UFC 181 offered up a lot to love and hate. The quality of the main card was high, the entire event featured a set of fighter comebacks, and a new champion was crowned. On the other hand, a man deeply unqualified to be there was announced with great fanfare.
It's time separate the good from the bad, the best from the worst and the signal from the noise.
Ray Hudson Magisterial Award: Anthony Pettis thrashing of Gilbert Meldnez
Pettis was the best fighter on the card on Saturday. That's saying something given the competition, but it's irrefutably true. He defeated a fighter who, himself, was arguably on the cusp of becoming the greatest that division had ever seen. Pettis not only defeated said lightweight, he did so by stopping Melendez, something that never happened before.
He is a young, brilliant finisher. Pettis can affect opposition's strategy in the narrowest of spaces where he wreaks untold damage. He forces the most credentialed and experienced fighters into tactically unhelpful corners where he dispatches with them with impunity.
MMA is a sport where the difference between the elite and everyone else is stark. In MMA, you are very good or you're not and the very good are a tiny minority. A handful of fighters tread the line between, but their numbers are negligible. This is a sport with as close to a binary system of belonging as you'll find.
He is the reason why you watch premium MMA because when it looks like Anthony Pettis, it looks like nothing else.
Best Reminder to Not Use the Word 'Robbery': Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler 2
The number of actual robberies in MMA is fairly low. There are a lot of bad decisions, but not outright robberies. There's a difference between the two. Incompetence has degrees as much as competence. The very worst of outcomes isn't routinely reached. If you were to catalog the types of decisions where there was commission review or an overwhelming majority of those polled felt the decision was truly backwards, you'd end up with short list.
I scored Saturday's main event for Hendricks (1 and 5 to Lawler, 2 through 4 for Hendricks), but there's nothing at all indefensible about scoring the other way. Hendricks was tired and stalled a lot. He spent too long in static positions taking abuse (how badly is up for debate). Many judges and other observers do not view those kinds of things favorably. This isn't hard to understand.
49-46 also isn't defensible because if a judge is so bad as to not award Hendricks rounds 2 and 3, then it didn't matter that 4 or 1 were close. Hendricks never had a chance with that particular judge, anyway.
But he did with the two others and that's enough to win. I thought he did, but the interpretative nature of judging makes consensus difficult. That's especially true with competitive performance art.
Bizarro Land Award: The Signing of Phil 'CM Punk' Brooks
I'm not going to say the things you think I am. I'm not going to say this move to sign Brooks won't draw audiences, bigger gate receipts, more pay-per-view buys and interest, generally. While I don't think it'll match what Lesnar's 2009 campaign earned, it will be an unquestionable financial and visibility-grabbing success.
If you wish to justify bringing him into the UFC, that's the argument you stick to. You have to because there is no other argument to defend it. It's not in keeping with the UFC's hard-earned reputation as the space where MMA's elite compete against one another. It's not in keeping with serious quality control. It's not in keeping with the UFC's self-stylized image as a professional sports league on par with the other Big Four in the United States.
MMA already suffers from having a key portion of the fan base unable to tell different levels of the game apart. This signing will only seek to exacerbate that fact. The idea there's curiosity to how he'll do is regrettable, but just the sort of evidence that verifies the claim. How will he do? Unless you're grading on the most generous of curves - something utterly anathema to the idea of elite, professional sports competition - who cares? There's no other option for him to do anything other than poorly relative to the top level because that's how life works. Getting good at something takes unfair amounts of time. Becoming proficient at fighting takes years, world-class training and genetic gifts. Unless you have a sympathetic tie the person and their competition is a matter of real virtue and vicarious accomplishment, then there's really no other interest to take here in Brooks.
In fairness, there's no point in being absolutist in rejection of attention-grabbing efforts. Even at the summit of the sport, there's a place for them. There's a limit to them, too. Lesser organizations making strange acquisitions doesn't carry the same negative potential as it does for the sport's premium brand. That's as true for the individual promotion as it is the sport.
