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Lesnar vs. Carwin Delivers as Both Men Gamble in Pursuit of Gold

LAS VEGAS -- Shane Carwin was so close. Maybe all he needed was one more punch, a few more seconds, or a different referee. Any one of the three might have resulted in a new champion being crowned.

He rocked Brock Lesnar, he put him on his back, he rained down strikes. They came in a wave, one after the other, 47 in all in a hellacious first-round beating that had ref Josh Rosenthal intently watching the action for a possible stoppage. We were all waiting for it, after all, that's what Carwin does. He finishes, and he finishes quick. For Lesnar, it must have felt like a barrage. For Carwin, it must have felt like an eternity. He had the champion on the ropes, and he went for it.

It was not to be. In a match fitting of the championship belt contested, Carwin and Lesnar put on a classic display of grit, guts and determination at UFC 116 that stamped Lesnar as the sport's best heavyweight. But Carwin should return home with no regrets about a performance that would have finished every heavyweight in the world except for one.

Unbeaten in 12 fights prior to Saturday's main event, Carwin became renown for his finishing instinct, closing out every single one of his bouts inside of the first round. Against Lesnar, it seemed like the same script would play out. Carwin dominated the standup, punishing Lesnar with strikes and hurting him against the fence with lefts. Soon, Lesnar was on his back.


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It was here where Carwin had a decision to make. Go for broke, or pace himself.

He chose the former. Carwin's right hand was like a jackhammer, trying desperately to break through Lesnar's defenses. It was an overwhelming attack, a blitzkrieg, or some natural disaster.

"Hurricane Katrina," Brock Lesnar said in characterizing it. "He hit me pretty good. I didn't know where I was for a second. I had to go into survival mode for a second."

Here's where the referee comes in. UFC president Dana White said that before the fight, he complained to Zuffa co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta about Josh Rosenthal being assigned the match. He'd hoped for Herb Dean, who he calls "the best referee in the history of the world."

Rosenthal looked the situation over, Carwin slamming down fists and elbows, and Lesnar covering up, and he let them go. Cuts on Lesnar's face leaked blood. Carwin soldiered on and Lesnar tried to show enough movement to illustrate intelligent defense. For a long, tense stretch, it seemed like the end was moments away. But Rosenthal never saw the moment when Lesnar was helpless.

"I got to say, Josh Rosenthal did a great job, and I want to apologize for badmouthing him before he did anything wrong," White said to a laugh afterward.

Carwin has to wonder if things would have been different if someone else was the third man in the cage. Would Steve Mazzagatti have stopped it? Mario Yamasaki? Maybe even Dean?

But as far as his own performance, Carwin has nothing to apologize for. He did what a fighter is supposed to do when he has an opponent in trouble. He swarmed. Even under the risk of blowing his energy reserves in one round, he went for it. He didn't take the cautious round, didn't hold anything back. He saw his opportunity and he put everything he had into finishing.

Lesnar, too, deserves a great deal of credit for a risky decision of his own. He's made a living hanging out in half-guard and pounding his opponent from the position. This time, he advanced to full mount. He could have easily gone for a ground-and-pound stoppage. Instead, the fighter without a submission to his name gambled, trying the arm triangle. It was a bold call, as one of the most common escapes from the arm triangle leads to your opponent taking your back.

Like Carwin, though, he saw an opening and he went for it, no hesitation, no regret. But Lesnar found a way to finish. He squeezed for an eternity, re-adjusted, squeezed again. And finally, finally, Carwin tapped.

"We suspected he'd be prepared for ground and pound, and [jiu-jitsu coach] Comprido [Medeiros] pointed this sub out," Lesnar said. "He said it's feasible."

The two heavyweights may take some criticism for their fight. Some may say that Lesnar had more holes exposed in his standup and defense off his back. Others might say Carwin ran out of gas (for the record, he suffered from bad cramping between rounds).

But what I saw is two fighters who did what they were supposed to do: they didn't play it cautious or conservative. They didn't try to rack up points or look for a decision. When winning time came, they tried to seize the moment. Even though Carwin came up short, he deserves a tremendous amount of credit for risking his late-round stamina for what might have been his best opportunity of the fight. And even more credit goes to Lesnar, who's comeback finish was, dare we say it, worthy of a WWE script.

But this gold belt wasn't given to him. This one was earned.

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