It was the kind of year that would make a cynic think the cliff is coming. Yes, mixed martial arts took its place alongside well-established sports in 2008. Fighters enjoyed opportunity and recognition. "Make it or break it" became the mantra for promoters. And more people than ever enjoyed a seemingly endless stream of classic MMA fights and action on what felt like a televised loop.
But for all the positives, there were plenty of growing pains. Out-of-action incidents, such as the arrest of
There were also the moments when the importance of perspective outweighed anything else.
When it comes down to it, though, the important thing, the reason why people cared about the sport to begin with, continues to be fighters like Tanner and the wars they waged. Without these men and women, fragile as you or I, repeatedly laying it on the line, without the type of action these bouts permit, nothing else about the sport would mean very much.
From pillar to post, January through December, the endless fight season never let off the gas -- even in the midst of summer's crunch at the pumps. Fans doled out hundreds of hard-earned dollars for pay-per-view events, and were privy to more free fights than ever. All in all, it was a great year to be an MMA fan.
In determining what constitutes the best of the best this year it became immediately clear how deep the pool was. Nearly every award winner could be argued, and that's not a bad thing. A level of parity, that twinge of uncertainty, has revealed MMA to be dynamic experience, for you, for me and for anyone caring to take a look.
Regarded as the top mixed martial artist, and likely the sport's best striker, Silva (23-4) enjoyed what was yet another stellar campaign as UFC middleweight champion. Among a handful of candidates for fighter of the year honors, Silva is deserving on several fronts (though, admittedly, there is competition yet to be had from
Above all else, "The Spider" was dominant. He showed that even against the best, he was better. That notice was delivered in March with his most important win of the year: a stunning submission over
Two more wins -- a 61-second knockout of
Silva's 2008 run is not the strongest we've seen, especially in light of potential year-end performances from Griffin or Alvarez. But there's no denying his ability to hunt and hurt. And for that, the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in MMA gets his due.
Still young into her MMA career, Carano (7-0) was handed an opportunity to be the face of women's fighting, and she didn't miss a step. Made famous thanks to CBS showcasing the sport three times in primetime -- twice with her as a star attraction -- Carano elevated the female side more than anyone could have managed.
She had her share of mishaps, including an unfortunate penchant for struggling to make weight, but the 26-year-old, otherwise known as "Crush" on NBC's
As Carano goes, so will other women in the sport.
There are hundreds of fights each year capable of propelling fans to their feet. But to be fight of the year, there must be something more.
In 2008, that honor belongs to Torres and Maeda.
Their scrap on a World Extreme Cagefighting card in June was billed as the co-main event to a featherweight championship fight between
Following a rousing opening round when Maeda informed Torres with his fists that he'd traveled from Japan to fight and had no intention of being easily put away, the pair delivered an amazing five-minute stretch.
Round 2, a finalist for "round of the year," brought forth a ton of action -- both standing and on the canvas. Torres, now 35-1, pushed the pace, landing from the outside in part to a significant reach advantage, and threatening with submissions. The highlight came when both men battled on the canvas in an exchange of leglocks.
By the third, Torres' output had worn on Maeda (23-6-2), who could barely see because of terrible swelling around his right eye. And in the end, doctors were forced to save Maeda, giving Torres his first WEC bantamweight title defense, while also cementing his place among the 10 best fighters in the world regardless of weight.
Heart. Skill. Anger. Passion. This one had it all, making it worthy of recognition in a year featuring numerous consequential wars.
Live by the knockout, die by the knockout. Having enjoyed years putting opponents to sleep, former UFC light heavyweight champion Liddell (21-6) took a perfect overhand right from Evans (12-0-1) that relieved him of his senses.
There were many tremendous knockouts in 2008, but Evans' punch stands alone for its form and brutality.
Improvisation is the mother's milk of great submission fighters. And few were as open to improvisation in 2008 as welterweight Hazelett. Against Burkman on June 21, the 22-year-old Hazelett (12-4) turned a whizzer into an indefensible jumping armbar. It was the kind of move that made
With the understanding that some fights in Japan feature a 10-minute opening round, Alvarez and Kawajiri's effort in July not only qualifies as round of the year, it ranks as the best fight outside of North America in 2008.
From the outset, the semifinal Dream lightweight tournament bout brought a frantic pace. Three knockdowns in about eight minutes. Furious flurries. Several "how-did-he-escape-that?" exclamations. It had everything you could want, including a vicious finishing sequence punctuated by a textbook right-straight-right-uppercut combination from Alvarez (17-1) that sent Kawajiri (22-5-2) to the canvas for the final time.
Because he endured so much damage, including having his eye so badly damaged and swollen that not even
A terrific fight from bell to bell.
In 2008, Lesnar might be the most significant name among those on this list. The mammoth heavyweight swarmed veteran
Quite the introduction for Lesnar (3-1), who immediately became a top pay-per-view draw for the UFC.
Faber (21-2) was a heavy favorite in his November WEC featherweight title defense against Brown. And for good reason. Faber was the American face of MMA's featherweights, had been dominant in five previous title defenses and seemed perfectly equipped to handle Brown, a stout wrestler and puncher. But a clip of the chin changed everything, as Brown (20-4) scored a stunning first-round knockout.
Add another to the surreal list of comebacks in Nogueira's excellent career.
The best Brazilian heavyweight in MMA history was a star in Japan, failing only to best Russian,
He needed it. "Minotauro" was dropped midway through the opening round, and absorbed heavy punches from the outside against the 6-foot-8 Sylvia (24-5). When he eventually got his wish, using jiu-jitsu to fight on his terms, Nogueira sunk in a quick guillotine for the tap.
Like he'd done in Japan to
Cut from the cloth of coaches and trainers who weren't great at their craft but excelled in teaching and explaining, Jackson is best at centering and focusing fighters' minds on the task in front of them. Nowhere has this skill been more prominent than in his time spent with UFC welterweight champion St. Pierre.
A testament to the plug-and-play training methods Jackson employs with associated coaches from Denver to Montreal to New York, he never lets ego get in the way of farming out fighters to specialists. But when it's time to game plan, and work the corner, and support a fighter, few are better than Jackson.
There's a case to be made for
The potential was always there and, at 25, Alves has moved beyond mere possibility. Stoppages over
With a step up in competition and the alarming effectiveness of his heavy-striking style, Alves displayed marked improvement, signaling coming years for the young Brazilian could be very bright indeed.
The gap between Zuffa and its competitors is wider now than it was at 2007's end -- that's saying something since we're talking Grand Canyon proportions 12 months ago.
With an ability to market and create new stars, particularly the kind that sell pay-per-views, Zuffa promoted 21 Ultimate Fighting Championship cards (including Dec. 27's blowout event) and six World Extreme Cagefighting events, each featuring the underexposed 145- and 135-pound divisions. In short, Zuffa has given mixed martial arts prominence in the U.S.