MMA Fighter of the Year and other superlatives
Sitting on an Amtrak train returning home from a visit to New York City last week, gazing out the window at the dusky landscape, I got to pondering a troublesome moment from my day. It happened during a taping of the online television show The MMA Beat on which I was among a foursome of sports reporters opining about topics of grave importance to the mixed martial arts world. At this time of year, with strains of "Auld Lang Syne" dancing in our heads like sugarplums, our talk naturally had veered toward the year's superlatives. What was the best fight of 2013? Who was the best fighter? We'd bantered about those and other "of the year" matters.
And now I was staring out at the shadowy snow and multihued blur of holiday lights, the cold tracks rumbling beneath me, and an incredulously self-critical question kept running around my head: "What the hell was I thinking?"
When the topic of Fighter of the Year had come up during the TV show, I had blurted out a name that on the most obvious level made perfect sense. The guy fought three times in 2013, won three times in 2013, viciously knocked out three opponents in 2013, each one with a highlight-reel kick to the head. So I had cast my vote for Vitor Belfort.
What I was thinking was that the resume items listed above were impressive enough. And they were indeed remarkable. But they're only part of the 2013 Vitor Belfort story, and they are undeniably tied in to the other part: He's one of the growing number of aging fighters who've prolonged their careers by use of testosterone replacement therapy. And the brawny Brazilian stands out from the crowd. At 38 years old, he's more of a caged killer now than he was in the prime years of his 20s. Three straight head-kick KO's over Top 10 guys? He wasn't doing that 10 years ago.
A decade ago, Belfort was known for beating people up, but he wasn't taking our breath away in quite the same way. "The Phenom" was a young man fighting like a young man ... until he no longer was. After winning the UFC light heavyweight championship in 2004, everything suddenly went south. Belfort entered a stretch during which he lost five of seven bouts and appeared to be fading out of the picture. That perception became starkly vivid when, following the 2006 decision loss to Dan Henderson that culminated his slide, Vitor tested positive for the anabolic steroid 4-Hydroxytestosterone.
Since 2007, though, Belfort is 10-2, with losses coming against only the estimable Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. He's fought like a different fighter and even looked like one. His sinewy physique and ageless vigor have raised eyebrows. Would Belfort have had the energy to put in the gym hours needed to chisel out such a figure if not for the TRT boost? Would his dynamic blitzkrieg fighting style still have been possible as he entered his late 30s?
My argument on the TV show, to which I'd given considerable thought, was that with TRT exemptions being routinely granted to fighters by athletic commissions, there's nothing inherently wrong with Belfort's use. "It's within the rules," I had said. "He's not cheating."
That's true. But even as I was stating the case for Belfort, I was situating him within a more nuanced context. The panelist who spoke before me had endorsed flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, and when it was my turn I had used that as a jumping-off point. "I'm going to say that Demetrious Johnson is my organic, all-natural Fighter of the Year, sponsored by Whole Foods Market ..." I began, whimsically, before veering toward Belfort.
Upon further review, I believe I should have stayed with Johnson. Nothing against Vitor, whose three victories this year were awe-inspiring, but he's running on high-octane fuel in a race against vehicles with tanks full of regular unleaded. At some point, athletic commissions and MMA's most influential promotion, the UFC, will resolve themselves to doing away with artificial enhancement and allow fighters to simply age out of the sport, as nature intended. Till that happens, TRT-fueled fighters will continue to do what they do. Among the things they will continue to do: pose a dilemma for those of us who each year try to sort out the criteria for determining who's the best of the best.
So, during my train ride home, I got to thinking about the story you're now reading. Not just the story but the photos that would accompany it. I sat there and pictured the MMA/Boxing page of SI.com with a headline playing off the Fighter of the Year award, and on this imagined page would be a picture of Belfort, his physique bursting out of himself in a way a 38-year-old athlete's simply doesn't ... especially if his physique didn't do so at age 28. And when I finished with the "What the hell was I thinking?" self-battering, I whispered to myself, audible to the iPod-listening person across the aisle from me, "No, no, no."
