Robert Whittaker seemed to be in trouble. Derek Brunson was applying constant pressure, with wild flurries and takedown attempts. The end appeared to be near.
And it was. It just went the other way.
Whittaker countered Brunson coming forward with a left, smacked him across the head with a head kick and finished on the ground en route to a TKO victory at 4:07 of the first round Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night 101 in Melbourne, Australia.
Brunson had been winning the first round until the finishing sequence, damaging Whittaker with punches and constantly driving ahead. Whittaker was on the ropes at one point. But the New Zealand native came through when it counted, finishing with a flourish.
Whittaker (17-4) has now won six in a row and has etched his name among the top contenders in the middleweight division. The 25-year-old has not lost at 185 pounds in the UFC. Afterward, he told Jon Anik that he wanted a title shot next. That seems unlikely with names like Yoel Romero and Ronaldo Souza ahead of him, but Whittaker is close.
Brunson (16-4) was near one of those coming in, too. The JacksonWink MMA product had won five straight, including four in a row by first-round finish. He almost had another one of those Saturday. Brunson, 32, had only lost to Yoel Romero in the UFC before this card.
The co-main event wasn't the showcase fight many thought it would be. Jake Matthews was the biggest favorite on the card, the hometown boy and top prospect at just 22 years old. But Andrew Holbrook spoiled the party with a split decision victory (29-28, 28-29, 29-28).
The difference in the fight was, simply, grappling. When the action went to the ground, Holbrook had the advantage just about every time, going for multiple submissions in the first and second rounds. Matthews might have edged out the third, but it wasn't by a significant margin.
Holbrook (12-1) was coming off the first loss of his career, a 34-second knockout loss to Joaquim Silva in July. Before that, the Indiana native had finished all but one of his pro fights. Holbrook, 30, beat Ramsey Nijem by split decision in his UFC debut in July 2015.
Matthews (10-3) has now lost two straight. In his previous bout, he lost by first-round TKO to fellow prospect Kevin Lee. Matthews, a Victoria native, has been in the UFC for more than two years despite his young age.
Tyson Pedro scored the first finish of the night in his UFC debut. The Australia native came back from getting dropped hard in the opening seconds to beat Khalil Rountree by submission with a rear-naked choke at 4:07 of the first round.
Pedro (5-0) seems like a reasonable prospect in the thin light heavyweight division. Rountree (4-2) has now lost two straight after coming off The Ultimate Fighter 23.
Also on the main card, Alexander Volkanovski dominated Yusuke Kasuya via second-round TKO, Danielle Taylor took a controversial split decision win over Seo Hee Ham, and Omari Akhmedov won a unanimous decision over Kyle Noke.
Daniel Kelly just about brought the house down at Rod Laver Arena. The hometown boy rallied from a nasty cut in the first round to beat Chris Camozzi by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-27, 30-27) to cap the prelims.
Camozzi sliced Kelly open with an elbow near the end of the first five minutes and Kelly was gushing blood basically the rest of the way through. That did not stop the former Olympic judoka from imposing his will on Camozzi — in the stand up and on the ground — in the second and third rounds.
Kelly (12-1) has now won three straight, all in Australia. Camozzi (24-11) came in on a three-fight winning streak.
Another Australian, Damien Brown, also came up with a fun, bloody victory, beating Jon Tuck by split decision. Also on the FS1 prelims, Jonathan Meunier beat Rich Walsh by unanimous decision and Ben Nguyen defeated Geane Herrera via unanimous decision.
On the early prelims, Jason Knight defeated Daniel Hooker by unanimous decision in a wild, back-and-forth affair, Marlon Vera beat Ning Guangyou by unanimous decision, and Jenel Lausa won by unanimous decision over Yao Zhikui.