Throughout a rocky, often frustrating 2012 campaign, the mantra for mixed martial arts has been to take the good with the bad. Otherwise it would be easy to become jaded by the latter. At times it seemed as if there was no rest from the poisonous fog that lingered above us, spitting out headlines about last-second injuries, drug suspensions, commission follies and testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratios; fretting over everything to do with the sport besides the most important part -- the actual sport.
Because for all it's misgivings, at its pinnacle mixed martial arts is among the most beautiful arenas of athletic competition that exists. It's what draws us in, the truest embodiment of one individual pitted against another, linking ancient disciplines with contemporary techniques, transitioning from one to the next in a violent ballet. That's why we take the good with the bad. Because when the good is at its best, it transcends into something more. And nowhere was that more apparent than on a quiet spring night in Fairfax, Virginia.
Chan Sung Jung was never supposed to be here. He was reckless, a brawler, a fan favorite, but few thought he would ever evolve into a contender. Yet here he was, a 3-to-1 underdog standing across the 23-year-old next big thing at featherweight, Dustin Poirier, ready to do battle for 25 minutes if necessary. Things started out innocuously enough. Jung controlled the early going, gashing open Poirier's forehead with an elbow from the top. Poirier answered back, unloading a powerful standing elbow followed by a left hook in the waning moments of the opening frame. But then something strange happened. Living true to his "Zombie" moniker, Jung continued to lurch forward, oblivious to the damage just inflicted on his skull. A wide grin slowly spread across Poirer's lips. He knew what he was getting into.
Jung answered the call for round two like a man possessed. Flying knees, hooks, a salvo of uppercuts in clinch, they were all at his disposal. Poirier shot for a desperate double leg, only to find himself the victim of a gorgeous reversal into mount. But playing it safe wasn't in Jung's plans, and he quickly abandoned the dominant position for a sweeping series of submission attempts, transitioning from armbar to triangle, back to armbar, and back to another triangle. Poirier eventually, somehow, muscled out, prompting an incredulous cry of "What heart and technique!" from Kenny Florian.
One final triangle choke snuck it's way around Poirier's throat before the clock saved him, and as Jung wandered back to his corner, Poirier could do nothing but simply stick out his tongue and shake his head, relieved to still be in it.
Six grueling minutes later, with both men toeing the line of exhaustion, Jung completed his masterpiece. After catching Poirier with a lunging uppercut and left straight, Jung blitzed his reeling opponent with a flying knee against the cage. Poirier franticly ducked under, straight into the awaiting arms of a d'arce choke. Within moments, Poirier was unconsciously draped on the mat, felled by his own trademark submission, while Jung simply strolled away, arms raised; his status as a contender no longer in question.
Jamie Varner made a living for himself in 2012 by defying expectations. The former WEC champion stunned many when he crushed top Brazilian prospect Edson Barboza on short notice in his first UFC fight in half-a-decade. But it was Varner's second act that proved to be his most memorable.
Again tapped to fight on short notice, this time replacing an injured Terry Etim against Joe Lauzon on network television, Varner rocked Lauzon twice with hard right hands in the opening frame. Lauzon responded with a crushing knee to the jaw, and just like that, a blistering pace was established that would not slow until the bout reached its abrupt end.
Over and over Lauzon seized Varner's back and threatened for chokes, but each time Varner gutted his way out of danger and erupted with another flurry or power double. With a crowd still reeling from a second stanza that at one point featured Varner sporting a "J-Lau" backpack, both men embraced in the center of the cage before the final five minutes began, Varner so over-flushed with adrenaline he restarted the fight without a mouthpiece before frantically realizing his mistake. Another power double followed from Varner, though this time Lauzon was ready and waiting. In one fluid motion, Lauzon executing a beautiful sweep and slapped on a triangle. Varner tried valiantly to stay alive as elbows rained down onto his oxygen-deprived head, but it was too late, and a big lumbering tap was inevitably coaxed out.
Both men embraced once more, after all they would each pocket an extra $50,000 for their work, and an audience of over 2 million people were left awestruck by what they had just witnessed.
The UFC's first main event in Japan in 12 years was intended to signify a new chapter for the lightweight division. Four consecutive title defenses involving just three different men had stagnated the division over the span of 18 months. But with Frankie Edgar finally emerging victorious from the heap, a floodgate of challengers had been thrust open, and former WEC champion Benson Henderson was first up to bat.
Fueled by a highlight reel, last-second loss to Anthony Pettis, Henderson had entered the UFC a man reborn. Edgar did well early, but it was rendered irrelevant when a jarring second-round upkick left the champ crumpled on the floor. Like the real-life Rocky he is, Edgar recovered quickly enough to ride out the final seconds of the round. However the bout would never be the same.
Henderson seized momentum over the ensuing 15 minutes, landed the harder shots, nearly choked out the undersized Edgar with a fourth-round guillotine, and ultimately captured Edgar's UFC lightweight belt via scores of 49-46 (x2) and 48-47. The fight was close enough to merit a rematch, with Henderson again taking a decision, albeit more controversially. Yet in terms of pure action, the sequel failed to live up to the night Henderson and Edgar reintroduced the UFC brand to Japan in whirlwind fashion.
Perhaps no image captured the ‘second-tier but entertaining' reputation UFC on FUEL main events would eventually garner more perfectly than the moment Diego Sanchez stalked out of the Omaha Civic Auditorium tunnel clad in a black robe, snarling to himself and clutching a silver cross high above his head, giving us one of the year's most enduring screenshots and prompting Kenny Florian to comment, "Diego is a little kooky, but I tell you what, that belief in himself makes him a dangerous, dangerous guy." Florian's words would serve as an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come.
Jake Ellenberger, a heavy favorite fighting in front his hometown crowd, dominated the opening 13 minutes, nearly dropping Sanchez twice in round one, ending round two with a hailstorm of elbows from the top, and wobbling Sanchez with short left hook early in the finale frame. But then the improbable happened. With the clock ticking, Sanchez found a home on Ellenberger's jaw for one left hand, and then another, and another. Suddenly the momentum had begun to swing, and Ellenberger, sensing it, ducked down to plant Sanchez on the mat.
Exhausted, bloodied and battered, but far from out of it, Sanchez desperately climbed back to his feet, sending Ellenberger crashing off his back and into a glorified fetal position. Over the ensuing frantic final minute, Sanchez unloaded a total of 49 unanswered punches on the downed Ellenberger. Not all of them landed flush, and with just seconds left Ellenberger clawed his way up to end the brawl with one last furious exchange before ultimately taking a judges' decision. But nonetheless, with his last stand, Sanchez proved once again why he remains one of the toughest outs in the sport.
Rarely does the descriptor "back and forth" get thrown around for a 76-second fight. But there's no question UFC 150's co-main event is an exception to the rule.
When Donald Cerrone and Melvin Guillard locked horns in Denver, Cerrone had already looked past his former Jackson's MMA sparring partner. Both friends readily admitted, Cerrone was the victorious man inside the gym more often than not.
Yet Cerrone's overconfidence lasted all of 10 seconds before a Guillard counter left stripped it all away and sent "Cowboy" reeling against fence. Guillard swarmed, unloading punches, knees, elbows and kicks in an effort to finished his dazed opponent. That is, until Cerrone found some separation, clipped Guillard's forehead with a high kick, then followed with one of the most violent lunging right hands of 2012.
Guillard remained on the mat for several minutes, while Cerrone coldly strolled away. No celebration needed, the replay spoke for itself. The brawl may have lacked the technical brilliance of many bouts lower on this list. But there's always something to be said for being the year's far-and-away winner for ‘Fight to Keep the Attention of Someone with Little Patience and Zero Understanding of Mixed Martial Arts.'