LAS VEGAS – As Chuck Liddell sat buzzed on the canvas wondering what had occurred and nearly 15,000 fans sat stunned in their seats at the MGM Grand Garden Saturday, the thought occurred that this is why mixed martial arts is the fastest growing sport in the world.
Anything can happen to anybody at any time.
Liddell, arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time and without doubt the UFC's most popular star, lost his light heavyweight title when he was knocked out by a sledgehammer right from Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.
It was no surprise that a Liddell fight ended in a knockout and it was no surprise the he would lose to Jackson, since Jackson had stopped Liddell in a 2003 fight in Japan.
But the reason the fans are so manic for this sport, which has gained such mainstream acceptance that it landed on the covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine in back-to-back weeks, is that at a UFC fight, you never know.
Who would have thought that Matt Serra, an 8-1 underdog, would have knocked out Georges St. Pierre? Who would have thought that 43-year-old Randy Couture could move back up to the heavyweight division and upset Tim Sylvia, who outweighed him by 40 pounds?
Who would have believed that Mirko CroCop, perhaps the greatest kicker in the game's history, would have been knocked out by a kick to the head by Gabriel Gonzaga?
"There are so many ways to lose and so as a fan, you're always just on the edge of your seat because you just don't know what might happen or when," Couture said.
MMA fans have long compared themselves and their sport to boxing in a plea for respect. For years, the media all but ignored them, but as UFC president Dana White continues to educate the world on what is happening inside that cage, the sport is becoming impossible to ignore.
There are bad MMA fights, to be sure. But MMA cards, unlike those of boxing, do not include fights you can predict before the bell rings.
And that's because there are an infinite number of ways to win – or, more accurately – to lose.
"You take boxing, and it's either a knockout or a judge's decision," Sylvia said. "In MMA, there are punches, kicks, elbows and literally, hundreds of submissions … and you just don't know. Conditioning is a big factor. But even someone who is losing, who is being owned for five minutes of every round, can sneak in a submission at the last minute and win.
"How can you not watch that? Once someone gives us a chance, they almost always become a fan."
The fighters play a significant role. They consider themselves ambassadors, not only with the fans but also with the media.
Alex Karalexis, a lightweight who has a June 3 match in the WEC, spent more than 90 minutes with a reporter Friday demonstrating the nuances of submissions and ground fighting.
"If you want to cover us and write about us, I have all the time to help you and answer any questions you have," Karalexis said.
White was giddy at the post-fight news conference Saturday, even though Liddell, his close friend, was the latest of the company's champions to lose.
All five of the UFC's titles have changed hands in the last eight months, an affirmation of the anything-can-happen mantra that White has preached for years.
Only two of the nine fights on Saturday's card, which generated a live paid gate of nearly $4.5 million, went to a judge's decision. Liddell wasn't the only significant upset victim either.
Keith Jardine, who had been moving toward light heavyweight title contention, failed to last a minute against a disc jockey from Omaha, Neb. Houston Alexander had fought primarily in MMA's minor leagues the last couple of years, but vowed he'd blow through Jardine and then went out and did it.
If it wasn't before, it's now painfully clear that you're just guessing when trying to predict the outcome of an MMA match.
"That's why they make you fight them," Jackson said, who will fight Pride light heavyweight champion Dan Henderson in his first title defense. "I told you I was confident and I would do this. You didn't believe me, but I believed me. Thank God."
Another advantage MMA has over boxing is that losses don't hurt as much because it's all but impossible to avoid one. It's just a part of doing business.
But if a major boxer unexpectedly loses, it's cause for panic and promoters immediately match him with an easy bout in an effort to rebuild his reputation.
That just leads to more one-sided matches.
Boxing promoter Lou DiBella looked ridiculous trying to defend boxing against MMA on ESPN on Friday.
He had no coherent argument to make against MMA other than the tired "human cockfighting" rant that is so old and so off base that it's not worth a comment.
It was the kind of a statement that would have sent White off not that long ago. White, though, let it pass without comment, another sign of how firmly boxing is in MMA's rear view mirror.
"You're only seeing the beginning of how big this thing is going to get," White said. "You think this is big now? Wait a couple of years and come see me. This is the start of something really huge."