Matthew Semelsberger could hardly contain himself.
He spontaneously did a backflip that didn’t quite land perfectly. He screamed at the top of his lungs into a nearby camera — which he appeared to inadvertently head-butt. He pounded the canvas with both of his fists, letting out another primal yell as the brown hair on his mulleted noggin shook.
That unfettered celebration was almost more activity than “Semi the Jedi” had required to blast his opponent at UFC 266 in Las Vegas on Saturday.
Semelsberger, an Urbana High grad and ascending welterweight in the world’s premier mixed martial arts promotion, had landed another dynamite right hand, disconnecting Martin Sano from consciousness just 15 seconds into their early preliminary bout at T-Mobile Arena.
Coming off his first loss in three career UFC fights and his first defeat in three years, Semelsberger talked last week about how he’d “reprogrammed” his focus and prepared for a full 15-minute battle with Sano after his lackluster unanimous decision loss to Khaos Williams on June 20. Semelsberger also spoke about how the noise and praise surrounding his 16-second, right-handed KO of Jason Witt in March had crept into his head and poisoned his approach ahead of the meeting with fellow fireball Williams — an affair that did not go anywhere near as swimmingly for the Ijamsville resident.
So, along with continuing to sharpen his all-around game physically, Semelsberger (9-3 overall, 3-1 UFC) took extra time over the past three months to get his mind right, to block out anything that might interfere with his capacity to focus on the task at hand — which was the idea that he would be ready to unload his full arsenal over three 5-minute rounds against Sano. He mentioned how he hoped for a performance that might mimic featherweight Max Holloway, who once set a record for number of strikes thrown in a bout.
And then Semelsberger went out and delivered another boffo KO.
It was the second time in four UFC fights that Semelsberger has won almost instantaneously with what, in the post-fight interview, he called “this beautiful right hand.”
“It was pretty much, ‘Oh, wow, it happened again,’” he said of his reaction when he caught Sano.
UFC broadcaster Jon Anik said it was unofficially the sixth fastest-finish in UFC welterweight (170 pounds) history.
Having settled down at least a bit, Semelsberger spoke in the cage seconds later with UFC color commentator and former two-division champ Daniel Cormier.
“Dude, it felt amazing,” Semelsberger said. “I’ll take the quick knockout, but we’ve been working so hard on high volume, being ready to mix everything together every second of the fight. But, man, I’ll take it.
“If I can just land this beautiful right hand every time, I’ll do it. But I was coming in ready for a war.”
In the preamble to the Sano encounter, Semelsberger seemed to be more at ease with where he was in his career, having recovered from the disappointment of his June letdown. For instance, his brother and frequent training partner, Michael, said there was much less tension during their week in Vegas leading up to Saturday — unlike the feeling in June before Matthew fought Williams, with expectations weighing heavily.
In his camp for the Sano fight, Semelsberger worked more on melding the mental and physical aspects of the sport. He meditated more often. For easier access, he stayed at a hotel adjacent to his base gym, Crazy 88 MMA, in Elkridge.
“If you don’t put the tactical brain advantage behind [the physical training],” he said, “you don’t really have much going into a UFC fight — especially at this level, because you have guys that are smart and just absolutely monsters.”
Semelsberger, 28, entered Saturday knowing that a loss to a professional like Sano could, perhaps, greatly damage his chances of maintaining a strong standing with the promotion. The multi-fight contract that Semelsberger had signed in August 2020 was nearing its end.
Plus, in MMA circles, there seemed to be a question as to whether Sano deserved this fight, which was his UFC debut.
It was speculated that Sano had landed the spot only because he trains closely with MMA legend Nick Diaz, who returned to the UFC later Saturday on the main card (and lost to Robbie Lawler) after more than six years away from the octagon.
Sano (4-3-1) hadn’t fought in three years, and that most recent result was a draw on a Bellator card. He hadn’t won since 2014.
In the fraction of a round that Sano and Semelsberger fought on Saturday, Semelsberger jabbed a body shot in the first 10 seconds, backed away, then exploded — “like a freight train,” he told Cormier — with a straight punch that landed directly on Sano’s chin, violently twisting his head sideways.
Sano went down immediately, and Semelsberger added a hammer fist before referee Mark Smith could get between them to wave off the fight.
As Semi exalted wildly in the cage and the replays cued up on ESPN+, Cormier said, “When your chin touches your shoulder on the opposite side, you’re going to sleep.”
The official announcement was made as medical personnel and team members were still tending to Sano.
Meanwhile, Semelsberger had his hand raised by Smith.
Said UFC commentator Paul Felder after the result, “[Semelsberger] did exactly what he needed to do tonight. Somebody like Sano, no disrespect, you probably shouldn’t be here right now. And [Semelsberger] did his job.”
Mike Semelsberger, Matthew’s father, said Saturday night via text that he felt as though Sano had disrespected his son Friday by refusing to shake Matthew’s hand at the weigh-ins.
“Matt made him pay,” Mike Semelsberger said.
And he got to do it in front of a crowd that included a cadre of his friends and family, including pals from his Urbana football days along with buddies that join Semelsberger — a self-described nerd — in playing “Dungeons & Dragons.”
It was the first time any of them had been able to see Semelsberger fight in the UFC in-person. His previous three UFC fights took place with virtually no fans in attendance at the UFC Apex, a much smaller venue in Vegas.
While the early crowd wasn’t anywhere near full Saturday, Semelsberger got to experience what he’d always envisioned for himself, ambling to the cage with his walk-out music playing, during a numbered card before a live audience in a huge arena.
Last week, as he looked forward to it, he called it “the full experience as a UFC fighter.”
“So happy for him,” Mike Semelsberger texted shortly after his son’s win. “He works and trains so hard. Very nice to be here to watch him. Stomach was in knots — but not now.”
With another short night of work under his belt, Semelsberger will be able to resume training almost right away. He will feasibly be able to take another fight soon, having his body and mind working in synchronicity for whatever is next.
“I want to challenge myself,” he told Cormier. “After the Khaos fight, going into it, I had a lot of mental baggage. But I’m over it. I’m ready to become one of the best fighters in the world. So, UFC, it was the last fight on the contract ... I’m ready for anything you want to throw at me.”