Inside the viral knockout that made UFC middleweight Joaquin Buckley ‘immortal’

As Joaquin Buckley exited the Octagon on Oct. 10, the UFC middleweight had no idea what he had just accomplished. Not until he ran into a security guard in the Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi did Buckley get some idea of the magnitude of the moment.

“I got out of the cage, and everybody — I’m talking to the security — was like, ‘What the f—? What the hell did I just watch?'” Buckley said. “That’s when I realized what I did was like a big deal.”

But he couldn’t have known how big his second-round knockout of Impa Kasanganay would become. The UFC tweet with the video was the most-liked (359,000), most-retweeted (143,000) and most-viewed (12.8 million) tweet in UFC history. The KO fueled the UFC’s most-watched Instagram video ever with 17.8 million views. And across three tweets, three Instagram posts, four Facebook posts and a TikTok, the Buckley knockout video has generated more than 65 million views and 83 million impressions for the UFC.

“Basically, in my opinion, he’s made himself immortal,” Buckley’s cornerman Micheal Gillmore said. “That knockout, for as long as the UFC is around — which I imagine will be for the rest of time — that particular kick and knockout will always be in consideration for one of the top, if not the top, knockout.”

What made it so unusual? Kasanganay caught Buckley’s left kick, but he held the leg too long. Buckley used that as leverage as he spun and let loose a wicked back kick with his right leg. It caught Kasanganay flush on the jaw and Kasanganay was out on his feet, falling slowly like a tree cut down in the forest.

Millions of people have seen the knockout, and Kanye West even wrote a track and released a video on Twitter about it. ESPN talked to several people who were there and had a unique perspective of the historic moment and its immediate aftermath. As Buckley prepares for his encore bout Saturday against Jordan Wright in Las Vegas, here are what people recall about the night he made history.

Editor’s note: Answers were edited for length and clarity.

At 1:10 of the first round, Buckley, a southpaw, landed a left kick to Kasanganay’s right leg. Kasanganay caught the kick after impact. The same thing happened at 1:50 of the first round, with Kasanganay holding onto the Buckley kick a little longer.

Buckley: In the first round, Impa had grabbed my foot twice. The second time when he grabbed it, he had a good grip and he turned me all the way. I had the opportunity to do [the kick]. I was already thinking about it. But it was too late. I was like, all right, if he does that again, I have the ability to capitalize on that and take the opportunity and make it happen.

Paul Felder, UFC lightweight and TV analyst: I knew Impa was catching his kicks. He was catching them and swiping them to the side, which is a classic technique. You catch the kick and move your opponent to the side. But you can’t hold onto it. We started to catch onto that a little bit [on commentary].

Kasanganay: I remember in the fight I caught a couple of kicks. But I didn’t do too much action off of them. The first one, I tried to sweep him, take his feet out. The other one I caught, but there wasn’t much to do except disengage. I could have done better. I have to do a little bit more off those kicks. The reason you catch the kick is, one, you don’t take the full damage of the kick; two, you can counter from it and put yourself in a better position to score.

Buckley won the first round 10-9 on all three judges’ scorecards, landing the harder punches and kicks throughout, including some hard punching combinations.

Gillmore: Right at the end of the first-period break, I reminded [Buckley], take a deep breath, and I said visualize. He responded with, “I’m visualizing it.” He responded in the affirmative that he was visualizing what he was doing. Now, obviously, visualizing is getting yourself mentally prepared. I don’t know how he visualized that knockout, per se.

Buckley: The game plan was to use my rear kick and tear up his rear thigh and lead leg. That’s the only reason why I was throwing kicks at the time. But utilizing that counter where he catches it, I was thinking, well, if he catches it again and has a good grip, I’m gonna throw that [spinning] kick.

At 1:59 of the second round, Buckley attempts a left head kick. Kasanganay blocks it with his right arm and grabs Buckley’s ankle with his left hand.

