Three headline fights. Three definitive endings. Once again, parity and power made a wonderful mess of things.
The final UFC card of a busy 2008 is behind us, but hardly forgotten. And it won't be for some time. Rashad Evans' stoppage over Forrest Griffin and Frank Mir's shocker against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira created intriguing scenarios that should play out in the coming year. Quinton Jackson also proved he's got plenty left by handing -- left-hooking, actually -- Wanderlei Silva his third brutal knockout loss in 27 months.
Though Mir and Jackson shined, it was Evans, part of a new class of athlete to grace mixed martial arts in the past five years, who stood above the rest. We knew he could slug. We knew he could dance. And now we know Evans is capable of making a moment his.
Anyone choosing to remember Evans as the green Michigan State wrestler who claimed season two of The Ultimate Fighter needs to take a serious second look.
Under the guidance of Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, Evans morphed quickly into a knockout artist. But unlike other sluggers, Evans also moves as well as anyone at light heavyweight -- equaled perhaps by Lyoto Machida -- and his defense is impressive. Against Griffin, Evans repeatedly darted in and out of range. When he couldn't sidestep or back away from the larger champion, Evans simply checked a kick or deflected an attack with his arms.
Great defense separates very good fighters from simply dangerous ones, and while Evans has room to improve, there's no doubt he is on his way towards becoming a defensive pain.
The question now that Evans holds the UFC's most prestigious title: Is he the man to bring some calm to the division? Since Quinton Jackson deposed Chuck Liddell in May 2007, the title has changed hands twice. Prior to that, "The Iceman" dominated the division for over 2 1/2 years, and defended the belt four times.
Evans (13-0-1) knows there won't be any breaks, and the 29-year-old fighter, who joins teammate and friend Georges St. Pierre as the second UFC champ out of Jackson's camp, has not shied away from competition during his undefeated run.
If "Rampage" manages his legal problems -- he's back in court Jan. 8 to answer for that mid-summer romp through Orange County, Calif. -- a shot against Evans would seem likely. All things being equal, that's a pick 'em fight.
There will be attempts to diminish what Frank Mir accomplished in stopping Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira -- years of punishment finally caught up to the Brazilian; he was never that good fighting in Japan, etc -- but don't listen to any of it.
Mir was plain brilliant in the best performance of an on-again, off-again career.
Few, including myself, gave the 29-year-old Las Vegas resident a shot against a man who'd never been finished. After all, Mir didn't have a reputation for the kind of accuracy, power and hand speed that gave Nogueira, 32, so much trouble Saturday. It wasn't like his detractors were discounting these skills -- no one had ever seen Mir use them in a fight before.
Afterwards, Mir credited his cardio as the pathway towards unleashing that potential.
"That's actually more of a testament to what improved drastically in this fight is my work ethic," Mir said. "I'm not afraid to go ahead and showcase my skills. Before, I'd walk into the octagon afraid of getting tired. I wasn't thinking about the guy I'm fighting, I was thinking man, if this fight doesn't end in two minutes, I'm in a lot of trouble."
If true, that's serious news for the talented but sometimes complacent heavyweight.
Nogueira, it turned out, was perfectly suited for Mir. The Brazilian had grown accustomed to rebounding from early lumps, and it seemed he was counting on getting off the canvas as part of his game plan. If he could move the fight into the championship rounds, which Mir has never experienced, he could stifle the younger man. But things didn't get that far because Nogueira was so predictable, and Mir so accurate.
Unlike Evans, who continually reset the action by moving off angle after throwing a combination or defending one from Griffin, Nogueira simply moved straight back. Over and over he defended in one line, which made it easy for Mir to judge timing and range. It also opened Nogueira to getting caught on the back-end of combinations.
Mir (12-3) didn't need to adapt much during the fight, and the southpaw was incredibly effective with lead lefts and uppercuts from the outside. Only once did Nogueira sidestep out of the way, and it led to a brief positive moment in the clinch. But while standing, his primary line of defense was A to B, and he couldn't bring himself to do anything more than backpedal.
Mir saw this, planned for it and executed. Perfect.
• Quinton Jackson's movement reminded of his Wolfslair teammate Michael Bisping. The former UFC light heavyweight champion was light on his feet and benefited greatly by not standing and covering directly in front of Wanderlei Silva (32-9-1, 1 NC). Rampage, 30, is primarily a right-handed finisher, but the counter left hook to Silva's chin was not only on the money, it signaled to future Jackson opponents that there's no such thing as a passable mistake.
• It sure would be a nice touch if the UFC included national anthems before championship fights. Their absence makes the moment feel smaller than it should, the stakes less high. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira represented the best of Brazil; Mir was an underdog upstart from the U.S. Anthems, some might argue, would slow the show's pace. Still, Evans and Griffin -- two young, hungry talented Americans -- deserved to hear the Star-Spangled Banner before they went at it.
• Referee Steve Mazzagatti allowed Griffin (16-5) to take eight unnecessary shots to the head after he was clearly done. The now former UFC light heavyweight champion looked like he was drowning under Evans. Whether he was flailing or tapping -- and it looked like Forrest was trying to find a way out -- Griffin's inability to protect himself should have jolted Mazzagatti into action like a cattle prod. Instead, Evans's ground-and-pound finish became one of those moments when most people will scream to stop the fight. I know I did.
• It's been long enough for MMA to produce fighters who have taken a ton of punishment for the trouble of competing. Watching Silva twitch on the floor after Jackson pounded him, and Nogueira get stopped for the first time, I wonder what's to become of them. How well will they get around 15 years from now? What safeguards -- financial and physical -- are in place to ensure they'll be taken care of?
• Mir-Lesnar II will rival St. Pierre-Penn II as the biggest rematch of 2009. I expect it to do as well, if not better, at the box office and on pay-per-view. My hope is the hype surrounding the UFC heavyweight unifier doesn't come off as contrived, though the early banter isn't comforting.
• Yushin Okami deserves better. The ranked Japanese middleweight, who defeated Dean Lister on points Saturday, was relegated to an off-TV undercard fight at a time when he should be Anderson Silva's next challenger. The latest fighter to be slapped with a "boring" label, Okami is as tedious as the opponents he meets, and Lister is quite often a terrible style match for anyone. There's hardly a lack of aggressive middleweights. Zuffa either needs to give Okami (23-4) his due or keep him stylistically challenged.