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LAS VEGAS – It was already an epic night, long before Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin made the short trek from the locker room to the cage at the MGM Grand Garden Arena for their heavyweight championship match in the main event of UFC 116.
A sellout crowd of more than 16,000 and a pay-per-view audience that Ultimate Fighting Championship officials expect to soar well past 1 million purchases watched a night of jaw-dropping fights, one seemingly surpassing the other.
And then into the cage walked Lesnar, off for 51 weeks following an intestinal ailment that nearly ended his career and which had the potential to end or significantly alter his life.
Lesnar retained his championship with an improbable second-round submission, forcing a winded Carwin to tap to an arm triangle choke, sending a crowd that included his one-time WWE pals such as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Paul Heyman and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin into a frenzy.
The crowd had been at a fever pitch for most of the night as the fighters seemed to be playing a game of "Can you top this?" UFC president Dana White was emotionally spent by the time the main event ended and, after presenting Lesnar with his belt, retreated to his dressing room backstage.
"This show nearly gave me a heart attack," White said. "I went to the back. I walked right out of the Octagon into my back room back there and sat down. I thought they were going to have to bring a defibrillator back there. Seriously, that's how messed up I was after the show. I was blown away. I needed a nap."
Fights between Chris Lytle and Matt Brown, Stephan Bonnar and Krzysztof Soszynski, and Chris Leben and Yoshihiro Akiyama had made it a special night long before it was time for the main event.
But when Lesnar walked to the cage, it was deafening inside the MGM Grand. As the champion soaked in the scene, thoughts of what he'd been through in the past six months swirled through his head.
"The last year, this has been a roller-coaster ride all over the place," Lesnar said.
In Carwin, he faced a man with enormous punching power who had won all 12 of the bouts he'd had by knockout, none going longer than the three minutes and 49 seconds it took to dispose of former champion Frank Mir at UFC 111 on March 27 in Newark, N.J.
Within seconds on Saturday, however, it was nearly over. Carwin hit Lesnar with a left hook and the 265-pound behemoth, who'd looked practically invincible in thrashing Mir a year earlier, staggered back to the cage, clearly in desperate trouble.
"Hurricane Katrina," said Lesnar, describing the sequence in which he nearly lost his belt. "He hit me pretty good and I ended up on the ground. I had to go into survival mode and stay busy. I really have to thank the referee [Josh Rosenthal] for allowing that thing to go on."
For a while, it seemed a dubious decision as Carwin rained punches and elbows upon Lesnar, who just tried to keep moving to prove to Rosenthal that he was still intelligently defending himself.
White was angry when he saw Rosenthal in the cage before the main event and asked UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta how Rosenthal got the fight instead of Herb Dean, who he regards as the best referee in the history of mixed martial arts.
But Rosenthal showed good judgment and didn't overreact, as many young referees might have in such a high pressure, high-profile situation. He was proven correct when Lesnar survived and then came back to choke out Carwin at 2:19 of the second round.
"Josh Rosenthal was fantastic and I want to apologize for badmouthing him before he did anything wrong," White said.
It would have only put a small damper on the night if Rosenthal had stopped it early, because Carwin is arguably the sport's hardest puncher and he was hammering Lesnar.
More than that, though, it came on a night when the fights were stellar and more than delivered on White's pre-fight promise of "a sick night of fights." Leben, fighting just two weeks after a victory over Aaron Simpson across town at the Palms on "The Ultimate Fighter 11" finale, upset Akiyama by forcing him to tap to a triangle choke with just 20 seconds left in a dead-even fight as the fans in the crowd stood on their feet and roared.
Leben's career was foundering prior to the Simpson fight. He'd lost two of his last three and his job would have been in jeopardy if he had lost to Simpson.
Instead, he stopped Simpson impressively, then accepted a spot that opened on UFC 116 when Wanderlei Silva had to pull out of the Akiyama fight with knee and rib injuries.
After beating Akiyama, he's now in the mix in the middleweight division. Winning was significant to him, but he was just as interested in pleasing the crowd.
"I hate to say this, but in my mind, we're entertainers," Leben said. "That's really what we're here for. This is to put on a show. Actually, Akiyama, when I was doing the double punch, I looked up and he was smiling at me. I know he knew it, too. He was like, 'Yeah, we're in a fight. This is good. We're going to get Fight of the Night.'
"I do think about it. I want people to say Chris Leben always comes out to fight."
On this night, after the first couple matches – which were exceptionally dull – things picked up and nearly everyone came into the cage with Leben's attitude.
Carwin came to fight and seemed as if he was about to do to Lesnar what he had done to so many others: overwhelm him with punching power.
Lesnar, though, had other ideas.
"It's been a crazy year, but I wasn't going home without this thing," Lesnar said, patting his championship belt.
It was a crazy and entertaining night up until the very end. Lesnar, a powerhouse wrestler, wound up submitting Carwin, defying White's pre-fight words when he guaranteed the match wouldn't end in submission.
That he saw the opening for the submission showed his growth as a fighter in just his sixth fight. He credited his jiu-jitsu coach, Rodrigo "Comprido" Medeiros, for helping him to evolve as a fighter.
"I'm not even sure how to pronounce it," Lesnar said of the hold's technical name.
No one cared, not after a night in which there were numerous candidates for the $75,000 bonuses that the UFC gave out for Fight of the Night (Leben-Akiyama), Knockout of the Night (Gerald Harris) and Submission of the Night (Lesnar).
White, who loves to hit the Las Vegas night clubs after the cards, was worn out from cheering and begged off a night on the town, choosing instead to go home and hit the sack early.
"After the weigh-ins, we get all the guys in a back room and I talk to them about being exciting," White said. "But in 10 years of being in this business, I've never seen guys deliver like they did tonight. Tonight was incredible."
Lesnar and Carwin simply finished a memorable night with yet another memorable fight.