In the wake of the Tomas Rios scandal, at its heart a story about a guy who hates everything, I thought it might feel good to bring the love. We are all here because we love the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. It's easy to forget, as we complain about the little things, that the sport has never been in a better place. The fighters are better than ever. They are matched better. There is more fighting on television than ever before. It's a great time to be a fan of MMA. I'm thankful every month when I look ahead to all the great fights we'll see, all the whirling movement, heart, and true grit that makes martial arts so exciting. It's been a great year - and thing are only looking up. Here's five things to be thankful for as you celebrate this Thanksgiving:
1. The Abundance of Riches
There has never been more MMA on television. But it's not just quantity that gets me a little excited, in ways I'm not quite comfortable sharing with you. There's never been so much good MMA. Really good. The UFC puts on an astounding show almost every month, with perfectly acceptable television cards in the interim. Strikeforce's Rich Chou seems to have mastered the art of finding fun fights. Are the bouts all for world titles or top ten rankings? No. But they are certainly for pride, contests between athletes who are trying to prove they are the better man.
Even beyond the big two, there are fights in abundance. So many, it's hard to keep up. Bellator has consistantly showcased great fighters and helped continue Strikeforce's quest to bring women's MMA to the forefront. HDNet puts on more MMA than anyone - and supplements it with some fantastic kickboxing coverage.
It's never been a better time to be a MMA fan. Not to show my age, but in my day we waited for the VHS to come over from Japan, often an agonizing week or more, waiting to see the latest Pancrase or PRIDE. Now the shows are often broadcast live, even obscure shows on new websites like GoFightLive. I hope you are taking advantage.
2. Joe Silva and great matchmaking
It's easy to say 'I want Joe Silva's job.' Maybe. It certainly seems fun, bringing together great athletes and then turning them loose in a cage to pummel each other. But there are headaches as well. Endless contract negotiations and renegotiations. Injuries, and just plain life, that can ruin carefully crafted plans. And people in your ear, constantly looking to sell you - on their fighter, their fight, their bonus. It is exhausting. In politics, the President's Chief of Staff usually lasts one term. The job is just too overwhelming. It's kind of like Joe Silva's job. Yet, nearly ten years into his run, Silva is going as strong as ever. It's a testament to his iron will, scary smarts, and his love for the game.
3. The Heavyweight Division
Long the laughingstock of the sport, filled with fat guys in t-shirts throwing down for almost 30 seconds before heaving for breath, the division is suddenly super interesting. Much of that credit has to go to Brock Lesnar. The UFC heavyweight divides fans like no other fighter before him, and interest in Brock seems to have translated into interest in his peers and opponents. What will Lesnar do next? We don't know. But I can't wait to watch.
It's more than Lesnar though. A Strikeforce guy told me last week "We may not have the best heavyweight division, but it's the most interesting." I can sign off on that. What does Josh Barnett have left? His contemporary Vitor Ribeiro recently lost a fight to Justin Wilcox on a Strikeforce Challengers show. Has the sport caught up with Barnett the way it did Shaolin? I'm dying to find out. Potential matchups with Fabricio Werdum, Fedor Emelianenko, and Alistair Overeem await. It's going to be an amazing 2011 for the heavyweights - and for Strikeforce.
If you're familiar with my work, you'll know my mind is often wandering in the past. I love writing about and learning from the legends of the sport. That said, even I can recognize that fighters have never been better. Look at Brian Foster. Foster is an unheralded prospect, a guy trying to make his way in the sport. Yet the Brian Foster who beat Matt Brown last weekend would have run game on almost anyone from the UFC's illustrious past. And there are fighters like Foster up and down the card at UFC and Strikeforce events.
Here's the truth: Brian Foster would have kicked the crap out of Royce Gracie. That's how good today's fighters are. I mean, he is built on a foundation of Royce - but he would be competitive with almost anyone who fought prior to the year 2000. And who is Brian Foster? That's what is exciting about this sport. The skill level is still evolving. Who would have ever expected such a disciplined and remarkable fight from Quinton Jackson, a guy who started in this sport as a wildman. He cut off the cage and cornered Lyoto Machida with amazing footwork and straight punches. Then he controlled him in the clinch. It was a masterful performance. I'm thankful to have seen it.
5. The Fighters
We think it goes without saying but is worth putting into words: we wouldn't be here without the men and women who have the courage to step into the cage. Some of them are great athletes with super smart gameplans. Others are less skilled. Some will succeed. Some will fail, only to rise up and try again.
It's truly remarkable that these great athletes are often likeable and thoughtful people as well. I'm proud to be a fan of this sport. Thanks for having the gumption to test yourself against an opponent, all alone with just your wits to save you from harm. I'm sure you're learning a ton about yourself and what makes you tick, who you are with all the pretenses washed away, simply staring across the cage at another human being who wants to do you harm. I'm thankful to have the chance to watch you put yourself to the test.