By any metric, 2013 was a weird year in mixed martial arts.
After years of setting our watches by the UFC's welterweight and middleweight champions, both Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre disembarked for the great unknown. The world’s largest MMA provider continued to pack its schedule with more and more fight-related goodness, and its relationship with its biggest competitor (BellatorMMA) hit an all-time low.
New champions were crowned (Chis Weidman, Anthony Pettis), while some familiar faces (Robbie Lawler, Matt Brown, Vitor Belfort) reinserted themselves into the conversation. There were bad beats and drug cheats, as well as copious examples of bald men shouting at us from our TV screens, imploring us to open our wallets to purchase their wares.
Perhaps most importantly, women finally came to the UFC. Ronda Rousey was crowned bantamweight champion, and late in 2013 we got word that strawweights are on deck. They’ll be featured in an upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter.
These are heady times, friends, and to quote the great poet Ferris Bueller: Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
Before we plunge headlong into the nonstop sprint that will be 2014, Bleacher Report MMA lead writers Chad Dundas and Jonathan Snowden look back at the year that was. Together, they grapple with the calendar turn's most gripping question: Who won 2013?
Chris Weidman: He shook up the world on two separate occasions, knocking out the inimitable Anderson Silva at UFC 162 and then (sort of) snapping his leg in their rematch at UFC 168. After just 11 pro bouts, Weidman added his name to the short list of best fighters in the UFC.
Ronda Rousey: She arrived in the Octagon to considerable fanfare and didn’t disappoint. With two wins in the UFC this year, she arguably enters 2014 as the company’s biggest star.
Urijah Faber: It's hard to quibble with 4-0 during 2013. The 34-year-old former champ will fight for the bantamweight title in 2014, proving he still has it.
Demetrious Johnson: With three consecutive flyweight title defenses on Fox, "Mighty Mouse" was the UFC’s most visible champion. Will the 125-pound class offer him some competition in the New Year?
Dundas picks: Faber.
Let’s be honest, I owe him this one. In the past, I’ve been critical of "The California Kid" for bogarting all the title shots in MMA’s lightest weight classes by virtue of popularity alone (also, he’s 0-5 in championship fights since 2008). After watching him tear through the competition at 135 pounds this year, however, I’ve had to reconsider—not to mention eat a little crow.
Faber is not merely one of the best-known fighters below lightweight, he is one of the better fighters under 155 pounds, period. His dominant performance against Michael McDonald last month even has me feeling bullish about his prospects in 2014, despite the fact he’s already lost to both Dominick Cruz and Renan Barao.
Snowden picks: Rousey.
Faber is a great choice for most adorable. But for fighter of the year? I'm going with "Rowdy." Not only did she usher in a new era by opening the hallowed Octagon to women for the first time, but she did so in dominant fashion.
Rousey is so good that Miesha Tate's ability to simply hold on—extending her shellacking and inevitable armbar defeat for three rounds instead of one—was celebrated like it was a championship-level performance. That's how good Rousey is. Just making her break a sweat is considered a triumph.
She is the sport's best champion, most compelling fighter and most marketable personality. I can't wait to see what 2014 brings.
Mark Hunt vs. Antonio Silva, UFC Fight Night 33: This was a modern retelling of a classic UFC tale—two big behemoths standing right in front of each other and throwing bombs until one of them couldn't continue. The catch? Both men showed an inhuman amount of heart and grit. For 25 minutes, they never stopped or quit. But only one of them managed the feat without a chemical partner, forever altering our memories of a special fight.
Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson, UFC 165: We all laughed at the UFC's marketing plan for this fight. It was all about length. The premise? Gustafsson's long arms and legs would somehow give him an advantage against the seemingly unstoppable Jones. Hilarious—right up until Gustaffson used his length to control the fight against the champ, nearly pulling off the unthinkable. Who's laughing now?
Sarah Kaufman vs. Leslie Smith, Invicta 5: This was supposed to be a tune-up fight for Kaufman, a former Strikeforce champion who was already bound for the UFC. But when her opponent is known as a female Diaz, she should know better than to think it's going to be a walk in the park. Smith pushed Kaufman to the breaking point in the kind of fight that makes the UFC's new obsession with women's MMA understandable.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez, UFC 166: It's obvious at this point that Sanchez, the UFC's very first Ultimate Fighter, is never going to be a world champion. Yet, despite his status as a glorified gatekeeper, his name seems to pop up on lists just like this one year after year. He is just crazy enough not to realize he's overmatched by great fighters like Melendez. His refusal to admit to his limitations may not benefit his long-term health, but it sure makes him a fun fighter to watch.
