From the thrilling main event between two combatants pushing the limit of what people in society are legally allowed to do to one another to the predictably abysmal judging, there was much to love and hate at Saturday's UFC 155. Let's take a closer look at the good and bad, the winners and losers as we separate the signal from the noise.
Best Destroyer of Faces: Cain Velasquez
As a friend said to me after seeing this GIF, "apparently Cain Velasquez has meth in his fists."
Best Demonstration of the Growth of the Heavyweight Division: Velasquez vs. dos Santos
Think about this: two of the best five-round bouts in mixed martial arts this year were heavyweight contests. When was the last year you could say that, if you ever could? First there was Daniel Cormier vs. Josh Barnett in Strikeforce. Now there's the rematch between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos.
For all of the nostalgia and romanticism surrounding Randy Couture vs. Tim Sylvia, that fight was very much a reflection of the limitations of heavyweight fighting in 2007. By today's standards, that bout featured a reasonably talented if athletically limited champion versus a blown-up light heavyweight coming off of a knockout loss looking to ply his trade a division up because of perceived athletic deficiencies at heavyweight. I can't even fathom such a scenario taking place among the elite of MMA's heaviest division today and we're only six years removed from that fight. That's welcome progress.
Most Secure With His Own Excellence/Limitations: Joe Lauzon
Want to know why Lauzon's career is exemplary? He'll very likely never win a title, nor will he be remembered as one of the UFC greats. Speaking meritoriously, he does not belong in the UFC Hall of Fame. Yet, no one should view his career as some sort of letdown. If anything, it has been truly remarkable despite losses and his inability to gather momentum towards a title shot.
Lauzon occupies a space where he is talented enough to beat most of the UFC fighters he faces, but will lose to the division's elite. With rare exception, though, the elite have to earn it against him. Lauzon does not go gently into that good night. You have to take it from him. And in the process of that happening, magic almost always seems to happen.
The lightweight from Boston says win or lose, he wants to know for certain who is the better fighter. There aren't many fighters secure enough with themselves to nakedly look at each fight as a gauge of their relative placement among their peers. In fact, in a world where fighters - some of the toughest yet most profoundly insecure people walking among us - refuse to view a fight's outcome as a referendum on themselves or their might or foibles, Lauzon happily accepts it all. And that acceptance frees him, which, in turn, results in action that captivates us. For that, we should all be grateful.
Least Impressive Decision Making: Alan Belcher
Alan Belcher is an extraordinarily talented middleweight. He didn't have an answer for the physical strength and control of Yushin Okami's grappling game on Saturday, but I remain unconvinced that was a full demonstration of Belcher's ability. I challenge the idea this is some sort of full representation of the breadth and depth of his game. The suffocating nature of the loss underscores Belcher's limitations, yes, but that doesn't cancel out his many other skills; skills that one could argue are good enough to beat Okami if employed.
But they weren't and what bothered me about Belcher's effort was the really questionable decision making. I'm sure fighting off Okami is no walk in the park, but one never got the sense there was a particular sense of urgency. Belcher also made curious decisions to not stay on the outside with his jab. He never really seemed concerned with stopping Okami from punching his way into the clinch. Am I really expected to believe Belcher doesn't have the capability to correct for what's missing here?
The good news is Belcher is 28, appears to be in the best physical shape of his life and has time to do right by himself. If he really wants to succeed at middleweight, accepting strategy and implementation as a key portion of his game going forward is non-negotiable.
Best Late Turnaround: MMA in 2012
Relatively speaking, this year in MMA was not amazing. Good? Sure. Great? Probably, but 2009 and 2010 were bigger, had many more spirited battles and pitched battles. Some of that can be attributed to timing. After all, the MMA market has cooled considerably. Some of that is just dumb luck. Some of it is the UFC stretching their product outrageously thin. Whatever the case, 2012 was not as spectacular as other recent years.
But at least we ended on a high note. The entire month of December was a strong one for the UFC with four events that all basically went well in their respective places. And the last card of the year featured two of the year's best fights, back to back.
In many ways, UFC 155 mirrored the trajectory of the sport as a whole. Things got started off well with some strange moments, but were mostly ok. That was followed a dull period of fights no one really asked for and ended up in blazing action between top, well-matched competitors in bouts of consequence. Here's to righting the ship and hopefully the continuation of that momentum into this year.
Most Unforgivably Bad Athletic Commission Officials: Adelaide Byrd, Mark Smith
Nothing's going to happen with me complaining about bad MMA officiating in this space. We're dealing with a limited but highly protected athletic commission in Nevada that is utterly immune to criticism or external pressure. Still, I'd be remiss to not catalog the parade of unbridled fail marching out of the Nevada Athletic Commission's office and into the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night.
Judge Adelaide Byrd has the most comically indefensible decision of the evening, awarding a 30-27 to Melvin Guillard in his bout with Jamie Varner - the opposite score of the other two judges assigned to that fight as well as every other creature with a basic capacity to reason.
Byrd was not alone in her clumsy and confused choices, however. Judge Mark Smith had a whopper of his own, awarding Brad Pickett two rounds (and therefore the choice as winner) over Eddie Wineland. This, mind you, is a decision Smith made despite Pickett not landing a single takedown in any round as well as being outstruck in all three.
I will continue to document poor judging and officiating knowing full well that won't result in any meaningful change. We are dealing with positively bullet proof, entrenched and inert bureaucracy that don't respond to market forces. Nevertheless, we have one tool at our disposal: candor. Numerous other occupations - including this one - are open and vulnerable to public criticism. Why should MMA officials be deprived of treatment they so richly deserve?
Least Likely to Receive the Praise He Earned: Derek Brunson
I'm not suggesting Brunson set the world on fire with his win over Chris Leben on Saturday, but it hardly merited the scorn he received. Brunson defeated an experienced if rusty middleweight on eight or ten days notice (there is dispute on the actual number, but neither is sufficient time to prepare). He managed to do so not simply with superior wrestling, but good movement, well-timed strikes and an ability to stick to a plan.
Did we bear witness the most dangerous iteration of Chris Leben the MMA world has ever witnessed? No, but he need not be for the criticism of Brunson to still be unfair. I'm not comparing the overall ability of the two, but Chris Weidman took the bout with Demian Maia on 11 days notice, cut a tremendous amount of weight and while earning the decision win, he did so without turning in a high volume of activity. No one heaped lavish praise on his performance, but they did extend a measure of sympathy and understanding for the challenges he faced. That wasn't even Weidman's UFC debut. Brunson doesn't need or deserve the love Weidman gets, but a touch of forgiveness would've been nice.
If Brunson continues to fight, win or lose, by turning in similar levels of activity and risk aversion with full camps behind him, then he's open to criticism. But given the extremely limited prep time and resources available to him at UFC 155, the guy deserves a bit of a break.