Most Embarrassing Knockout of the Year: Rolles Gracie Does the Flair Flop @ WSOF 5 (9/14/13)
Already the owner of one of the worst overall performances in UFC history, Rolles Gracie raised the humiliation bar once again during his World Series of Fighting debut in September. After eating a monster overhand right from obscure journeyman Derrick Mehmen, Gracie performed what could only be described as a spot-on Ric Flair impression as he made his way down to the canvas. In MMA’s all-time leaderboard of “embarrassing involuntary behavior, ” this ranks only below Kaleo Gambill. Congrats, Rolles. We can’t wait to see what you come up with in 2014. - Ben Goldstein
Failed Propaganda of the Year: The UFC’s Media Rankings
(We missed you, little buddy.)
At the beginning of this year, the UFC enlisted the help of hand-picked media outlets in creating rankings for each weight class in the promotion. Aside from the inherent biases that resulted from this arrangement, it quickly became apparent that the UFC’s media rankings don’t determine its title challengers at all; being a marketable fighter does, as was the case when Chael Sonnen was gifted a title shot against UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. (The UFC always has a “get-out-of-jail-free” card here by promoting itself as a business and as sports entertainment rather than as a legitimate sports league.)
And there was another problem: No matter what a fighter was ranked, he or she could be cut from the organization at any time, like Jon Fitch (ranked #9 at the time of his cut) and Yushin Okami (then ranked #6) were. Also, without fighters like Ben Askren in the UFC, can we even suggest that whoever captures the now-vacant UFC welterweight title is the undisputed best welterweight in the world?
Ultimately, the media rankings allow the UFC to have the appearance of a major sport, but they’re an utterly meaningless promotional tool, and they have absolutely no impact on which fights get made. - Brian J. D’Souza
Fight of the Year: Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson @ UFC 165 (9/21/13)
Man, there were some great fights in 2013. During the past 12 months of mixed martial arts action, fans worldwide have been treated to a number of exciting, high-level, back-and-forth affairs that we’ll all still be talking about years down the road.
The frantic brawl at UFC on FUEL TV 8 between Brian Stann and Wanderlei Silva. Carlos Condit and Johny Hendricks’ Fight of the Night performance at UFC 158. The exhilarating slugfest between Gilbert Melendez and Diego Sanchez at UFC 166. The stellar rematch between Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez at Bellator 106. The controversial welterweight title fight between Hendricks and Georges St-Pierre at UFC 167. The absolutely incredible war between Mark Hunt and Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva at UFC Fight Night 33.
But one fight stands above them all — the epic five-round light heavyweight title fight at UFC 165 between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson, one of the finest fights in mixed martial arts history and my pick for Fight of the Year in 2013 in MMA.
The champion entered the fight with Gustafsson as a massive -800 favorite, and although most considered Gustafsson to be a very good 205er on his way up, the sentiment amongst fans was that he was gifted his title shot against Jones, and that he would just be one more victim on Jones’s already-long list of conquests.
But Gustafsson wasn’t coming all the way to Canada from his native Sweden to just become another name on Jones’s record. Instead, Gustafsson gave Jones by far the toughest fight of his career. After five rounds of a fight that absolutely no one gave him a chance in, many viewers thought the Swede was about to get his hand raised and shock the world.
I was at the fight live at Air Canada Centre in Toronto covering it for another one of the outlets I write for, and I remember being in absolute awe as Gustafsson — who was supposed to have both the wrestling and striking disadvantage in the fight — slammed Jones down to the ground with ferocity early in round one and beat him in the standup department to collect at least two of the first three rounds on the judges’s scorecards, and possibly even three.
That’s right: Heading into the championship rounds, Jones was down on the cards, a place he had never before been in his career. In round four, Gustafsson started beating up Jones badly, and for a moment it really looked like “The Mauler” was about to take a third round from “Bones” and force the champ to get a stoppage in the fifth round to retain his title.
But Jones showed he had the heart of a champion and wasn’t ready to let go of his belt yet. With about a minute or so left in round four, Jones completely reversed the situation as he landed a spinning back elbow flush on Gustafsson’s noggin to stun his opponent, and then nearly finished him off with a series of strikes from the Thai plum. Although Gustafsson was somehow able to survive the barrage of strikes that Jones threw at him, he wasn’t able to win the round, and the fight was tied up at two 10-9 rounds apiece as the two competitors made it to the last five minutes of the fight.
In the fifth round, it became clear that the damage Jones had did to Gustafsson’s head in the fourth was fight-changing, as the Swede just didn’t have anything left in the tank, and cleanly gave up the last stanza to the champ.
At the end of five rounds, the judges awarded a unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 49-46) to Jones, who retained the UFC light heavyweight championship and set the record for 205-pound title defenses in the process. As for Gustafsson, he didn’t get his hand raised, but he certainly had no reason to hang his head as he did way better against the #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world than anyone except for his teammates, coaches, friends and family would have ever thought going into the fight.
After the match, one of my friends, Aaron Bronsteter of TSN, came up to me to see my reaction. I remember just being lost in the moment, but if you ask Aaron, he’ll tell you I was on the verge of tears. And even though I can’t remember my exact emotions at that moment, I know that it was a feeling that I’ve never had before, and that feeling was that I just got to watch the greatest fight of the year — and maybe the greatest fight of all time — live and in person, a memory that I will always possess and cherish for the rest of my life.
An amazing five-round war between the two best light heavyweights in the world, both smack dab in their prime, that had the title on the line and that was a coinflip when it hit the judges’ scorecards despite the odds prior to the bout saying it would be a blowout, Jones vs. Gustafsson is my pick for Fight of the Year in MMA in 2013. Now, let’s see if the rematch happens, and if it does, if it can be Fight of the Year in 2014. And wouldn’t that be something? – Adam Martin
Photo of the Year: Alexander Gustafsson’s Agony of Defeat @ UFC 165 (9/21/13)
What can I say, really? This photo by Esther Lin for MMAFighting.com is the agony of defeat: an utterly heartbroken and exhausted Alexander Gustafsson, all but collapsing into his trainer’s arms after suffering a narrow decision defeat to Jon Jones at UFC 165. Gustafsson’s performance that September night was nothing short of inspiring to watch, especially when considering how little of a chance he was given by fans and pundits of the sport alike (shows what we know). Although Gustafsson would walk away from the fight visibly much less worse for the wear, Jones would walk away with the belt still around his waist. Not that a controversial-yet-correct decision could possibly mar the greatest fight of the year. - Jared Jones