Halfway there

Everything seemed so clear heading into 2007. Georges St. Pierre was going to meet Matt Hughes in their third and deciding match, just as soon as he took care of Matt Serra. Mirko Cro Cop was on a slow build toward a UFC heavyweight title showdown with Tim Sylvia. Chuck Liddell was going to avenge his loss to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.

Of course, none of the above held true to form. So with a rare lull in the MMA action, here’s a completely subjective look back at the best and worst from what just might have been the wildest six months in the history of the sport:

1. Best match: Randy Couture vs. Tim Sylvia, UFC 68, March. When the lists of 2007’s greatest sports moments come out in late December, anyone with a clue will include Couture’s heavyweight title win right up there alongside the Colts’ comeback over the Patriots in the AFC title game and Boise State’s victory in the Fiesta Bowl.

Less than 10 seconds into his comeback match, the 43-year old Couture electrified the crowd at Nationwide Arena in Columbus by feigning left and then dropping his foe with a big right hand. Couture then took viewers on the sort of emotional ride sports fans never forget in his dominating unanimous decision victory. “The Natural” will have his work cut out for him on Aug. 25 against 28-year old Gabriel Gonzaga, but regardless of the outcome, MMA’s zen master has already given fans a transcendent moment that elevated the entire sport.

2. Best submission: Nick Diaz’s gogoplata against Takanori Gomi, Pride 33, Feb. 24. Diaz and Gomi went toe-to-toe for seven memorable minutes in Las Vegas, in a fight that may have taken “Best match” honors if not for Couture-Sylvia’s unique circumstances.

Diaz won the first round, but it looked like his time was running out in the second after Gomi hit the Stockton, Calif., native with a hellacious standing knee that left Diaz with a cracked orbital bone. It looked even worse when Gomi scored a takedown moments later.

But Diaz kept his composure and soon had Gomi wrapped in a gogoplata, an advanced Brazilian jiu-jitsu choke. Seconds later, Gomi tapped, giving the Pride lightweight “champion” yet another non-title loss. The fight was later ruled a no-contest after Diaz was found to have THC in his system, but the finish was no less memorable because of this.

3. Best KO: Gabriel Gonzaga’s high kick to Mirko Cro Cop, UFC 70, April 21. The whispers ran rampant around the MMA world long before these two squared off in Manchester, England: Mirko hasn’t been training in a cage. Gonzaga is better than people think. Mirko isn’t going to walk over him.

Gonzaga proved the scuttlebutt true from the outset. First he took down the former Pride star. Then he followed up with a series of big elbows on the ground, which weren’t an item on the Pride menu. Then Mirko found himself backed against the cage, with no way out.

A restart late in the first round led to the coup de grace: Gonzaga beat Cro Cop with his signature move, a knockout kick to the head. Thanks to the power of online videos, just about everyone has seen the moment that made “Napao” a star.

4. Best reaction to getting KOd. Cro Cop bought a cage for his home gym after the loss to Gonzaga.

5. Best upset: Houston Alexander over Keith Jardine, UFC 71, May 26. For overall impact on the sport, Gonzaga-Cro Cop and Serra’s welterweight title win over St. Pierre at UFC 69 are most important. But fans at least knew going in that Serra was a cagey veteran and were familiar with Gonzaga.

Alexander’s win was a major upset at its purest. Few knew Alexander, a late substitute, when he stepped into the octagon at the MGM Grand. Jardine even complained about the caliber of competition before the match. Forty-eight seconds and a TKO later, the whole MMA world knew Alexander’s name.

6. Worst major show: K-1 Hero’s Dynamite! USA, Los Angeles, June 2 Let’s see, what was wrong with this card at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum? The original main event and several undercard matches had to be scrapped for myriad reasons. The promoters had to flood the city with 90,000 freebies to get fewer than 20,000 people to show up. Those who did make it spent up to three hours trying to get less than a mile from the freeway exit to the Coliseum’s parking lots thanks to a lack of planning.

When fans finally got in, they were subjected to stretches as long as 45 minutes between fights. Several of the fights were obvious mismatches. They rushed ill-prepared former NFLer Johnnie Morton into the ring, only to have him carted out on a stretcher. Dennis Rodman was brought in as a special guest, which would have been a great attention-getting move in 1996. There were several mismatches on the show. There was an in-house DJ who kept talking during the fights. He also mispronounced Royce Gracie’s name. Twice. Gracie and several other fighters were later suspended by the state of California for having drugs and/or steroids in their system.

Other than that, though, it was a great show …

7. Worst trend: Oversaturation. Starting with UFC’s Ultimate Fight Night at the Palms in Las Vegas on April 5, we then had UFC 69 on April 7, UFC 70 on April 21, UFC 71 on May 26, K-1 Dynamite! on June 2, another UFN on June 12, UFC 72 on June 16, Elite XC on June 22, the Ultimate Fighter finale on June 23, and UFC 73 on July 7. Add to that the WEC and a full slate of IFL events.

We’re in the middle of a slow period, but saturation season resumes again soon enough, with UFC 74 on Aug. 25, Elite XC tentatively scheduled for Sept. 15, UFC 75 on Sept. 8, Ultimate Fight Night on Sept. 19, UFC 76 on Sept. 22, WEC on Aug. 5 and Sept. 5, and the IFL semis and finals.

How far is the average MMA fan willing to stretch their dollars? We’ll find out soon enough.

8. Best match you probably didn’t see: Chris Horodecki vs. Bart Palaszewski, IFL, Houston, Feb. 2: Undefeated Ontario lightweight Chris Horodecki has been one of the breakthrough stars of the IFL, winning all six of his matches since joining the Los Angeles Anacondas. The best of those matches was his 12-minute war with 27-8 Bart Palaszewski. Horodecki won a split decision that could have gone either way. If you didn’t see this match, it is worth going out of your way to find.

9. Best rebound: Ken Florian. Florian’s loss to Sean Sherk last October with the vacant lightweight title at stake is the type that can send a fighter into a tailspin. But Florian instead rebounded with a pair of impressive victories. First he put on a clinic before choking out Doko Mishima in April, then he followed with an aggressive first-round finish of Alvin Robinson at UFC 73. The 155-pound division is crowded, but Florian remains someone right up in the mix.

10. Best newcomer: Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou. Sokoudjou is rapidly becoming Cameroon’s greatest contribution to the world sport scene since the Indomitable Lions of World Cup fame. The 2001 U.S. national judo champion in the open weight division, who trains with Dan Henderson at Team Quest South in Temecula, Calif., stunned the MMA world with a 23-second knockout of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at Pride 33. Then, just as soon as the detractors got done screaming “fluke,” he took out Ricardo Arona in 1:59 at Pride 34.

The 23-year old Sokoudjou (4-1) is smartly playing up his value as one of the hottest free agents in the market. First he was rumored to be close to a deal with EliteXC, now he is negotiating with Hero’s. Either way, we haven’t heard the last of him.

Those are my picks. Now, check out the Yahoo! Sports MMA/Boxing Experts Blog and tell me yours.

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