There was little reason to believe, as Darren Elkins listened to Justin Buchholz give instructions before the third round of a fight he was losing badly to Mirsad Bektic, that Elkins had even a sliver of a chance.
Bektic entered their match at UFC 209 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas 11-0 and hyped as one of the best up-and-coming fighters in the sport. For two rounds, he lived up to all of the accolades, and made those who said he had a chance to be a star look like geniuses.
Less than a minute into the third and final round, though, UFC broadcasters Joe Rogan and Dominick Cruz had a curious exchange.
Curious, because Bektic was far ahead, Elkins was battered and beaten and the outcome seemed all but certain. With 54 seconds gone in the final rounds and Bektic grappling with Elkins against the cage, Rogan questioned Bektic’s tactics.
“See now, as Bektic engages Darren Elkins like this and leaves his neck out there, this gives Darren Elkins a chance to scramble,” Rogan said. “I mean, this is where Darren Elkins has a chance to win this fight. Something can happen here.”
Cruz, the former bantamweight champion and one of the sharpest minds in the sport, saw the same thing.
“I couldn’t agree more, Joe,” he said. “I think Bektic is giving Elkins the only shot he has to win, by grappling with him.”
Bektic was easily outstriking Elkins, and pummeled him in the first. He opened a bad cut that left Elkins’ face a mess. The second was also a Bektic round, but not as dominant as the first, Elkins thought.
“The second round, I started winning some of the scrambles and started landing some shots,” Elkins told Yahoo Sports. “I still lost that round, but that round started to turn the tide. I could feel him getting tired. I knew I had to pour it on and going into that third round, I felt I had to finish.”
For most of the first half of the third round, Rogan and Cruz bantered about Bektic’s curious choice to begin grappling with Elkins. Not much was happening, but the style of the fight was slowly changing.
Just after the halfway point of the round, Cruz addressed Rogan’s earlier comment as Elkins got an obviously tiring Bektic in a front headlock.
“This is what you were talking about Joe, where Bektic gives him a shot,” Cruz said. “Now, Elkins is in a positive position [where] he wants to be.”
Elkins started to throw short punches as Bektic was trying to disengage from him.
“Yeah,” Rogan said in response to Cruz, “he’s doing damage here.”
Still, Bektic was on his feet, bent over at the waist, and didn’t seem in serious jeopardy.
“Could Elkins get here if they were staying on the outside striking, is the question,” Cruz said, making one final jab at Bektic’s choice of tactics.
Cruz commented on Bektic’s limited experience and Rogan began to discuss Elkins’ vast experience. Elkins had been in the UFC for seven years at that point and was in his 16th UFC bout. Bektic made his pro debut 16 months after Elkins’ UFC debut.
With 1:53 in the fight and Bektic just about all the way to the finish line, Rogan mentioned the experience edge in Elkins’ favor.
“And [Elkins has] experience in deep water,” Rogan said. “That is what Darren Elkins is all about, experience in deep water. This kid breathes underwater.”
Bektic had one hand on the ground. He stood up and Elkins landed a short right. Bektic took a step and then Elkins landed a significant right that clearly hurt Bektic.
Bektic took a step to get away from Elkins, but he opened room for a kick. Elkins, behind Bektic and to his right, threw a kick to the head. Bektic, exhausted now, tumbled forward as referee Chris Tognoni stopped it.
It was one of the most remarkable comeback victories in UFC history. Elkins was in serious trouble, and several times in the first round Tognoni was watching him carefully, contemplating stopping it.
It also had a huge impact on Elkins career.
“For sure, it was a game-changer for me,” said Elkins, who fights Dennis Bermudez on Saturday on a card televised nationally by Fox.
The victory was Elkins’ fourth in a row and fifth in his last six fights, and made him sort of a cult hero.
He has always had that grinding, physical style that would wear down opponents, but he’s clearly perfected it.
“I’ll be honest, I have a style that most people can’t handle,” Elkins said. “They come in great shape, the best shape of their lives, and I’ll still gas them out. It was like that in my wrestling career and it’s been like that in my MMA career. I lose the first round a lot, but in the second and third, that’s really when I turn it on, man. The first is kind of a warm-up.”
Elkins is now ranked 12th at featherweight and Saturday’s bout with Bermudez gives him a chance to move into the top 10.
He’s trained at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento for the last two years and credits it for helping improve his footwork and evolving his game.
“Before I came out to Alpha Male, it was at the point I was starting to lose and I didn’t think I was fighting that well and I was considering hanging it up,” he said. “I was thinking maybe I didn’t have it in me any more. I came out here and started evolving my game and feeling like I was getting better again and all of a sudden, things started to go my way.”
After a dramatic win like the one he scored over Bektic, he’s finally getting the respect he deserves. He’s as tough an out as there is in the sport.
“I never believe I’m out of a fight and I know, I’ve proven, that if I just keep working and keep pushing, anything can happen,” he said. “The one sure thing is, if you believe you’re finished, you probably are. I just keep fighting and you never know what may happen if you do that.”
Popular MMA video on Yahoo Sports: