It is Saturday night, 5:28 p.m., when the lights inside the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville fade to black, and the speakers scream, “Ladies and gentleman. Would you bring your attention to me? For a feast for your eyes to see. An explosion of catastrophe.” An elaborate highlight video featuring current and former Ultimate Fighting Championship champions Anderson Silva, Ronda Rousey, Jose Aldo, and Cain Velasquez plays on four massive screens around the 20,000-capacity venue. A night of blood and combat, ecstasy and anguish is about to ensue.
The video ends, and then another plays.
This one introduces Knoxville native Scott Holtzman, a 7-0 freestyle fighter who both opens the show and makes his UFC debut against Anthony Christodoulou at 5:30 p.m. The arena, a quarter full six hours prior to the main event, which features former University of Tennessee football player Ovince Saint Preux, lets out a light roar. As he makes the long walk to the Octagon to the sounds of “Nothin’ But a Good Time” by Poison, the roar becomes a collective shout in support of Holtzman, who bounces, his fists raised to the crowd. Once inside the cage, he takes sips of water, muscles clenched, veins popping from every surface on his body, and shadowboxes in the corner, envisioning every punch that will soon land on Christodoulou’s chin.
“For everyone to welcome me like that was a dream. I used the energy and I fed off of it,” Holtzman says in the press conference later that night. He dominated his opponent on the feet, and choked him out in the third round of a one-sided fight.
Holtzman, Saint Preux, and Dustin Ortiz, a former Franklin High School wrestling standout, were the three Tennessee fighters on the card at UFC Fight Night 73, the promotion’s first event in the state since Jan. 20, 2012. Each received the loudest cheers of the evening, with their opponents contrastingly receiving the most vociferous boos. By the end of the night, 7,539 spectators filled the seats, as more than 1.1 million watched on television, the sixth largest audience for a Fight Night event in the two-year history of Fox Sports 1.
Ortiz and Saint Preux had been on this stage before.
Ortiz was a veteran of five UFC fights before defeating Willie Gates by TKO in the third round of their fight on Saturday, improving his record with the promotion to 4-2 (15-4 overall). Walking out to “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Johnny Cash, Ortiz played the protagonist, taking Gates down several times in the fight and pounding on him with elbows and punches. “This is the start of my time, and I’m doing it here in Nashville,” he said in his Octagon speech after the fight, the win moving him up to No. 10 in the UFC Flyweight Rankings.
Saint Preux headlined his third UFC event in his last four fights. With an 18-6 record (6-1 UFC) prior to the fight, the No. 6-ranked light heavyweight knocked out both his last opponents in the first round. He looked to be on his way to the same result on Saturday, clattering No. 4-ranked Glover Teixeira, a former title contender, with a body kick (“My body is still hurt; my liver is still hurt right now,” Teixeira admitted in the post-fight press conference), and almost finishing him with elbows and straight lefts less than halfway into the first round. But, Teixeira recovered and won in the third via rear naked choke. Saint Preux, who walked out to “Rocky Top” and promised to fight until the end in front of his home fans, refused to tap in front of the Nashville crowd and was put to sleep. Both fighters earned a $50,000 Fight of the Night bonus for their performance.
“I swear to God, I’ll be back better than ever. I’m still in the hunt, I promise,” Saint Preux said after the fight, applauding Teixeira and taking pictures with him and his camp, showing a kind of respect many wouldn’t expect to see in a sport this brutal.
For Holtzman, now 8-0 as a professional, it was all new.
Arriving on Tuesday to the Downtown Sheraton, and participating in fight week activities, from media workouts to press interviews, could have been overwhelming for someone not shy to tell everyone about previous fights in high-school gyms and rodeo barns. But, Holtzman took it in stride, and never seemed to stop smiling.
The first words out of his mouth after the win were, “Hey Tennessee, I love you guys!” Pockets of the crowd exploded with cheers of “Hot Sauce,” Holtzman’s fighting nickname. And he soon talked about “cutting the line” at lightweight, not ready to rest but to push himself into the rankings as soon as he gets the call from UFC matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby.
“To be a part of the some of the stuff a guy like myself wouldn’t be if this weren’t near my hometown…I was just happy to put some butts in the seats early…Man, it was great” Holtzman said in the press conference.
Eventually, the lights came down on UFC Nashville. Despite the differing fortunes, Tennessee’s three representatives all left optimistic of brighter futures. Ortiz and Saint Preux, the veterans, continue to fight their way up the rankings into title contention. And, Holtzman proved that he is ready to make a splash on the biggest stage in mixed martial arts.
More: See Tyler Oxendine’s photo story, Scott Holtzman’s Journey to UFC.
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