Fighting is excitement, the movement within a cage between elite athletes is a stunning spectacle. I have a strong belief that 2013 showcased that fact more than any other year in the MMA history.The exposure has never been greater. The number of cards featuring talented and entertaining fighters exploded this year, and that number is poised to grow steadily greater in the years to come.
This is a point of contention for some—oversaturation, too hard to keep up with, etc.-- I contend, however, that the more fights there are, the more we’re able to watch. It’s hard to spin that as a bad thing in my opinion. To hell with marketing, semantics, and plans for the future. I just want more glorious gladiatorial spectacle. And damned if I didn’t receive such a wish in several shades of spades this year.
Moreover, what I was really treated to in 2013 were the spectacular stories. The simple compelling narratives that the fighters articulated by breaking flesh and bone against one another in selectively savage elegance. The tales told this year were good ones, and I won’t mind enumerating my favorites for your discerning pleasure.
Tiny Champs Growing in Stature:
Two men of particular note made exemplary cases for putting their names on the P4P list this year. The champions at flyweight and bantamweight, Demetrious Johnson and Renan Barao, respectively, put on some violent displays in 2013.
Mighty Mouse defended his strap 3 times this past year, and showed significant improvement in successive performances. This guy was a consistently entertaining worker for the UFC. Against John Dodson in February, Mighty Mouse showed, in addition to his customary speed and technical prowess, an indomitable spirit and an ability to overcome adversity. Badly hurt in the second round, Johnson screwed on his game face and outworked Dodson for a solid unanimous decision.
In his second appearance of the year, Johnson put on another movement master class in what was largely an affair that was so predictable that it wasn’t too entertaining. The impression became that Moraga couldn’t touch the champion. At least until the 4th round.
That was when Moraga finally found his mark on a right hand that looked like it shattered Johnson’s nose, and managed to momentarily unseat him from his bicycle. But DJ, in what is quickly becoming trademark resiliency, bounced right back to his feet and rode out the round in dominant positions. And just to put a stamp on the night, he found an armbar submission finish in the fifth.
A thrilling development that started raising eyebrows for Johnson. But for me, it began a subplot of the year: the powerful role that prominent coaches are playing in the performances of their fighters. This has always been a major factor, but my awareness of it was substantially increased because of this finish, the addition of Duane Bang to Team Alpha Male, and the incredible diligence put in by Ray Longo. We'll talk more about this sub plot as we go through the different climactic high points of the year, but let's get back to DJ for now.
Johnson had his final and most impressive bout of the year in a rematch of the inaugural flyweight championship tilt. Demetrious flattened Joe-jitsu Benavidez inside of five minutes. The Mouse has always had speed and timing, apparently somewhere along the way he’s added a bit of power to his arsenal. A budding skill that he attributed to his excellent coaching staff, headed up by Catch Wrestling enthusiast, Matt Hume.
Two dominant showings plus a gutsy 5 round assault. That’s a Fighter of the Year candidate right there. At least it would be, if this hadn’t been such an insanely competitive year in that regard.
While Renan Barao wasn’t as active as his flyweight counterpart, he was undoubtedly a lot scarier.
Barao defended his interim belt twice this year, and in so doing, distinguished himself with more accolades than his linear predecessor, Dominic Cruz. He’s taken out all the biggest threats in his division in fairly short order. He beat up Michael McDonald, (who got thrown to the wolves a bit early in his career if you ask me) choking him to near unconsciousness, and then crushed a fierce looking Eddie Wineland in under 10 minutes.
If persistence colored the flyweight defenses this year, then sudden and severe violence painted the bantamweight belt blood red.
Barao’s performance against McDonald looked like an inevitability. The younger McDonald appeared to be very competitive in his first step into the (relative) limelight. He stole a round off of Barao before the Brazilian found his rhythm and started landing with ferociously consistent accuracy. By the time Renan sank the arm triangle in tight, it must have felt like a mercy.
The fight with Wineland occurred in much the same way, with Wineland landing early and comfortably pilfering the round from the champion, only to have his throat smashed by a spinning back kick in the 2nd. The fight was waved off seconds later, and we were all treated to a well-rehearsed dance exhibition from Barao.
The proceeding press conference featured another well received lecture from Dana White to the media about their rankings which were-- even then-- already rapidly descending in credibility. But White did get something right: Renan Barao is one of the best P4P fighters on the planet.
And this year he went about proving it in sexy spin kicking fashion.
Was anybody not impressed with Pettis this year? He cut through Cowboy like freshly churned butter. And then arm-barred the "notoriously-hard-to-submit" Ben Henderson in the first round. In between performances, he was angling for super-fights, and working toward extremely early GOAT consideration.
He showed the attitude, actions, and requisite ass-kicking abilities of someone who’s going to be fearsome for years to come.
His was a great story because of the force of his personality, and the added tension of the rivalry between the reigning champ and himself. It’s a real shame he can’t seem to stay healthy, but then every year has its fair share of unfortunate injuries.
Female Fighters Ascending
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least commit a paragraph or two to the historic ascent of women into MMA’s mainstream focus.
Though Ronda only fought twice this year, she put in a lot of groundwork for women’s continued relevance in this sport for years to come. As an ambassador for the sport she’s been nothing short of phenomenal. Gaining mainstream exposure on the big and small screens with whirlwind promotional tours, talk-show appearances, movie roles, and a coaching stint on TUF.
The latter of the list has been her most controversial work to date, coming off as a bit of a bitch. I take a different view though. She’s like a female Michael Jordan. Ultra-competitive to the point of being a total douche about it. Frankly, I like it. I don’t want a friendly chick to beat everybody up. I’m as big a mark for Roxanne Modafri, as the next nerd, but I just can’t imagine her taking elbow joints with quite the impunity of Miss Rousey.
I want a terrifying, type-A, bad ass chick to use technical superiority, and unflappable willpower to conquer all comers. Dominant champions make divisions popular. I’m Team Rousey all the way. After her dominant Fight of the Night performance at UFC 168, my respect for her skills and attitude has only increased.
She showed poise, control, and calmness under pressure against Liz Carmouche, and then unadulterated hatred, persistence, and dogged pursuit of the elbow joint against Miesha Tate. Their rivalry and Rousey’s corresponding devolution into villainy served as an excellent hook for casual viewers, and a beautiful underdog story for the year.
I look forward to the moment when a more capable challenger can step up to the throne which is currently littered with the limbs of fallen opponents. Perhaps Cyborg can cut off a leg and make 135. Wouldn’t that be something?
The Rest of the Division
With very rare exception, women’s 135 has been supremely entertaining. All in all, WMMA is in its infancy as far as technique goes. But like its male predecessor, it’s poised to evolve quickly. One thing driving progress is exposure, another is pressure. They’re in the UFC and on the big stage now, so they’re walking hand in hand with both. In my eyes, there haven’t been many examples of female failure in the first year.