Snowden picks: Silva vs. Hunt.
I was tempted to pick Kaufman vs. Smith, if only for the hipster points I desperately need to maintain my MMA street cred. But once your byline appears on CNN.com, your days as an underground sensation are over. It's time to let that part of my fandom go.
My head tells me that I should go with Jones eking out a win over the magnificent Gustafsson. But my head and I have never been on the best terms. Instead, I'm going with my heart—Silva and Hunt went to war for 25 minutes. TRT be darned; that was the fight of the year.
Dundas picks: Jones vs. Gustafsson.
A couple of weeks ago, I might have gone with the unexpected majesty that was Hunt vs. Silva, but then my good feelings about that fight went kablooey after "Bigfoot’s" urine sample came back tinged with the subtle glow of extra testosterone.
In any case, Jones and Lusty Gusty gave us just the right fight at just the right time at UFC 165. Most people had already written it off as another walk in the park for the champion, but Gustafsson came razor close to taking the title home with him to Sweden.
If all goes as planned, these two will meet again in 2014, and nobody is complaining about that.
Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva, UFC 162: Some people called it a fluke when Weidman dropped a clowning Silva with a left hook and took his title in July. Do you believe him now?
Emanuel Newton vs. Muhammed Lawal, Bellator 90: Lawal was supposed to be one of Bellator’s big catches, but Newton put him on ice in February with a wicked spinning backfist. He beat King Mo again in November, but the second fight wasn't nearly as fun as the first one.
Antonio Silva vs. Alistair Overeem, UFC 156: Ubereem’s awful 2013 got under way abruptly as he uncharacteristically underperformed against Silva. He underachieved, and his undressing was ugly. Ouch.
Vitor Belfort vs. Luke Rockhold, UFC on FX: Belfort’s spinning KO of Rockhold was the meat in the head-kick sandwich he made with three consecutive impressive 2013 knockouts. Too bad his TRT use left us with a bad taste.
Dundas picks: Newton.
For obvious reasons, Belfort is disqualified, and that leaves Newton as the purveyor of this year’s most electrifying knockout. Seriously, I could watch this backfist all day. No, it wasn’t the most high profile (it went down at the Maverick Center in Salt Lake City) or the most meaningful (eight months later, Bellator made Newton fight Lawal again, just to make sure it wasn’t some crazy dream), but it is the 2013 knockout most likely to make me get out of my chair and yell, “Oh!” every time I watch it.
Every. Single. Time.
Snowden picks: Belfort.
This is why TRT is such a creeping evil, even when it is supposedly above the board. We all know Vitor Belfort owned 2013. No knockout even approached his foot meeting Rockhold's face flush, which was the kind of introduction that the AKA fighter could have probably done without.
If you've read Reed Kuhn's new book Fightnomics, you know that what we colloquially call "spinning sh@t" doesn't actually work all that often. Belfort, perhaps channeling the great Tim Gunn, made it work. And for that, TRT or no, I give him my humble vote for knockout of the year.
Kenny Robertson vs. Brock Jardine, UFC 157: The fight looked like it might end with your average ho-hum submission when Brock Jardine locked in a guillotine choke during this undercard matchup. But Robertson survived. And when Jardine attempted to tripod up to his feet from the ground, Robertson struck. Securing a modified kneebar, he didn't just win a fight and a submission of the night bonus—he brought back a hold that no one had seen in more than a decade.
Jon Fitch vs. Josh Burkman, WSOF 3: Oh how the MMA Twitterverse turned when the UFC released Fitch, a longtime welterweight stalwart who was still ranked in the promotion's Top 10. It looked like an abandonment of the company's most basic ethos—the idea that it pitted the best against the best. But perhaps, and just perhaps, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva saw something the rest of us hadn't. Because, in his first fight outside the Octagon in years, Fitch was choked unconscious in less than a minute. And as always, the UFC came out of the snafu smelling like roses.
Rose Namajunas vs. Kathina Catron, Invicta 5: Speaking of Rose, before this fight, young Rose was best known as 30-something Pat Barry's girlfriend. Afterward? Well, when you go full-Rumina Sato with a flying armbar, it's hard to think of you as just an extension of someone else. Namajunas became something else entirely—a fighter worth keeping an eye on. Score one for feminism. It turns out the UFC was paying attention too. In December, it announced that Namajunas would join the promotion as part of The Ultimate Fighter 20.
