MMA in 2012 often seems more about problems outside the cage than the action inside: Suspensions, arrests, injuries, stagnant television ratings, and so on.
But in the UFC on Fuel TV 3 main event on May 15 in Fairfax, Va., featherweights Jung and Poirier engaged in a four-round classic in which they displayed the mix of desire, athleticism, and skill that converted so many new MMA fans over the years.
For one evening, Jung's fourth-round submission win made us forget all the nonsense going on outside the arena.
Round one set the tone, as Jung took Poirier down and opened up a cut on his head with his ground-and-pound. Round two will likely be brought up years down the road when the round of the decade is debated, as Jung put on a tremendous show on the ground, transitioning from one submission attempt to another. Poirier responded in round three by taking it to Jung in the standup, and making fans wonder if a memorable comeback victory was in the making. But then Jung stepped up his game one more time in round four, with a tremendous finishing sequence which included an uppercut, a big knee, and a D'Arce choke to finish the fight.
Jung, who was already a fan favorite for his fighting spirit, showed he's a legitimate contender to Jose Aldo Jr.'s featherweight title. Poirier didn't get his hand raised, but it would be wrong to call him a loser, as this was the type of setback that can provide the motivation that turns prospects into champions.
Jung vs. Poirier was a no-brainer pick for fight of the half-decade, but it was far from the only memorable bout. Here's the rest of the top five:
2. Benson Henderson def. Frankie Edgar, unanimous decision, Saitama, Japan, Feb. 26. What happens when you match up an undersized champion with unmatched heart against a challenger with an endless gas tank and an otherworldly ability to avoid being finished? You get a fight like Henderson's UFC lightweight title winning, unanimous decision win over Edgar at UFC 144. Edgar did well in the early going with his stick-and-move style, but a ferocious second-round upkick by Henderson altered the course of the fight. Henderson outlanded Edgar over five rounds and got Edgar in a tight guillotine in the fourth round en route to taking the decision. While the bout was a clear-cut victory for Henderson, it was still well-contested enough that when these two will tangle again at UFC 150 in August, don't be surprised if it ends up on the final 2012 fight of the year list.
3. Gilbert Melendez def. Josh Thomson, split decision, San Jose, Calif. May 19. The trilogy fight no one wanted to see ended up being one of the best bouts of the past six months. You could all but hear a collective groan around the MMA world when it was announced Melendez, the Strikeforce champion, was slated to meet former champ Thomson, who split their first two fights. For the first two rounds, Melendez seemed to justify the sentiment, as he cruised through the first 10 minutes. But round three was close. Then in round four, Thomson came alive and nearly finished Melendez with a rear-naked choke. With the small HP Pavilion crowd split in their loyalties and bringing the place to a fever pitch, Thomson won round five as well. The scorecards came down how the judges scored round three, and Melendez two of three in the round and two of three 48-47 overall scores to narrowly retain the gold.
4. Daniel Cormier def. Josh Barnett, unanimous decision, San Jose, Calif. May 19. This bout was proof that even a 50-45 decision can be one of the year's best fights. The Strikeforce Grand Prix tournament final was compelling on many levels. How would Cormier, the former Olympic wrestler, fare in his biggest challenge to date? Could Barnett, a former UFC champ and one of the cagiest veterans in the game, figure out a way to fend of a rising star? Cormier put on a clinic in this fight, mixing up his strikes and also outwrestling a bigger foe. And yet, because of Barnett's submission experience, there was never a sense until late that Cormier had the win in the bag. Barnett, for his part, silenced his detractors simply by toughing things out for 25 minutes, withstanding several assaults that would have made lesser foes quit and always pushing forward trying to find a path to victory. And all this was before we found out, after the fact, that both fighters broke hands early in the bout, making this fight even more compelling in hindsight than it was while viewing it live.
5a. and 5b. Demetrious Johnson's two fights with Ian McCall, March 3, Sydney, and June 8, Sunrise, Fla. Yeah, I'm cheating a little bit here in naming both. So sue me. The UFC flyweight tournament semifinal clashes between "Mighty Mouse" and "Uncle Creepy" were 30 minutes of nonstop action. In the first fight, Johnson clearly won round one; round two is a matter of opinion; McCall easily won round three but couldn't finish the fight. Then Johnson was erroneously called the winner in the cage due to a scoring error, when the bout was actually a draw. In the June 8 rematch, Johnson won round one and McCall round two. But this time, Johnson was able to rebound and win round three and a unanimous decision, advancing him to a future title bout with Joseph Benavidez. If you want me to pick one over the other, I'll give first bout a slight nod over the second. But the overriding point is, if the Johnson-McCall fights are any indication, we're in for a treat when the 125-pound weight classes really gets up and running.
Ronda Rousey def. Meisha Tate, submission (armbar), Columbus, Ohio, March 3, retains Strikeforce women's title.