Duffee seizes first-impression opportunity

There’s a saying about never getting a second chance to make a first impression. This often is true in fighting, where people’s best memories are the first time they see a fighter on the national stage.

The most famous, recent case in point is Brock Lesnar, the current Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight king, who is still trying to live down the idea that he’s submission prone. And although it’s now 12 years later, MMA’s older fans still remember “the old” Vitor Belfort, who debuted with hand speed and power that had never been seen in UFC before, and looking like the guy who was going to carry the sport for years to come. Even today, Belfort is headlining shows based largely on a reputation developed in 1997.

Others, if they debut with a dull win, get pegged as boring fighters, even years later when they’ve had plenty of exciting matches. And the opposite also can be true.

Todd Duffee made the best first impression possible this past Saturday night on those who saw UFC 102. Well, unless they happened to blink at the wrong time.

The 23-year-old heavyweight set the UFC record with a seven-second ref stoppage over Tim Hague. Duffee knocked Hague down with the first punch and finished it with five punches on the ground, shocking everyone in attendance, including Duffee himself.

“Honestly, I thought he had slipped,” said Duffee, about when Hague went down from the first punch. “I was thinking that I was going to go down into his half-guard. Then I heard him say something that I won’t repeat, but I knew he was hurt. He made an expression, and I sensed it was time to finish.”

The prior UFC record for the fastest fight was eight seconds, held by both Don Frye and James Irvin. Frye, barely 200 pounds at the time, walked through 400-pound blubber boy Thomas Ramirez in his first UFC fight on Feb. 16, 1996, at a time when the current weight class structure wasn’t in place. Irvin finished Houston Alexander just as quickly on April 2, 2008, in Broomfield, Colo.

Some fans also may bring up the controversial time of the Duane “Bang” Ludwig’s win over Jonathan Goulet on Jan. 16, 2006, in Las Vegas. The match is officially listed as an 11-second knockout, but that was because the timekeeper was so stunned that the KO wasn’t registered until several seconds after ref Mario Yamasaki waved it off. Legitimately, that knockout was at four seconds and Yamasaki waved it off a few ticks later, at seven or eight seconds.

Duffee noted he wasn’t being a smart-mouth in his interview when told by announcer Joe Rogan that he had set a record with a seven-second win, and replied, “I thought it was six seconds.”

“I really thought the record was six seconds,” said Duffee, who considers himself a total “fan boy” of the sport, constantly watching tapes and Youtube videos and studying up on all the name fighters. “That’s why I said what I did. My thought is that it is just a statistic. The real story of the night was Randy (Couture) and (Antonio Rodrigo) Nogueira having such a great fight.”

Even though he had stopped all five prior opponents with punches, and all but one in the first round, Duffee said he had scouted Hague thoroughly and was not expecting the outcome.

He noted Hague’s win over Pat Berry in Hague’s prior fight, and how Hague survived some wicked punches early to come back and win.

“Right before the fight I was thinking to myself, ‘This time I’m going to have to go three rounds,’ ” he said.

But in setting the record, Duffee went from being just another guy who won his UFC debut, to someone people will always remember for his first fight. That means he can be a Belfort, whose quick early knockouts as a teenager left him years with the label of someone with immense talent who never quite fulfilled it; or a Houston Alexander, who debuted with a quick knockout of Keith Jardine and became an instant star in fans’ eyes, but whose career in the cage didn’t live up to his debut.

After a hard camp, and taking no damage, Duffee’s anxious to get right back in the mix.

“I’m ready to fight tomorrow,” he said. “I’d like to fight as soon as possible.”

It had been roughly a year since Duffee had fought, finishing Assuerio Silva, a one-time name fighter with big matches in both UFC and Pride a few years earlier, early in Round 2 on a Jungle fight show on Sept. 13, 2008, in Rio de Janeiro. It was that win that led UFC matchmaker Joe Silva to sign him.

His record on paper looked good, but Duffee also has that certain intangible look, being 6-3, weighing in between 250 and 260 pounds and a weight-lifting fanatic from a young age.

“I’ve been as heavy as 280,” he said. “I used to think about keeping my weight down because even a year ago all the top heavyweights were 230 to 240. I tried to keep my weight down and I got down to 245. Then Brock (Lesnar) came in and the heavyweights are getting bigger.”

He was set to debut at UFC 99 on June 13 in Cologne, Germany, against Mostapha Al-Turk of England. But like a few other fights for Duffee in the Southeast this past year, it fell through. It was frustrating, because opponents would get hurt, and in one case, someone just didn’t show up for the weigh-in the day before his scheduled fight.

When UFC signed Mirko Cro Cop, Duffee ended up as the odd man out in the equation. Cro Cop turned down both Duffee and Cain Velasquez as opponents, instead choosing Al-Turk as his opponent. But UFC gave Duffee a trip to Europe, which he said was a big help because he learned what a big UFC show was all about. This helped him avoid any surprises in jumping from small shows to a major pay-per-view event.

Duffee grew up in Southern Illinois, and after high school moved to Atlanta when his mother was given a job transfer. He didn’t wrestle in high school because basketball was the same season.

At 16 he did some boxing and decided to go back to it after high school. When he was 19, Duffee discovered MMA and decided that was the sport for him.

“From the first day, actually,” he said. “That was my goal. I thought I could do it, but I wasn’t going to take a fight until I had a year of training.”

He said he’s noticed the sport has changed greatly in just a few years, the biggest change being that previously it was about people who were strong in one area, and now the sport is dominated by people who are good all around.

Duffee started out training in Atlanta, but then heard about the Hardcore Gym in Athens, Ga., which produced Forrest Griffin and now includes WEC bantamweight champion Brian Bowles. He still considers Hardcore his home gym, but also has trained extensively in South Florida with the American Top Team, where his regular drilling partner is UFC fighter Dan Cramer.

It was while watching Youtube that Duffee first saw Lesnar, before Lesnar became a fighter, and noted that while he never followed pro wrestling, he remembers how everyone saw the clip from WrestleMania years ago when Lesnar headlined against Kurt Angle, delivered a shooting star press, landed on his head, and still continued the match. He also saw Lesnar’s 1999 NCAA heavyweight championship loss to Stephen Neal.

“What a great match,” he said.

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Sep 4, 2009