LAS VEGAS — When Dana White made the bold proclamation after the coronavirus pandemic shut the country down in March that the UFC would be the first sport to return to competition, he was thinking of fighters like Michelle Waterson and Angela Hill.
There is a special something inside of fighters, White said, that makes them overlook so many risks to themselves and their bodies that few others could do.
They then went out and proved White correct on Saturday at Apex, capping a sensational card full of jaw-dropping moments by engaging in a memorable slugfest that Waterson won by the narrowest of margins.
Judge Chris Lee scored the fight 48-47 for Hill, giving her Rounds 1, 2 and 5. But he was overruled by judges Sal D’Amato (49-46) and Derek Cleary (48-47) who scored it for Waterson.
It was an epic battle that deservedly won Fight of the Night. Yahoo Sports had it 48-47 for Waterson, but it was clearly a fight that could have gone either way.
“They fought their asses off bell to bell,” White said. “This is one of those fights where there is no loser.”
Hill angrily stomped out of the cage when the scores were read and later said she was so upset that she was prepared to quit.
She didn’t quit during the 25 minutes and neither did Waterson, providing yet another memorable moment. It’s become commonplace during White’s 20-year run with the UFC to see such fights, and he said it’s because of something that makes them different from the rest of people.
And they proved it to him in the spring, when he began reaching out to fighters to see if they wanted to compete during the pandemic, nearly every one of them was eager to get back.
“Do you know what it takes to do what they did tonight?” White asked rhetorically. “When you look at the ‘Karate Hottie’ and Angela Hill and what they did tonight, you can think whatever the [expletive] you want to think. You, you, you, you and you, and all the people watching on camera. If you think you could do what they did tonight, you can’t.
“You can’t do what those two women did tonight. There is something inside of them, and not just them but all of the fighters, that makes them different than every other human being on Earth. There’s very few people who can do what they do. They’re special athletes and more special than any other people who play with balls and sticks, whatever the hell it is that they play with. I knew they would go [during the pandemic]. I know fighters. I know how they’re built. I know how they’re wired. I knew we would be able to pull this thing off first.”
Hill got off fast, winning the first two rounds on Lee and Cleary’s cards and taking the first on D’Amato’s. Waterson got a takedown in the third that changed the complexion of the fight.
Hill changed her distance so as to be out of takedown range, but it put her in a spot where she was vulnerable to Waterson’s leg kicks.
“It was more the takedowns and I got a little nervous about being in her boxing range,” Hill said. “I knew she was going to dip underneath me and try to grab my leg. I stepped out into her kicking range and that’s kind of when she started landing those shots.”
Hill was landing enough shots, though, that Waterson’s face afterward proved she was in a battle. At the post-fight news conference, Waterson joked about her swollen left eye.
“A new eye shadow color: Black on purple,” she said, grinning.
Waterson, who ended a two-fight losing streak, was asked about White’s comments that fighters are different inside than the average person.
She acknowledged the tremendous risks fighters accept willing to go into a locked cage and fight another person. It’s even more acute during a pandemic, but she does it because of the feeling it provides.
“It’s what makes you feel most alive,” she said. “I think it’s important to understand that even though we’re in a time with a pandemic, but it’s also important to understand you only have one life to live. How do you decide to live it? I’m a strong believer that our children learn from our actions, so I’m up here doing it.”
The card was sensational with a number of big-time knockouts, significant upsets and dramatic moments.
Kevin Croom moved up a division and took his first UFC fight on one day’s notice and submitted Roosevelt Roberts in 31 seconds. Billy Quarantillo got hammered early by Kyle Nelson, but landed a perfect 1-2 in the second and knocked Nelson cold.
Ottman Azaitar remained unbeaten with a spectacular KO of Khama Worthy. Jalin Turner used spectacular striking to KO Brok Weaver.
There were wow moments all night, but nothing that happened in the preceding five-plus hours could touch what Waterson and Hill did.
“That fight was incredible,” an enthused White said. “My phone was blowing up like it was a pay-per-view.”
It was, indeed, a bout worthy of being a headliner, including a pay-per-view. And as White correctly said, there were no losers in that one.
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