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Fight of the Year: Alexander Gustafsson vs. Jon Jones at UFC 165

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Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

The feeling in Toronto heading into Jon Jones’ sixth title defense was one based around the strictest formalities. Jones had secured a global Nike sponsorship, and the buzz during his fight week encounter with the Swede Alexander Gustafsson was that Gatorade was also onboard the "Bones" Express. Questions during the week were centered on the most dramatic themes: Jones as superstar…Jones as MMA’s first major crossover athlete…will Jones get a Gatorade bath in breaking Tito Ortiz’s light heavyweight record of five defenses?...Jones versus Silva…Jones versus Cain…Jones’ evolution as a human being.

When people weren't talking about Jones, there was derision towards the UFC’s handling of UFC 165’s pay-per-view marketing. Gustafsson could match Jones in reach and length like no other man before him. This created an "even playing field." Pfft. If this was all the UFC could dredge up to inspire faith in the tall blonde challenger, we were clearly grasping at straws.

Gustafsson, of course, didn’t care about any of it. With cold nerves he told any media willing to ask that he was confident he’d win the fight. And even through the steely challenger speak nobody much took Gustafsson -- a 6-to-1 underdog -- seriously, except the small faction of Swedish fans who made the trek to Toronto to see their challenger "shock the world."

Turns out, he did, and through five rounds the fight world was told an adventure story that had as many twists, turns, triumphs and revelations within to fill 500 pages of lore. The reach/length thing was in evidence immediately. Gustafsson was angular enough to touch Jones from different looks, and he was equally agile enough to get out of the way. The play of distance was pretty much equal, both nullifying and liberating. Then Gustafsson cut Jones in the first round with a right. Then -- unthinkably -- he himself took Jones down. Out of nowhere, the man who didn’t belong in the same sentence as the champion took him down for the first time in his career. Late in the round, he stuffed a takedown, and another, something many thought he wouldn’t be able to do.

What was happening? Jones, the indestructible, was in a fight. In fact, he was losing the fight. And Gustafsson, who was slept on beforehand, was real.

In the second, Gustafsson caught a kick and spun Jones down again. Jones again couldn’t take Gustafsson down. Nor would Gustafsson budge. Bearings were scrambled, and game plans were flying out the window. Jones was being forced to adapt, and improvise, to freelance like he did earlier in his career. He threw spinning elbows and oblique leg kicks. They both were changing levels. Gustafsson was countering the counters, circling, strafing from afar. The tension of the fight doubled, then tripled, and to take your eye off it for a second felt like you might miss live history. As the story unfolded into the third round, the Jones reign, and all the monumental hoopla, was in jeopardy.

But Jones, who’d never been tested in the UFC, coolly kept forward. He started landing more regularly with his kicks, and those kicks were beginning to hurt. They were keeping Gustafsson honest. He landed a head kick, and a spinning elbow to the back of Gustafsson’s head that sent his hair into a swoosh. The tide turned subtly. And entering the championship rounds, down 2-to-1 on the scorecards and losing the fourth considerably, Jones glanced at the clock with 40 seconds left. Sensing the thing slipping away, he launched into a spinning elbow that caught Gustafsson flush on top of the head. With Gustafsson now back-peddling out of there, Jones pursued. He snagged him on the fence, and posted him there, teeing off with elbows to the temple. When they broke, Jones slammed him with a flying knee. Somehow Gustafsson survived, but Jones stole the round, and did it emphatically.

Coming out in the fifth, Jones raised his arms and smiled. The crowd roared. This was a spinning table, both men sending the other to the brink -- both men accompanying the other to glare over the side. Jones spit blood from his mouth and landed a superman punch. Then a step-in elbow. Gustafsson threw short uppercuts. Jones thwarted a takedown; Gustafsson finally got taken down. On Jones’ tenth attempt, he was dumped to the canvas. He got back up on the fence, but he was gulping air. Jones continued to throw in isolated spots, landing shots. Gustafsson, with nothing left to give, gave more. A spinning elbow that connected. The thing was impossible. It was exhausting. It was a classic.

In the end, Jones got his arm raised via decision. On the verge of losing for the first time legitimately, it all changed with the spinning elbow late in the fourth. Gustafsson, in defeat, became Jones’ rival on the spot. The thoughts of a rematch weren’t so much about "if" as "when." Gustafsson left the Air Canada Centre with a limp, and Jones on a gurney.

