SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Jens Pulver ended what he called the biggest night of his career Sunday with a swollen face and a ping-pong ball sized egg under his right eye.
On the judges scorecards, he had lost five straight rounds to World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion Urijah Faber in what was billed as the biggest-ever fight in its weight class. Neither his head nor his ankle were feeling too good when it was over after what may have been the fight of the year.
"I feel beat up, but I'm happy," he said. "This wasn't a big trash-talking match. It was a champion and a challenger. This was a 145-pound and a 135-pound match (the two headline matches of the show) and we almost sold the place out. I gave everything I had and I lost to a great champion. I was going out with my head held high."
In a match that lived up to its billing, Faber echoed similar sentiments, feeling it was a special night before a near sellout of 12,682 fans at Arco Arena in his home city. Aside from the UFC and Strikeforce, it was the largest paid attendance ever for an MMA event in North America.
"Win or lose, I knew it was an historical fight," Faber said. "I didn't plan on a standing up or going down. I didn't come in with a strategy."
It was a night that seemed to put the final stamp on Faber as not just a talented fighter, which insiders have long been aware of, but took his star power to new levels as the face of the featherweight division and of the WEC promotion. It was the most hyped fight, and one of the most hyped television events in the history of the Versus Network, and it delivered with a legitimiate fight of the year contender.
Faber hadn't been out of the second round in years; Pulver, a former UFC lightweight champion, had never gone the distance while fighting as a featherweight. But they went 25:00, taking turns rocking each other with punches, elbows, kicks and knees while the crowd gave them standing ovations after several of the rounds.
Faber joked that he loves watching tapes of his fights and of Pulver's fights, so now he can sit back and enjoy a long tape.
Pulver had one word as to what made the difference: "Speed."
Faber was able to fight at a fast pace. But while Pulver could hang with Faber – and even hurt him at times with flurries of punches – over the course of each round, he was taking more than he was giving.
In both cases, whenever it appeared one was in trouble and about to be put away, they seemed to respond with a second wind.
"None of us little guys would have ever expected a night like this five years ago," said Pulver, who seven years ago became the first UFC lightweight champion.
Faber, 21-1, won 50-45, 50-44 and 50-44 on the scorecards, with two judges giving round two, where Faber had Pulver staggered and on the run early, a 10-8 Faber advantage.
Pulver, 22-9-1, came into the fight with an 8-0 record in the featherweight division with seven knockouts and one quick submission.
"I'd like another chance at the title," he said after the fight. "But I won't ask for a chance. I want to earn a chance."
Pulver said he thought the fight exceeded expectations. He felt people didn't think he'd be able to hang with Faber on the ground, nor that Faber would be able to beat him standing up. As it turned out, Faber never came close to a submission. But Faber ended up doing the better on the stand-up, due to having quicker reflexes and a deeper gas tank, which became apparent in the later rounds.
The two looked handicapped in being able to end the night with the spotlight on them, even with all the hype, due to a spectacular bantamweight title match where champion Miguel Torres stopped Yoshihiro Maeda of Japan after the third round when Maeda's right eye was swollen shut.
Maeda drew first blood early in round one.
"I go crazy when I see my own blood," said Torres, who started fighting with almost reckless abandon.
The second round, in particular, was one of the better rounds of this or any other year. Early on, both fighters motioned to the other that the kicks they were being hit with didn't hurt. There was a whirlwind exchange of punches, kicks and knees, and at one point, each held the other in an ankle lock simultaneously.
"I've been doing jiu-jitsu for 10 years," said Torres, now 34-1. "Kneebars and ankle locks don't affect me and I'll never tap to them."
In the third round, Torres, who lives in Chicago but was treated by the crowd like he was a hometown fighter, found his rhythm and was able to pick Maeda apart standing. Maeda, 23-5-2, had his eye swollen completely shut by the end of the round, which led to the fight ending.
WEC officials gave all four participants in both championship fights a $7,500 best match bonus.
Mark Munoz, who won the NCAA Division I wrestling championship for Oklahoma State in 2001, survived an early scare standing to get the best of Chuck Grigsby.
Grigsby connected with an uppercut and a followed with a flurry of punches, taking advantage of his 6-6 angular frame. But Munoz, 4-0, quickly put Grigsby on his back. The 30-year-old former UC Davis wrestling coach, recruited into MMA by Faber, showed that even though he's only been in the game for a year, his wild ground and pound is explosive, kno