Ah, Thanksgiving: that special holiday when we gather with our extended families and give thanks we don't have to put up with them more than a few times a year. If you're anything like me you consider the inevitable awkwardness of being around your weird uncle who has seemingly patterned his life on the Dude from The Big Lebowski a small price to pay in order to celebrate the one holiday a year when we are given permission to abandon ourselves to abject gluttony.
According to tradition the American Thanksgiving began in 1621 when the Pilgrims decided to throw a feast to show their appreciation for a successful harvest, thanks in large part to their Native American buddy Squanto helping them cultivate corn.
However, what many don't know about Squanto is that he had a sick ground game. After dude started catching Pilgrims in armbars and rear nakeds left and right they got together and begged him to teach them the art of Patuxet Jiu Jitsu. There were a few kickboxers and wrestlers among the early Pilgrims, so one thing led to another and pretty soon the Pilgrims and Patuxet were pitting their skills against one another in no hold bared contests (it would take years before Colonial athletic commissions got involved and the Pilgrims decided to change the name of the sport for political reasons). What the history books never tell you is that the inaugural Thanksgiving was actually an after party held to celebrate the New World's first foray into mixed martial arts.
In keeping with the spirit of the real reason for Thanksgiving - which I totally didn't just make up - allow me to offer up a few of the things I'm thankful for in the world of MMA.
1) The UFC on FOX series
One year in and there may still be some growing pains concomitant with the UFC and FOX's relationship, but the UFC on FOX specials certainly aren't one of them. Watching fights worthy of a pay per view main card for free on network TV? In what universe is that anything other than freaking awesome?
Next month's UFC on FOX card looks like the best they've done yet from the standpoint of balancing established star power, up and comers who just need a little more exposure in front of the masses, and a meaningful main event on top. First and foremost there's the Benson Henderson/Nate Diaz lightweight title fight which promises to be action packed from start to finish given the relentless styles both men employ. Then you've got Shogun Rua/Alexander Gustafsson and BJ Penn/Rory MacDonald which both feature name fighters going up against top prospects who aren't quite there yet in terms of name recognition among casual fans. Both fights not only look exciting on paper, but they're examples of fortuitous matchmaking where a win from either man will be good for business going forward.
Rounding things out there's Mike Swick/Matt Brown which given its place on the card and the style of the combatants involved seems designed to start the show with a stand and bang affair ending by knockout.
All and all it sounds like a great way to spend a Saturday night to me. What's even better is it won't cost a dime.
No offense to poor Erik Koch, but Aldo/Edgar is the most exciting fight out there at featherweight right now. It's a not only a bout between two of the best lighter weight fighters in the world - especially if you're like me and you consider Edgar the uncrowned lightweight champ - it's also an intriguing stylistic matchup as well.
So far the only opponent to make Jose Aldo look human inside UFC Octagon/WEC Tiny Blue Cage has been the flu. Aldo's got a way of taking the fight out of his opponents early by dishing out a high volume of absolutely punishing strikes while being hard to get any substantial offense going against, but if there was ever a fighter who has proven he can absorb a lot of punishment early and still come back and win the later rounds it's Edgar.
There are a number of questions heading into this one, but perhaps most important for Edgar is whether or not he can take Aldo down and keep him there. If Edgar can't manage to impose his will on the ground, then the question is will he be able to strike from the outside and avoid Aldo's debilitating leg kicks? Also, since Edgar didn't cut weight at 155 and has traditionally relied on superior speed to outwork his opponents, how will he deal with an opponent who might be just as quick as him, if not quicker?
It's questions like these that have me so excited about this one. No matter what happens it seems mathematically impossible that putting these two in a cage together will result in anything less than a barn burner.
3) Bellator heading to Spike TV in January
If you're a professional mixed martial artist then this is one you should most definitely be grateful for. While Bellator is obviously not going to be in the position to compete with the UFC in terms of both exposure and finances, it's still a huge positive for fighters to have more than one place to do their thing on a national stage.
If you're a fight fan there's also plenty to appreciate about Bellator moving to Spike. Bellator puts on an entertaining product that is markedly different in tone than the UFC. The tournament format maintains the competitive purity of the sport in a way that the UFC's opportunistic matchmaking doesn't, which gives them their own unique identity (not that there's anything wrong with the UFC model, mind you). In terms of their all around game the fighters aren't always up to the level of those competing under the Zuffa umbrella, but more often than not they bring it in the cage. If you're an MMA fan who hasn't given Bellator a try yet - and judging by their ratings that's a distinct possibility - now would be the perfect jumping on point with their move from MTV2 to the much higher profile Spike.
4) Living in the era of the dominant champ
In some ways dominant champions like Georges St. Pierre, Jon Jones, and Anderson Silva make things a bit too predictable. All three men have proven themselves to be so far above the rest of their divisions that it's hard to buy into the idea that any challenger they face even stands a chance.
Which only makes what these three do all the more remarkable. More often than not I find myself watching their performances in the Octagon in rapt awe despite feeling like the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
GSP went though perhaps the biggest test of his career this past Saturday returning from a long layoff and ACL surgery to face Carlos Condit , and he put on a gritty, technically masterful performance that once again proved to the world why he's been at the top of his division for so long. Watching GSP's composed execution of masterful game plans is a sight to behold.
Then you've got Jon Jones who has so much raw talent that he's able to make things work that wouldn't for an average fighter. During his reign as light heavyweight champion over the past year and a half the technical aspects of his game have improved by leaps and bounds, which added to his innate athleticism makes him a puzzle nobody has yet been able to solve. Or maybe I should say a bomb nobody has found a way to diffuse, since no jigsaw puzzle has ever inflicted the kind of pain Jones does inside the Octagon. Try as you may, sooner or later he's going to explode in your face and take your head off.
Finally there's Anderson Silva. What else is left to say at this point about the Spider's unprecedented six year-plus streak of dominance in the UFC? There are times when he doesn't even seem human inside the Octagon - see his most recent fight against Stephan Bonnar and his knockout over Vitor Belfort for prime examples - but even when we get a rare glimpse of his humanity like in the first Chael Sonnen fight, Sliva invariably finds a way to win. His work inside the Octagon is a reminder of the often overlooked last word in the phrase "mixed martial arts." Silva's beautifully violent poetry in motion is as deserving of the term art as any dusty old painting in the Louvre.
Familiarity may breed a lack of appreciation at times, but watching three generational talents like these is really a special thing. Someday Anderson Silva is going to retire and we'll never see another one of his jaw-dropping performances again, which makes me all the more appreciative of every chance I get to see him practice his art. Same thing goes for both GSP and Jones. These men are all creating moments inside the cage that will last for generations to come and we have the privilege of watching them do it in real time.
What makes 2013 potentially one of the most exciting years in UFC history though is the idea that we very likely will see at least one combination of these three men getting it on in the Octagon. The UFC is pushing hard for the GSP/Silva super fight and at the end of the day I expect it to go down next Spring despite GSP's reluctance. There is simply too much money to be made here for Dana White not to do everything in his power to make this dream fight into a reality.
Then if Silva wins - or if GSP does end up declining the Silva fight - there is the prospect of a Silva/Jones match up waiting in the wings for the end of next year. If the thought of those two getting it on doesn't get get your blood pumping a little bit faster then you may want to get yourself checked out by a doctor because it's entirely possible you could be a zombie. In which case, be forewarned that I have wicked skills with a crossbow.
And if there's a better note to end a Thanksgiving column on than by invoking the image of flesh eating creatures from beyond the grave I certainly can't think of it. Now pass that Turkey, and make sure I get a piece with skin please.
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