The UFC's return to the Saitama Super Arena was a bit slow in the early part of the show, but everything picked up nicely and culminated in a superb top of the card demonstration of utterly insane MMA. From Mark Hunt's brutal knockout of Stefan Stuve to the ferocious battle between Wanderlei Silva and Brian Stann, there was much to enjoy about Saturday's fights. Then again, the controversial decision between Takanori Gomi and Diego Sanchez wasn't particularly great and neither was the performance of Hector Lombard.
It's time to separate the good from the bad, the winners from the losers and the signal from the noise from UFC on FUEL TV 8
Most Courageous Irrespective of Outcomes: Wanderlei Silva
I hesitate to call Silva vs. Stann Fight of the Year. Your criteria is as valid as mine, but speaking personally, I prefer a fight that has the ups and downs, momentum swings and all of the trimmings of action, but requires more than just courage to win. That said, the amount of unrepentant aggression Silva puts on display is almost impossible to inventory. It's one thing to earn the moniker 'The Axe Murderer' in a sport where each fighter is among other alpha males. It's quite another to keep up that ferocity and fighting style after multiple, brutal and concussive knockouts. Forget physical damage. The psychological impact of having one's lights turned out - and having it done with extreme prejudice - typically turns a fighter's courageousness into meekness. Repeat that process over multiple occasions and it often turns the fighter into a retiree. Silva has repudiated all of that even when his body's fragility is beginning to show itself. Whatever happens next is anyone's guess, but I cannot think of a fighter who has died by the sword as much as Silva and yet never hesitates to swing it himself whenever called upon to do so.
Best MMA Photograph in Quite Some Time: Hunt Nails Struve
I'll let this Deadspin post explain why this photo is so great and how it came to be, but let me just echo everyone else's sentiment when I express awe.
Best Proof of the UFC Headliner (Ronda Rousey) Effect: UFC on FUEL 8's ratings
Just as last Thursday's Bellator 91's ratings benefited from the buzz created after Muhammed Lawal's KO at Bellator 90, so, too, did Saturday's UFC event from the Ronda Rousey show just the week prior. As interest is generated, it often carries over to subsequent events in close proximity. That isn't the only explanation, of course. Wanderlei Silva is a popular figure known for delivering exciting bouts. He also galvanizes hardcore and casual fans alike. His opponent in Brian Stann isn't quite the MMA icon Silva is, but also has a deserved reputation for engaging in pitched MMA battles. Still, there's no denying how much interest a high-level, heavily-viewed MMA event (or one that creates interest after the fact) can often bleed into the next event under the right conditions. And hey, who can be against it? Isn't a rising tide supposed to lift all boats?
We can't give credit to Rousey for the strong FUEL ratings in a one-to-one fashion. Any headliner in any major bout has the potential to do this. But let this serve as evidence that a) FUEL can benefit from this phenomenon and b) the UFC now has another headliner who can create this effect.
Most Worrisome Performance: Hector Lombard
It's unfair to call Lombard a bust, but we are at the point where we've gone from congratulating Lombard on getting the maximum contract possible when signing with the UFC to wondering if it's now a liability. The Cuban-Australian is 1-2 in the Octagon and worse, one cannot chalk up the losses to bad luck, poor judging or some other irregularity. He's losing because fighters are legitimately beating him with superior strategy (and I was surprised at how vulnerable his takedown defense looked). Lombard is certainly good enough to defeat those with lopsided skill sets or outside of the top ten, but in a UFC undergoing its own budget sequester, the best thing going for the judoka is his Australian citizenship given the organization's international ambitions down under. That's important, but hardly the best insurance policy especially when the premium on it is too costly to keep paying.
Most Pleasantly Surprising: Yushin Okami
I was sure before this event the days of Okami as an elite, top 5 middleweight were over. Oh, how wrong I was. And I wasn't just wrong. I was deeply wrong. After tough stoppages to Anderson Silva and Tim Boetsch, I believed I had detected a hint of increased risk aversion. Certainly his win over Alan Belcher was impressive, but Okami 'appeared' to lack some of the basic offensive push necessary to succeed. If the win over Lombard proved anything, it's that Okami has fully rebounded from his stoppage losses and is back to (nearly) top form. The best indication of that is his return to the jab with his surprisingly diverse, stifling takedowns. I doubt 'Thunder' will ever get back to another title shot, but he has erased any of the doubt in my mind that he's still an elite competitor. After significant, somewhat humiliating setbacks, that is a climb back very few fighters can ever have claimed to achieve.
Least Controversial 'Controversial' Decision: Gomi vs Sanchez
If you know me and regularly read this column, you know I typically have a conniption fit after every event due to the abysmally poor state of commission officiating. And while there was controversy Saturday, I'm going to refrain from breaking furniture and cursing the heavens. The fact is if you fight your opponent close in the UFC, this sort of thing is inevitable. And not just close, but offensively muted. I'd be more forgiving if both fighters engaged in a huge amount of offensive attacks. That makes the judges' jobs difficult, but a gripe from a scorned fighter is easier to swallow when they gave everything. But in a contest where we have to resort to strike bean counting because there's so little judge, I can't bring myself to be overly upset. Judging is hard. It's even harder when there isn't much to judge.
Change Most Needed to Be Made: Lighting of UFC Events
There were 15,000 people at the Saitama Super Arena (not Tokyo), but it'd be hard to tell given the way the UFC broadcasts their shows. I never realized how much the UFC limits the scope of their own crowds until I got home from UFC 129 and was shocked to see how the broadcast displayed the 55,000 people in the Rogers Arena. To put it mildly, they did not demonstrate just how majestic the event was in person. On Saturday, I believe the UFC's reported attendance numbers from the hallowed venue where the show was taking place, but I'd like to see that leveraged for effect insofar as home viewers are concerned.
Not every show pulls 15,000 attendees. When they do, they should show the world they did and how special that appears. Why black out the broadcast to the point where crowd noise and the crowd itself is of marginal importance and almost coincidental?