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Kansas City was the arrival of spring for the UFC, and Robert Whittaker arrived with it

UFC on FOX 24 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If the bombinating bantamweight Tom Duquesnoy had kicked off the UFC on FOX 24 main card on Saturday night, it would have been the tidiest, most-perfect four-fight package to ever descend into the collective living room. As it stood, the UFC’s first visit to Kansas City was a golden one anyway, even if Renato Moicano wanted no part of Jeremy Stephens’ power to kick things off. He just dined-and-dashed on Stephens’ face for three rounds, leaving Stephens little room to dish out reprimands. (Can’t fault him for being smart).

Even if the television numbers came back low, the FOX show was one hell of an event, a night of mini-celebrations from the beginning leading up to the big shindig. This is how it should be. It was refreshing. After a dry stretch of fight cards to kick off 2017, Saturday’s card was a shot of adrenaline — it was the arrival of spring.

Louis Smolka vs. Tim Elliott was just stupid fun, one mad 15-minute scramble with necks stretching a mile-a-minute. Duquesnoy did his part on the prelims, too, chopping down Patrick Williams in what was a promising first showing for the Frenchman. Rose Namajunas, who has been adjusting her psychological approach to the fight game, took out Michelle Waterson masterfully, dropping her with head kicks, and choking her out in the second round. She’s ready for a title shot.

Demetrious Johnson? All “Mighty Mouse” did was solidify himself as not just the greatest champion of his day, but perhaps of all time. He became the first man to tap Wilson Reis, and he did this after an impossible display of illusionary cunning and rat-a-tat-tat on the feet. Whenever Reis threw, DJ either peppered him with shots — or reappeared on the other side of the cage, leaving Reis to wonder if his eyes were playing tricks.

If people didn’t realize that the UFC’s one-and-only flyweight champion operates on a different level from the lot of mortals, they saw it in live action on Saturday night. Anderson Silva had his otherly moment bewitching Forrest Griffin at UFC 101, and Johnson had his in tying Silva’s title-defense record. Now people are referring to him as a farm animal.

As glorious as these things seemed, most were at least half-expected. What wasn’t was Robert Whittaker’s performance against Ronaldo Souza. On the surface, “Jacare” was entering into yet another “stay busy” fight while the middleweight title picture cleared up. Somehow the 26-year old Whittaker, who lives in far off Australia, all but smuggled a six-fight win streak into Kansas City. Souza, who reached an agreement on a new eight-fight deal with the UFC while there, hadn’t lost definitively since he crossed paths with Luke Rockhold in 2011.

And even then, it wasn’t all that definitive. “Jacare” has been a constant for nearly a decade. It’s not a stretch to call him the best UFC fighter currently not wearing a belt.

That’s why it became such a breakout moment for the man a couple of Montana-based writers dubbed “Bobby Knuckles.” He didn’t just survive the first round, he won it in a sequence where he was taken down twice in a row, only to pop back up — the second time wearing Jacare on his back. He defended perfectly, improbably, determinedly. That was the moment you knew “Jacare” was in trouble, in the same way that it became clear Ronda Rousey was in trouble when Holly Holm played matador during that desperate bull rush at UFC 193. The uppercut he landed later in the round was meaningful in the swagger sense. He has the speed advantage.

It was Whittaker letting everybody in on something he already knew.

By the time he landed the big right hand that dropped Souza early in the second, the bittersweet feeling of the divisional shift was well in the air. Bittersweet because the 37-year old Souza, so close to a title shot for so long, wasn’t going to navigate the minefield successfully this time through. His title shot, for so long a fleeting thing, turned into delusion. Yet at the same time, it was the arrival of Whittaker, the old Smashes winner who existed in a state of intriguing half-regard. Australia loves MMA. He gave Australia a contender. That head kick he put on Jacare that ultimately dropped him and spelled the end carried across the Pacific.

That’s the kind of thing we haven’t had a lot of in 2017. The emergence of a contender. The vanquishing of a beloved name. The major shake up of a division. Understated greatness making history. UFC on FOX 24 had a lot of the good ingredients that go into an event. It looked decent going in. It played out better than it looked. And a thousand new narratives came flying off it like sparks.

It’s been a chilly few months, but things heated up a bit in Kansas City.

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