What makes a great submission?
A few things, but there are five elements that are most notable: the creativity of the submission; the ability to pull it off in a high-stakes, high-pressure situation; the lethality of the particular submission; the quality of the opponent on which the submission is being applied and the point in the fight or match when the submission is secured. When a contest between two opponents features three or more of these elements, you have something particularly special.
It is with these considerations in mind we name the submission finish from the main event from August's UFC 164 between then-UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson and now-UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis as our Submission of the Year.
Let's establish some context, though. An armbar isn't necessarily the most creative submission available to fighters or grapplers, but for reasons many may not consider, it's also one of the trickiest. The fight between Henderson and Pettis demonstrated that and so much more.
For starters, this bout was a rematch after their instant classic in the last WEC bout ever at WEC 53 in December of 2010. While Pettis eventually won the contest - punctuated by the celebrated Showtime Kick - the fight itself was an extraordinarily competitive contest. The rematch was largely expected to follow in that vein if not the round by round particulars.
In addition, Henderson had developed a reputation as a grappling savvy MMA fighter. He'd not only earned his black belt in the time between fights as well as trained in the gi, but videos had surfaced of Henderson competing and winning in various grappling tournaments. He was scheduled to compete at ADCC 2013 win or lose at UFC 164. The MMA Lab lightweight also had a record of escaping any number of seemingly locked in submission attempts from excellent competitors during his fighting career.
None of that, however, would stop or affect Pettis' decision making.
The main event rematch between the two started out normally enough. Pettis looked to have strong takedown defense, but Henderson kept the pressure on him from the opening bell. That, of course, is when and why everything changed.
Pettis tagged Henderson with a right hand to the body followed by four kicks to the same spot. The strikes worked as Pettis later described the proof: Henderson's face changed shape as he tried to not grimace in pain. This gave the Milwaukee native a spark, which compelled him to throw a handstand kick, one which eventually backfired and put him on the ground as the opportunistic Henderson seized the moment to extricate himself from a striking contest with the challenger. In the end, he only sealed his own fate.
From guard, Pettis was instantly proactive. As Henderson tried to establish his posture and get his hands and elbows set for ground and pound, Pettis whipped his hips counterclockwise and elevated off the mat like the un-turn of a screw. It was an act remarkable not simply for the speed by which everything transpired, but for it's technical beauty. Pettis established the proper angle with the hip turn, but also managed to get his hips high enough so Henderson couldn't elbow escape. Pettis closed the proverbial walls around Henderson with an additional adjustment underneath with is elbow by positioning it for even greater destruction. One can only imagine the cascading feeling of terror and disappointment that must've washed over him as he knew the only thing keeping Pettis from becoming the new champion was the mere formality of his own surrender.
And surrender he did, although not with the characteristic physical tap but a verbal tap only the pair could hear. Some have suggested this partially ruined the submission by making it anti-climactic. While the home crowd eventually celebrated their new champion, there was a moment between Pettis letting go of the arm and the audience comprehending what had just happened. After all, only Pettis heard the verbal tap Henderson gave him.
But that intimacy is precisely what elevates the submission. Pettis managed to secure it in a title fight for a divisional belt in what is arguably the UFC's toughest weight category. And not only did he achieve the result against a rival who is nothing if not defensively strong and often heralded for his particular ability to withstand submission attempts, he did so with a submission so vicious and damaging that Henderson resorted to telling Pettis he was done because tapping with a physical hand wouldn't be quick enough to spare himself from injury.
Pettis knows how Henderson gave up and no one else does. He not only gets to keep the belt, but the sound of Henderson's voice frantically pushing through his mouth guard to hurriedly acquiesce is his and only his to enjoy.
There's often another overlooked aspect to Pettis' outstanding finish, namely, armbar submissions from the guard are rare in high-level competition. That's true both in MMA and especially sport jiu-jitsu. The truth is securing that particular submission from standard closed guard is extremely hard to do. Why? It's hard to break your opponent's posture. It's hard to move underneath quickly enough to get the clamp. Defense from that position, relatively speaking, is easy.
Yet, everyone once in a while, they happen, but only when the attacker is quick enough, technical enough and has the athletic courage to try.
Pettis managed to make it work perfectly. That he did so in the most important fight of his career against a seasoned opponent with hometown pressure and for a UFC title in MMA toughest division is utterly remarkable. It's also why, without the slightest hint of doubt, Pettis' armbar finish of Henderson is the 2013 MMA Submission of the Year.
2. Michelle Waterson vs. Jessica Penne, Invicta 5
For two rounds, the top two atomweight women in mixed martial arts put on a dazzling display of grappling talent. As each moved, the other countered. Heading into the third round of the bout, the fighters proved their viability and purpose for being there. It was anyone's fight for the taking.
That's when Penne, then the reigning champion who had been masterfully finishing opposition even while competing in a relatively lighter weight class, took over. She yanked Waterson to the mat and through a series of attacks, had her foe on the run. Penne moved from knee on belly to mount to back mount. Waterson did her best to survive, constantly changing position to keep Penne adjusting her offense, but the champion was always one step ahead. Waterson was in such bad shape that Penne had her arm fully extended in an armbar attempt. Only through the low percentage hitch hiker escape did Waterson manage to stay in the fight and push the contest into the championship rounds.
