From the UFC’s aggressive schedule expansion, to Nevada banning testosterone replacement therapy and the fallout the decision caused, to behind-the-scenes maneuvering at Bellator, and so on, the first six months of 2104 in mixed martial arts seemed to be more about what went on outside the cage than what went down when the gates were locked.
But still, several performances managed to cut through the cluttered landscape. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the best in the sport so far this year. (And yes, we set the cutoff for the first half of the calendar at July 5, the date of UFC 175, and not June 30).
Fighter of the Half-Year: Ronda Rousey. Part of this is due to inactivity on the part of so many of the sport’s stars. Through all the injuries, fight fallouts, and other issues, many of MMA’s greatest fighters have only fought once, or not at all. But even with a full roster of superstars, the UFC women’s bantamweight champion has stood tall. Rousey has defended her title twice in 2014. And it’s taken her a grand total of 1 minute, 22 seconds to do so. At February’s UFC 170, Rousey knocked Sara McMann from the ranks of the unbeaten with a TKO in 1:16. Then at UFC 175, Rousey needed just 16 seconds, one second off the UFC record for a knockout in a title fight, to polish off Alexis Davis, who had been the only other women in the UFC with a 3-0 record in the company. She’s going to be out for awhile healing an injured hand, but there’s no doubt Rousey will be right up there in the Fighter of the Year discussions.
Runner up: TJ Dillashaw. Another 2-0 fighter so far this year, but boy, was one performance bigger than the other. Dillashaw beat Mike Easton in January. Then he was barely an afterthought in challenging Renan Barao for the bantamweight title at UFC 173. But in an upset for the ages, the Sacramento fighter TKO'd Barao in the fifth round, ending Barao’s nine-year win streak. The finish was the end of a one-sided fight by Dillashaw.
Fight of the Half Year: Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler, UFC 171, March 15, Dallas: The bout to fill the vacant welterweight title was a dream come true for fans of skilled standup fighting. The power-punching Hendricks took the first two rounds. Lawler then began wading through Hendricks’ bombs and dishing out his own, rallying to win the third and fourth. With the air thick with anticipation and the championship hanging in the balance, Hendricks took Lawler down in the fifth and final round and sealed the unanimous-decision victory. It wasn't without a price though: A bicep injury still has the new champ on the shelf.
Runner up: Chris Weidman vs. Lyoto Machida, UFC 175, Las Vegas, July 5: Some fools still called Weidman a fluke after twice defeating Anderson Silva. That talk ended after last weekend, when Weidman dominated the first three rounds against the former light heavyweight champ, then rallied to hold off Machida’s furious rally over the final two rounds and retain his title via unanimous decision.
Finish of the half-year: Dan Henderson KOs Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, UFC Fight Night, Natal, Brazil, March 23: A rematch three years in the making. Henderson’s decision win over Rua in the first fight was considered 2011’s fight of the year and one of the greatest fights in UFC history by many. Even with the heavy expectations, the duo delivered a memorable finish. Henderson, the former PRIDE and Strikeforce champion, was on the wrong end of a brawl with the former UFC champ before he landed one of his famous “H-bomb” knockout blows early in the third round. That earned Henderson both Fight of the Night and Performance of the Night bonus, and could very well end up being the final highlight-reel moment of the legendary Henderson’s career.
Runner-up: Ovince St. Preux submits Nikita Krylov, UFC 171, March 15, Dallas: A fighter sneaking his way up the light heavyweight ranks, “OSP” deftly manuevered Krylov into a rarely seen Von Flue choke for the victory, one of those moments that put the “art” into mixed martial arts.
Story of the half-year: UFC schedule expansion and lack of headliners.
These are two separate issues which have intersected to create a bit of a monster for the industry-leading UFC. With more shows than ever being run in international markets (and with many foreign events being broadcast in North American on the new Fight Pass online service), but not enough major-league caliber fighters to handle the expansion, events have become noticeably thinner than fans have become accustomed to watching. Still, this would probably be overlooked to a degree if the events were still being headlined by champions and/or longtime fan favorites. But Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre are out of action; heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez, lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, and featherweight champ Jose Aldo are injured; Chael Sonnen is retired; and the popular Diaz brothers are staging a two-man work stoppage. This has led to a one-two punch in which the UFC has had to spread top talent thin, and also left to the cancelation of August’s UFC 176 in Los Angeles.
Runner-up: The ongoing saga of testosterone replacement therapy.
Under new executive director Francisco Aguliar, the Nevada Athletic Commission turned heads earlier this year by issuing a blanket, immediate ban on the controversial testosterone replacement therapy. It also stepped up out-of-competition drug testing. These events combined to ensnare Vitor Belfort (who remained unlicensed after an out-of-competition drug test rather than face the NAC board), Sonnen (who failed two tests), and Wanderlei Silva (who fled to Brazil rather than submit to testing). While the scheduling/oversaturation story is the biggest in the short term, this story figures to have more legs going forward.
Event of the half-year: UFC 172, Baltimore, April 26: A sellout crowd was treated from what, top to bottom, was the best night of in-ring action seen so far in 2014. The first two fights set the tone, with Chris Beal’s spectacular flying knee knockout of Patrick Williams and Danny Castillo’s 21-second knockout of Charlie Brenneman. Fan favorite and former PRIDE champ Takanori Gomi and Isaac Vallie-Flagg put on a classic brawl. Gomi won via decision and both took home Fight of the Night honors. Joseph Benavidez and Tim Elliott went at it like a pair of Tasmanian Devils before Benavidez won the flyweight fight via choke. Jim Miller and Luke Rockhold each had impressive submission wins on the main card. Anthony “Rumble” Johnson put on a jaw-dropping performance in his UFC return as he thoroughly dismantled Phil Davis. Then, in the main event, Jon Jones put on a virtuoso performance in shutting down Glover Teixeira, beating Teixeira at his own game, and ending the latter’s 20-fight win streak. All in all, it was the sort of night which reminded fans why they got into the sport .
Runner-up: Bellator’s inaugural pay-per-view, Southaven, Mississippi, May 17: Bellator finally took the PPV plunge after five years in business, and it ended up being the buzziest non-UFC MMA event in years. True, some of that buzz was due to an effect similar to gawking at a train wreck, but with fighters like Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Tito Ortiz, Michael Chandler, and “King Mo” Lawal, you couldn’t call their debut effort boring. A month later, Bellator CEO and founder Bjorn Rebney was let go by corporate parent Viacom; and former Strikeforce boss Scott Coker has been named his successor.
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoyleMMA