2013 So Far Awards: Grant, Belfort among MMA's best
You know what they say: It ain't over 'til it's over. But along with being a reinvigorating rest stop along the route to the finish line, the midway can serve as an illuminating vantage point from which to assess the mileage covered so far.
As 2013 hits its midpoint, we've seen 15 UFC events, eight of which were headlined by championship bouts (one for an interim belt). Bellator has staged a dozen events, with a championship on the line in seven fights and tournament titles up for grabs six times. We've seen Strikeforce go away and the World Series of Fighting, which made its debut last November, start carving out a niche. We saw new names emerge on the scene and old ones limp off into the sunset. A lot has happened. So far.
So with that in mind, here are some 2013 So Far Awards:
Fight of the Half Year: Johnny Hendricks vs. Carlos Condit
It didn't end with a spectacular knockout. It wasn't a shocking upset. But the meeting between Hendricks and Condit in the welterweight co-main event of UFC 158 in March in Montreal was a great fight showing off the best of both men. And it meant something. Wanderlei Silva and Brian Stann put on a rock 'em, sock 'em robots highlight reel earlier in March outside Tokyo, but what did the knockout earn the 36-year-old "Ax Murderer"? Nothing resembling a title shot, for sure. Even lower on the UFC totem pole, Dennis Bermudez survived a war of attrition in a brutal split-decision win over Matt Grice on the undercard of UFC 157 in February in Anaheim, Calif. Both were fun fights to watch, but they had nowhere near the gravity of the bout in which Hendricks secured a shot at Georges St-Pierre.
Fighter of the Half Year: TJ Grant
To some fans, Grant entered 2013 as a "Who's he?" Or maybe "Who's that good little guy?" Formerly a journeyman welterweight, Grant dropped down to 155 pounds in the fall of 2011 and hasn't lost since. In January he dominated the tough Matt Wiman on the way to a first-round knockout. Then, last month, he outdid himself, crushing Gray Maynard in a little over two minutes. Maynard had lost only once before, in his second shot at the lightweight championship. That's what Grant earned with his fifth straight victory: He'll challenge Benson Henderson in August.
Fighter of the Half Year*: Vitor Belfort
We can't ignore Belfort, who scored a breathtaking pair of head-kick KO's over a pair of top 10 middleweights, Michael Bisping and Luke Rockhold. Belfort can partly thank testosterone replacement therapy for the victories. Yes, it's legal. No, Vitor did not cheat. But just as UFC president Dana White has taken it upon himself on occasion to award win bonuses to fighters who didn't actually win (but whom he thought should have gotten the judges' nod), I'm going the discretionary route here. The sculpted 36-year-old will just have to drink in his acknowledgement with an asterisk chaser.
Knockout of the Half Year: Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva over Alistair Overeem
Boy, have we had knockouts in 2013. Spectacular ones, such as Emanuel Newton's spinning backfist of "King Mo" Lawal at Bellator 90 in February. There were Vitor Belfort's two head-kick KO's, plus one by Junior dos Santos over Mark Hunt at UFC 160 in May. That put an emphatic stamp on Junior's claim on another shot at Cain Velasquez and the heavyweight belt he once snatched away from Velasquez before Cain took it back. But "Cigano" was well on his way to a win over Hunt even before he spun his big legs toward the New Zealander's noggin. "Bigfoot," on the other hand, had lost the first two rounds to Overeem. He needed to make something happen. And he did, so spectacularly that he was given a rematch with Velasquez even though Cain had smashed him a year earlier. A shocking knockout carries a lot of weight.
Submission of the Half Year: Josh Burkman over Jon Fitch
Say what you will about Steve Mazzagatti. But when the embattled referee stood by watching Burkman clamp a guillotine choke around the neck of Jon Fitch in the main event of the World Series of Fighting 3 earlier this month in Las Vegas, he probably was thinking what I was thinking: Nice try, Josh. During Fitch's long stint as a UFC welterweight contender, some true jiu-jitsu virtuosos had tried and failed to submit him. BJ Penn couldn't. Nor could Demian Maia. Josh Burkman was going to? Yeah, riii ... oh, wait a second. There was Burkman climbing off an unconscious Fitch after just 41 seconds. So much for Fitch's WSOF debut.
