LAS VEGAS – The UFC seemed like it was trying to set up a coronation for Conor McGregor on Saturday. And though the outspoken Irish featherweight did what he said he'd do, it was a pair of lightweights who stole the show.
Eddie Alvarez made a spirited bid to score a dramatic upset over one of the lightweight division's biggest names, but in the end, he couldn't deal with Donald Cerrone's leg kicks.
Cerrone used a series of hard knees and devastating leg kicks to finally overtake the former Bellator champion and score a unanimous decision in their highly anticipated lightweight battle on the main card of UFC 178 at the MGM Grand Garden.
Cerrone did little different in the first round, but the judges gave that to Alvarez based upon two flurries in which Alvarez rocked Cerrone with strikes. But for the rest of the night, Cerrone was pounding away with kicks.
Late in the third round, Alvarez slumped to the canvas, his leg finally unable to hold him up. Though 90 seconds remained, the only drama was whether Cerrone would finish him.
He couldn't and it went to the cards, where all three judges had it 29-28 for Cerrone. Yahoo Sports gave Cerrone a 10-8 in the third, based upon the fact that Alvarez couldn't stand for the final 90 seconds because of the kicks, and scored the fight 29-27 for Cerrone.
The victory was Cerrone's fifth in a row and places him squarely in the hunt for a title shot in the sport's deepest, most competitive division.
Cerrone, who has famously said he doesn't care about title shots, grinned broadly when asked what he was thinking when he was rocked by an Alvarez flurry in the first.
"Not today. Not today," he said.
Cerrone is a notoriously slow starter, though he didn't do badly in the opening moments. It wasn't until they clinched a couple of minutes in that Alvarez opened up. He landed a series of hooks that seemed to wobble Cerrone.
Seconds later, Alvarez landed a pair of big lefts and assumed control of the fight. But Cerrone hung in and regrouped between rounds.
"I didn't want to go down," Cerrone said. "There is no quit in this dog. I apologize for coming out slow. After [the first round, trainer] Greg Jackson said, 'You awake yet?' I am [a slow starter], I am. It's the way I am, I guess. I'm cursed. I guess if you're going to beat me, you'd better get me in the first."
Alvarez simply couldn't find an answer to the kicks. But he showed that he's a huge addition to the lightweight division, as he went toe-to-toe with one of the division's finest and didn't succumb until the final stages when his legs could no longer withstand the kicks.
McGregor wasn't around nearly that long. The UFC clearly gave him the star treatment, though he certainly didn't get an overwhelming reception from the Las Vegas crowd.
There was a bit of controversy on the finish. McGregor threw a one-two at Dustin Poirier. The second punch was a left that seemed to go over the top. But as McGregor followed through, the elbow landed.
Referee Herb Dean told Yahoo Sports that it was an elbow, not a punch, that landed but that it landed on the side of the head near the ear, where it was a legal blow. It would have been illegal had it been on the top, as it appeared live at cageside.
Poirier went down and McGregor landed two shots and Dean called it off at 1:46 of the first. Dean said Poirier was knocked cold.
McGregor, whose boasts and outrageous trash talk definitely helped build interest in the bout, was hardly humble afterward. He asked for a title shot against the winner of next month's bout between Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes.
"These featherweights don't understand, when they get hit by me, it's a whole new ball game," McGregor said.
Asked about his overall performance, McGregor grinned and said, "I don't just knock them out. I pick the round." In the featured fight on the preliminary card, former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz made a triumphant return. He stopped Takeya Mizugaki in just 1:01 of the first. He took him down and then stopped him with strikes.