Look, if you're excited for this, fine. If you think it'll be a lucrative business decision, I'd agree with you. And from all accounts, Brooks seems like a nice, well-spoken guy. There's no reason to be angry at him personally. But there's also no room for delusion about what this entire push is and isn't. This is a means to an end and little more. It's also one that will work in the service of that goal, but doesn't come without a lasting negative effect. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Ads or trailers for UFC events are typically repetitive, unimaginative and bad. That's why when they do a great job creating interesting trailers, they deserve all the credit for them.
This (and the other) is truly deft. They home in on what matters as much as what sells. They feature what is essentially the best the sport has to offer. They sell fiction as much as truth. They ooze intrigue. They leave you wanting more. They're everything they're supposed to be.
Worst Use of Instant Replay: Urijah Faber vs. Francisco Rivera
Instant replay has been a part of professional Nevada MMA since 2009. It's intended to be used in the event of a stoppage that was decided by use of a foul. How is that possible and no instant replay was used here? I'm not sure if there's a Robert's Rules of Order-esque process to this where unless the referee asks to see it, then it's a moot point. I'm also not sure if Yamasaki did use it and decided to not change the call. Whatever happened, it wasn't enough. The eye poke is incontestable as are its effects on Rivera. The result of the fight needs to be thrown out.
Apparently Nevada worries overuse on instant replay could negatively affect the sport. Maybe that's true, we aren't even remotely close to a Pandora's Box scenario at present. Fighters deserve to have technology help right obvious wrongs. Let's hope Rivera's appeal covers territory that instant replay should have already.
For the Love of Bulldog Choke: Raquel Pennington
The bulldog choke is great. It's not like an armbar from mount. There's are great, too, but really different about what they say regarding the fight where you see in.
Armbars from mount require very strong jiu-jitsu skills and confidence. One has to know if it doesn't work, they're on their back and could easily lose a scramble. It's the sacrifice throw of submissions. It's also one that is typically used when climbing to that position. You have to take the opponent down, pass guard, secure mount and force openings from that position before using the finishing technique. Sometimes the armbar itself takes minutes to secure.
Not the bulldog. It's right away. No one climbs their way to a bulldog choke. Those are taken, snatched and ripped out of nowhere. It's the opportunists' submission. They happen in scrambles, when a fight is back and forth and something's happening in transition. It's the jiu-jitsu equivalent of not looking both ways when crossing the street.
They also happen suddenly and with extreme authority. There's no prolonged period of struggle.
I like them most of all because of their simplicity. It's wrap and squeeze. There are no overly precise details of balance and leverage.Yes, how you do the wrap and squeeze matters, but these are easily attainable skills. It's the slight elevation of technique from wrestling your little brother.
It's the part of the game that keeps MMA as chaotic as it does honest.
Best Part About 2014: Year of the Comebacks
2014 has not been the most fun or enjoyable year in mixed martial arts, relative to other recent years, anyway. Here's to hoping that changes in 2015. For now, though, we can take solace in great fact about the past 12 months: it's been a fantastic year for comebacks.
No two comebacks are alike (although none are too dissimilar from the other), but the individual stories of the athletes are diverse and equally intriguing. Dominick Cruz came roaring back to life in 2014 after roughly 3 years away from competition. Cat Zingano overcame the tragic death of a loved one as well as ACL surgery to claim her title shot opposite Ronda Rousey.
And on UFC 181, a host of comebacks made their marks. Todd Duffee's reemergence in the UFC was successfully solidified after just 33 seconds. Josh Samman scored one of the best head kick knockouts in the sport for this calendar year after losing the love of his life and suffering a traumatic injury in the last 12 months. Pettis, too, showed that time off isn't down time with the most important and emphatic win of his career. Last, but certainly not least, the long road to career greatness Robbie Lawler's been on came to its denouement with his win of the UFC welterweight title.
No one will remember this year as one of the sport's better times, but few could deny the joy of this silver lining.