Sergio Moraes vs. Neil Magny, UFC 163: Although they'd have no idea what they were watching, the finish of this fight is the perfect antidote to MMA critics' persistent poison pen attacks comparing the sport to simple street fighting. This was pure human chess, as Moraes forced Magny into making a succession of bad choices. Those choices culminated in Moraes sitting on his head, with his legs wrapped around his opponent's neck like two wiry anacondas to finish the bout with a rare mounted triangle. Score one for science.
Snowden picks: Burkman.
For years, there was a certain group of MMA fans who pretended to be Jon Fitch supporters. You know the type—desperate to be that guy, the one who appreciated nuances that mere Just Bleed! types could never love.
Now, there's nothing wrong with that.
I can understand the contrarianism that drives people to be the smartest guy in the room, even if that's far from true. Fitch's fans, however, took it to absurd lengths. That's why his embarrassing loss at a World Series of Fighting event was the most enjoyable submission of the year, at least for me. Nothing against Fitch, who I'm sure is a nice guy. But here's a hearty Nelson Muntz "Ha, ha" to his insufferable fans who got their comeuppance by proxy at the hands of Josh Burkman.
Dundas picks: Robertson.
The school teacher from Illinois wins this one for originality and sheer, brutal elegance. I’d never seen anything quite like the strange hybrid kneebar/hamstring stretcher he caught on Brock Jardine midway through the first round of their bout in February. If it turns out to be the only highlight of Robertson’s UFC career—he’s 1-3 in the Octagon—at least it was a good one. That thing will be on Best Submission DVDs for generations.
Ronda Rousey: It's easy to argue that Rousey’s biggest contributions came outside the cage. She revived The Ultimate Fighter with a feud against Miesha Tate, let us know she doesn’t give a damn about her bad reputation and appeared in two major motion pictures. What will she do for an encore?
War Machine: The UFC washout and artist formerly known as Jon Koppenhaver made a big impact on social media, for better and worse. Mostly worse. Between the rape jokes, the casual misogyny and racism, one thing was abundantly clear: The man ain't gonna keep the Machine down.
Dana White: The UFC’s always outspoken president seemed to give even less of a care this year, beefing with Bjorn Rebney, Georges St-Pierre and Ben Askren. As the UFC continues to add events to its schedule, he does the work of 12 mortal men. But how much is too much?
Ben Askren: Ah, Ben, we hardly knew ye. Instead of landing in the UFC, he’s poised to shuffle off to OneFC. Luckily for us, he talked and talked us through every step of the process.
Dundas picks: Rousey.
Since she only fought twice this year, her impact on the MMA culture was felt the most in other areas—the movies, magazine covers and spurned handshakes. The UFC has gone so far out of its way to style her as a star that the appearance of Rousey’s rougher edges on The Ultimate Fighter and at UFC 168 may well go down as her most memorable performances of 2013.
Perhaps as a result, she emerges from this year as arguably the UFC’s best chance to sell pay-per-views in 2014. At this point, the real question about her may not be how much superstar potential she, but whether she’ll stick around long enough to attain it.
Snowden picks: Askren.
I've never seen or heard anyone get excited about a Ben Askren fight. His performances are so one-sided and one-dimensional that it takes a true grappling fanatic to get into them. In fact, his fights were so despised within the Spike TV inner circle that Bellator was all too happy to see him leave when his contract expired.
Bellator felt this way despite the fact he was its best chance to have a fighter with a legitimate case as the world's best in his weight class.
But outside the cage, Askren was, and remains, a promoter's dream. Articulate, arrogant and outspoken, he wasn't shy about sharing his opinion on the issues of the day, from his place in the pecking order at 170 pounds to the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs. Business really picked up, however, when the UFC chose not to offer him a contract.
The ensuing hubbub was the most exciting fight that Askren has ever been involved in. Too bad it was a mere war of words.
Chris Weidman beats Anderson Silva twice: First, Weidman knocked the great Silva unconscious, the ultimate karmic victory. Silva, who just moments earlier had faked being hurt by his opponent, found himself staring up at the ceiling. Suddenly, acting was the last thing on his mind. As painful as that was for Silva fans, it paled in comparison to the sight and sound of Silva on the mat, howling in pain, his leg suddenly possessing an extra joint where none belonged at UFC 168.
Ronda Rousey refuses to shake Miesha Tate's hand: Ronda Rousey is an incredible fighter, but she's unlikely to ever get the call to replace Miss Manners. Rousey's socially uncomfortable displays of anger and emotion during The Ultimate Fighter highlighted, perhaps for the first time, that women fighters aren't necessarily any more well-adjusted than their male counterparts. The final indignity was a refusal to shake Tate's hand in the aftermath of Rousey's well-earned victory. Say this for the champ—she's not willing to sacrifice her moral code, even in the face of loud public pushback.
