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UFC 98: Controversy enters the Octagon

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Matt Serra, left, tries to land a punch on Matt Hughes in their bout at UFC 98 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, May 23, 2009. Hughes won the long awaited grudge match by unanimous decision.
Photo: Tiffany Brown

In a sport like mixed martial arts, referees have the power to affect the outcome of a fight, often to the annoyance of fans. UFC 98 proved to be a very controversial ticket with two fights facing questionable referee stoppages and one with an outcome that for many was completely unexpected.

When announcer Bruce Buffer proclaimed the Matt Hughes and Matt Serra grudge match was scored a unanimous 29-28, you could see Matt Serra’s eyes light up. He, and many of the fans in attendance, was all but certain of victory. Buffer teased the crowd as he announced the bout’s victor. “And the winner by unanimous decision is Matt… Hughes!”

Hughes and Serra went the distance, taking the fight to three full rounds and emphasizing each fighter’s strengths: Hughes’ wrestling skills and Serra’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. With Serra’s leg wrapped around his opponent’s arm, coming clear up to his own chin, the eventual loser’s impressive display of flexibility in submission attempts proved his BJJ prowess. In the end, however, it wasn’t enough in the judges’ eyes for the W. After the fight was called, both fighters embraced, seemingly burying the hatchet after several insult-laden years of trash talking leading up to this fight.

Consider the hatchet above ground for referee Yves Lavigne, who might have made a few enemies at this UFC. When Kyle Bradley started raining punches on The Ultimate Fighter finalist Phillipe Nover, Nover very briefly went limp before immediately rolling over and popping back up. Lavigne noticed this millisecond of what he must have deemed a flash knockout and attempted to stop the fight. He was not aggressive in separating the fighters, which only fueled the fire of controversy that Nover was never really incapacitated.

UFC president Dana White supported Lavigne’s stoppage, saying, “[Nover’s] shoulder dropped down to the canvas and the ref made a call. At the time, when the ref stopped it, I thought he was out too.”

Lavigne later entered the Octagon to boos to officiate the bout between Drew McFedries and Xavier Foupa-Pokam. McFedries bounced Foupa-Pokam around the Octagon like a game of pinball before a final punch made Lavigne jump in to call the fight. This time at least, he aggressively separated the fighters, but Foupa-Pokam was not satisfied by what he deemed an early stoppage and entered into an intense and long conversation with the ref following the fight.

Knockout of the night went to the new Light Heavyweight Champion, Lyoto Machida’s victory over Rashad Evans in the main event of the evening. Fight of the night went to the controversial battle of the Matts, while submission of the night went to Brock Larson. Those involved in these key fights took home $60,000 bonuses.

Lyoto Machida, known for his elusiveness and unorthodox methods, got off to a very slow start against Rashad Evans, apparently saving all his fireworks for the end. After a completely uneventful first two minutes, Lyoto landed a swift leg kick and continued to control the pace of the fight until he launched a series of punches that put the former champ flat on his back.

During the post fight press conference White said he “was blown away by his [Lyoto’s] performance tonight.” Machida was quick to mention that he wants to hold on to this title of Light Heavyweight champ, saying, “Now, that I became the champion is when the real work begins.” Past belt winners like Forrest Griffin, Rampage Jackson and Rashad Evans have not been able to hold on to the title for very long. In a weight class with such a tumultuous history, only time will tell if Machida can break the curse of the Light Heavyweight division and retain his title. White confirmed that Machida’s first title defense will be against Rampage Jackson.

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Playboy Playmate Holly Madison, soon to be a Las Vegas resident, took in the action with a friend at UFC 98.

Celebrities in attendance included Holly Madison, Mike Tyson, BJ Penn and local fighter Frank Mir, who is eager to establish his heavyweight dominance at UFC 100 against Brock Lesnar. Las Vegans can look forward to the UFC returning to Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Events Center for UFC 100 this July.

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