To some, a great fight is a technical battle, wits and wiles colliding in the cage. Others value a slugfest, athletes with hands dropped to their side, winging hooks replacing any semblance of science.
A certain subset of fight fans want to see overmatched competitors battered senseless and stretched on the mat like pretzels. Finishes are what matter most. At the other end of the spectrum are those who demand fighters be evenly matched. The level of fighter matters less than pure, unblemished competition.
A great fight is like art. It's in the eye of the beholder and can take many forms. But, in the best fights, skill and determination meet brute force and will, a combination that is awe inspiring, delightful and utterly frightening.
It has been a great year for fights. Of course, to me, every year is a great year for fights. What follows are the best of 2013 so far. Disagree? Holler at me in the comments.
Sarah Kaufman beat Leslie Smith (Split Decision: 29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
Why it was Awesome:
For Sarah Kaufman, it was supposed to be a "stay busy" fight. The former Strikeforce bantamweight champion had already punched her ticket into the UFC. Little-known Leslie Smith was just supposed to be a nameless, faceless opponent to help Kaufman stay sharp and stay busy before making her first appearance in the UFC Octagon.
The only problem?
No one told Leslie Smith she was supposed to roll over and die. Instead, she pushed Kaufman for three solid rounds, scoring over and over again with kicks from a distance and a brutal Muay Thai clinch. Kaufman answered back with stinging punches, darting in and out with a stellar boxing attack. It made for one of the most compelling stand-up bouts of 2013.
“I enjoy myself the very most, with the most exciting fight possible, when I walk in and we both just go for it. The louder the crowd is, the more fun, and the more power and energy I have in my punches and kicks. I feel like energy is something that helps me. There are many different types of energy and energy is palpable. You can feel it. When you have a huge crowd and they’re all in sync with this energy, there’s an electricity about it."
The difference was likely a single takedown. Kaufman scored it in the third round. That led to her winning two of three rounds on two of three judges cards. Smith's jaw dropped.
But, while she didn't have her hand raised in the end, Smith did put herself on the map as one of the best MMA fighters in the entire world. As moral victories go, that's a pretty good one.
Junior dos Santos beat Mark Hunt (KO, Round 3)
Why it was Awesome:
My love for Mark Hunt is no secret. He was at such a low point when the UFC bought Pride several years ago, matchmaker Joe Silva didn't even want to bring him in. They were willing to buy out the final fights of his contract and let him walk back to whatever mythical land from which he had emerged, fully formed, to do battle.
Hunt wasn't down with that easy money. He knew he still had something left, that the Mark Hunt story wasn't over. His inexplicable and glorious road to the top of the UFC's heavyweight division has been the best story of the last two years.
And yet, when it all came crashing down, I was fine with it. Because the final chapter was so "Hunt" that it made no sense to cry. He went out in a rotund blaze of glory, the way only a true warrior can.
Outmatched by dos Santos from the start, he never quit. The power in his left hand hurt the former champion over and over again. But, eventually, being 39, fat and slow finally cost Hunt. Dos Santos landed an amazing spinning wheel kick to finish the unfinishable fighter.
Beaten but not beaten, Hunt attempted to rise to his feet. His body, in the end, betrayed him as he went stumbling back to the mat. But it was the effort, man, the effort, that made all of his fans remember, even in defeat, exactly why we love Mark Hunt.
Matt Brown beat Jordan Mein (TKO, Round 2)
Why it was Awesome:
Matt Brown was not amused by my line of questioning before his UFC 145 fight with Stephen "Wonder Boy" Thompson. If the death lasers he was shooting my direction weren't a clue, the delivery of his brief answers should have been, less spoken than growled.
"You should be asking him about how he's going to handle me."
Brown doesn't like prospects. He especially doesn't like being used at a litmus test for them. While the world may see him as a gatekeeper, he has grander ambitions for his own career.
