Matthew Semelsberger entered his second fight in the UFC on Saturday planning to prove he’s ready to be a big-time player in the welterweight division as he aimed to leave a mark by finishing his veteran opponent, Jason Witt.
In the world of mixed martial arts, impressions don’t get much more stark than the one Semelsberger made.
As Witt threw a right leg kick very early in their encounter, Semelsberger timed a straight right hand out of his orthodox stance that landed flush on Witt’s chin for a push-button knockout in just 16 seconds of a scheduled three-round welterweight fight to open the UFC Fight Night card.
Semelsberger (8-2) followed Witt (18-7) to the canvas, delivering follow-up punches that were not even necessary before referee Chris Tognoni rushed in to cover the woozy Witt and halt the proceedings.
“Feels great, man,” Semelsberger, an Urbana High grad, told UFC color commentator Daniel Cormier moments after having his hand raised in victory for the fifth straight time overall.
“I worked really, really hard for this. Always knew I had power in my hands and just worked on my craft a lot. Glad I could get it done.”
In an interview with the News-Post on Feb. 26, Semelsberger had discussed his desire to make a more emphatic statement coming off a rather routine three-round decision over Carlton Minus on Aug. 22 in his company debut.
“Last fight, I wanted to prove that I’m at a high level, I deserve to be here,” Semelsberger said last month. “But this fight, I want to build off the last goal. ... Now, I want to prove to all the fighters in the welterweight division that I’m a force to be reckoned with, and anybody who accepts a fight against me is going to be in for an actual dogfight.”
On Saturday, having just accomplished exactly what he’d set out to do — perhaps even more resoundingly than he’d imagined — “Semi the Jedi” played it straight in the post-fight scene.
There was no preening to the cameras, no attention-seeking celebration in the cage as Witt regained his wits.
Semelsberger — among the more respectable individuals one can find in a sport that’s no stranger to aggressively confident, brazen personalities — seemed content to have allowed his performance to speak for itself.
And why not? UFC play-by-play man Brendan Fitzgerald informed the ESPN+ audience that they’d just witnessed the seventh-fastest knockout in UFC history.
Back home in Ijamsville, Mike Semelsberger, Matthew’s father, watched his son win so quickly that he didn’t even have time to start pacing or stressing out, which is what he normally does on these occasions.
“Damn I didn’t even get to pour a glass of wine,” the father said via text message on Saturday evening. “I like it that way though.”
The emphatic conclusion to start the night’s activity at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas duly impressed Cormier, a former two-division UFC champion, and fellow commentator Michael Bisping, also a previous belt-holder.
“That was crazy,” Cormier said of Semelsberger’s big punch.
“That’s how you do it,” Bisping added as one of several replays appeared on the broadcast. “[Semelsberger] said he wanted a finish. That was a big motivator coming into this one. And, I’ll tell you what, they don’t get much better than that. That was so fast, so quick.”
Witt had made comments online recently that he’d expected to enforce his will easily on Semelsberger, taking down the taller, less experienced fighter who he claimed to have never heard of before their clash came to fruition.
However, since his initial UFC win, Semelsberger had finally been able to fully devote himself to the sport, leaving behind his days of working odd jobs that prevented him from spending more time in the gym. He purposely took a long break between fights to shore up his skills, particularly his wrestling.
So, heading into this encounter, he had the advantage of a full training camp and a more professional approach to strength and conditioning. His first UFC foe, Minus, had been a late replacement. Not to mention, less than a month had elapsed between Semelsberger signing his contract and meeting Minus in the octagon.
“That’s the biggest difference, just the time I had to prepare,” Semelsberger said in the earlier interview. “I feel really good about my cardio. I’m not planning on letting this fight go all three rounds, but if it does I’ll be ready for three rounds of nonstop action.”
Even though Semelsberger, 28, had spent a large portion of his training camp working on takedown defense in preparation for Witt’s favored mode of attack, he clearly did not neglect his striking game in the lead-up.
The 6-foot-1 Semelsberger made full use of his five-inch reach advantage over the 5-10 Witt. He didn’t even seem to put a lot of power into that right hand, but it was crippling nonetheless.
He admitted later Saturday that it was more or less a reaction born of his instincts.
“I thought maybe I might get put on my back early possibly and might have to work my way up a little, but I’ve been working my hands a lot,” Semelsberger told Cormier. “I have a lot of thunder in my hands, and I’ve been working really hard with my strength and conditioning to add to that, so I’ll take 16 seconds, man.”
Semelsberger prides himself on giving fans something fun to watch. His father said that’s part of Matthew’s unselfish nature, how he’s always thinking of others — even when he’s in a cage, dueling with an ill-intentioned counterpart.
Semi delivered Saturday. And the UFC rewarded him afterward with one of its four $50,000 “Performance of the Night” bonuses — something else Semelsberger was admittedly chasing.
“I go into every fight with the kill or be killed, do or die attitude,” he said. “I’ll be 100 percent honest: I don’t really think I’m going to win every single fight in the UFC. But you will see me go for the kill, you will see me going to entertain people. Whether it’s me lying unconscious or the other person lying unconscious, I’m going to throw everything that I got at them. That’s probably why I’d say people enjoy watching me because I’m not afraid to risk it all.”
Risks and all, Semelsberger came out of Saturday’s bout completely healthy, so he could return to action much sooner — if his team deems it wise. He seemed open to that idea.
“I’d probably take a fight on a week’s notice,” he told Cormier. “I’ll go back and talk to my team, but if the UFC has something come up, hit me up. I’m always game, as long as it’s cool with my coaches. I’m making these decisions as a team.
“But I like to fight, man. Let’s do it.”
Follow Joshua R. Smith on Twitter: @JoshuaR_Smith