Things seemed to be picking up in the fourth round largely where they left off. Waterson was doing well enough, fighting off a number of takedown attempts from Penne, but it was the champion pressing the attack. That is, until a single leg attempt from Penne couldn't be finished. Waterson eventually surrendered the position, but kept half guard and threatened with a kimura grip on the far side. As Penne tried to establish top position, Waterson, who wisely kept her angles and points of control throughout the scramble, expertly switched to the near arm, kicked up her hips for the armbar, forcing an almost immediate tap from the champion.
3. Kenny Robertson vs. Brock Jardine, UFC 157
Sometimes submissions happen when you least expect them, but they're so inventive and new they deserve a nod of recognition. In an otherwise unremarkable bout on the preliminary card of an event that had hype for its main event, Robertson put himself on the map with a particularly tortuous submission seldom used, but named after UFC veteran Amar Suloev.
Robertson managed to take the back of Jardine, but strayed far from the norm. No rear naked chokes or belly down armbars - the staple submissions from that position - were in play. There was also almost no ground and pound. Instead, Robertson elected to keep his hooks in with hip pressure as Jardine went to turtle, but also to reach for one of Jardine's posted heels to the side of him. Robertson was high on Jardine's back and Jardine likely felt if he could get to his base and lean forward, Robertson might fall off.
Instead, Robertson kept locked on to Jardine's body while he used both of his hands to pull behind Jardine's left heel, badly stretching his hamstring. After just seconds, Jardine tapped in excruciating pain and in surprise as he defended a submission he likely didn't even know existed until he became a victim of it.
4. Ronda Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche, UFC 157
It's rare two submissions from the same card both make the top 5 of the best submissions of the year, but UFC 157 wasn't an ordinary event. This was a night of history, the first time two women appeared on a UFC card and in this case a headlining role. UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, who entered the bout with as much mainstream interest and media attention as UFC fighter ever, was to face Liz Carmouche, a respected competitor, but one believed to be over matched.
Yet, in a game as chaotic as mixed martial arts, events rarely unfold as expected. Rousey started strong with her now famous judo skills, launching Carmouche with a harai goshi to the mat. Carmouche, however, used the cage to reverse position. Rousey scrambled too quickly and in the process, ended up giving up her back. Rousey stood to her feet with Carmouche attached to her like a back pack. Carmouche tried for several rear naked choke attempts, but couldn't get them, opting instead for crushing lateral neck cranks. So strong were Carmouche's attempts that Rousey's teeth unintentionally left bite marks in Carmouche's forearm after the fight.
Just as it seemed as an upset was set in motion, Rousey turned the tide. She managed to free one of Carmouche's hooks and dump her to mat. Rousey quickly assumed mount and turned her hips into s-mount to finish her foe off with her borderline unstoppable armbar. Carmouche defended by locking up her own bicep and Rousey's inside thigh, but the champion was simply too good. She re-sat in the position after unhooking Carmouche's last line of defense, leaned back for the armbar and made history with another first-round submission only this time under the bright lights of the Octagon. It will always remain the first time a woman has done so under the Zuffa banner.
5. Josh Burkman vs. Jon Fitch, WSOF 3
Every once in a while a submission is so brutal, you have to admire its path of destruction.
Recent UFC-castoff Jon Fitch was set to make his WSOF debut in June of 2013. He'd lost a clear decision to Demian Maia in his last UFC bout and to the consternation of the MMA fan base, lost his UFC employment. No bother, Fitch said. He was ready to do work in WSOF, win a title and get back to dominating.
Josh Burkman, however, wasn't prepared to help Fitch with his perceived inevitability.
Fitch and Burkman had faced one another roughly seven years prior in the UFC with Fitch claiming the second-round submission finish. Many expected the rematch to look largely the same. Sure, Fitch wasn't at his peak and Burkman was on a roll, but few had the insight to predict they had shifted places.
Burkman drew the first and only blood in their rematch, landing a three-punch combo that rocked the former top contender. Fitch tried to scramble to his feet and onto Burkman for a takedown, but in the process, Burkman secured an unobstructed guillotine and sat to his back to crank with neck-breaking might. Just a few seconds later Fitch was thoroughly unconscious, lifeless in Burkman's arms. Fitch, the man the best UFC welterweights - including world champion jiu-jitsu black belts - could not submit, had just been put to sleep outside of the UFC by a man Fitch previously submitted himself.
The referee failed to intervene in time, so Burkman tossed Fitch's limp body off of him. To emphasize the win, he stood over his torpid opponent, gazed defiantly at the crowd and raised his fist. It was one of those rare occasions where a fighter both celebrates the win and what the win means in a single act of contemptuous glee.
Honorable mention (in no particular order):
Fabricio Werdum vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, UFC on FUEL TV 10
Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate, UFC 168
Mike Guymon vs. Aaron Miller, Bellator 106
Rousimar Palhares vs. Mike Pierce, UFC Fight Night 29
Michael Chandler vs. Rick Hawn, Bellator 85
Renan Barao vs. Michael McDonald, UFC on FUEL TV 7
Ronaldo Souza vs. Ed Herman, Strikeforce: Marquardt vs. Saffiedine
Rose Namajunas vs. Kathina Catron, Invicta 5