UFC Raleigh sets North Carolina records

Curtis Blaydes delivered a second-round technical knockout of fellow heavyweight Junior Dos Santos at UFC Fight Night 166 on Saturday in Raleigh. (Courtesy of UFC)

RALEIGH — The UFC made its debut in Raleigh on Saturday night, bringing the octagon to the state of North Carolina for the first time since 2018.

The event appeared to be a popular and financial success, bringing a crowd of 14,533 to PNC Arena and a gate of $1,303,320. Both figures were records for a UFC event held in North Carolina, topping the 10,249 and $944,202 for the 2018 Charlotte card.

Fans were treated to an MMA changing of the guard, as a pair of former UFC champions and living legends both went down to defeat in the main event and featured bout.

Junior Dos Santos, the heavyweight champion from 2011-12 and the first UFC fighter to get a win on network TV, was knocked out in the second round of the main event by promising heavyweight prospect Curtis Blaydes.

Blaydes entered the bout as the No. 4-ranked heavyweight and made his case for a title shot. A world-class wrestler, his game plan was expected to be to take Dos Santos down and avoid the big Brazilian’s immense punching power.

Instead, after going 0-for-8 on takedown attempts in the first round, Blaydes made a tweak to his strategy.

“We used the wrestling to set up the striking,” he said. “We knew if I faked like I was going to shoot (for a takedown), he’d drop his hands, and he wouldn’t be able to get them back up in time.”

Sure enough, Blaydes landed a clean shot that sent Dos Santos reeling and finished him off at the 1:06 mark of the second round.

“I want the belt next, that’s it,” Blaydes said. “It’s not up to me, but I want the belt. I don’t want to wait long, but I can do four or five months if that works out. I’m going to grab a couple beers, get on my flight back to Denver and then get back to training.”

In the co-main event, Michael Chiesa outwrestled former UFC Lightweight Champion Rafael Dos Anjos in a welterweight bout. Chiesa was able to take down the Brazilian jiujitsu black belt and control him on the ground throughout the fight, making a statement of his own that he’s ready for bigger things in the division.

In his three fights at welterweight, Chiesa has defeated two former champions — Dos Anjos and Carlos Condit — and a fighter who has fought for the crown in Diego Sanchez. Chiesa demanded a fight with top-five contender Colby Covington for his next bout.

“I work to be a world champion,” Chiesa said. “There is no doubt in my mind that I can crack the top five and beat these guys. I have the belief in my work ethic, and I know that these guys aren’t grinding as hard as I am. … You mix that with my hard work ethic and the sky is the limit. I don’t classify myself as a wrestler, I’m a grappler. I don’t take a guy down just to hold him, I look for damage and submissions. He’s strong, I was able to get some good positions, but he’s got some crafty jiujitsu, he was able to work and keep me on my toes, he’s tough, he’s Rafael Dos Anjos.”

Four fighters with North Carolina connections fought on the undercard, with mixed results.

Wake Forest resident Hannah Cifers fought on the main card against UFC veteran Angela Hill. With the crowd loudly in favor of the hometown fighter, Hill scored a second-round knockout, mounting Cifers and battering her with a series of punches and elbows until the referee called a halt at 4:26. Hill then made a shushing gesture to the crowd and danced, taunting the Raleigh fans.

“I feel reborn,” Hill said. “I feel like a different fighter going in there ready to kill instead of worrying about losing or if my reputation is going to get worse. I put all of that behind me and just focus on being the killer that I know I can be.”

On the preliminary card, Cramerton’s Justine Kish scored a unanimous decision over Lucie Pudlova, 30-27 on all three scorecards. It was Kish’s first fight since the January 2018 Charlotte card and first win since 2016.

“This was a really great way to come back,” she said. “Two years away from the sport does something to you.”

Former Olympic silver medalist and North Carolina high school wrestler Sara McMann also ended a long layoff, fighting for the first time in 23 months and winning a unanimous decision over Lina Lansberg.

Former App State wrestler Tony Gravely lost his UFC debut, getting submitted by veteran Brett Johns in the third round, due to rear naked choke. Gravely’s disappointment was soothed, however, when his fight was selected as the event’s Fight of the Night, earning each fighter a $50,000 bonus.