Submission of the Half Year*: Kenny Robertson overt Brock Jardine
This one gets an asterisk simply because the fight's finish was indescribable. When Robertson grabbed a hold of a leg as he and Jardine were locked up on the mat during their UFC 157 undercard welterweight bout in February, and then the ref jumped in, there was a moment of "what?" in the crowd, similar to the puzzlement of the promotion's early days when viewers uninitiated to jiu-jitsu didn't know what to make of Royce Gracie's finishes. Robertson's submission involved stretching the leg straight and torquing the hamstring. He calls it "The Kickstand," which is ironic considering that Jardine probably didn't go for a bike ride for a while.
Fight Card of the Half Year: UFC on Fox: Demetrious Johnson vs. John Dodson
Folks who shell out $55 a pop for pay-per-views won't like this, but the event that's most impressed me so far in 2013 was the year's first network TV card. The main event was a closely contested and action-filled title fight, in which Demetrious Johnson successfully defended his flyweight belt with a slim-but-unanimous decision over John Dodson. The co-main wasn't so competitive, as Glover Teixeira was in control of Quinton Jackson throughout. But the swansong of "Rampage" served as another notch on the holster of the rising light heavyweight from Brazil. And speaking of rising contenders, Anthony Pettis boosted himself into top contention in two weight classes with a first-round KO of Donald Cerrone, while TJ Grant took a big step toward where he is now -- training for a lightweight title fight -- with a KO of Matt Wiman. Ricardo Lamas also fortified his standing at featherweight with a TKO of fellow contender Erik Koch. And Clay Guida (over Hatsu Hioki) and Ryan Bader (over Vladimir Matyushenko) won what amounted to survival fights. Not bad for free TV.
One-Two Punch of the Half Year: Wanderlei Silva and Mark Hunt
Japanese sports fans are notoriously polite, so there wasn't much grumbling in the crowd. But in living rooms and sports bars across America, there likely was some measure of disharmony on the Saturday in early March when a UFC card wore on and fight after fight went the distance. It was a Fuel TV event, not pay-per-view, but fans taking in eight straight decisions must have been waiting and hoping for something thrilling. They finally got their wish, in the final round of the co-main event, when Mark Hunt lunged forward with a huge left hook that broke the jaw of Stefan Struve and finished the big heavyweight. Then, in the main event, Wanderlei Silva and Brian Stann went toe-to-toe until Silva landed a right hand that stunned Stann before finishing the tough guy with a left hook.
Story of the Half Year (Good News Division): Women's MMA
Ronda Rousey could very well have won Submission of the Half Year with her finish of Liz Carmouche -- by armbar, naturally -- late in the first round of their UFC 157 main event in February. The bout, in which Carmouche took Rousey's back from a standing position in the first minute and secured a tight face crank, also could have been Fight of the Half Year. But led by the star power of "Rowdy Ronda," women fighters have made an impact on the UFC that transcends fight results.
Rousey vs. Carmouche was the first women's fight in UFC history, and it was the first scrap of evidence that the women's game would be no mere curiosity. The women who've fought in the octagon since then have showed that their division has staying power and can hold the interest of fans. And, oh yeah, it's quite the breakthrough for women's sports.
Story of the Half Year (Bad News Division): TRT
Someday we will look back at this time as a peculiar era when athletic commissions astoundingly allowed aging fighters to inject a fountain of youth into their bodies. Someday. Until then, we're left with a sport in which a fighter had better not puff a joint with his friends weeks prior to his fight, because marijuana is lumped in with performance enhancing drugs. But TRT? UFC president Dana White has weighed in on the wrongness of this. The California commission has put a hold on TRT exemptions. So the tide is turning. But way too slowly.