No, Vitor Belfort is not my Fighter of the Year. I take it back, viewers ofThe MMA Beat. I congratulate Belfort on those breathtaking KO's of Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold, and Dan Henderson. But just as the UFC is prone to skip over challengers to hand title shots to fighters it believes will best serve the bottom line, I'm skipping over Vitor Belfort. I don't care if TRT is within the rules. I'm factoring it in.
So ... no. Simply ... no.
Who's the Fighter of the Year, then?
Let's go with "the organic, all-natural" Johnson. "Mighty Mouse" didn't head-kick an opponent into oblivion in any of his three 2013 victories, but two weekends ago he did send shivers through all of us who watched him starch Joseph Benavidez with a potent fight hand just two minutes onto their flyweight title fight. In his defense just prior, in July, lightning-quick Demetrious dominated John Moraga -- 71 percent accuracy on significant strikes, 12 takedowns, 13 guard passes -- before submitting the challenger. And back in January the 27-year-old Johnson, who's lost only one of his last 11 fights, showed resilience in overcoming a difficult start and earned a unanimous decision over John Dodson. If we factor in his postfight celebrations, which include spinning dance moves and a backward somersault, Johnson is tough to surpass.
Then again, if Chris Weidman successfully defends his middleweight belt by beating Anderson Silva for a second time on Saturday night -- whether by another knockout, a submission, or even the slimmest of split decisions -- he's Fighter of the Year, no question. If not, then Demetrious Johnson is the man.
Now that that's out of the way, some other 2013 awards:
Fight of the Year: Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson
There's been an abundance of heart-pumping fisticuffs in 2013 -- from technical duels to slobberknockers -- but no other fight had the delicious combination of high stakes and a dramatic ebb and flow that September's light heavyweight championship bout brought us. Gustafsson was a 7-1 underdog, and who could blame the oddsmakers? Jones had slayed a murderers' row to that point, dominating everyone stood in front of him. But he didn't dominate "The Mauler." In the very first round, Gustafsson opened a cut on the champion's face, fended off all three of Jones's relentless takedown attempts, and even became the first man to take Jon to the canvas. The tall Swede appeared to be ahead in the fight until Jones landed a head kick in the fourth round, then stunned Gustafsson with a spinning elbow. From there the challenger was in survival mode, but he refused to be finished. So, to review, we had a surprisingly stout challenge, a champion's turnaround, and a hardy survival to the final horn. All with a championship belt -- and one all-time great's enduring legacy -- on the line. Fights don't get better than that.
Trainer of the Year: Duane Ludwig
The former UFC fighter and kickboxing world champion joined Team Alpha Male about a year ago to help hone the standup skills of an already elite roster with title aspirations. And in 2013 the top three guys in the camp -- featherweight Chad Mendes, flyweight Joseph Benavidez, and bantamweight Urijah Faber -- were a combined 10-1 with seven finishes. The lone blemish was Benavidez's KO loss to Demetrious Johnson, but the two other top Alphas are still in the title picture. It's been an especially potent 2013 for Faber, the former WEC belt holder who went 4-0 with three finishes to propel himself back into the championship conversation. He and the other Alphas all could fight before Ludwig came on board, but "Bang" added some standup sheen to this polished wrestling team.
Upset of the Year: Chris Weidman KO's Anderson Silva
Weidman was not the second coming of Matt Serra, his friend and jiu-jitsu instructor who back in 2007, as a 7-1 underdog, shockingly KO'd Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight title. A lot of people believed in Weidman going into July's middleweight title fight. He was just a 2-1 'dog. Many a fighter has won a bout this year while facing taller odds. But none of those underdogs has won a fight against Anderson Silva. "The Spider" entered the octagon on a 17-fight winning streak, and walked out with his brain having been scrambled by a KO. And he walked out without his championship belt. So Weidman gets the nod here for doing what seemed impossible.
Comeback Fighter of the Year: Robbie Lawler
When Lawler returned to the UFC early this year, he stumbled in the door weighed down by a 3-5 stretch going back to mid-2009. At 31, he was too young to be over the hill, but he wasn't exactly living up to the nickname "Ruthless Robbie." Now he is. Lawler won three times in 2013, twice by knockout. And with Georges St-Pierre having vacated the welterweight championship, Robbie was chosen by the UFC to fight Johny Hendricks for the belt in March. That's quite a reversal of misfortune.