The Greatest MMA News Column 01.08.14: 2013 Awards
Posted by Dan Plunkett on 01.08.2014
News and thoughts on Dominick Curs vacating the UFC bantamweight title and Chris Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort taking place in Las Vegas, plus a look at the best and worst in MMA for 2013 and more!
Every year I hand out awards that the 411 staff doesn't vote on in the end-of-year columns. This year, I wasn't eager to do so because I'd prefer to write about actual news, but there has been very little of that in MMA recently so you're stuck with an awards column. As always, after I give my pick, and the case for it, there will be a poll for you, the loyal reader, to vote in each category.
The Anderson Silva Award for Dominant Performance of the Year: With one exception, there didn't seem to be quite as many memorable beat-downs as there had been in the past few years. Part of that is due to Anderson Silva running into a gentleman named Chris Weidman, which took away the one or two dominant performances he was good for every year, and Jon Jones finally having a close fight. I was very tempted to give this award to Ben Askren for his 17:58 performance against Andrey Koreshkov at Bellator 97. Not only was he incredibly dominant, he managed to start a "U-S-A" chant during the fight. But the fight that takes the cake is Cain Velasquez over Junior dos Santos from UFC 166. Velasquez somehow managed to top the beating his gave dos Santos in their second bout, and finished the bout in the fifth round. Truth be told, the match was so brutal it was uncomfortable to watch and really should have been stopped earlier than it was, but that shouldn't disqualify Velasquez from the award.
The Cecil Peoples Award for Worst Decision: I'd be surprised if the result of the reader poll was anything but Georges St-Pierre beating Johny Hendricks winning by a landslide. That decision was also the first that popped into my mind for this award due to how big the fight was, but really, the winner of that fight comes down to one round. I believe Hendricks won the first round, but it was close, and there was a worse decision this year. At UFC 163, Phil Davis somehow beat Lyoto Machida with 29-28 scores across the board. According to MMADecisions.com, most media had Machida winning by a score of 30-27, and the rest had him winning 29-28. I thought Machida won each round, with the third being the clearest. The loss may have cost Machida a light heavyweight title shot, and led him to drop down to the middleweight division, where he became an instant title contender with a knockout win over Mark Munoz.
The Scott Smith Award for Best Come-From-Behind Win of the Year: This was far tougher to pick this year than last year, when Tim Boetsch beating Yushin Okami was a pretty clear pick. To me, it comes down to two bouts that feature Alistair Overeem and one championship match. Overeem won the first two rounds against Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva at UFC 156 in February, but he certainly wasn't dominating and never came close to a finish. Bigfoot then came out in the third, knocked Overeem out, and then for bonus points stood over his fallen foe and screamed at him. It was frightening and awesome. In August, Overeem returned against Travis Browne and crumbled him with a knee to the body early in the fight. The end seemed near for Browne on a couple of occasions, and he even ate an illegal knee from Overeem. Then Overeem tired, and Browne threw three consecutive front kicks, the third of which landed and put Overeem down and out. The title match happened in January between Demetrious Johnson and John Dodson. Dodson knocked down Johnson a couple of times in the match but never had him seriously in danger of a stoppage. Johnson then came back and won a decision. Because he was in imminent danger, I give the award to Travis Browne knocking out Alistair Overeem.
The Matt Serra Award for Upset of the Year: There are some strong contenders in this year's race. I'll include Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva from UFC 162 in the polling because it was an upset, but it was widely recognized Weidman had a real chance in the fight. The way it happened was shocking, but Weidman's hand being raised at the end was not. I didn't give Wanderlei Silva much of a chance against Brian Stann in their March bout, but he proved me wrong. I also didn't foresee Rogerio Nogueira beating Rashad Evans in February, but so little happened in that fight and it was so close I have trouble giving it the nod here. An under the radar candidate is LaRue Burley's third round stoppage of top prospect Bubba Jenkins at Bellator 100. Jenkins was expected to walk through the 2-0 Burley, but he was dismantled and eventually stopped by the Bellator newcomer. But, this award comes down to two choices for me: Emanuel Newton knocking out King Mo Lawal and Josh Burkman submitting Jon Fitch. Lawal was expected to walk through the Bellator light heavyweight tournament before winning the title. Fitch was expected to easily beat any welterweight World Series of Fighting could put in his way. I have to go with Burkman over Fitch here because of the way it happened. Fitch is famously difficult to submit – a host of high level BJJ black belts didn't do it in the UFC – and Burkman did it in under a minute.
Event of the Year: The final three pay-per-views of the year from the UFC blew this category wide open. UFC 166 had a strong fight of the year contender, some great knockouts, and a one-sided heavyweight title match. UFC 167 had an excellent, close main event marred by a controversial decision, a very good fight between Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald, a dominant performance from Rashad Evnas, and a good knockout. UFC 168 opened with three first round finishes, a very good women's title bout, but ended on a sour note with Anderson Silva's leg break. Elsewhere in the year, UFC 160 had good finishes but no overly strong fights, Bellator 85 had some good finishes and a very good title bout, UFC on Fox 7 had a very good main event and some good finishes, UFC 164 had some very good finishes, and UFC on Fox 6 had an awesome main event and very good finishes. Ultimately, I'm giving a slight edge to UFC on Fox 6 here, although I can't remember a closer race. Johnson vs. Dodson was a great fight, probably just short of serious fight of the year contention. Glover Teixeira vs. Rampage Jackson was solid, but to me it was the least memorable fight of the main card. Anthony Pettis was outstanding against Donald Cerrone, and Ricard Lamas had a good finish of Erik Koch. On the prelims, TJ Grant and Ryan Bader turned in some great finishes.
