The MMA Movement’s 2012 Awards

It’s time for my annual awards piece, which 59% of you wont finish and 85% of you will disagree with. I understand. Nature of the business. As always, I’ll try to avoid any potshots that aren’t absolutely necessary, and I’ll try to keep it under … lets see … 2,500 words? 3,000? Yeah?

Before I dive in, here are a few preliminaries that I wont pontificate on …

Upset of the year: Tyson Nam def. Eduardo Dantas via 1st rd. KO @ Shooto Brazil 33

Comeback of the year: Tim Boetsch def. Yushin Okami via 3rd rd. KO @ UFC 144

Meme of the year: “Let me bang bro.” …. “I’ll LET you bang.” (Everyone forgets the second part, which was funnier to me than the first. I’ll LET you bang.)

KO of the year candidates:

Daron Cruickshank def. Henry Martinez @ UFC on FOX 5

I’m a sucker for head kick knockouts, but this moment of brutality wasn’t set up to the head; it was set up to the body. The “Detroit Superstar” (Do you really want that to be your nickname, Daron Cruickshank? Isn’t that sort of like saying “The Pride of Chernobyl?” And was anyone else confounded when they discovered that Daron Cruickshank was white?) hurt Henry Martinez with a body kick in the first round, to the point that he was able to thwack him with 4 more kicks to the body in succession. Punches in bunches followed, but Martinez showed remarkable toughness and persevered.

The damage was clearly done, though. One kick upstairs at the start of the second was all it took for Martinez to “pledge allegiance 1930′s style” (a @GFKonMMA tweet … follow him now if you don’t already), and Cruickshank cemented the moment by raising his arms and walking away before Martinez even hit the ground. Walk away knockout alert!

Michael Page def. Ben Dishman @UCMMA 26

The combined record of Page’s opponents is 4-8. Not only has he not fought anybody, he hasn’t even fought anybody who has fought anybody, unless you count Joe Vedepo. Because of this fact, Page fights with a level of confidence and swagger that’s almost comical. He is NOT to be taken seriously until he fights someone Jordan Breen has heard of.

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And yet … wow. What an athlete, what a dance, what precision. His precision is so … precise (copyright: Mike Goldberg). He is immensely fun to watch, and he got his MMA career started with this highlight reel KO, where he performed a super spinny turny kick and then froze ala Roy Jones Jr. as Dishman stumbled away.

Will he ever amount to anything? It’s impossible to tell at this point. But watching him is just good, clean fun.

Edson Barboza def. Terry Etim @ UFC 142 

Unlike the previous knockout, this one was accomplished against not only a good fighter, but a good striker as well. And it’s not like the technique was any less outlandish. Such a clean connection. Knocked him dead as a doornail. Honestly, I don’t know what else to say. This is the knockout of the year.

Submission of the year candidates:

TJ Waldburger def. Jake Hecht via 1st rd. armbar @ UFC on FX 2

TJ really asserted himself in 2012 as one of the UFC’s most dynamic submission threats. He does most of his best work from guard, which is becoming more and more rare. Guys are such great wrestlers now that ending up on the bottom, even if you’re a BJJ wiz, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get things off the way it might have in the past. TJ is becoming an exception to that rule, though.

In the grappling exchange he had with Jake Hecht, he had an opportunity to jump on Hecht’s back but chose to dive into an armbar instead. He locked it up quickly and flipped Hecht over, and he had no choice but to tap. Excellent stuff.

Masakazu Imanari def. Kevin Belignon via 1st rd. reverse heel hook @ ONE FC 3

As the ONE FC announcer said, Imanari has a GPS in his head for your feet. It was an admittedly silly move for Belignon to haphazardly jump in to punch Imanari after he slipped, but you have to go all the way back to 2006 to find a year that Imanari didn’t pull of some sort of incredible, spine-tingling submission. If he grabs your leg, it’s a matter of time, period, end of story.

Can’t we get this guy a cameo in the UFC before he winds his career down? I know he’s pretty much helpless against fighters with good submission defense, and I know he hasn’t exactly beaten a murderers row of competition. But he’s such a scintillating grappler, and Zuffa gives chances to guys that don’t deserve them all the time. This is the UFC. James Toney fought here.

If the idea of an Imanari fight with Alex “Bruce Leeroy” Caceres doesn’t excite you, then we might not be able to be friends. Regardless, another great submission from ‘ol Masakazu.

Vinny Magalhaes def. Igor Pokrajac via 2nd rd. armbar @ UFC 152

The way Magalhaes got taken down, secured the armbar, swiveled his hips away from the cage, cupped Pokrajac’s leg and flipped him over was beautiful stuff to watch.

However, my favorite part was Igor’s reaction on Twitter:

“If I wanted to do a grappling match I would go on a grappling tournament , this is MMA and UFC fans want a fight”

Keep in mind, he was submitted after HE chose to wrestle. It was like when Jamie Varner reacted to a guillotine loss to Ben Henderson by saying “I came to fight; Ben came to grapple”, even though Jamie got caught because he shot in for a takedown. Why are some fighters so dumb?

Wolfgang Janssen def. Aaron Armstrong via 2nd rd. reverse flying triangle @ Havoc FC

Brilliant, or (at least a little) lucky? You decide:

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We have a winner.