Dana White takes on Georges St-Pierre: Something was troubling St-Pierre in the days leading up to and immediately after his title defense against Johny Hendricks. The Canadian made the tough decision to walk away from the sport that has made him rich and famous. But rather than salute his biggest star and offer his unconditional support, White went on the attack. The result turned what might have been the celebration of a great career into a particularly ugly breakup.
Nick Diaz gets under Georges St-Pierre's skin: St-Pierre always seems so cool and calm, keeping his emotions in check both before and during his fights. But when Nick Diaz, the anti-hero of the masses, called him out as being rich and out of touch, all of St-Pierre's zen and Canadian stoicism weren't enough to keep his emotions under strict control. “Let me tell you something, uneducated fool, listen to me,” St-Pierre demanded. Diaz, true to himself, was in no mood to listen. But we were, in what was the best MMA call since, well, ever.
Snowden picks: Weidman.
I made a pact with readers on Twitter. The Anderson Silva leg break at UFC 168 never happened. If we all agree to remove it from our collective memory, no one need ever remember the horrible sound of Silva's desperate screams.
But let's not let him off the hook completely. What remains, seared in my memory, is his ludicrous performance at UFC 162. We've seen Silva mock and taunt his opponents before, but no one before Weidman ever made him pay for it.
Dundas picks: White.
Years from now, when I'm attempting to tell my grandkids about the history of MMA (moving methodically, year by year, because my grandkids are huge sticklers) the first thing I'll tell them about 2013 is the time that Dana White went off on Georges St-Pierre at UFC 167.
That was the night we learned no one was safe, I'll tell them. That was the night we learned that no matter how long you've been champion and how much money you've made for the UFC, the company president might rip you a new one at the presser because he didn't like your retirement announcement. It was weird and unseemly, and I was glad by the end of it that the two of them seemed to have made up.
Then I'll tell them: And we never saw St-Pierre again, although they say that on cold nights, if the wind is just right, you can still hear the sound of him partying in South Beach—the tinkling of Corona bottles and the booming bass of LMFAO.
At some point, I'll look down and notice my grandkids have gone quietly to sleep and that for the last few minutes I've just been a tired old man, talking to himself.
Cody McKenzie forgets his shorts: This story is so bad, it’s got to be a cover for something much worse, right? McKenzie left his fight shorts at the hotel prior to his bout with Sam Stout at UFC on Fox 9 in December, so he went out and bought a new pair. He fought with no sponsor logos...and the tag still on.
Antonio Silva pops positive for elevated testosterone: The news that Silva was over the limit for TRT during his crazy scrap with Mark Hunt ruined one of the best fights of the year. Forgiving him will be difficult.
Bellator tells Eddie Alvarez it will seem him in court: Instead of letting Alvarez transition smoothly to the UFC, Bellator threatened to tie him up with legal wrangling until the fighter finally capitulated. Jokes on you, Bjorn: He’s your new champ!
Tito Ortiz and Rampage Jackson unsuccessfully try to fight each other on PPV: Well, we knew this one was doomed. When Ortiz pulled out with a broken neck a week before the event, he got very little sympathy, and Bellator got a lot of I-told-you-sos.
Dundas picks: Tito vs. Rampage.
I mean, c’mon people. You’re going to try to book Ortiz vs. Jackson in 2013? As a main event? On your first-ever PPV? If that’s your best promotional strategy, frankly you deserve whatever last-minute calamities befall you.
Real talk, though: The worst thing about this fight wasn’t the idea that Bellator would try to play it off as somehow relevant, but that company brass (or maybe SpikeTV people) tried to promote it by having Ortiz hit Jackson in the back of the head with a ball-peen hammer on a professional wrestling show.
The only thing that possibly could have been worse is if the bout actually happened.
Snowden picks: Silva.
Tito and Rampage failing to ever step into the cage—which was inevitable from the jump—was a comical lowlight. We expected it and relished how it all played out.
Antonio Silva's drug test failure was a more troubling low point. Yes, I gave his bout with Mark Hunt my vote for fight of the year. But it does lose some luster because of the asterisk that now marks it in history as something less than pure.
More troubling still? Allegations that a commission doctor employed by the UFC as a consultant had something to do with Silva's drug usage. Something has to be done about testosterone replacement therapy and its insidious spread throughout the mixed martial arts world. Bigfoot is not the only user—but he is the most disappointing, and that makes his failure my lowlight of the year.