Buckley: As soon as I threw that kick and he caught it again, in my head I was like, “Yep, there he goes.” I just went for it and I kicked it with all my might. I realized it was there. There’s no way I could have set this up from the beginning. To be honest, it wasn’t even like a setup in the first place. It was just a reaction. Even though I thought about it, it was still a reaction off of [what he did]. It’s like everything goes real slow. I only see the action in real time. I didn’t think it was that fast in the moment. It looked different when I watched it again. But when we’re fighting, everything kind of slows down for us. I’m able to make that general reaction and make that thought. Like, “OK, we’re about to fire.” It was really off of instinct, too.

Gillmore: That’s all Joaquin. There’s no corner instruction. Like between rounds, there was no, “Hey, if he catches your kick, blast his face with a spinning kick.” We saw him catch the kick just like he had previously done. The kick itself happened so fast. But what I remember seeing pretty vivid in my mind is Impa’s eyes rolling back. I was actually up on the platform area before Impa even fell, while he was still falling. I knew right away that he was gone. That was even before Joaquin had turned all the way around. I’m jumping up [on the platform in the corner] already.

Kasanganay: I held the kick a little too long, really. Every second counts. I held it too long, he planted his foot, spun and knocked me out. It was a beautiful technique, really.

Buckley: As soon as I landed, I didn’t know the amount of force I was able to generate. I also didn’t know exactly where it landed. With his head being in motion, it’s not like a heavy bag where it stays there. No matter how hard you hit the heavy bag, it’s gonna stay there. You can see the dent [in the heavy bag] or you can hear the snap. I wasn’t able to hear anything. We’re just working. As soon as I knocked his head back, I couldn’t tell how much force I was able to generate until I turned around. Then I seen his body, it stiffened up. And I knew the fight was over after that.

Felder: Buckley made such a good read in the moment. Impa held onto the kick too long. It’s almost like in a movie. A guy holds onto the roundhouse kick and you do the jump spinning hook kick. Only this was a spinning back kick instead of a hook kick. I knew what had happened. But you just don’t see that. Usually, a guy will let [the kick] go or he’ll miss completely and fall down and get subbed. It’s rare that we see these movie-type moves pay off. But they’re based in reality. Even the crazy s— you see on TV or in movies, there’s some kind of truth there.

Kasanganay was unconscious upon the impact of Buckley’s right foot to his face. His body tightened and he fell to the canvas. Referee Kevin Sataki ran over to Kasanganay’s side to stop the fight. Buckley had won via knockout.

Sataki: I saw what happened, but what surprised me was the kick. Usually, they do a somersault away from the opponent when [the opponent] catches the leg like that — not a spinning back kick that results in a KO. I think we all saw something from “The Matrix” or, even better, the video game Tekken. This is why we love this sport. You never know what’s coming, and when it does, it can get 50 million views just like that.

John Gooden, UFC play-by-play announcer: I didn’t know how he had got perched to land with the foot that he landed with. That first look — I’m not sure if it was my vantage point — but I didn’t know how he had switched the feet in the air. There was enough there in that split second for him to then anchor himself and literally rotate his body and throw that kick. It’s just bonkers. Crazy.

Felder: I literally wanted to throw my headset as hard as I could on the desk, because I couldn’t believe it. Like, that was crazy. I wanted to throw something. If you watch a clip of the reaction, I stood up with John [Gooden]. I’m grabbing my headset, I take it off for a second, almost like I’m gonna slam it on the desk. Like holy …

Buckley celebrates the knockout. He slaps Gillmore, who was reaching in from outside the Octagon, with a high-five. Gooden, on play-by-play, calls the KO “real-life ninja stuff.”

Gooden: I felt like we were seeing something that not many normal human beings can do with their bodies. And for me, that’s what came to mind. He did stuff like a ninja. Ninjas fly through the air and create these insane moments, and time sort of stands still. And he managed that with that technique.

Kasanganay: [UFC veteran] Bryan Barberena was cornering me that fight. I walked out of the cage. I didn’t realize how I got knocked out. When you get knocked out, you don’t really feel anything. I wanted to keep fighting. It was like, “Oh, gosh.” That was my first time ever getting dropped or knocked out or anything. I just talked to Bryan, like, “How did that happen?” He explained it. I was like, “OK, good on his part.” You can’t really harp on that. What are you gonna do, go back and fix it?

Buckley: I didn’t realize it was any kind of big thing. I didn’t think that in the moment — not at all. I was just happy to secure that bag, get that “W.” That was about it.

Gillmore: We didn’t at the moment have a concept — at least I didn’t — of “greatest in history.” That started immediately [after] getting out of the cage when we saw and heard the reactions of the few people that were there. From the guy that walks you out to the cage to the camera people, they were all just in awe. Shortly after walking out of the cage, we got to reflect, as we’re being herded through the media stuff we had to do, on how great a moment that actually was.

Gooden: I had my coordinating producer physically come to the booth with some stats on his cell, which were talking about the amount of social numbers that it had done. Someone put their cell in front of me. I can’t remember another time where I’ve had that. When you start having things like that happen, you’re like, “OK, that was big.” And this is going to change [Buckley’s] life. That was big and now the world is on notice for Joaquin Buckley.

Buckley briefly chats with UFC president Dana White outside the cage and is escorted backstage for an interview with UFC host Karyn Bryant. A giddy White comes over to talk with Buckley again. Buckley is eventually awarded a $50,000 performance-of-the-night bonus. Meanwhile, Kasanganay is transported to a hospital.

Bryant: [Buckley] was blown away talking to Dana. Eyes wide open, so excited. It was actually a really great moment to witness firsthand.

Buckley: Dana White just told me how his phone was blowing up right after my knockout and everyone was telling him to give me every bonus that night. He said the one-and-only DJT — [President] Donald Trump — hit him up. Dana said [Trump] was excited about the kick and asked Dana has he ever seen something like that before. And Dana said no one has seen that before. So, that was cool.

Gooden said, upon the advice of a fan, he plans on having T-shirts made featuring Buckley and his “real-life ninja stuff” line. The idea is to give all proceeds from sales of the shirts to gyms that are struggling to stay open due to COVID-19 restrictions. Gooden said he has been in touch with Buckley’s manager, Brian Butler, to get Buckley’s input on how to share the funds. Buckley, now 1-1 in his UFC career after two fights in three months, will continue on with his promising career.

Gooden: From a personal perspective, that was, quite literally, that was one of the best — or craziest — knockouts I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been watching fight sports for as long as I can remember. That was just phenomenal.

Gillmore: To make yourself immortal like [Buckley] did is going to be fantastic for his family, for his son growing up, who is less than a year old. Just to be there and witness it in person, I mean, you can’t buy that. You can’t buy that experience. Watching somebody become immortal, it’s never anything you plan for and think of. It’s just something that happens. Every time I talk about it, I get goose bumps. It’s hard to explain to people how amazing it feels just to be part of that.

Kasanganay: When I have that UFC title, I’ll be like, “Hey, replay that knockout. Now replay that clip of me getting that belt around my waist.” That’s the better story I can look forward to. That’s my main, main, main focus. It’s not even an embarrassing moment for me. It’s like, OK, cool. That’s awesome. Why take away from Joaquin Buckley’s kick? He’s a good fighter, he fights hard.

Buckley: I ain’t gonna lie to you, bro: I’ve watched that [knockout] like 100,000 times. Because I just couldn’t believe it. I can’t believe it was me. Not only that, but just how viral it went. It’s touching everybody’s feed, everybody is sharing it. It’s just amazing to see that. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it get to me, man. We’ve still got work to do, and we’ve still got things to show. I’m just happy all this work that I’ve been putting in, it’s finally paying off right now. Because I’ve struggled for this. It’s well-deserved in my heart.

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