On Saturday afternoon in Brisbane, Australia (Friday night U.S. time), Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva and Mark Hunt came out of nowhere and delivered a Fight of the Year-caliber battle. The heavyweight sluggers put on a 25-minute epic in front of a frenzied crowd before the bout was ruled a majority draw.
But in 2013, it seems like every month produces a new "Fight of the Year." For all the issues outside the cage that seem to engulf the sport these days, no year in recent memory has produced such a slate of excellence inside the cage. Fights that might have taken the annual honor in other years will end up on the 2013 list of also-rans.
So where does that Silva-Hunt showdown rank with the year's other great bouts? With the caveat that there are still three weeks left in the year and a couple big fight cards still on the horizon, here's a look, in chronological order, of 2013's best moments:
Dennis Bermudez def. Matt Grice, split decision, UFC 157, Anaheim, Calif., Feb. 23: What seemed like a random undercard bout on the Ronda Rousey-Liz Carmouche card turned into a memorable battle. Featherweights Bermudez and Grice traded back and forth in a constant battle for position. Elbows, knees, and everything except the kitchen sink were used. Things really picked up in round three, when Grice somehow pushed through a beating that would have put most people away, and kept ticking until the bell. In September, Grice was nearly killed in an automobile accident. If UFC 157 turns out to be Grice's last fight, it ensured he'll never be forgotten in mixed martial arts.
Wanderlei Silva def. Brian Stann, TKO R2, UFC on Fuel 8, Saitama, Japan, March 3: Rarely does time stand still in MMA. But on March 3, Wanderlei Silva got to relive his heyday. At the Saitama Super Arena in suburban Tokyo, site of his greatest victories in the PRIDE promotion, Silva channeled his younger self. He had a willing dance partner in Stann, who initiated an old-school "Axe Murderer"-style slugfest. Nine minutes and exactly 200 combined strikes later, Silva was the winner. Stann retired after the bout, but you can't really say he went out a loser after throwing down the way he did.
Johny Hendricks def. Carlos Condit, unanimous decision, UFC 158, Montreal, March 16: In the fight that may have done the best job of mixing the martial arts in 2013, Hendricks used his wrestling and punching power to fluster Condit over the first two rounds. Condit rallied with a ferocious third round and had Hendricks on the proverbial ropes. Had it been five rounds, Condit could very well have gone on to win, as he seemed to be revving up as Hendricks was fading. But it was three, and Hendricks held on for the win and got a welterweight title shot.
Michelle Waterson vs. Jessica Penne, Invicta 5, Kansas City, April 5: The most overlooked fight on most Fight of the Year lists was also one of the most exciting. Penne, the defending Invicta atomweight champion, and Waterson, a Jackson's MMA fighter known as "The Karate Hottie," went back and forth over the first two rounds. In round three, Penne delivered a 10-8 beatdown, but Waterson survived. Then she rallied in round four, and made Penne tap to an armbar at 2:31 to claim the title.
Cat Zingano vs. Miesha Tate, The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale, Las Vegas, April 13: The bout that stole the show at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Zingano came into the fight undefeated but untested. Tate was the former Strikeforce champion, and was expected to win this and take the second coaching spot on the next season of TUF, opposite Rousey. Tate got the best of Zingano in the first two rounds. But in round three, Zingano came out like a bat out of hell and basically wrecked Tate, finishing her off with a series of brutal knees in the clinch. As it turned out, Zingano injured her knee and had to pull out of TUF, giving Tate the TUF slot.
Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson, UFC 165, Toronto, Sept. 21: We've seen UFC light heavyweight champion Jones dominate opponent after opponent. But until UFC 165, we had never seen him have to persevere through a dogfight. A huge underdog going in, Gustafsson gave the champion everything he could handle, using crisp boxing to keep the champion off balance and stuffing his takedown attempts. But Jones showed his mettle in the championship rounds. He dug down for something extra, using devastating standing elbows, finally got his wrestling game going and pulled out a 48-47 decision. Jones, who had always had 99 percent of what it took to become a superstar, but never quite connected with the fans, earned the respect of his most grudging critics with his courage under fire.
Gilbert Melendez def. Diego Sanchez, unanimous decision, UFC 166, Dallas, Oct. 19: Often, the matchups that look like potential fights of the night on paper fail to live up to the hype, but the lightweight throwdown between Melendez and Sanchez delivered as advertised. The first two rounds were exciting, but decidedly in Melendez's favor. Round three, however, was otherworldly. Sanchez went to that mental space that enabled him to deliver Fights of the Year in 2006 (vs. Karo Parisyan) and 2009 (vs. Clay Guida) in five of the most memorable minutes of MMA action you'll ever see. UFC color commentator Joe Rogan called the bout the greatest fight he had ever seen, which was a bit over the top. But the bout belongs on the list of the year's best for round three alone.
Eddie Alvarez def. Michael Chandler, split decision, Bellator 106, Long Beach, Calif., Nov. 2: The fans were the winners when Tito Ortiz had to pull out of what was supposed to be a pay-per-view main event with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson as the card was moved to basic cable television and the Chandler-Alvarez rematch elevated to the main event. Their first bout, in 2011, ended in the fourth round when Chandler submitted Alvarez and took his Bellator lightweight title. In the rematch, the pair delivered a five-round classic with plenty of twists and turns. It culminated in a go-for-broke fifth round in which Alvarez finished strong over the final 90 seconds. That was enough for Alvarez to take two out of three 48-47 scores and regain the title.
Georges St-Pierre def. Johny Hendricks, split decision, UFC 167, Las Vegas, Nov. 16: All of the insanity that broke out after the final horn at UFC – from the controversial decision to the champion deciding he wants time off to a tense news conference – obscured the fact that this welterweight title fight was one epic contest. Hendricks pushed St-Pierre like he's rarely been pushed, battering him with a barrage of punches. St-Pierre, unable for the first time in forever to overpower someone with his wrestling, had to find a Plan B. Nearly everyone agrees that Hendricks won rounds two and four and GSP took three and five. Two of three judges decided the champion took round one, which made the difference in a controversial call.
Mark Hunt vs. Antonio Silva, majority draw, UFC Fight Night 33, Dec. 7, Brisbane, Australia: Going into this bout, an exciting show was probable. But it figured to be the sort of fight that promised a brief fireworks display before someone got knocked cold. Instead, Silva, one of MMA's most perpetually underrated fighters, and Hunt, a popular brawler, delivered a hard-hitting 25-minute battle. After two solid rounds, the pace picked up in round three as Hunt slipped a straight right through Silva's guard and dropped him. This set up memorable fourth and fifth rounds, in which the two behemoths nearly finished one another and winged exhausted punches right up until the final horn. One could nitpick the scoring: Was round five really a 10-8 in favor of Hunt? But in the big picture, a draw just felt like the right call.
So which is the clubhouse leader for Fight of the Year as 2013 winds down? As far as this author sees it, you can whittle it down to Melendez-Sanchez, Jones-Gustafsson, and Silva-Hunt. Melendez-Sanchez had the round of the year, but we're talking about a three-round fight against a five-round fight, and Melendez was the bout's clear-cut winner. So we'll put that in third.
That leaves us with Jones-Gustafsson and Silva-Hunt. Which do you prefer? A highly technical fight featuring the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, or the heavyweight show of heart and determination that came out of nowhere? It's a matter of taste. If I have to pick one, the stakes in the Jones-Gustafsson bout puts it a notch above Hunt-Silva. But that's just my opinion. What's your fight of the year?
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoyleMMA.