By Josh Gross
July 11, 2008

It's hard to believe we're more than halfway through 2008. In what has been a roller-coaster year of action in cages and rings around the world, mixed martial artists have never before enjoyed more prominent venues to showcase their skills.

Though we've got a long way to go before the year's end, so much has happened that it's worth reflecting upon the best in four mid-year categories.

Miguel Torres vs. Yoshiro Maeda -- Round 2, WEC 34

In front of an appreciative crowd in Sacramento, Calif., the 135-pounders went to war for three rounds before doctors stopped the contest because Maeda's right eye had swelled shut. While the entire fight offered quality action, it was the second round that really stood out.

Defending his World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight belt against the Pancrase champion, Torres met resistance each time he attacked -- and he attacked a lot. Maeda refused to be pushed out of the way by the dangerous champion, making a competitive round incredibly exciting as 10,000-plus fans inside Arco Arena went wild when the two exchanged leg locks.

Each fighter took hard shots. Each recovered. In many ways, the second was a perfect round, having displayed the skill and will that only the best fighters carry into the cage.


Robbie Lawler vs. Scott Smith -- Round 2, CBS-EliteXC's inaugural Saturday Night Fights

There was no backing down in this EliteXC middleweight title fight. Lawler and Smith refused to give in, resulting in some dynamic exchanges. Though the bout resulted in a no contest when Lawler accidentally poked Smith in the eye, the 185-pounders return to the cage July 26 the resolve the battle.

Frank Shamrock vs. Cung Le -- Round 3, Strikeforce

With both men fighting in their hometown of San Jose, Calif., the crowd was electric as Shamrock and Le made their way into the third period of their Strikeforce middleweight championship fight. Le hurt Shamrock's right arm early in the round, and later broke it at the wrist. That, however, didn't prevent Shamrock from unleashing right hands as the period came to a close.

Shinya Aoki -- gogoplata, DREAM Lightweight Grand Prix

Not since Kazushi Sakuraba captivated audiences with his improvisational submission skills has a Japanese fighter provided a must-see TV event. With submissions like the one he pulled on Katsuhiko Nagata, Aoki is quickly becoming the man to fill Sakuraba's legacy.

In the second round of the DREAM bout, Aoki smoothly weaved his leg under Nagata's right arm and over his neck with few even noticing.

The notion of finishing a fight via gogoplata -- a choke submission applied using leverage and a shinbone -- was virtually unheard of in MMA until Aoki pulled the funky move from the guard against Joachim Hansen on New Year's Eve 2006. Soon after, though, everyone was trying the submission. But few have been able to replicate Aoki's grace and effectiveness. And even fewer will be able to match the control that Aoki exhibited when he finished the submission from the mount against Nagata.


Dustin Hazelett -- armbar, The Ultimate Fighter 7 Finale

Submissions can come out of nowhere, even with the most dynamic fighters. Hazelett's stunning armbar against Josh Burkman is a perfect example.

Demian Maia -- triangle choke, UFC 83

Like Aoki's mounted gogoplata, the mounted triangle is not an easy thing to finish. Maia made it look simple by putting Ed Herman to sleep in their middleweight tilt in Montreal.

Wanderlei Silva's knockout of Keith Jardine -- UFC 84

It wasn't the cleanest knockout of the first half of '08, but Silva's destruction of Jardine was by far the most vicious.

The Brazilian former Pride champion found Jardine's chin early. With Jardine down, Silva, his aggression on high, unloaded a series of shots that had the former bounty hunter sprawled on the octagon canvas unconscious. This was vintage "Axe Murderer" -- an encouraging sign for Silva's long-time followers who felt he might've lost a step in recent years.


L.C. Davis's head kick vs. Rafael Dias -- IFL New Jersey

A brutal knockout at the end of this three-round fight, Davis raised his left leg and launched it perfectly into Dias' face. The American Top Team lightweight was carried out of the ring on a stretcher before fully recovering.

Shintaro Ishiwatari's KO of Kazuhiro Ito -- Shooto

A fight 99 percent of you probably haven't seen ... until now.

Miguel Torres def. Yoshiro Maeda via TKO

Torres-Maeda had everything you want in a fight: skill, heart, emotion, fortitude, aggression, submission and striking. Add in the facts that it was being contested for a major title in one of the sport's most exciting divisions and that, as mentioned earlier, the second round of the five-period clash was hands down the best round of the year, and it shouldn't be a surprise it tops this list.

Within the next six months, it will take a tremendous effort on the part of two fighters in a meaningful bout to remove this fight from the top of the best bouts of 2008.


Cung Le def. Frank Shamrock via TKO

Simply an exciting bout between two unique fighters -- Le's spinning attacks and powerful kicking game against Shamrock's cerebral approach. In the end, Le's strengths led him to victory, but the fact that Shamrock punched to the very end despite a broken right hand should be a good indication of how this one went down.

Forrest Griffin def. Quinton Jackson via decision -- UFC 86

Still fresh in our minds, Griffin-Jackson was the best UFC-promoted bout of the year so far. Forget the controversy surrounding the judges' scores. Griffin and Jackson went toe-to-toe over five rounds to determine which light heavyweight would stand atop the UFC's deepest and most important division. Griffin won out, though he almost immediately acknowledged a rematch would be necessary -- a prospect many fight fans were quite pleased to hear.

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