A tumultuous 2012 in the mixed martial arts business appears ready to go out with a bang. December's schedule includes a pair of monster UFC main cards at UFC on FOX 5 and UFC 155, as well as a pair of Bellator events. So without further ado, here's a look at six storylines worth following in the year's final month:
1. Will a Diaz win UFC gold?
Nick and Nate Diaz have managed to keep Stockton in the news throughout 2012. In Nick's case, its mostly been due to out-of-competition issues, from his Nevada Athletic Commission suspension and related legal case, to his no-show of a jiu-jitsu superfight, to his continued callouts of Georges St-Pierre. Brother Nate, meanwhile, has mostly kept his news fight-related. Now he has a chance to cap off the year by winning UFC gold, as he faces Benson Henderson for the lightweight title in the main event of UFC on FOX 5 on Dec. 8 in Seattle. Granted, Nate Diaz hasn't been without controversy of his own, expressing belief in a conspiracy theory that the judges will stick it to him if it goes the distance. But if that motivates Diaz to try to get the job done inside of 25 minutes during a fight that already looks to be a barnburner, well, all the better.
In the UFC on FOX 5 bout between Mauricio Rua and Alexander Gustafsson, we have a light heavyweight contender showdown of more consequence than either fight from the Title Shot Sweeptakes That Wasn't back at UFC on Fox 4. In the case of Gustafsson, you have the fighter the company sees as potentially the most legit future contender coming through the pipeline. Since his sole career loss to Phil Davis, the 6-foot-5, 25-year-old Gustafsson has looked impressive each time out against an increasing level of competition. Rua, the former light heavyweight champion, marks his biggest test to date. As for Rua, at some point, his crowd-pleasing style is going to catch up with him. Is he already there? We saw Rua take a brutal beating in losing the championship to Jones. We also saw him in a five-round firefight with Dan Henderson. His last fight, against Brandon Vera, was an unexpected four-round slugfest. Did Rua simply underestimate a motivated Vera? Or was it the sign of a fighter on the decline? The Rua-Gustafsson fight should go a long way toward determining the answer.
3. Will Jamie Varner vs. Melvin Guillard live up to its explosive potential?
I tried to come up with some reason to get excited about The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale. But let's be honest here: I've DVR'd TUF this season and fast-forwarded through the episodes straight to the fights. You've probably done the same, at best. Roy Nelson vs. Shane Carwin was an interesting, consequential fight within the division, but Carwin's knee injury threw that out the window. And while there's nothing wrong with the Nelson vs. Matt Mitrione fight at the TUF 16 Finale in Las Vegas per se, the most interesting fight on the card is the lightweight matchup between Varner and Guillard. Both guys have well-earned reputations for exciting fights, win or lose. Both have something to prove, as they were both in Fights of the Night in their last matches, but were on the losing end: Varner in a Fight of the Year contender bout against Joe Lauzon; Guillard to Donald Cerrone at UFC 150. It's not like the winner of this fight vaults directly into title contention, but he'll build real momentum for 2013, particularly if the two put on the type of fight they're both capable of delivering.
4. The rematch
Was Junior dos Santos' quick finish of Cain Velasquez at UFC on FOX 1 the sort of thing that would happen nine times out of 10? Was it a lucky punch? Really, dos Santos' 64-second title victory over Velasquez probably lands somewhere in the middle, which is what makes their main event rematch at UFC 155 so intriguing. Velasquez's loss to dos Santos was the only blemish of his career and came after he was out for more than a year. Dos Santos went into the last fight with a knee injury and most likely won't feel the same need to swing for the fences this time. Will Velasquez be able to take dos Santos down and keep him there? That seems to be the key to getting the heavyweight title back, but that's also proven easier said than done.
5. Bellator's under-the-radar events
No doubt, Bellator's biggest headlines are being saved until after the turn of the calendar, as the company will look to maximize its headline value when it debuts on Spike TV. Bellator's Dec. 7 event in Atlantic City has noteworthy co-headliners, as Shahbulat Shamhalaev meets Rad Martinez in the featherweight tourney final. The Russian Shamhalaev (11-1-1) has delivered as advertised, winning both of his tourney fights via first-round knockout. Meanwhile, Bellator strawweight women's champion Zoila Gurgel returns to action, meeting Jessica "Evil" Eye in a flyweight bout. Bellator took a lot of heat for putting Gurgel on the prelim card for her last fight; this time, she's where she belongs on the MTV2 main card. On Dec. 14, Bellator finishes its 2012 schedule as light heavyweight champ Christian M'Pumbu meets challenger Attila Vegh, the who upset veteran Travis Wiuff to win the summer series tourney.
6. Will the injury curse be warded off?
Yeah, I know, I might be jinxing things here, but we can't simply pretend the plague of fight fallouts doesn't exist. With less than a week to go and hard sparring tapered off, knock on wood, the main card of UFC on FOX 5 remains intact. That's the good news. As for the rest of the schedule, we've already lost Carwin-Nelson, and UFC 155 had both Gray Maynard and Chris Weidman drop out of appealing fights. Fortunately, UFC 155 was stacked to the degree that, so long as the main event holds up, it's still a can't-miss affair. If we can get through the UFC's two biggest December cards with the events more or less intact, perhaps that's a karmic sign that things are about to change as we flip the calendar.