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2015 Event of the Year: UFC 189

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Esther Lin, Sportsfile

"Events" can be tricky, because they’re a confluence of two clashing directions: Prospect and retrospect. One very seldom has much to do with the other in MMA. Some cards that look great on paper play out as ultimate duds. Some cards that look like dog mush up front end up reminding us why we watch the fight game to begin with.

We can control our excitement going in (or at least most of us can), but even if we try to sugarcoat things afterwards we can’t reshape what happened. It either lived up to something, or it didn’t. The bar is set, and we end up either above it or below it.

Perhaps no card in the history of the sport so evenly went from impossible buzz/hype to a feeling of total gratification than UFC 189 in July 2015.

In prospect it was the longtime champion Jose Aldo against Conor McGregor, not just the biggest featherweight fight of all time but the biggest fight of the year. During the unprecedented world tour the two embarked on, the thing went from surreal to colossal. Sitting next to the players on most stops were Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald, a brooding, almost forgotten subset that lurked in the very lengthy shadow of the Irishman. Rarely do you get set-ups as pure as this.

McGregor, a sharp-dressing coxcomb with momentum and supernatural self-belief, against Aldo, who hadn’t lost in a decade. This was a fight destined to set fact apart from fiction. Then Aldo fell out with a rib injury just a couple of weeks before the fight, and it took on a fresh coat of intrigue.

In retrospect it ended up being Chad Mendes against Conor McGregor for a hallucinated belt. It ended up being McGregor against what was perceived to be his weakness — wrestling — at the biggest moment of his career. It ended up with McGregor on his back for the bulk of two rounds before turning the tables and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. In a sport short on transcendent stars, McGregor became one that night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The thousands of Irish who made the trip celebrated their hero, but also their own justification. Everybody knows that the lead-ups to fights are full of lies.

McGregor wasn’t a lie.

And even that revelation couldn’t outdo what stood directly before it. In the co-main event, the largely underlooked rematch between Lawler and MacDonald played out as testimony to everything that’s beautiful about this sport that can never be explained. You just know it when you see it.

In a back-and-forth bloodfeast, neither would yield an inch. After four rounds in which both guys had been dumped at death’s door more than once, neither man retreated to his corners. Instead, each stood and glared at the other. In what was one of the most iconic moments in the sport, The Stare Down said it all. Each wanted to get a good look at the man who had looted his being. Each was telling the other that, despite the battered features, there were still miles to go before an arm would be raised. Each was saying, "you’re going to have to kill me."

It was as if they knew that this one was for the ages. And it was just that. It was a fight of the ages.

And combined with Mendes-McGregor, UFC 189 busted the seams of its own hype. Which, going in, might have seemed impossible.

2. UFC 194 — and, by extension, TUF Finale 22 and UFC Fight Night 80 — Dec. 12, Las Vegas

UFC 194 photos
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)

And then we got Aldo-McGregor, five months later, in what was the nuttiest fight week in Zuffa history (Three fight cards in three nights…Frankie Edgar! Sage Northcutt! Rose Namajunas! Tony Ferguson!).

Once again the Irish flooded the MGM Grand. If anybody still doubted that the Irishman, well, it came out in the lead-up as McGregor was in the "Zen" phase of his takeover. People were speculating that Aldo, who was a picture of steely calm the whole week, was past the summer mind games. McGregor showed up in Vegas with a movement guru, which struck a chord of panic down the spine of Irish bravado.

What did he do? He only prophesized his shot. He said he would land the left hook, and he did. One punch. Down went a decade of greatness. Down went Aldo. And there stood Mystic Mac, draped in the tricolour.

But this card went deep. In a fight that was almost too good to be true going in — and which Ariel Helwani kept trying to sell to every passerby as Bird vs. Magic — Luke Rockhold dominated middleweight champion Chris Weidman to take the belt back to California. There was also Yoel Romero over "Jacare" Souza and Demian Maia’s manhandling of Gunnar Nelson. In all, it was a damn big card, that fell on a damn big weekend.

3. UFC 193, Nov. 15, Melbourne, Australia

UFC 193 Weigh-Ins
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)

Again, in prospect this event had very little for the imagination. It was going to be showcases for both strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and the sport’s most celebrated star, Ronda Rousey, the latter whom was something like a 12-to-1 favorite. The biggest allure going in was that the UFC was going to break its own attendance record at the vast Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, outdoing UFC 129 in Toronto.

Instead it went down as Holly Holm’s coming out party, which shocked everybody in the world (outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico). Holm not only picked Rousey apart, she thwarted the pop culture icon in every possible way. Holm dethroned not only the champion, but a burgeoning All Time Star in sports. The headkick that ultimately put Rousey away is an image that will stay with MMA forever.

If it wasn’t exactly an event going in, it certainly did coming out. 

4. UFC 182, Jan. 2, Las Vegas

UFC 182 weigh-in photos
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)

"Hey p*ssy, are you still there?"

The lead-up to this light heavyweight title fight between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier was Other Level Stuff. There was hatred in the air. Neither guy could stand the other. And the sets of credentials on both sides made it a clash of titans. Jones ultimately prevailed, but the plot has only thickened as the year went on (Jones suspended…Cormier wins belt…Jones back…Cormier rubbing it in…Jones posting/deleting Tweets, etc.).

5. Bellator 138, June 19, St. Louis

Bellator 138 Photos
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)

What, you think the world doesn’t need a 51-year old man from the Throwback Days of Taboo fighting a glorified street fighter with gold teeth in a sanctioned cage? Bellator cares what you think! The numbers speak for themselves. Bellator 138 may have been booked as a spectacle, but if Kimbo-Shamrock told us anything it’s that we love a red-and-yellow circus tent. In fact, the subtext for this one was an old grudge match between spectacle and sport. What is it we like about fights?

See, Bellator turned many of us into philosophers for a minute there. When we gawk we gawk loud and full of complaints, but we keep on gawking.

Honorable mentions:

  • UFC 183: Anderson Silva vs. Nick Diaz, Jan. 31
  • Bellator 142: Dynamite, Sept. 19, San Jose
  • UFC Fight Night 59: Siver vs. McGregor, Jan. 18, Boston
  • UFC 184: Zingano vs. Rousey, Feb. 28, Los Angeles
  • UFC 187: Johnson vs. Cormier, May 23, Las Vegas
  • UFC 188: Werdum vs. Velasquez, June 13, Mexico City
  • UFC on FOX 16: Barao vs. Dillashaw II, July 25, Chicago
  • UFC 190: Correia vs. Rousey, Aug. 1, Rio de Janeiro
  • WSOF 22; Shields vs. Palhares, Aug. 1, Las Vegas