MMA in 2014: Fight of the Year
2014 was a down year in terms of business for mixed martial arts.
But the action in the cage was better than ever, for the most part. There were classic fights from the championship level on down to the lowest of preliminary bouts. We even got the MMA version of a unicorn—and entire Ultimate Fighting Championship card filled with nothing but finishes.
Whittling all of that action down to a single award for Fight of the Year was a nearly impossible task. Our three Bleacher Report lead writers cursed and called one another names. We threatened to quit on several occasions.
But at the end of the day, we were able to figure out a consensus. On Monday, we gave you our Fighter of the Year. On Tuesday, we hand out our prestigious award for the best fight of 2014.
Read on to find out our choice.
Candidate: Chris Weidman vs. Lyoto Machida (UFC 175)
You always wonder how age will treat a great athlete. Some, when mortality knocks, go gently into that good night. Without the physical tools that once defined them, they're suddenly hopeless, a professional prizefight no longer something they can truly contemplate. Others, with the hard earned experience only accumulated in the cage, adjust, morph, change, becoming at once something more while, physically, becoming something less.
Lyoto Machida was always special. He had a way of moving around the ring that simply defied the idea that he was in danger. Elegant—if that word ever applied to a cagefighter it applied to Machida, fleet of foot, but also of mind. His reaction time seemed just a hair faster than anyone he ever fought, that split second enough to turn a competitive fight into an artistic showcase.
If there was a doubt, Chris Weidman erased it. Machida, at 36, is no longer elegant. His advantages have evaporated. He's old.
And, yet, Machida is not a man to fade gracefully. The new defining characteristic is gumption. Sitting cageside, we would have all forgiven him had he given in to the onslaught. Weidman battered him for much of the 25-minute fight. But there was never a time I felt Machida break. Bend? Yes. But there was no crack in his mental facade. He reached deep within for something special.
In the fourth round his left hand sprang to life. In the fifth, down on every scorecard, he spent the final 30 seconds in a furious assault, knees thudding into the champion as the final bell rang. Unfortunately, there are only 25 minutes allotted to telling your tale in the Octagon—another 30 seconds could have changed everything.
Candidate: Jose Aldo vs. Chad Mendes 2 (UFC 179)
Fights that are nominated for this award often feature the kind of visceral brutality missing at 155 pounds and below. The belief is that the little people don't hit as hard because they are smaller, and that seems mostly true.
That's why a fight like the second meeting between Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes must be afforded special consideration. The first bout between the two ended with a bang, much quicker than any of us would have liked. And then "Bang" famously came along and helped turn Mendes from a wrestle-smothering machine into a wrestle-smothering machine who preferred to use his short arms to punch dudes in the face.
And that's pretty much what Mendes and Aldo did here, for five rounds: They beat each other about the face and neck area, with glee and abandon. There was plenty of technique, but there was also violence, and the combination of the two made this an undeniable nominee for the best fight of the year. When it ended, Mendes was sad because he'd entered a kind of title purgatory with a second loss to the same champion.
But he also smiled, because he had plenty to smile about: In this one loss, he elevated his stature more than in all his previous wins combined.
Candidate: Lawler vs. Hendricks 1 (UFC 171)
Big shoes. Historic shoes. Impossible shoes.
That's what both Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler had to fill at UFC 171 in March, when they fought over a welterweight championship vacated by Georges St-Pierre. It had been seven years since anyone besides St-Pierre wore gold in the UFC 170-pound division, and the shadow cast by the recently departed champion was long and dense indeed.
God bless them, though; Hendricks and Lawler did their best to prove there would be life after GSP. Their rough, five-round slugfest felt like the antithesis of the French Canadian phenom’s more gentlemanly style. Ultimately, even St-Pierre’s most ardent supporters had to admit it felt pretty good. Hendricks fought most of the bout with a cracked shin and a torn bicep but still managed to eke out a close but unanimous -decision win.
Eight months later they met again, in a fight that was just as competitive, if not quite as fun. This time Lawler walked away with a split-decision victory and the title. Smart money says they’ll do it a third time in 2015. Absolutely nobody is complaining about that.
Winner: Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler 1
We had three close contestants, but one fight stood slightly above the others: The absolute war between Hendricks and Lawler will go down as one of the most memorable title fights in UFC history.
Both men gave the welterweight division the spark it needed after Georges St-Pierre's departure. And after years of watching St-Pierre dominate one challenger after another, it was refreshing to see two men who were so closely aligned in skill and heart standing in the center of the Octagon, slugging each other in the face.
The drama of Hendricks essentially capturing the championship with a single takedown late in the fifth round told you the story of the fight. And though their rematch did not live up to their first encounter, this fight can never be taken away from Lawler or Hendricks. It will live on as a perfect example of what a high-level UFC championship fight can be.