It wasn’t long ago that the only mixed martial arts fights taking place in Ontario were relegated to the legal grey zones of First Nation reserves before scant crowds, totally off the radar to all but the most ardent fans and dedicated practitioners.

MMA’s fringe outlaw days in Ontario were officially obliterated on Saturday night at Rogers Centre, where close to 60,000 fans took in the electric, bloody, and increasingly mainstream spectacle of ultimate fighting. It wasn’t the first MMA event in the province since the sport was legalized in 2011, (there was an April show at CasinoRama) but UFC 129 was certainly the largest and most bombastic. And who better to usher in this new era of legitimacy than Canada’s own Georges St-Pierre,  who successfully defended his title against Jake Shields in the main event.

The fight started cautiously, with both men content to feel each other out with jabs and front kicks.  St-Pierre scored a flash knockdown with a superman jab, but Shields wasn’t hurt and bounced right back up.  In the second, St-Pierre started to open up a bit more, landing some hard overhand rights and a solid spinning back-kick, but Shields remained cautious and didn’t expose his chin to the superior striker.   St-Pierre, likely sensing that Shields’ best hope for an upset victory was via submission, kept the fight on its feet, avoiding clinches with Shields, whose ground game is well-respected.

By the third round, things were looking more and more futile for Shields, who couldn’t penetrate the champ’s tight defence and intelligent ring generalship. 

Shields went down hard in the fourth after St-Pierre landed a head kick, but the resilient challenger shook it off admirably and the game of cat and mouse proceeded.   With less than two minutes in the frame, Shields began taunting GSP, challenging him to engage, but GSP stuck to the fight plan, carefully picking his shots from the outside.   Somewhere in the mix, Shields landed a sneaky jab that opened up a cut on the bridge of St-Pierre’s nose, which his corner men quickly attended to. 

A roaring crowd seemed to inspire both fighters to open up a bit for the start of the 5th and final round, but for the most part they remained cautious, with Shields seemingly content to survive and GSP looking more and more at ease with securing a points victory and moving on.

Shields managed to land another punch that swelled St-Pierre’s eye, but it wasn’t enough to turn the tides and St-Pierre defended his title with a unanimous decision victory.

“His striking was much better than I thought, he throws nice,” St-Pierre said.  “I was expecting to put him down later in the rounds.  I’m sorry for the fans.   Jake is much better than I thought.”

The fans went home happy with a St-Pierre victory, but it was a fairly anti-climatic close to an event that was filled with action and drama. 

While preliminary fights can sometimes be snoozers that fans restlessly endure until the main event, Toronto’s first-ever UFC thrilled from the start.

Moments into the evening’s action, featherweight Pablo Garza executed the type of move rarely seen outside of choreographed Hollywood action flicks, submitting Yves Jabouin with a flying triangle choke that not only put his opponent to sleep, but put to rest any notion that MMA fighters lack skill.

“He was rolling but I cranked it very hard…this was mind blowing,” Garza said afterward. “I was a little jittery,” he admitted. “The biggest crowd I ever fought in front of (before UFC 129) was a couple thousand.”

The grace of a perfect submission was followed by the brutality of a savage knockout in the next match.

After a fairly slow start, Montreal-based fighter John Makdessi kept his perfect record intact (9-0) with a brain-bouncing KO victory by way of a spinning back-fist to the chin of Kyle Watson. The spectacular lightning-fast strike caused UFC president Dana White to tweet, “That’s gonna be tough to beat for knockout of the night!”

Four Ontario fighters fought on the card.  Toronto’s Claude Patrick, who was the subject of a CityNews.ca feature, improved his record to 14-1 with a tactical decision victory over Daniel Roberts.

“It was a long time in the making,” a relieved Patrick said.  “I never thought it would be possible. It was an honor to perform in front of my hometown crowd.”

Ontario fighters faced their first setback when Pickering native Sean Pierson was knocked out in the first round by welterweight Jake Ellenberger of Omaha, Nebraska.  Pierson previously made headlines when his old fight nickname, ‘Pimp Daddy’ resulted in a revoked job offer from Toronto Police, who found it inappropriate.  

It was more bad news for locals when Colorado’s Ben Henderson earned a unanimous decision over Woodbridge Ontario’s Mark Bocek.   Bocek had his moments, but Henderson proved to be the stronger, more effective striker in a victorious UFC debut.   “It was surreal,” the winner remarked.  “At first they were booing because I was fighting the local guy but it’s all good. At one point I took a look around and was like ‘Wow, that’s a lot of people’.”

The hometown crowd enjoyed a surge of collective adrenaline when London Ontario featherweight Mark Hominick put on a true display of courage against reigning champ Jose Aldo of Brazil.   In round four Hominick developed a gruesome welt on his forehead, but bravely continued with the ringside doctor’s approval.  In the final round, a deep cut opened over his eye.  Despite his injuries he mustered up enough for a dramatic rally, hammering the champ with blow after blow from a dominant mount, desperately trying for the knockout win.

The clock ran out just in time to save Aldo, who was well ahead on the scorecard and went on to a decision victory.   Hominick may have lost, but he likely secured a legion of fans.

The battered brawler had a message for his very pregnant partner after the fight.  “First off, I just want to say to my wife that I hope I didn’t put you into labor. I know you’re due any minute. I love you, babe and I hope that you’re okay.”

“It’s one of those things, you go back to the drawing board,” he added, getting back to the fight.  “I thought I could have attacked a little more.  I fought hard for you guys and I hope you enjoyed the fight.”

UFC 129 also marked the courageous but ill-fated swan-song for UFC legend Randy Couture.  At age 47, Couture vowed this would be his last fight.  Unfortunately for ‘The Natural’ he was brutally knocked out by Brazil’s Lyoto Machida, who landed a jarring crane-style front kick to the face that was reminiscent of the Karate Kid.   The blow dislodged one of the veteran fighter’s teeth.

Despite the outcome, the capacity crowd at Roger’s Centre honoured Couture with a rousing round of applause. 

“He’s a hero,” a respectful Machida said, raising his opponent’s hand in symbolic victory. 

“I had a dream when I was 18 years old that I would fight Randy Couture. But I thought I would never get the chance because I was too young. It was an honour to fight Randy. He’s the man and a legend.”

Couture, whose lengthy career speaks for itself, was brief and gracious in defeat.  

“He’s a tremendous fighter,” he simply said, before drowning in another deafening shower of applause.

You got the feeling that the ovation wasn’t just for Couture, but for the arrival of a sport that was long-overdue in Toronto — where the success of UFC 129 will undoubtedly assure that the one-time outlaw will be rolling into town again before you know it, engines revving.  

michael.talbot@citynews.rogers.com