Opponents of combat sports will often ask fans ‘how can you watch that?’ in reference to the facial lacerations, concussive knockouts or ligament-snapping submissions it occasionally offers.
Saturday night’s semi-main event at UFC 138 in Birmingham, England had no such incident which could have provided a graphic image as a tool to raise the ire of the British tabloid newspapers, yet as the end approached it was hard to do anything else but observe through the gaps in your fingers.
In the broader picture, Brad Pickett’s first-round submission defeat to Renan Barao signifies the birth of a new number one contender in the bantamweight division, and an exciting one at that. A Brazilian wunderkind who boasts speed and power in equal measure while being dangerous wherever the fight takes place, the type of fighter who could ask the most potent questions yet of current champion Dominick Cruz.
That was little consolation to the thousands of British fans in attendance at the LG Arena, though, or the man they had come to cheer on vociferously.
“I’m not going to lie – I know I’m in the mix, but I don’t like to think about it too much,” Pickett said, of a possible title shot, in the days leading up to the fight. “If I lose this fight Saturday that means nothing and I’ll have gone in completely the other direction.”
His reluctance to dwell on the possibility of moving a step closer to his dream is a classic self-preservation measure. Yet the image of him holding his head in his hands after being submitted brought to mind another phrase: ‘I can take defeat, but it’s the hope that hurts.’
Pickett was a fighter who believed he was on a path to a title shot. Prior to Saturday night, he last fought in Birmingham in May 2008 when he earned a decision victory over Paul Reed in the Cage Rage promotion. Since then, after dropping to his natural weight class, he has fought in California, Las Vegas and Arizona while clocking up plenty of air miles to train with the elite squad at American Top Team.
In that time he faced the last two men to challenge Cruz for the belt in Scott Jorgensen and Demetrious Johnson, beating the latter and then losing a paper-thin decision the other. His dreams weren’t without foundation. After years of hard work and sacrifice, he had proven that he deserved to be mentioned in the same terms as the division’s elite.
That is little consolation when you are trapped in a rear naked choke though and the only options are to submit or be woken up later on and told you have lost.
Perhaps it is in the reason Pickett delayed by a split second before tapping. As his supporters screamed encouragement in vain, maybe the flashbacks of the path he had trodden to get to this point suddenly streamed through his rapidly fading consciousness.
“When we started exchanging I actually felt really comfortable. He hit me with a few shots and I was like “okay, this is cool, I’m fine” and the next thing I know I’m on my back,” said Pickett.
“I still came round and tried to get out of being on the bottom, but he was pretty slick and took my back and sunk it in, so well done to him.”
He added: “I’m not even thinking about the title to be honest. I just want to get back in there and give someone a beating to make myself feel like a man again. This sport sucks coming in second. You don’t want to come second ever. I’m a very competitive person and for me it’s just winning.
“I don’t care about belts – I just want to beat people who are in front of me and I got beat, so I want to get in there as soon as possible and try and knock someone’s head off.”
Barao’s win was no flash submission. The Brazilian was quicker to the punch on the feet and dropped Pickett with a knee before flying through the air to take his back in an instant. He was better man on the night and may prove to be the best in the division as a whole.
As the Nova União fighter celebrated, Pickett had to be lifted by his cornermen. When the result was made official by ring announcer Bruce Buffer he still could not lift his head, such was the weight of the despondency.
The night had promised so much. It was his UFC debut and a fight to determine a number one contender in front of his home fans in what he hoped would be the coming out party to put him on the same domestic stage as fighters such as Michael Bisping and Dan Hardy. Yet it had been ended in under five minutes.
He had gone all in and Barao had better cards. Of course this tale is not unique to Pickett and he has the talent to eventually fight his way back into contention, but as he trudged back to the dressing room it was hard not to be struck by the emotion of the occasion.
The feelings that the fight, and others like it, evoked are real. They are honest, sometimes brutally so. However they are exactly the reason combat sports resonate in the manner they do.
It doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
Follow Iain Liddle on Twitter @iainliddle
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