My top fight of the year will not show up on any top ten lists. It didn't show up on any of our "You Choose" polls, and since it aired after the main event of UFC 123, it's not even one that many MMA fans saw.
But the fight that stood out the most to me in 2010 was Edson Barboza's win over Mike Lullo, because it was the first time I saw my cousin fight in the Octagon. Though Mikey, errr, Lullo lost, I've never been so proud.
Mikey called me on Nov. 10 to share the good news. He was replacing the injured Darren Elkins at UFC 123, a card that, coincidentally, I was planning to cover in person. I was floored. After Mikey's last fight, a third-round submission of Tyler Combs, I thought that he was ready for the next level but had no idea that the next level would come so quickly.
I was nervous before weigh-ins, since I hadn't talked to Mikey yet that day. An interview with the UFC's Marc Ratner distracted me, but as soon as that was over, I couldn't calm down until I saw him on the scale. I was so anxious that I didn't even notice that internet sensation Antoine Dodson was sitting in front of me. When I finally heard Joe Rogan say the name "Mike Lulll-ooooo," I had tears in my eyes.
Mikey is my cousin on my mother's side, and Lullo is a family name we take pride in. There have been Lullos who served in wars and built businesses from the ground up. My grandfather (Mikey's great uncle) John Lullo Sr., was a prizefighter in the 1920s. Seeing the name Lullo on the screen above the UFC weigh-ins took my breath away.
Though my Cagewriter duties kept me busy, I was able to hang out with Mikey the night before the fights. We went to dinner and watched "Couples Retreat," a truly terrible movie, the night before the fight, and I watched a calmness come over my cousin. Usually, he's like a ball bouncing around a pinball machine, but he had finally relaxed. He was ready to fight.
He had the third fight in on the UFC 123 undercard, and I'll be honest. I had a hard time concentrating on the first two bouts: Tyson Griffin's questionable (to put it mildly) decision loss to Nik Lentz, and Paul Kelly's TKO of T.J. O'Brien. I just wanted to see Mikey.
As I was sitting on press row, I had to stay professional and abide by the rule of no partisan cheering. I could hear my relatives. A bus full of Mikey's friends and family had driven in from suburban Chicago that afternoon, and they were not quiet. As much as I wanted to join them in yelling "MIKEY!" I sat quietly in my seat. Dave Meltzer kindly agreed to write up the fight story so I could concentrate on watching my cousin fight.
Mikey started off strong, but I grew concerned when he couldn't get a takedown. He is a submission wiz, but even when he was in the right position to get a gogoplata, he couldn't finish. I became more concerned when Barboza started to use whipping kicks to batter Mikey's legs, shuddering every time I heard the loud smack from the kicks.
But he kept standing. I could tell he was in pain, and though the MMA journalist in me thought, "He needs to keep going and make a good impression," the protective cousin in me just wanted it to end. How much more could he take?
After the end of the second round, I thought the fight was going to be stopped. Mikey was limping badly, but when the horn sounded, he returned to the center of the cage, ready for more. Barboza knocked his legs out from underneath him a few times, and finally, the fight was stopped. Mikey had lost his debut in the UFC, and had to be carried out by his cornermen.
After the Fight
I had to shake that off. Karo Parisyan and Dennis Hallman would soon be walking out for their fight, and I had to file Meltzer's story about Mikey's loss. In retrospect, having work to focus on helped me to keep it together.
There was an intermission a few fights later, and I accompanied a fellow reporter to Mikey's prep room. He greeted me with a huge smile, saying, "Hi cuz!" Though his knee was wrapped up and covered in ice and his face was bruised, he assured me that he was OK.
I hugged him and said again and again how proud I was of him. Though I tried my damnedest to hold them in, my tears flowed. Staying professional didn't matter any more. My cousin had just taken a fight on 10 days notice, just a month removed from his last fight, and had showed he was as tough as nails. Pride wasn't a strong enough word to cover what I felt.
After I saw him, I updated our family that he was doing OK, and returned to my job. Writing fight reports and briefs from the press conference was much easier after seeing Mikey smile and say, "I'm fine." The night went on. Phil Davis invented a new submission, B.J. Penn knocked out Matt Hughes, and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson won a close decision over Lyoto Machida.
When I finally finished my work, I had no interest in going to post-fight parties. I just wanted to see my family, so I headed to fight hotel. A large group of loved ones were gathered, and had plenty of questions for me. "Who won Fight of the Night? Why did Tyson Griffin lose? When is the UFC coming to Chicago?" I answered them best that I could, and heard from Mikey that there was no structural damage on his knee. Phew.
Scanning the restaurant, I noticed that Barboza and his family and friends were sitting just a table away. I smiled. Mikey noticed where I was looking and said, "Oh yeah! We talked. We took a picture together. Nice guy."
Call me sentimental, but Barboza and Lullo gave me my favorite fight of the year. If you ever are lucky enough to see a beloved family member get in the Octagon, it will be your favorite, too.