TORONTO - Light-heavyweight champion Jon (Bones) Jones survived an early scare to submit former title-holder Vitor (The Phenom) Belfort in the fourth round at UFC 152 on Saturday night.
Belfort was game and came close with an armbar in the first round. But Jones' reach, varied attack and ground and pound took a toll on the veteran challenger, whose face went from bad to worse each round.
Unable to get his striking game going, Belfort tried to take the fight to the ground where he could use his jiu-jitsu. Most times, he paid a price doing it and finally fell victim to an Americana submission 54 seconds into the round.
In the co-main event at the Air Canada Centre, Demetrious (Mighty Mouse) Johnson won a split 48-47, 47-48, 49-46 decision over Joseph Benavidez to become the UFC's first flyweight (125-pound) champion in a battle of cage-fighting Energizer bunnies.
Jones took Belfort down 30 seconds after the opening bell. The Brazilian responded with an armbar attempt that looked dangerous. Jones slammed Belfort down to the canvas and eventually wriggled free as the crowd began to chant "Vitor."
"I've never had my arm pop like that before," said Jones, who said he would have let his arm break rather than tap out.
Jones (17-1) remained on top and began to throw elbows, cutting Belfort. The doctor had a look at the battered challenger between rounds.
Belfort, who does his best work traditionally in the first round, came out punching in the second. But he had a hard time penetrating Jones' reach. The champion began to pick away at Belfort, who pulled guard later in the round to bring the fight back to the ground.
Belfort (21-10) ate some more elbows as he tried to get into position for another submission attempt.
Jones put him down with a kick to the rib in the third. This time, Jones let him get back up only to have Belfort pull guard again.
"Go with your punches if you want to win this fight," Belfort's cornerman yelled between rounds.
He did but pulled guard again and Jones went to work with some elbows before cranking Belfort's arm back and forcing the tapout, winning Jones a US$65,000 bonus for submission of the night.
"That's why he's a champion," said Belfort, who said he had hurt his rib in training.
Jones arrived at the post-fight news conference with his right arm in a sling. He said there was no prognosis yet but that he may have sustained nerve damage.
The card opened to plenty of empty seats. But latecomers missed three quick, decisive finishes and some great Canadian performances on an entertaining undercard.
Canadians went 3-1 on the night, with impressive wins by welterweight Sean (The Punisher) Pierson of Pickering, Ont., lightweight T.J. Grant of Cole Harbour, N.S., and bantamweight Mitch Gagnon of Sudbury, Ont.
Halifax light-heavyweight Roger (The Hulk) Hollett lost his UFC debut by dull decision to Matt (The Hammer) Hamill. In his defence, Hollett was on and off the card, only finally getting the green light less than two weeks ago.
By the time 10 p.m. ET rolled around for the main card, the arena had filled up with 16,800 in attendance.
For Jones, the spotlight provided a chance to win back some fans after declining to meet Chael Sonnen on short notice, a decision that resulted in the cancellation of UFC 151 in Las Vegas.
He has a ways to go, judging from the boos that greeted his entrance. But Jones had a smile as he walked out to Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved."
Belfort, who volunteered to fight Jones, arrived to cheers.
Belfort looked bulked up in his first fight at 205 pounds in five years. But the hard-hitting Brazilian was giving up 10 years, four inches in height and 10.5 inches in reach to the six-foot-four Jones.
Belfort was only 19 when he won the UFC's first ever heavyweight tournament at UFC 12 in February 1997. He went on to win the light-heavyweight title.
Jones became the UFC's youngest champion when, at the age of 23 years 242 days, he dethroned Maurio (Shogun) Rua at UFC 128 in February 2011.
Jones beat three former title-holders in Quinton (Rampage) Jackson, Lyoto (The Dragon) Machida and Rashad Evans en route to UFC 152. Only Evans went the distance.
Oddsmakers made Jones an 8-1 or 9-1 favourite over Belfort.
Johnson (16-2-1) beat Benavidez in the battle of the little men — Johnson is five foot three and Benavidez 5-4. Both looked like they should have been in bed for the 11:30 p.m. fight start.
They make up for lack of size with speed although these two seemed to cancel each other out for the opening two rounds of a technical battle that drew some boos.
Benavidez (16-3) looked to press but the faster Johnson simply wore him down. He had a cut on his left eye in the third round, as well as redness on his legs from Johnson kicks.
Benavidez did get Johnson down in the fourth round, but failed to take advantage. He tried for a choke and ended up having to fight off a leg lock. Johnson opened the fifth with a pair of quick takedowns.
Both fighters raised their hands in victory after the fight but Johnson did it faster and with more conviction.
"I was a little shocked," Johnson said of the fact it was a split decision.
"I''ve still got to prove a lot of things," he added before walking out with the shiny new belt over his shoulder.
It can only have helped that Johnson looked as fresh as a daisy while Benavidez wore the scars of a five-round fight.
Featherweight Cub Swanson recorded one of the night's highlights — an eye-popping KO over highly touted Charles Oliveira thanks to a clubbing right to the temple of the American-based Brazilian.
Oliveira (16-3 with one no contest) stood still for several seconds and then toppled, prompting Montreal referee Yves Lavigne to step in at 2:40 of the first round. Oliveira left the cage with the support of a cornerman.
"His brain said "hey! Legs! Are u crazy!!" tweeted UFC president Dana White of the knockdown.
Swanson (18-5) had hurt him with a shot to the liver seconds before and won the knockout of the night bonus.
English middleweight Michael (The Count) Bisping showed his all-round game in winning a unanimous 29-28 decision over (All American) Brian Stann.
Bisping's movement, accurate striking and takedowns were the difference against Stann's limited arsenal. The victory moved Bisping a step closer to an 185-pound title shot, although champion Anderson Silva's dance card seems full for the next little while.
After an acrimonious faceoff at the pre-fight news conference, the two did not touch gloves to start. But they embraced at the end.
"Brian Stann, what a competitor. Nothing but respect for that guy, inside the cage, outside the cage," Bisping said of the former marine war hero.
Bisping's mouth — and lack of a self-edit function — has made him one of the bad boys of the UFC. But he has enjoyed an image makeover of sorts recently and heard "Let's Go Bisping" cheers in the first round.
Bisping (24-4) marked Stann's face with some precise striking but took a right to the head that hurt late in the first round. He failed on two early takedown attempts, finally dumping Stann (12-5) twice in the second.
Earlier, Pierson put on a gutsy show in defeating Lance Benoist via 29-28 unanimous decision.
At 36, Pierson (13-6) was giving up 12 years to Benoist (6-2). But with the crowd roaring "Let's Go Pierson," the veteran gave Benoist all he could handle in the first two rounds.
In the third, a tiring Pierson landed a kick and could be seen to mouth 'Ow." A lump showed on his left leg above the ankle but he kept going and survived a late battering at the fence and on the ground to finish out the fight.
Grant won a bloody, entertaining battle with Evan Dunham via 29-28, 30-27, 29-28 decision for his third straight win that was awarded fight of the night.
Dunham had a cut over his eye in the first and was bleeding profusely from the forehead in the second after taking a knee. It looked like he had taken an axe to the head. Grant was also leaking blood, although it was hard to tell if it was all his.
Dunham refused to yield, however, and finished the bout on top of an exhausted Grant.
"A ridiculous decision," Dunham said later.
As first Canadian to fight on the night, Gagnon got a rousing reception when he was introduced to fight lanky Walel (The Gazelle) Watson second up on the card.
And the five-foot-six Canadian won more cheers when he dropped Watson (9-5) with a counter left off a attempted Superman punch. Gagnon (9-2) then took Watson's back and choked him out at 1:09 of the first round for his first UFC win.
Hamill, a deaf fighter who retired after a loss to Alexander Gustafsson in August 2011, won a 29-29, 30-27, 30-27 decision over Hollett in a drab fight that drew boos. Hollett was unable to show his striking and Hamill did enough when he got him on the ground to win the fight.
"Hollett could have won this fight if he let his hands go," tweeted White.
"Props to Hollett for taking it on short notice," he added.
In a battle of two of the worst nicknames in the UFC, welterweight Seth (Polish Pistola) Baczynski stopped Norway's Simeon (The Grin) Thoresen with a big left at 4:10 of the first round.
Featherweight Marcus (The Bama Beast) Brimage ran his UFC win streak to three with a unanimous 29-28 decision over Jimy (The Kid) Hettes in a fast-paced back-and-forth battle.
Australian Kyle Noke, in his first outing at welterweight, stopped Charlie (The Spaniard) Brenneman via TKO 45 seconds into the first round.
Light-heavyweight Vinny Magalhaes returned to the UFC with a bang, showing off sublime submission skills in submitting Igor (The Duke) Pokrajac. The American-based Brazilian bent the Croatian like a pretzel before locking on an armbar at 1:14 of the second round
The card marked the UFC's 10th show in Canada and third in Toronto. After a show in Brazil, the UFC returns to Montreal in November for UFC 154.