Lighter-weight pugs deliver in big way

WASHINGTON -- A few blocks in a couple of different directions, the talk is all about class warfare.

In the Verizon Center on Saturday, it was weight-class warfare.

"When featherweights and bantamweights are fighting, it's always a fantastic fight," bantamweight challenger Demetrious Johnson said a few days before his title bout against Dominick Cruz. "We push the pace. From now on, I think all the UFC cards should be headlined by bantamweights and featherweights. If the lower card's dull, we'll be able to finish off with a bang."

Heavyweight Pat Barry, who fought in the co-main event of the evening, stuck up for his weight class.

"Throughout the history of the rest of the universe, heavyweight bouts are always going to be exciting," Barry said earlier in the week. "That's a fact. If you can have two 135-pound guys and have the exact same fight but make it 600-pound guys, people are going to watch the big guys."

The bantamweights, though, got a better reception than the heavyweights at UFC Live 6. The heavyweights had a fantastic finish, with Barry slamming 6-foot-11 opponent Stefan Struve but failing to get out of a choke, but Cruz's decision win against the frenetic Johnson kept the crowd buzzing.

"I want to prove that the 135-pound weight class is the most exciting class out there," Cruz said after his win. "We never stop moving, we never get tired and we're all ready to kill each other."

At the end of 2010, the UFC absorbed its sibling organization, World Extreme Cagefighting, and added the featherweight (145-pound) and bantamweight (135) classes. The smaller guys are still fighting to establish themselves in the UFC and in the minds of casual MMA fans.

Saturday's card featured the fourth WEC/UFC title defense for bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. But unlike most title fights, it was available on free TV rather than on pay-per-view. And even though it was the first UFC card held in the nation's capital (a January 2010 card was held in nearby Fairfax, Va.), the Verizon Center was far from sold out at 9,380 fans, which UFC president Dana White called "very good for a Fight Night [free TV]."

But the featherweights and bantamweights are making the most of some time in the spotlight as the UFC's deals with Versus and Spike wind down. Saturday's card was the last one on Versus, which previously aired WEC bouts. The final Spike season of the reality show “The Ultimate Fighter” features featherweights and bantamweights, who got the season off to an eye-catching start with fast-paced preliminary fights.

Saturday's card opened with one such fight, between bantamweight Walel Watson throwing flurries of punches and kicks to stop fellow UFC debutant Joseph Sandoval in just 1 minute, 17 seconds.

A few fights later came bantamweight Mike Easton, who has already beaten TUF contenders John Dodson and Josh Ferguson and was making his UFC debut in his hometown Saturday night. He bounded into the cage to a rousing roar but calmed down and bided his time in the first round against Byron Bloodworth, who took the fight as a short-notice replacement for injured Jeff Hougland.

"I'm hyped all the time," Easton said. "I'm in the back, hyped. Cutting weight, I'm hyped. That's why I have my coaches in the corner. I calm down and do my business."

Easton pushed the pace in the second round and finished Bloodworth with several knees in the clinch, the last landing hard to the body. Bloodworth crumpled, and referee Kevin Mulhall stopped the action after Easton pounced to land a couple more punches.

"We're always better," Easton said earlier in the week. "I don't care what nobody says. We're the ones that fight harder, our technique is superb; we're faster. We don't get tired. We rumble to the end. We're like the little pit bulls.

"At first, they used to call us little Chihuahuas. [Other fighters] said no one wants to see the little Chihuahuas fight. You know what? Everyone wants to see the pit bulls fight. And that's what we are. We're pit bulls. We've got Napoleon complexes."

While Easton started slowly, the heavyweight bout between Barry and Stefan Struve wore on the patience of the booing crowd. Barry was trying to wear Struve down with leg kicks and wound up taking the fight to the ground. The finish, at least, was highlight-worthy -- Struve sunk in a triangle choke, and Barry (at 5-11, a foot shorter than his opponent) picked up Struve and tried to slam his way out of it. The slam was impressive, but Struve held the choke and forced Barry to tap out in the second round.

Cruz and Johnson then put on a five-round battle in which the bigger Cruz had to call upon all his wrestling prowess to subdue Johnson.

"The kid's got a sick pace," Cruz said in the cage after defending his belt. "I had to outwrestle him."

Twice, Cruz picked up Johnson and threw him over his shoulder for a massive slam. The first time, he nearly finished the fight with a rear-naked choke, but Johnson wriggled his way out.

As the fifth and final round started and the crowd roared its appreciation, Johnson turned up the pace even higher, likely knowing he needed a knockout or submission to win. In the final minute, he unleashed a flurry that backed Cruz into the cage. But Cruz bounced off the fence and took Johnson down one more time.

With 15 seconds left, Johnson looked up at the clock and fired off another lightning-fast combination. But Cruz defended the flurry and his title.

Johnson may get another chance one day at a different belt. He says he's focused on the 135-pound bantamweight class for now, but he's small even for bantamweight, and White said the flyweight (125-pound) class is bound for the Octagon.

"If not by the end of this year, by the first of next year," White said.

Easton, who trains with Cruz, didn't mind that the card seemed lost between major UFC pay-per-views in the midst of a four-week, four-card stretch for the increasingly busy organization.

"I'm pretty sure they're just trying to get Dommo [Cruz] out to the mainstream," Easton said. "Free TV, you get to see him fight, you get to see him fight for the belt, they'll be able to see that and people will watch [him on] pay-per-view.”

UFC VP Reed Harris, who was with WEC from the beginning to the end, thinks the lighter-weight fighters don’t need to do much more to break through.

“They've already broken through,” Harris said. “I watch the response they get from the fans and the media. The UFC has the best fighters in the world in every weight division -- doesn't matter whether it's bantamweight or welterweight.”