LAS VEGAS -- It seemed like the bad news never stopped coming in May: Dominick Cruz out with a knee injury. Nick Diaz suspended for a year. Jon Jones arrested for DUI. Terrible television ratings for UFC on FOX 3.
Even on Saturday, before what turned out to be a home run of a UFC event, the ill tidings flowed, with Octagon girl Arianny Celeste arrested for domestic violence and Vitor Belfort dropping out of his UFC 147 main event with Wanderlei Silva.
And yet, just when even the most optimistic among us were starting to question whether the MMA bubble was finally showing signs it was about to burst, another trend, with much less fanfare, emerged: Every time the arena doors opened in May, the action was fantastic.
Start with UFC on FOX 3. There's been so much made about the poor ratings in the show's aftermath that it's easy to forget the fights delivered. From Lavar Johnson's TKO of Pat Barry to Alan Belcher's breathtaking finish of Rousimar Palhares to Nate Diaz's virtuoso performance against Jim Miller, the main card was action-packed.
Then we had, in the span of five days, a fight of the year contender in Chan Sung Jung's fourth-round submission of Dustin Poirier; an epic five-round encounter between Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson; and Daniel Cormier announcing to the world his status as a future champion by dismantling Josh Barnett.
Which brings us to UFC 146. Saturday night's event will go down as one of the most memorable MMA evenings in a long while for all the right reasons.
The buzz was back in Las Vegas with a festive, close-to-full house on a holiday weekend. Nearly every fight on the card delivered. There was something for everyone, from the opener, in which Mike Brown and Daniel Pineda put in 15 minutes of hard-nosed action, to the co-main events, in which Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez set up what figures to be a monster rematch with no-doubt-about-it performances.
So, yes, the sport is clearly going through one of its stretches of growing pains, and it times it might feel like the wheels are about to come off the wagon. The approach to the sport's drug issues needs to be reconsidered; it might be time for the UFC to institute a code of conduct; and clearly the way the UFC is being presented on FOX properties needs some tweaking.
But while the drama continues outside the cage, inside, this month proved the level of competition has never been healthier. And while May will be remembered in the short term as one of the crazier months in memory, in the long run, from Diaz to Belcher to Jung to Cormier to seemingly half the card at UFC 146, it could also be remembered as a period in which the next generation of headliners were born.
UFC 146 Notes
*It's hard to pick a favorite feel-good moment from UFC 146, since there were enough redemptive tales to fill a faith-healers convention, but if I had to go with one, I'll pick Dan Hardy. Few guys get a fifth chance after four straight UFC losses, but Hardy, recognized by many as one of the sport's most genuine people, got a badly needed win over Duane Ludwig. Granted, Hardy was served up another slugger in a favorable style matchup, and in the long haul he's going to have to do something about wrestling. But it was still nice to see one of the good guys get his moment in the sun.
*It was taken as a given that Alistair Overeem's absence hurt UFC 146, but was that really the case? Quick reminder: Overeem wasn't on this card because he got caught with an absurd level of testosterone in his system. This is the same Overeem who suddenly packed on about 40 pounds of muscle while fighting for years in Japan, where they don't do drug testing. Lo and behold, Overeem went on a miraculous win streak during that time frame. If we've reached the point where we just assume everyone is juicing and accept those consequences, fine. But if we want to at least maintain the pretense that we're trying to clean the sport, then keeping one of the sport's most flagrant cheaters out of the main event is a plus, not a minus.
UFC 146 Quotes
"Hitting home runs and kicking soccer balls and all that [expletive] is fun, but everyone wants to be heavyweight champion of the world." -- Dana White, on why he feels MMA will attract more elite heavyweight athletes.
"Mandalay Bay." -- Frank Mir in his corner at the MGM Grand, when asked about his whereabouts moments after absorbing a brutal flurry from dos Santos in the closing seconds of the first round.
"Stand ‘em up! Let's go, Yves!" -- Stephan Bonnar, heckling referee Yves Levigne from the media area at cageside during a lull in the action in the second round of the Jason "Mayhem" Miller-C.B. Dolloway fight.
Steve Mazzagatti is one of the MMA world's favorite whipping boys, but he made the right call in stopping Roy Nelson's knockout win over Dave Herman. Herman's body went limp after "Big Country" belted him with that devastating overhand right. Herman quickly recovered, was soon back on his feet, and protested the stoppage. But when a referee sees a fighter go out, it's his job to end the fight, period. Mazzagatti made the right call in stopping it as soon as he saw Herman's lights go out.
One of MMA's best referees had a tough night on Saturday in letting Cain Velasquez's destruction of Antonio Silva go on far too long. Josh Rosenthal stood by while Velasquez beat Silva to the bloodiest pulp seen in the Octagon since B.J. Penn carved up Joe Stevenson, before finally calling off the slaughter. At the post-fight press conference, White volunteered his opinion without even being asked: "[Silva] had blood in his eyes, nose, and throat. He couldn't see or breathe, and he's getting smashed over and over and over. Come on. That was as bad as bad can be. Rosenthal blew that stoppage bad."
Jamie Varner: There was a time when the WEC lightweight division was a three-horse race between Ben Henderson, Donald Cerrone, and Varner (There was also a time when critics said none of the three were UFC caliber, but that's for another time). Varner became the forgotten man of the trio. The former champion was dropped from the WEC after going winless in four fights. As recently as September, he lost to Dakota Cochrane on a Titan Fighting Championship show. Saturday night, though, he looked like the Varner of old in his win over Edson Barboza, a fearless, bomb-throwing warrior who gives the fans 100 percent, win or lose. "It was surreal out there," Varner said. "I still can't believe it went down like that." Believe it, Jamie.
Jason "Mayhem" Miller: Miller deserves all the credit he gets for making a success of himself in life. He was smart enough to use the brief window of opportunity the fight game provides to make himself a television and radio presence. But his matches with Michael Bisping and C.B. Dollaway have made it painfully clear it's near-impossible to juggle as many balls as Miller does and remain an elite-level mixed martial artist in 2012. Maybe "Mayhem" will drop the other stuff and buckle down on his fight career. Most likely, given how successful he's been as a media personality, he'll stick with that career path, and there's nothing wrong with that. But as things stand now, he just doesn't belong on a major UFC event.
Fight I Want to See Next
Junior dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez: Yeah, I know I'm supposed to come up with some creative, out-of-the-box fight here, but sometimes the obvious choice is the right one. It's all too rare in mixed martial arts that things play out as they should on paper. But that was the case at UFC 146. Dos Santos looks like he could potentially be the UFC's elusive monster heavyweight champion. But in his title-winning effort, he caught Velasquez with the first big punch of the fight, the sort of thing that can happen to anyone. Velasquez looked like the Velasquez of old in destroying Silva. Whether the rematches is held on these shores or in Brazil, the UFC has a surefire megafight on its hands for late 2012 or early 2013.