Let’s start with the end: Dana White bolted. And it was hard to blame him.
The crowd in Vancouver streamed out before Demetrious Johnson ever tried the spinning heel kick that Joe Rogan said came out of nowhere (a fatigue statement; all things have origin). And you know what? Can’t blame them, either.
Johnson wasn’t on autopilot by the fifth round, but by then it was clear that "Mighty Mouse" wasn’t going to lose, that the pattern was in place, and that a finish was out of the question. He was full of well-executed shutter-speed technique, full of nuance for the connoisseur, an action figure of precision for the little dude fetishists, but Ali Bagautinov had just enough nugatory in him to persevere. Dagestan, sambo and the mysteries of the Caspian Sea and all that.
That result, as much as we kept saying "but then again, remember Dillashaw!" was expected.
What wasn’t expected was the blood curdle. There was a woman…a banshee?...a happy hour straggler ten-deep in Kokanee beers?...a mourning Vancouver phantom?...screaming Hieronymus Bosch screams throughout the fight. For what reason was never discerned, but the joke flooded in on Twitter that Rory MacDonald -- that unnervingly quiet lad with the Huey Lewis record collection -- might be on a blood spree.
MacDonald, who grew up in British Columbia, was superb though. He turned in his most surgical performance to date in taking apart Tyron Woodley. He was changing levels, cutting angles, throwing high kicks, front kicks, leg kicks, jabs in volumes, elbows from the clinch, ranging crosses and knees from coils, and it got to the point that Woodley became gun shy and unsure. He checked out along the way, and just when he needed urgency in the third round it looked like he resolved to just get through.
White saw it as Woodley chokes in big spots. The truth was, MacDonald showed up in the biggest fight of his career. Now he’s "as close to a title shot as you can get" without getting a title shot. Next guy to face Johny Hendricks will be the winner of Matt Brown and Robbie Lawler. MacDonald will toil on.
The night was already spinning by Ares’ fight, though. Ryan Bader treated Rafael Cavalcante as a tackling dummy at the combine. When he wasn’t mugging Feijao on the fence and completely neutralizing the selling point of fights (the "threat"), he was exploding into Feijao’s knees like a linebacker taking out a scatback on a sweep. It was impressive stuff by Bader. But also a signal of the one-time Strikeforce champion Cavalcante’s decline. Like all things in the fight game, it depends on how you want to look at it.
And what an inauspicious return it was for Andrei Arlovski after six years away. He kept the guns holstered against Brendan Schaub, spending time on the outside in safe-from-knockout range, and only closing the distance to tie him up on the chain links. He didn’t like his performance, and neither did White, but somehow the pride of Belarus won anyway. The whole thing was too sparing of action, too much like heavyweight ambient music for it to be called a robbery. The only evidence that he was there at all was in Schaub's reconfigured features.
There was a gash over Schaub’s left eye and the right side of his face was drooping to his shoulder blades. Tim Tebow, seated cageside, wore a look of alarm. White said the fans lost on that one.
But they were already losing with Ryan Jimmo, who would perform no robot on this night. Instead he sort of verbally tapped out in the second round against Ovince St. Preux, a broken arm that he thinks happened from a kick but nobody is too sure. It certainly wasn’t the chicken wing, as OSP thought it might be. That was the first course for UFC 174, a pay-per-view event that some were cautiously optimistic would deliver despite making no big promises.
It didn’t on whole. This was one of those cards that wore a certain kind of doom before it ever got started. It was going up against the World Cup (which has its own funny back-story), with fights that didn’t captivate the imagination ("but then again, remember Dillashaw!"), in a province that wasn’t overly clamoring for it to begin with.
If there was a word to sum up UFC 174 it was apathy. By the time Dana White wrapped the flyweight belt around Johnson’s waist it was eerily quiet in Rogers Arena, like it was a Sunday morning rehearsal. The crowd had long since headed for the exits.
And in the end you couldn’t help but wonder if that kind of indifference was actually the beginning of something, or if it’s been a long time in the making.