In the roundtable below, Matt Erickson and I discuss our top five fights of the year.
1. Anthony Pettis vs. Ben Henderson, WEC 53, Dec. 16
Matt and Ray's Fight of the Year
Erickson: I'm still in disbelief over how great this fight was. It featured everything - good standup exchanges, outstanding ground scrambles and submission attempts and, duh, the already-legendary "Showtime Kick" from Pettis in the fifth round. And it all happened with so much on the line - the last WEC show and last WEC fight in history, the right to be the last WEC lightweight champ in history, a No. 1 contender spot for the UFC lightweight title - and all in the champ's backyard, no less. It's a shame so many year-end lists came out before this fight; I'm sure there are plenty of folks who would not only revise their rankings, but move this straight into the No. 1 spot. This was a back-and-forth battle throughout, with both Pettis and Henderson taking turns looking dominant, only to have things swing the other way. But this fight will live forever thanks to Pettis' jaw-dropping kick with 65 seconds left in the fifth round. He used the cage as a launching pad with his right foot, then swatted the same foot across the champion's face, dropping him to the canvas. No one sitting cageside could believe it. Color commentator Stephan Bonnar most definitely couldn't believe it in one of the more animated calls in recent memory. Even watching the video evidence repeatedly, I still can hardly believe it. Though some say Pettis had already done enough to win round five and the lightweight title - two judges had it even going into the fifth, meaning a Round 5 win for Bendo would've given him a split decision victory - I'm not so sure either fighter had clinched the round. Pettis' movie-stunt-worthy kick not only gave him the round, it gave him the fight. And it gave him MMA immortality. Not a bad way for the WEC to ride off into the sunset.
Hui: At this point, the 2010 MMA Awards might as well be called the 2010 Anthony Pettis awards. But even if you're already sick of hearing about the Duke Roufus lightweight or his kick heard around the world, it's hard to argue how exciting and meaningful this fight was. There were near-falls and high stakes with the winner going into the MMA record books as a the final WEC lightweight title holder and UFC title challenger-to-be.
If you watched this live in person or on television, this is one of the fights that you'll remember for the rest of your life.
Chris Leben vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama UFC 116, July 3
Matt's No. 2 / Ray's No. 5
Erickson: This was my No. 1 until Pettis-Henderson came along. A remarkable story even before the fight, Leben took the bout just two weeks after his win over Aaron Simpson at the TUF 11 Finale. To say the odds were against him is an understatement. After being taken down several times in the first round, Leben came out with guns blazing in the second - though his punches were a little all over the place. And though Akiyama seemed to end the onslaught with another takedown, Leben got back to his feet late in the round and closed the frame out with a barrage of strikes to get some momentum going into the third. The third saw both fighters trying for armbars, and ultimately Akiyama got to full mount. But after working back to guard, Leben began working elbows from the bottom and worked for a triangle choke. Miraculously, he got it, eventually readjusted it as Akiyama threatened to slip out and tightened it up to force the tap with just 17 seconds left in the fight. Leben, a polarizing personality who has dealt with a few personal demons in his UFC career, endeared himself even to his haters with a gutty performance and a thrilling win, likely from the jaws of defeat had it gone to the judges. Two wins in two weeks at the UFC level? That may never happen again.
Hui: This was fifth in my list and much like my top two picks had a little bit of everything you're looking for in a fight. It was another great Leben comeback story, only to have the feel-good story be depreciated by yet another DUI arrest three months later, which is a non-factor in terms of the fight itself, but the reality is, it almost negates the reformed bad boy storyline. In regards to the fight itself, great stuff with back-and-forth action, fun striking (though sloppy) and nice groundwork.
Jorge Santiago vs. Kazuo Misaki, Sengoku 14, Aug. 22
Matt's No. 3 / Ray's No. 2
Erickson: It's a shame more people haven't seen this fight for the Sengoku middleweight belt. It's readily available on YouTube and is recommended viewing this season or any season. This rematch between the red-hot Santiago, a BJJ black belt, and former Pride legend Misaki was a roller coaster ride. Santiago won their first meeting with a late rear naked choke after being dominated much of the fight. The rematch had intrigue, it had drama, it had the full fighting spectrum. A close first round had a pair of takedowns from Misaki, but also plenty of back-and-forth in the striking department. In the second, Misaki's guillotine gave him the round - and how Santiago managed to escape it is beyond me. But the third was all Santiago, in a big way. A kick to Misaki's head and plenty of ground-and-pound easily won him the round. But in the fourth, Misaki dropped Santiago with a left and was busy racking up plenty of damage on the ground when Santiago crawled outside the ropes, giving him a red card and an automatic point deduction - if any judges were giving a 10-8, it would become a 10-7, which would be disastrous for the champ. But in the fifth, in a round he likely had to not just win, but win decisively or earn a stoppage, Santiago got some help from Misaki's corner. While he was delivering damage on the ground, Misaki's corner threw in the towel - with just 30 seconds left in the fight. Had Misaki been able to weather the storm, he stood a good chance to win a decision. It's not often we see a towel thrown in during an MMA fight, and especially not with a title on the line.
Hui: How often do we watch a fight and think to yourself, "I'm witnessing something really special happening"? The way everything unfolded seemed like it could have easily been written and choreographed for a final fight scene of a mixed martial arts movie.
