MANCHESTER, England -- The befuddled look on Brandon Vera's face told the story.
Vera took everything UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture had to offer in the clinch, wounded him with several wicked body kicks and mounted him in the closing seconds, only to lose a unanimous decision in the "UFC 105: Couture vs. Vera" main event Saturday at the Manchester Evening News Arena.
Scores were 29-28 across the board for Couture, who narrowly avoided the first three-fight losing streak of his career. Labeled an underachiever by many, Vera fought well against a master strategist but went unrewarded by cage-side judges.
"I thought I won," Vera said. "I left it all out there."
Couture, who had not won a fight as a light heavyweight since his 2005 submission victory over Mike Van Arsdale, seemed to sense the brewing controversy.
"You just don't know what the judges are looking at, how they see the fight," he said.
Vera wobbled Couture in the opening seconds but struggled to maintain distance between himself and the 46-year-old legend. Couture did his best work against the cage in the clinch, but he scored with only one takedown and failed to keep Vera on the ground for any appreciable amount of time.
Round 2 saw Vera establish his foothold. He landed a crushing left kick to Couture's ribs and followed up with well-placed punches that sent the former two-division champion to the canvas. The body blow did the damage.
"It hurt," Couture said. "He stung me a good one with that body kick, and he did it again in the third round. It didn't get me quite as bad, but it was still bad."
The third round looked even until late, when Vera took down Couture and mounted him. Couture escaped to his feet soon after, however, and the fighters ended their showdown with a wild exchange in the center of the cage. Following his first appearance at light heavyweight in more than three years, Couture indicated he plans to stay at 205 pounds.
"I feel much better dealing with guys Brandon's size, my size," he said. "I don't have to worry so much about some of those situations I get in, like giving a guy the mount or giving a guy my back."
Hardy cinches title shot, decisions Swick
Dan Hardy has been known more for his mouth than his performance in his short UFC campaign, but that may have changed when he picked apart perennial contender Mike Swick en route to a dominating unanimous decision: 30-27, 30-27 and 29-28.
Hardy will next face welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, sometime in early 2010. The two men shook hands in the cage after the decision was announced.
"Dan Hardy, he proved that he deserved the title [shot]," St. Pierre said. "I look forward to the challenge."
"I'm excited, people," Hardy said, "and I hope you are, too."
Hardy shut down all of Swick's takedown attempts in the opening round before getting his striking game untracked. It was a lead left hook that sent Swick stumbling backwards early in the second round and swung the momentum in the Englishman's favor. Hardy chased after a wobbly Swick with a broad, knowing smile on his face. Although Swick got his wits back, he never really asserted himself in the fight. In his best encounter, Swick traded with Hardy along the cage and landed a pair of solid punches as the second round came to a close, but he could not muster much more.
Hardy took control again in the third, utilizing the lead left hook repeatedly, stinging Swick and throwing him off balance. Hardy hurt the American Kickboxing Academy standout again with a grazing left hand, but Swick, looking for the finish, jumped into a guillotine choke in response to a Hardy shot. Hardy easily defended before getting back on the offensive with elbows from top position inside Swick's guard.
Sensing the inevitability of their countryman's victory, the crowd roared in appreciation as the final seconds ticked down, erupting at the final horn. Hardy raised his hands with a grin as Swick retreated to his corner hanging his head.
"I did what I could, England," Hardy said. "I did what I could. I'm sorry I didn't get the finish, but we got there in the end."
Resilient Bisping stops Kang
Kang had his way with Bisping in the first frame, knocking him down with a straight right hand and spending the entire round in top position. Bisping recovered from the knockdown quickly and showed deft grappling skills, limiting Kang's ability to pass and reestablishing position when Kang did advance.
Knowing he was behind going into the second may have lit a fire under the popular British mixed martial artist. Bisping looked like a completely different fighter in the second period. The fact that Kang looked like his gas tank was empty after Bisping's first takedown of the round may have contributed to the change in momentum as well.
Bisping took the fight to the mat and wrested control away from his fading opponent, battering Kang with punches while standing in his guard after the initial takedown. Kang rose from the mat with blood streaming from his nose and a cut above his right eye, then staggered away from Bisping's advance.
The Manchester native kept up his pursuit and planted Kang again. Another volley of punches left Kang flailing on the mat, but the Canadian somehow made it back to his feet again. Bisping closed in again and slammed him to the mat for the last time. The final flurry brought referee Dan Miragliotta to Kang's rescue at 4:24 of the second round and sent the crowd into a frenzy. Kang lay prone on the mat, seemingly more exhausted than hurt.
Brown finishes Wilks
Brown found himself defending takedowns for the majority of the first five minutes, but he managed to blacken Wilks' left eye with one of the few strikes he landed in the opening frame.
Wilks continued to work for the takedown in the second round, but Brown, timing his shot, launched into a flying knee that sent the Englishman careening backward to the canvas.
"I just knew he was going to shoot," Brown said. "I timed it."
Brown pounced with punches, but a lucid Wilks grabbed his left leg and diligently fought for the submission. Brown defended well and escaped back to his feet. Brown then set up a four-punch combination with a body shot and put Wilkes back on the floor. Wilks futilely grabbed at Brown's leg but was rewarded with hammerfists to the side of his head. In a remarkable turn, Wilks scrambled to top position but could not do anything with the advantage in the round's final 20 seconds.
Wilks kept coming in the third round with a painful-looking kimura attempt that had Brown doing a contortionist impression. Brown wriggled free by jumping over Wilks and getting to his feet.
"I was lucky to get out," Brown said. "He had that. I don't know how I got out."
A spent Wilks gave up the mount without much of a whimper and Brown capitalized. He slugged his way to the stoppage at 2:27, when referee Leon Roberts stepped in to end the bout.
Pearson stops Riley on cut
"The Ultimate Fighter" Season 9 lightweight winner Ross Pearson made his official Octagon debut a successful one, as he finished veteran lightweight Aaron Riley by doctor's stoppage at 4:38 of the second round. Pearson controlled the contest from the outset and bullied Riley from the clinch repeatedly, scoring with punches, knees and kicks.
"I did nothing but think about Aaron and train for Aaron, and everything come together tonight," Pearson said. "It came out perfect."
Pearson set the tone early in the opening frame when he bloodied Riley's nose during an exchange along the cage. The Brit threw combinations at every opportunity, while Riley seemed to get off only single shots when he went on the offensive.
Riley opened the second frame much more aggressively but could not capture the momentum from Pearson, the crowd favorite. After taking a few shots, Pearson escaped Riley's grasp along the cage early in the round and never looked back.
Late in the period, Pearson leaped in with a knee that splattered Riley's nose, painting his face red with blood. Riley fought his way off the cage and, as the fighters circled, referee Marc Goddard caught sight of the carnage. He immediately motioned for the ringside physician, who recommended the fight be stopped.
Greg Savage and Brian Knapp are contributors to Sherdog.com.