LOS ANGELES -- UFC lightweight Joe Lauzon's third-round submission win over Jamie Varner at the Staples Center on Aug. 4 had a little bit of everything that makes mixed martial arts at its highest level such a compelling spectacle.
Featuring a blend of crisp striking, textbook wrestling, world-class jiu-jitsu and breathtaking momentum changes, Lauzon and Varner put on a show which no doubt left channel surfers who stumbled upon the live network television broadcast stopping to watch what the fuss was all about.
But was Lauzon's victory over Varner MMA's fight of the year? We've only just entered the eighth month of 2012, but there are already several worthy contenders for the year's top honors. Keeping Lauzon-Varner company are Benson Henderson's UFC lightweight title victory over Frankie Edgar on Feb. 26 and Chan Sung Jung's May 15 fourth-round submission of Dustin Poirier.
Here is a breakdown of the fights in chronological order:
The fight: Henderson vs. Edgar
The venue: UFC 144, Saitama, Japan
The stakes: Edgar, who had been UFC lightweight champion almost two years, was making his fourth title defense. Henderson, the former World Extreme Cagefighting champion, entered the bout the winner of 13 of his past 14.
Turning point: Edgar was controlling the action late in the second round when he walked into a ferocious Henderson upkick, which broke Edgar's nose. Henderson controlled the tempo the rest of the way.
The big finish: With Edgar trailing on the scorecards heading into the fifth and final round, both competitors let it all hang out in a frenzied final five minutes.
The aftermath: Henderson won the title via unanimous decision on scores of 49-46, 48-47 and 49-46. Edgar gets his rematch on Saturday at UFC 150 in Denver.
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The fight: Jung vs. Poirier
The venue: UFC on Fuel TV 3, Fairfax, Va.
The stakes: Poirier was considered a No. 1 contender in the making at featherweight. He entered the fight with a 12-1 record, including 10 finishes. The popular Jung, known as "The Korean Zombie," was known for always fighting in an exciting style, win or lose.
Turning point: The "everything but the kitchen sink" second round, in which Jung took control of the bout with an otherworldly chain of four straight submission attempts. Poirier somehow managed to hang on and even briefly got Jung in trouble before the round's end.
The big finish: Jung's final flurry was a work of art, as he drilled Poirier with an uppercut, floored him with a knee and swiftly maneuvered into a D'Arce choke for the victory.
The aftermath: The win was the third consecutive sensational finish for the Seoul native, setting him up as a legitimate contender to champion Jose Aldo Jr.
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The fight: Lauzon vs. Varner
The venue: UFC on FOX 4, Los Angeles
The stakes: This was simply a matter of two fighters with reputations for exciting fights being placed on national television for that expressed purpose.
Turning point: Varner broke his right hand throwing a punch in the second round. Though Varner did a nice job adjusting, feigning with his right hand and throwing lefts, and also throwing right elbows, Lauzon slowly seized the momentum from that point.
The big finish: Varner, an accomplished wrestler, scored a takedown 90 seconds into round three, but Lauzon rolled with it and worked into position for the winning triangle choke.
The aftermath: By winning the UFC's Fight of the Night and Submission of the night honors, Lauzon reached 11 for his career, topping Chris Lytle's company record of 10.
In determining which bout of the three deserves Fight of the Year frontrunner status, it helps to look back at what qualified for the FOTY honors in the recent pasty. Journalist and MMA historian Dave Meltzer has been naming Fights of the Year through fan balloting in his Wrestling Observer publication since 1997. Winners in recent years include the first Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar bout (2005); Diego Sanchez vs. Karo Parisyan (2006); Randy Couture vs. Tim Sylvia (2007); Griffin vs. Quinton Jackson (2008); Sanchez vs. Clay Guida (2009); Jung vs. Leonard Garcia (2010); and Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (2011).
Couture vs. Sylvia is the anomaly of the bunch. Couture dominated his opponent in Columbus for 25 minutes. This match won fight of the year for its historical nature, as Couture came out of retirement and won the UFC heavyweight title at 43.
The remaining winners, though, all shared a certain je ne sais quoi, the moment in which the viewer realizes they're watching something special.
Griffin vs. Bonnar was a war of attrition, the bout which put the modern UFC on the map. Sanchez-Parisyan had the sequence in which Parisyan hit Sanchez with sharp judo throws; then Sanchez dislodged several of Parisyan's teeth with a knee. Then they continued to fight like Energizer bunnies for 10 more minutes. Griffin's win over "Rampage" was his "Rocky" moment, as the underdog won the UFC light heavyweight title from a fighter at his peak. In Sanchez-Guida, Sanchez delivered a 10-8 beating in the first round, but Guida took it with a smile and rallied late in the fight before losing a split decision.
Jung and Garcia was 15 minutes of pure brawling, with both fighters shaking off blows that looked to put them out. This is the bout where Jung earned his initial popularity, as he went into the bout and unknown, but won over the audience with his relentless style and earned sympathy points after many felt he was robbed of the decision.
Finally, Henderson vs. Rua was the perfect storm: In the UFC's first five-round, non-tile pay-per-view main event, Henderson clearly won the first two rounds; Rua just as clearly took the last two. The bout hinged on interpretation of the tide-changing third round; Henderson got the nod there and in the decision.
While the three bouts under consideration in 2012 all had their memorable moments, were any of them truly transcendent in the manner of Griffin-Bonnar or Henderson-Rua?
Edgar-Henderson featured 25 minutes of action and the end of a significant title reign, but Henderson was the bout's clear-cut winner. Lauzon and Varner delivered in the face of the company's expectations, knowing that they were expected to put on a show on network television. But the bout, the only fight scheduled for three rounds under consideration here, basically finished right at the point one realized they were watching something out of the ordinary, the point at which Fights of the Year elevated to the next level.
That leaves us with Jung vs. Poirier. Round two of their fight is one that will be remembered on the short list of the decade's best. During that five-minute stanza, Jung put on one of the most spectacular chains of submission attempts ever seen in the Octagon. Poirier not only survived, but managed to reverse position and deliver ground-and-pound offense before Jung once again worked a choke attempt as the round came to an end.
On the heels of the sublime second, Poirier rallied against a tiring Jung in the third round. Poirier found his range and punished Jung with straight left hands and won the round. Then the fourth round featured the final plot twist, as Jung put a halt to Poirier's comeback bid with his action-movie finishing sequence.
That's enough to give Jung-Poirier the nod for fight of the year so far. But there's good news for the others: Henderson and Edgar have their chance to steal it right back this weekend, and there's enough time left for both Lauzon and Varner to accept their next fights before the year's out.