And later that night, in the hospital, Gustafsson posted a picture on his Facebook that told you everything you needed to know about the iconic battle that he and Jones had gone through (and lived to tale the tell).

2) Matt Grice vs. Dennis Bermudez, UFC 157
Sometimes remarkable fights break out in the most unsuspecting of ways, at the most unsuspecting times, when the spotlight is dimmest. That’s what happened during the prelims of UFC 157 in Anaheim, when Matt Grice and Dennis Bermudez locked up in one of the most back-and-forth battles of 2013.

In the fight, Bermudez got Grice down (with his arm trapped under him) and landed 40 brutal strikes onto the flailing Oklahoman. Somehow Grice survived and, with a little over a minute to go dropped Bermudez with a counter left hook. He then began picking him apart on the feet.

The course was set, and the two traded places several more times in the fight. Bermudez with his ground and pound, kept the pressure on. In the third he had Grice so hurt on the feet that Herb Dean moved in to stop it, but didn’t. Grice, through grit and heart that would surface later in the year after he suffered head injuries in a car accident, kept coming until the final bell. They both swung for the fences at the end, and left the Anaheim crowd standing on their feet. Bermudez won via split decision.

3) Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez at Bellator 106
The second fight between the then lightweight champion Chandler and the former champ Alvarez was circled to be a barnburner, and it was. Alvarez was coming into the fight with a chip on his shoulder, not only for his problems with Bellator in the contract situation, but also because Chandler too his belt in 2011. The table was set for a fun dust-up.

And did they deliver. Just as in the first fight, each put the other in trouble on multiple occasions. Alvarez, who is always winning to eat punches to land some, found himself fending off a rear naked choke that looked deep. Alvarez continued to pick apart Chandler on the feet, to the point that Chandler’s left eye shut completely, through the whole fight. He got the split decision to even the series at 1-1.

Both men were completely busted up after the fight, but Chandler wore the worse of it.

4) Mark Hunt vs. Antonio Silva
Perhaps it was because they were friends and one-time training partners, but nobody expected Mark Hunt and Antonio Silva to be as ridiculous as it was. In fact, most thought the fight would end suddenly early on with either "Bigfoot’s" loaf fist shutting Hunt down, or vice-versa.

Instead, this thing went the distance, and there were cringe-worthy moments that inspired a certain kind of awe…awe that said, "how can he keep taking a beating?" Towards the end, the "he" was Hunt, who had Silva on top of him in mount, landing loud anvils at range (reminiscent of when he beat Fedor Emelianenko in that heavyweight grand prix). Hunt survived, though, just as Silva did.

It was one of the most justified draws in MMA history, as it seemed wrong to assign a winner and a loser to guys who stood on guts for 25 minutes. The fight will now carry an asterisk, as Silva tested positive for high testosterone, but watching it live as it unfolded was pretty insane.

5) Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez
Normally guys have a sense of self-preservation that allows them to go in for something like "longevity" in the fight game. Diego Sanchez has never been what you might call normal (remember him summoning the energy from the thunderstorm during the first TUF?).

And Melendez is nothing if not accommodating.

Melendez and Sanchez met at the center of the cage, planted in each other’s wheelhouses, gritted their teeth and swung for ruin. Sanchez was blasted so voluminously (and so memorably) through some of the exchanges that it became a thing of inspiration that he’d wade in so willingly to do it again. And in the final round, with Melendez refusing to let caution intervene in what was a classic fight that he had surely won, they threw down one last go round, this time Sanchez getting the better of "El Nino." The fight was nonstop action, and it was made sweet by two things: 1) that Sanchez being Sanchez, and therefore incapable of anything other than madness, and 2) that Melendez met Sanchez on those terms.

Melendez won the decision.

Honorable mentions:
Jessica Penne vs. Michelle Waterson, Invicta 5
Brett Cooper vs. Alexander Shlemenko, Bellator 98
Carlos Condit vs. Johny Hendricks, UFC 158
Brian Stann vs. Wanderlei Silva, UFC on Fuel TV 8
Cat Zingano vs. Miesha Tate, TUF 17 Finale
Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar, UFC 156