Johnson, Belcher both feel-good stories

Lavar Johnson, whose story was told many times over during fight week, came through on fight night. Ed Mulholland for ESPN.com

Mixed martial arts is filled to the brim with great stories. Not the least of which is the amazing tale of the sport itself.

During the course of this fight week, UFC’s third on network TV, we were often reminded of two of its most harrowing: Lavar Johnson taking three bullets in a drive-by and Alan Belcher's battle with blindness.

When it comes to opportunities, Johnson and Belcher have to rank among the UFC's most grateful combatants.

With Johnson, it's easy to grasp why. He was the victim of horrific street violence that left his life (never mind his career as a heavyweight fighter) in peril. To survive and rebuild must have been empowering, which you can see in an attitude that led him, improbably enough, to open the Fox-televised UFC card. Johnson is fighting like he has nothing to lose, knocking dudes stiff, and for that he's moving toward the something-to-lose category. It will be interesting to see how the mid-tier heavyweight handles added pressure of success.

Belcher, though. The sport dinged him bad, nearly taking his sight. To cope with the emotions and thoughts that must come with that, the surgery and eventual recovery, to put it all on the line again by fighting dangerous beasts like Rousimar Palhares, I'm not sure there are many people who can comprehend what that requires.

Alan Belcher amazed on Saturday, and only in part because of his history.

The 28-year-old out of Biloxi, Miss., turned the tables on Palhares, attacking the Brazilian at his considerable strength. Leg locks, dare I say, are a dangerous game if played against “Toquinho,” but Belcher was obviously well prepared and defended the twisting, turning, bone-breaking attacks as well as he could.

Belcher wasn’t supposed to win -- not according to the mythology built up around the Brazilian. Palhares tore people limb by limb, OK? But, you know, Belcher wasn’t even supposed to be fighting, either. And there he was, slamming elbows and punches into the head of a stumpy middleweight stuck on his back.

UFC’s third card on Fox was its best since finding the brighter spotlight of prime-time network TV. After a too-short title fight followed by an all-decision card, Saturday’s effort -- highlighted by Johnson’s knockout, Belcher’s referee stoppage and Nate Diaz’s coming out party -- was a true example of mixed martial arts as spectator sport.

On a big night for combat sports, when UFC action led into Floyd Mayweather out-pointing Miguel Cotto and pocketing a record $32 million in guaranteed money, Belcher’s win -- his fourth straight -- feels worth singling out. The streak, halved by the retina detachment in 2010, puts him in position to compete at the upper reaches of UFC’s middleweight division.

Palhares, amazingly enough, wasn’t ranked coming into tonight. So where does that leave Belcher in a deep, competitive field?

I think he’d beat Hector Lombard, Bellator’s former champion and Zuffa’s newest signee, who has a similar chance to breakthrough on Fox when he fights Brian Stann in Los Angeles in August. Can’t say I feel so confident in Belcher if he’s matched against Stann. Belcher versus the winner between Ed Herman and Jake Shields makes sense. Perhaps Tim Boetsch or Michael Bisping, who meet this July. Whatever Zuffa tasks him with next, Belcher will eagerly answer the call.

After all, he didn’t come back from the brink of disaster for nothing.