And so I knew Matt Brown was going to have something special for Jordan Mein. Once again he was matched with a rising UFC star. And, once again, his job was to send that young fighter back to the preliminaries—or risk going there himself.
That's a lot riding on a single fight. Enough for Brown to ignore the pain and shock of a Mein body shot and lock in a triangle that nearly sealed the fight. Enough for Brown to deliver the most brutal elbows imaginable on his way to second-round victory:
It was a hard lesson for Mein—sometimes, when you run into a brick wall, it doesn't crumble. Brown is that brick wall in the welterweight division. He may never be a champion, but it looks like he'll be there in the middle of the card, separating pretenders from contenders for years to come.
Johny Hendricks beat Carlos Condit (Unanimous Decision)
Why it was Awesome:
It was like watching a buzzsaw trying to beat a battering ram. Carlos Condit had a bevy of tools to distract and chip away at Johny Hendricks. He utilized them all—stinging leg kicks, razor sharp knees and punches with both hands.
Hendricks' attack was less diverse, more caveman than Bruce Lee. He possesses a left hand that hides a bowling ball just beneath the surface of his skin. He may not have all of Condit's fancy tricks, but he makes up for his failings with pure, unadulterated power.
On their feet, it was even and compelling.
The difference came when the grappling gene overpowered Hendricks. A former wrestling champion, he sees takedowns opportunities and his body is programmed to take them. Years of conditioning move him in that direction even when his gameplan might say otherwise.
At some point, that might become a failing. Against Condit at UFC 158, it was the difference between winning and losing. Hendricks took his opponent down nearly a dozen times. Odds are, when that happens, you're going to get your hand raised.
Hendricks did—and finally earned his shot against welterweight kingpin Georges St-Pierre.
Wanderlei Silva beat Brian Stann (KO, Round 2)
Why it was Awesome:
Wanderlei Silva was supposed to be done. No less authority than, well, me, had said as much in the days before the fight:
What's so sad about Silva is that he doesn't seem to realize he isn't "The Axe Murderer" anymore. And so he returns, again and again, to the cage. Each time it's to diminishing returns.
His body, and no doubt his brain, have been battered. Hopefully not beyond repair, but we've all seen what happens to aging fighters who have been through the gauntlet. It isn't pretty.
I had even called my article "the sad demise of an MMA legend." If there was such a thing as a triple face palm I'd be doing it right now.
Part of that, of course, was absolutely correct. Silva was and is a legend of the sport. Few men were more feared than Silva in his hey day, cutting a swath through Japanese pro wrestlers and legitimate contenders alike in the glory days of the gone but never forgotten Pride Fighting Championships.
That Silva wasn't supposed to exist anymore.
Too many wars in the ring have dulled his reflexes. That Silva only exists these days in bursts, for 30 seconds at a time here or there during the course of a fight. But 30 seconds of Wanderlei Silva, even the 2013 Silva, is still enough to lay waste to a fighter like Brian Stann.
As a human being, Stann is remarkable. As a fighter, he is average. Against Silva, he bit off more than he could possibly chew. His path to victory was clear: Stann needed to keep his distance, batter Silva when he could, run when he couldn't. Instead, his instinct was to stand his ground.
Good for fans. Bad for Stanns. Silva caught Stann with a right-left combination of furious, winging hooks that knocked the "Hoorah" right out of the former Marine.
In the aftermath, something became evident. If it wasn't clear before, it was crystal afterwards—Silva will never leave this sport on his own volition. Someone is going to have to beat him out of the fight game. And it's going to take a better fighter than Brian Stann:
What we learned against Stann, what we should have known all along, is that Wanderlei Silva isn't meant to go meekly into the darkness. While some fear diminishing physical and mental acuity, you never have. It's a price you, and too many other fighters, are willing to pay for greatness, trading tomorrow for today.
It wasn't right for me to expect a man like you to see the world the way I do. The truth is that Wanderlei Silva isn't a man like other men. You are a peerless warrior.