TAMPA — Gasparilla had the parade and beads. The Florida State Fair offered gut-busting food. But for fight fans, South Florida's campus was the place to be Saturday night.
Ultimate Fighting Championship, the primary organization in mixed martial arts, showcased its first card in Tampa before an announced crowd of 7,596 at the Sun Dome and millions more throughout the United States and Canada live on TV's Spike network.
Fans lined up early for UFC Fight Night Live, and they had the Dome buzzing by the third preliminary fight.
"We're very happy with the turnout, very happy," UFC president Dana White said. "Usually for these Fight Night cards, we get anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people, so this is great."
The cards generally feature up-and-coming fighters and offer the organization a glimpse into potential pay-per-view sites.
The night's final bout had two of the youngest fighters in a main event in UFC history: 24-year-old Joe Lauzon and 22-year-old Jeremy Stephens.
They traded punches and reversals in the first round. In the second, Stephens opened a cut along Lauzon's hairline. Lauzon was able to gain mount about four minutes in before sinking in an arm bar. The pair scrambled momentarily, but Lauzon (17-4) held on, and Stephens (16-4) tapped out at 4:43.
Lauzon's move was named submission of the night.
Anthony Johnson (7-2-0) opened the undercard in style, unleashing a barrage of punches and kicks on St. Petersburg native Luigi Fioravanti (13-5-0) before the referee stopped the fight on a TKO at 4:39 of the first round.
In the fight of the night, Josh Neer (25-7-1) then submitted Ultimate Fighter Season 6 champion Mac Danzig (19-6-1) by triangle choke at 3:36 of the second round.
"I came to this fight ready to die," Neer said. "I wasn't going to leave without getting the win."
For the first time in his young career, heavyweight Cain Velasquez (5-0) didn't knock out his opponent in the opening round. But the two-time NCAA wrestling All-American at Arizona State did end it with strikes at 2:34 of the second round, spoiling the UFC debut of Denis Stojnic (12-2) and earning KO of the night honors, to round out the undercard.
In preliminary action, welterweight Matt Riddle kicked off the night with a unanimous decision against Steve Bruno (13-5-0), running his record to 2-0-0. Middleweight Nick Catone (7-0-0), making his UFC debut, also remained undefeated, stopping Derek Downey (10-4-0) by submission (keylock) at 1:15 of Round 2.
Lightweight Gleison Tibau's (28-5-0) guillotine choke at 4:35 of the first round ended his bout with Rich Clementi (40-14-1). Lightweight Matt Veach (11-0), who was cornered by UFC legend and nine-time welterweight champion Matt Hughes, TKO'd Matt Grice (10-2) at 4:34 of the first round.
Middleweight Dan Miller (12-1-1) won his 10th straight fight and remained undefeated in the UFC, stopping Jake Rosholt (5-1) at 1:03 of the first round via guillotine choke.
Lightweight Kurt Pellegrino (19-4) sunk in a rear naked choke on Rob Emerson (10-7-1), ending their fight at 3:14 of the second round.
Meanwhile, White, the UFC president, was so pleased with the turnout that he announced the UFC will return.
"We'll definitely be returning to Tampa early next year, and it'll be a pay-per-view," White said. "We wanted to come here and test the market. With all the other (events) going on and we draw this kind of crowd? This area is going to be a big market for us."
This was the fifth time UFC held a card in Florida and the first since June 2007. Three were in Hollywood and one in Miami.
"We just keep our heads down and keep charging forward and making this thing bigger and better," White said. "We haven't even scratched the surface on how big this thing is going to be in the U.S., let alone the rest of the world."