Santiago vs. Misaki 2 was one of those fights where by the end, you're emotionally spent.
Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen, UFC 117, Aug. 7
Ray's No. 3
Hui: We weren't sure what to think at first. Sure, Sonnen was running his mouth to sell the fight, but would he be able to back up his words? Firing away with insults on Twitter, interviews and anywhere he can get his word out, Sonnen was setting himself up to be either the biggest loser or the smartest man in the room. For four-and-a-half rounds, Sonnen defied the odds and beat up the reigning middleweight champion. But with less than two minutes left, Silva out of nowhere threw his legs up for a triangle choke/armbar to tap out Sonnen. Although, one-sided until the finish, this fight was another example of why MMA is so exciting: Anything can happen and no one is ever really out of the fight. Just like when Matt Serra knocked out Georges St-Pierre and that fight was the example of any heavy underdog possibly beating the favorite, Silva-Sonnen will go down for years to come for broadcasters to retain interest in a lop-sided fight. We've seen it already recently with St-Pierre absolutely dominating Koscheck and Silva-Sonnen being used as an example that Koscheck perhaps could have found a last-minute way to win.
Erickson: Well, the great thing about year-ends and best-ofs and tops lists is they always elicit discussion. No one's right, no one's wrong. Usually, anyway. The three matchups that hovered around my Top 5 but wound up just short were Anderson Silva's win over Chael Sonnen at UFC 116; Carlos Condit's win over Rory MacDonald at UFC 115; and the pair of Stephan Bonnar-Krzysztof Soszynski battles at UFC 110 and 116. Ultimately, I liked the thought of my Top 5 featuring true back-and-forth battles, and Silva-Sonnen and Condit-MacDonald were great comebacks, great stories and, yes, great fights. But they were dominated by one guy throughout - until the winner came through when it mattered most.
Leonard Garcia vs. Nam Phan, The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale, Dec. 4
Matt's No. 4
Erickson: In the first televised featherweight bout in UFC history, it was almost a given to predict Garcia, the king of split decisions, would leave things in the hands of the judges and leave another big question mark as to who really won. It was also easy to predict a Fight of the Night-caliber battle. And plenty of Garcia's signature looping roundhouse brawl-tastic bombs. We got all three, and some fresh judging controversy, to boot. Where Garcia was his usual wild self, throwing crazed punches and kicks that are effective when they land, but sloppy when they don't, Phan was much more poised and calculated in his offensive attacks. Phan landed kicks and strikes, he responded well to Garcia takedowns and he had a dominant second round that saw him working for a near rear naked choke. Though one of the judges saw all three rounds for Phan - as MMA Fighting did cageside - two of the judges ruled 29-28 for Garcia, resulting in instant backlash at The Pearl and on message boards around the sport. UFC president Dana White was so disgusted with the result, he gave Phan his win bonus anyway. And UFC commentator Joe Rogan almost immediately went on the offensive, saying most of the judges in Nevada have no idea what they're doing. Though Phan was robbed of a win in his UFC debut, he no doubt earned a legion of new fans - much the same as Chan Sung Jung had done against Garcia earlier in the year (see below).
Hui: I really enjoyed this fight, but I thought there were many other fights just as good as this one and if it wasn't for the ridiculous decision, I don't think it would have been talked about much at all. If anything, this fight was important as it made apparent as ever the problem MMA has with poor judging, as well as highlighting how deceiving Garcia's record actually is. This wasn't the first or second time Garcia has won a controversial decision. He's 2-2-1 in his last five fights but could arguably be 0-5. "Never leave it in the judges' hands" should be revised to "Never leave it in the judges' hands when you're fighting Leonard Garcia." As fun as it may be to watch Garcia, it's not fair for his opponents.
Leonard Garcia vs. Chan Sung Jung WEC 48, April 24
Erickson's No. 5. / Hui's No. 4.
Erickson: I'm sure there are plenty of people who will want to string me up for having this all the way down at No. 5. I'll be honest - watching it live, I was about as in love with it as Joe Rogan was. Watching it the second time, it dropped more than a few notches on my list. Where this fight succeeds is in the entertainment factor. It's fun to watch, no question about it. But if you're looking for a a good, technical MMA fight, this is not the one. Garcia might be the sloppiest fighter in all of MMA. Does that mean he's a bad fighter or not fun to watch? Certainly not. He can even be effective from time to time. But reeling back and winging punches from all over the place does not necessarily a great fight make. It was reminiscent of a playground brawl most of the time, and the back-and-forth nature made it exciting because either guy could have ended it at any time. Garcia won (another) split decision - though I'll never not believe Jung won the fight. At least his performance helped him sell a ton of "Korean Zombie" t-shirts.
Hui: There are times you want to see an imaginative, thought-provoking film that pushes the limits of its art form, like Inception, and other times, you just want to see stuff explode.
Leonard Garcia vs. Chan Sung Jung is your The Expendables.
Maybe it's just the shock value of seeing two trained mixed martial artists throwing technique out of the window for the sake of entertainment, but I enjoyed the heck out of this fight. We've seen fighters fight sloppily, but never to this extent of recklessness.