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Unheralded China show may have been UFC's best of 2014

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Dana White is fond of saying how you can't judge a card until after it takes place.

Well, yes and no.

The reality is before every UFC event, every consumer will decide, based on the lineup, whether the show is worth their time to either pay for, or watch for free. But a lineup that doesn't look interesting can, and often is, a better show that a lineup that going in looks like it can't miss.

On one end of the spectrum, you have the Strikeforce show on April 17, 2010 that aired on CBS from Nashville. It had three title matches and was a night that would catapult Strikeforce into a much stronger position as the No. 2 promotion on the horizon.

I can recall my thoughts the night before thinking how all three matches looked like can't miss, Jake Shields vs. Dan Henderson, Gegard Mousasi vs. King Mo Lawal and Gilbert Melendez vs. Shinya Aoki. Now, there's no such thing as can't miss, but it would take lightning striking three times in the same location for all three of those matches to be boring. But they were. Shields took a tired Henderson down at will and mostly kept him there for four of five rounds. Mo took Mousasi down at will and mostly kept him there for five of five rounds. Aoki decided his plan of attack against Melendez was to take as little punishment as possible before losing a one-sided decision.

To cap off that night was a near-riot in the ring, and CBS decided never to air MMA on network television again. So much for a can't-miss show. In hindsight, that night was one of many factors why Strikeforce ended up being sold to the UFC.

At the other end of the spectrum was Saturday's UFC show from The Venetian in Macau, China. The show was filled with unknown debuting fighters, including names only familiar to those who watched TUF China. Given that the show didn't air anywhere in North America, and even those who were able to find it on the Internet had to watch a show mostly in Chinese, there wasn't exactly a ground swell of interest in whether Wang Sai or Zhang Lipeng would win a UFC contract, let alone people salivating at the prospect of Kazuki Tokudome and Yui Chul Nam.

It ended up being UFC's most entertaining show of a year that has had its share of lackluster nights. There were only eight fights, the least of any UFC show in recent memory. But there was nothing remotely close to a bad fight, and the presentation on Fight Pass, with no commercials except for UFC events and shows between fights, seemed to almost breeze by. And even the commercials were highlights on this night, in particular a lengthy preview to the upcoming TUF Brazil featuring Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva. An edited version of that commercial on YouTube was at just under 1.3 million views over the next 48 hours.

The show was largely a success as far as streaming went. There were momentary issues, always rectified in seconds, in a medium that over the past week has had its share of high-profile technological disasters.
The bookend bouts were significant for different reasons.

The first thing notable when the show started was the crowd going wild for Filipino fighter Mark Eddiva (6-0). Eddiva, who hadn't fought in three years, and never in the UFC, had something about him even before the match started, where you could sense he could be a star. But while the look of movie star action figure is great, in UFC, you have to back it up with being able to fight.

His foe, Jumabieke Tuerxun, came in at 17-0 on the Chinese MMA scene. The Chinese scene is in its infancy, and is a good decade behind the world scene, so that number doesn't mean what it would if somebody came out of North America, Europe or Brazil with that kind of a record.

Eddiva showed flashy striking, with kicks from all angles and quickness at both defending and attacking with takedowns coming from his Wu Shu background. In some ways, he felt like a cross between a young Cung Le and 90s Muay Thai world champion, the late Alex Gong.

While not as explosive when it came to finishing, in many ways his debut was reminiscent of Conor McGregor, in the sense you could see from his style, look and how the crowd took to him, that, provided he could compete at a high level, he could be a national star in his home country.

The last thing on the show was a spinning elbow to the left side of the face by South Korea's Dong Hyun Kim (19-2-1, 1 no contest), turning the lights out on John Hathaway (17-2) at 1:02 of the third round. This bout would have garnered the best fight bonus on 80 percent of UFC shows. The two underrated welterweights went back-and-forth. Kim, whose game formerly consisted of using judo to take guys off their feet, garnered more confidence in his stand-up after his knockout of Erick Silva on Oct. 9, which was both good and bad.

He was landing big punches, but his wild swinging left him open for counters, and also started tiring him out. Plus, after the first round, which he had clearly won, and his corner was giving him instructions, he turned his back to get into a conversation with a woman, presumably his girlfriend, in the front row.
Hathaway started to take Kim apart for much of the second round, although Kim remained in the game because some of his big shots connected. But Kim seemed on the verge of being done as Hathaway unloaded with punches, elbows and knees at the start of the third round. But then Kim's elbow connected out of nowhere, a split-second that will be on highlight reels for Best-of-2014 knockouts.

Kim hopped over the cage, hugged his girlfriend, then realized he wasn't supposed to be doing that. He hopped back over the cage into the octagon and started doing all kinds of flips.

The Chinese crowd was loud, but clearly impatient. They were quick to explode when there was action, whether they knew the fighters or not. And they were quick to boo, showing their disapproval when the action slowed down, even if the two men had been giving delivering a great fight until seconds earlier.
The fighters, mostly inexperienced on the UFC stage, reacted to the crowd. Unlike veteran fighters who are going to fight their fight no matter how the crowd reacts, these fighters, for the most part, at the first sign of boos, started throwing wildly.

The can't-miss fight ended up with Korean Nam (18-4-1) taking a split decision over Japanese fighter Tokudome (12-5-1).

Depending on how you score a blow that put Tokudome to a knee briefly, Tokudome either tied an auspicious UFC record, or broke one, in surviving three or four knockdowns in the first round, very much reminiscent of round one in the second Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard fight. You could have scored the round 10-7, although one judge actually only gave it a 10-9.

Tokudome had swelling under both eyes by the end of the round, growing like eggs, with the one under the left eye by the end of the fight looking like it was about to hatch. The crowd, sensing it was over from one close-up of Tokudome's face, went crazy seeing him come out for the second round.

And they went even crazier when he took Nam down right away and spent the entire round beating on him in a round that could have been scored 10-8, although only one judge did so.

It came down to the third round. Nam scored another knockdown. Both traded takedowns. Both exhausted fighters threw punches. Tokudome took Nam down at the buzzer. The crowd exploded, giving both men a standing ovation. The third round was close enough that it could have gone either way, with Nam getting a split decision.

Those were hardly the only highlights.

Matt Mitrione (7-3) finished Shawn Jordan (15-6) in a battle of former college football players when the former Purdue star connected with punch after punch standing. Jordan was just about done, but the flurry started with only 15 seconds left in the first round. Herb Dean jumped in to stop it, a split second before the horn sounded to end the round. But there was no controversy here. Dean's stoppage was perfectly timed and even if the horn had beat the stoppage, Jordan was done.

Mitrione finished with a tremendous and even touching post-match promo. In particular, instead of talking about himself, he brought up a 19-year-old training partner, Luis Guerra, whose parents and four siblings had passed away in a fire the day he left Indiana for China, and pushed for people to go to his Twitter account of @MattMitrione for information on donations.

If this was a decade earlier, when the sport was more about big men, and had Mitrione come up at a younger age, he could have been one of the most remembered characters with his kill-or-be-killed style, combined with some natural charisma, outspoken talking and being so light on his feet at 260 pounds. But his upside is limited by time, being almost 36 and still in the developing stages, less than five years after taking up the sport.

Even the TUF finale, featuring Chinese fighters with modest records, went back-and-forth for three rounds. Lipeng (8-7-1) took a split decision over Sai (7-5-1) in a fight that could have gone either way, that was reminiscent of some of the early TUF finales.