring. For a few seconds he actually gained control in the dominant position. But again, Dillashaw was too strong, too smart, too talented to be his quarry.
After about 10 seconds, Dillashaw reversed out of it, even gained a momentary advantage, and then the two sprung back upright like a couple of Pixar characters. All night long, neither combatant could claim a sustained, punishing territorial edge.
Dillashaw, in fact, needed until the fourth round to score his first takedown, bringing Cruz to the ground along the fence and keeping him pinned against it for nearly a full minute, both fighters clearly fatigued. Not a lot happened for those 60 seconds, and for all the bother, Dillashaw came out of it bloodied, a cut opened near his left eye.
Because of a rash of injuries, Cruz, who hasn't lost in the octagon in nearly 10 years (March 2007), had not fought since September 2014, which stood as his only match in four-plus years until taking to the cage at 12:07 a.m. Monday to face Dillashaw. He looked cautious and rusty at times, especially in the fifth round when a case of plantar fascia tendinitis flared up in his left foot. He moved well, but with a limp, ducking repeated Dillashaw strike attempts.
"When the rain stops, everything starts growing — the flowers, the grass,'' waxed Cruz, glad to be out from under the torrential storm of injuries. "So now I am standing in the grass, I am standing in the flowers. It's a nice feeling. It's going to rain again, it's just a matter of time. It's just a matter of getting through the rainy season.''
There were a dozen other bouts Sunday, including an early prelim that had Peabody's Charles Rosa beating down fellow Bay Stater Kyle Bochniak (Gloucester) for a unanimous decision.
But the bout that ultimately gained the most attention, and left some in the crowd shielding their eyes, was the Travis Browne-Matt Mitrione heavyweight match, the second on the main card. The referee twice had to call timeouts in the early going when Browne inadvertently poked a finger in Mitrione's right eye. The first poke came with five seconds remaining in Round 1, the second with 1:14 gone in Round 2. Each time, after Mitrione was checked out by doctors, the fight resumed.
"In the cage, I was apologizing up and down to Matt,'' said Browne. "That's not my game, you know, I am not a dirty fighter. Even in the fight, I was saying, 'Matt, I am really sorry. Obviously I am not trying to do that.' He said, 'Dude, it's all right, I am jumping in on you, it just happened.' One of those things, man. It's an accident.''
It got uglier, in fact, grotesque. Late in the third round, Browne dropped his fellow giant along the fence with roughly 2:40 left on the clock. Exhausted, his eye throbbing, Mitrione could do little but cover up with Browne straddled on top of him, punching body and head. Finally, the ref called it with 51 seconds remaining, Browne declared winner by TKO.
Spent, humbled, and hurting, Mitrione eventually gained his feet, as a gasp came over the crowd. Hit again prior to falling, Mitrione looked as if he had stumbled straight from Dr. Frankenstein's lab.
The lid over his right eye, twice poked and then pummeled, bulged out to golf ball proportions. He remained in the ring long enough for Browne to be announced the winner, then dashed to a local hospital to have the eye examined. According to Dana White, president and part-owner of UFC, he also sustained a separated shoulder.
It was the third time the UFC has pulled into North Station. The crowd was smaller than many expected, the loge full but the upper bowl at no more than one-third capacity. However, according to White, the gross take in ticket sales was $1.3 million, for an average ticket price of about $108. More than likely, we'll see Aladdin's lamp back here soon.