Cruz out of UFC 169, vacates title. Barao vs. Faber new headliner. Dominick Cruz has some of the worst luck in the sports. The 28-year-old was forced out of his February bantamweight title match on Monday due to a groin tear. It was to be his first bout since October 1, 2011. Cruz's claim to the UFC bantamweight championship has been stripped as a result, and former interim champion Renan Barao is now the undisputed champion of the weight class.
Cruz's initial injury came just prior to what would have been far and away the biggest payday of his career. While training for a title defense against Urijah Faber in 2012 on The Ultimate Fighter: Live, Cruz suffered a torn ACL. The match with Faber had been scheduled for the co-main event of UFC 148, which was headlined by Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen and accumulated an estimated 925,000 sales on pay-per-view. The injury cost Cruz, who was to make a percentage of the PPV revenue, well over $1 million. Faber was placed in an interim title bout against Barao, which Barao won. In December, Cruz had another surgery to repair his ACL after his body rejected the cadaver ACL.
Whenever Cruz returns, ring rust, as well as his abilities depleting due to his injuries, will be things to look out for. According to UFC president Dana White, Cruz pushed back his return date to February in order to give him more time to work through the ring rust as much as possible. On the positive side, being stripped of the title gives Cruz the option to return against a lesser opponent as opposed to a top level guy like Barao.
Replacing Cruz on February 1 will be Faber, who won all four of his 2013 bouts in impressive fashion. Unquestionably the biggest male star of the lighter weight classes, Faber will help UFC 169 to better business success than otherwise, but the show still doesn't promise to do well. Interestingly, the bantamweight title match will headline over the Jose Aldo vs. Ricardo Lamas featherweight title match. The bantamweight bout is the stronger draw and in that sense should be the main event, but the status quo for the UFC is the title in the heavier weight class headlines.
Since losing his WEC featherweight championship in 2008, Faber has received four title shots, two in the WEC and two in the UFC. His last title shot, a 2012 lopsided decision loss to Barao, was talked about by some at the time as his final chance at gold. Similar talk will likely be heard this time around, but the reality is if Faber loses on February 1 but continues to win after that, he can only be denied a title shot for so long. If Mark Hunt can come within one win of a title match in 2013, surely Faber could find himself in a similar situation down the road even with another loss to Barao.
UFC Fight Pass holds first show. UFC Fight Night: Saffiedine vs. Lim became the first live UFC show to be held on UFC's new digital service Fight Pass on Saturday morning. I didn't watch the show live, but I didn't hear any reports of issues with the stream. That isn't surprising though, as if an early morning/middle of the night show drew too much traffic for the servers to handle UFC would be in trouble for their March show with Alexander Gustafsson. Tarec Saffiedine defeated Hyun Gyu Lim in the main event. Lim was mostly picked apart by Saffiedine, but had the former Strikeforce welterweight champion on the ropes at the end of the final round. In the other main match of the show, Tatsuya Kawajiri made his UFC debut and beat Sean Soriano by second round submission. Kawajiri called out Aldo after the match, which is the type of things more fighters should do, but he didn't come across as a fighter that would be competitive with the champion.
UFC planning Weidman vs. Belfort for Las Vegas. Once Vitor Belfort's performances made it clear a title shot could only be held off for so long, a big story surrounding the bout was always going to be its location. For those reading that haven't followed MMA in the past year, Belfort failed a drug test for PEDs in 2006. Last year, it was revealed he received a therapeutic use exemption for use of testosterone replacement therapy – essentially a doctor's note to use anabolic steroids with the idea being a guy with low testosterone would then be on an even playing field. Belfort noted last year he has used the treatment for about three years. Since all of this became public, Belfort hasn't fought in Las Vegas, the place where the initial failed test happened, or any place with a strong commission for that matter (if such a thing exists).
ESPN was told by Lorenzo Fertitta that the upcoming Chris Weidman vs. Belfort middleweight title match is being targeted for May or July in Las Vegas. Now, the story changes from the location to what the Nevada commission will decide. Belfort will surely be licensed, unless his comment about using TRT for the past three years (his 2011 title match with Anderson Silva in Las Vegas would fit within that time frame) ruffles the commission's feathers. If Belfort is granted a TUE for testosterone, it will set a precedent for other fighters with past PED failures to get testosterone exemptions from the most influential commission in the country. Because PED use is linked to low testosterone production, it could be seen as the commission being soft on PED use in combat sports. If he is denied, will that set a precedent for other commissions to follow regarding Belfort and other fighters? Would Nevada order additional out of competition testing for Belfort, similar to what they did for Josh Barnett recently? It will be an interesting developing story throughout the first half of the year, to be certain.