Fight of the year candidates:

Ivan Menjivar vs. John Albert @ UFC on Fuel TV 1

This fight had all of the action and fury of the other entries, only crammed into 3 minutes and 45 seconds. Both guys fought like they had just been told the mothers of their children were going into labor. In just shy of 4 minutes, you had a leglock battle, both guys landing heavy shots, an armbar attempt, an omoplata attempt, several spinning backfists by Ivan from weird spots, wild scrambles … this had everything. It kind of reminds me of the Nick Diaz-Paul Daley fight from 2011, where I was shitting myself for literally the entire fight. And any fight that ended up with me needing a change of underwear has to be at least a candidate for fight of the year.

Tyron Woodley vs. Nate Marquardt @ Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Kennedy

This one stands on it’s own as a great fight, but what made it special was that just about everyone thought it would be terrible. Tyron Woodley was doing all the wrong things as a highly touted prospect. Some of them weren’t his fault (like the fact that Strikeforce struggled to get him fights), but the most important aspects were: he would get a takedown and … nothing would happen. He’d just kind of hang out on top. Not only that, but this would happen more and more in successive fights. It was like he was regressing as he was advancing in competition.

Nate Marquardt had an entirely different style, but he was similar to Woodley in that he was a supremely talented and dynamic fighter who seemed to have trouble pulling the trigger. What made Nate even more frustrating to watch over the years was the fact that he’d sprinkle in a random brilliant performance during stretches that were usually littered with duds. He became one of MMA’s all time “He’ll probably lose, but if he’s feeling it, watch out” kind of fighters.

It wasn’t exactly a torrid, chewing-your-nails-the-entire-time kind of donnybrook, but the bursts of sporadic action were more than enough to entice viewers. Just exciting, competitive mixed martial arts from start to finish. And what a finish it was; Marquardt blitzed Woodley with an amazing Mortal Kombat-esque combo. But both men acquitted themselves and raised their standing among fans in a fight that people were hoping wouldn’t put them to sleep.

Chan Sung Jung vs. Dustin Poirier @ UFC on Fuel TV 3

Chan Sung Jung went into this fight fresh off a 7 second knockout win over Mark Hominick, but I don’t think anyone saw him as a viable title contender. He was the Korean Zombie, a brand unto himself, a guy you could throw into a main event and rest assured that he would deliver fireworks. Dustin Poirier was the guy most fans looked at as on the up-and-up, and this was supposed to be his official coming out party.

The Korean Zombie beat Poirier pillar to post for three rounds, then put him to sleep with a “My opponent is staggered, he needs a takedown,  he’s going to leave his head out there, and I’m going to squeeze it until it stops moving” brabo choke near the start of the fourth. In an electrifying striking display, Jung landed flying knees, big punching combos against the fence, elbows … you name it. He also attempted so many submissions (and they were good attempts) that it seemed like Poirier was going to escape them no matter what. This was a thrilling ass kicking, and Poirier fought back the entire time. This gets two thumbs up and the fight of the year nod from me. Gotta love a main event between two up and comers that delivers, and makes a contender in the process.

Story of the year:

I could write “lots of guys got hurt”, be done with it, and no one in their right mind would disagree with me. After all, injuries were the reason we got Franklin-Wand II as a main event, Silva-Bonnar, and true mismatch royalty in Bones-Vitor.

However, from a big picture standpoint (and really, from a small picture one as well), UFC 151 getting canceled, the circumstances that surrounded the cancellation, and the aftermath is the most compelling story of 2012.

It began when Dan Henderson was forced out of his main event bout with Jon “Bones” Jones due to, you guessed it, an injury. When it becomes clear that Zuffa  has no Plan B, pandemonium ensues. Chael Sonnen volunteers to take the fight having mere days to prepare, and Jones shocks people by declining the fight, for several airtight reasons, the most prominent ones being “I’m not going to let him talk his way to a title shot”, and “I’m not going to let the UFC dictate what I do”.

Lyoto Machida is offered a rematch with Jones at UFC 152 and declines. That leaves Vitor Belfort. Vitor Belfort? Yep, Vitor Belfort.

This entire chain of events leads to one of the most tumultuous periods in MMA history in terms of fan outrage. Who was to blame for this debacle? Most people agree that Jones is the main culprit, the most vocal one being Dana White, who basically foams at the mouth and makes a complete boob of himself in a now infamous press release (not that White hasn’t participated in jackassery in the past, but this was particularly egregious because it was so premeditated). Dana White now all of a sudden is a man of the people, pointing out that this is a selfish act, saying that he’s “disgusted”, and pointing out that he just cost 23 other guys a paycheck.

(Quick point: Lets say, hypothetically, that Jones had taken the short notice fight with Sonnen. Would people have thought “Wow, thanks, Jon Jones! You just saved a paycheck for a ton of other guys AND an entire pay-per-view broadcast! What a hero!” Of course not! They would have said “Yeah, that’s what you’re supposed to do, dick.” It’s kind of like how everyone blames the president when gas prices go up but never mention his name when they drop.)

The UFC can’t put pay-per-view cards like this together anymore and pray that a headliner doesn’t get hurt, because this is what can happen. For years, one of the defenses of UFC PPV’s compared to boxing PPV’s was that boxing PPV’s were all geared around the main event, whereas UFC PPV’s were stacked from top to bottom. Well, hopefully this debacle proved that this isn’t always the case. This wasn’t about Jon Jones being selfish; it was about a flawed pay-per-view model that a headliner decided he didn’t feel obligated to swoop in and fix. That’s entirely rational and acceptable, and anyone who thinks otherwise isn’t either of those things.

The UFC that never was changed the way we look at some of these cards. Look at that UFC 154 card; if GSP or Condit had gotten hurt, what the hell would they have done? The consensus is no longer “Oh, it’s the UFC, they’ll come up with something”. And it shouldn’t be.

I’m looking forward to 2013. Happy holidays, everyone.


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