2012; Is this the year UFC becomes widely accepted? Will Mixed Martials Arts be deemed a sport fit for everyone? I don't know, but UFC on FX1 was a giant fist knocking on America's door. The message is clear; the UFC has landed and fighters are coming from far and wide to compete in the highest level of mixed martial arts. From here on out your shots are limited and to impress you must entertain. The Nashville card featured countless UFC debuts from hungry fighters clawing at a spot on the roster along with a handful of UFC mainstays.
Fuel TV took the honors of showcasing the undercard and struck TV gold. Knockouts, Submissions and even a human drama. During the pre-show commentary veteran UFC bruiser Stephan Bonner told the fans what they might not already know, they are lucky. 6 hours of fighting on cable TV, all 10 bouts of the evening. No other sport goes to the lengths to feed the fanatical fans and on Friday night everybody was happy.
In the first bout it only took 22 seconds for bantamweight Canadian Nick Denis to use a rare tool, clinch elbows, to knock out Joseph Sandoval. Sandoval got stormed early and Denis showed killer instinct not allowing Sandoval to recover from the first hard shot he took. This bout is the closest to a re-enactment of playing the UFC Undisputed video game on easy. It doesn't get much better than that and Denis, in his UFC debut, took home the 'knockout of the night' bonus which gave him an extra $45,000. In one evening he surpassed the median income for an American household according to the US Census* And yes I know he's Canadian and he passed their median too.
All this comes in the shadow of a flawed yet scathing report from ESPN's Outside The Lines. In a story that broke right after UFC Rio 2, the UFC were accused of taking advantage of 'show openers' with low pay and unfavorable contracts. Yet after Friday's program, what up-and-coming fighter wouldn't PAY to be part of the organization. The UFC is still developing and Friday's show proved their is a wealth of talent out there lining up to compete and more importantly fight.
The next two bouts showcased why age and experience still have a spot in MMA. 2 veterans (Daniel Pineda and Fabricio Camoes) submit two previously undefeated fighters (Pat Schilling and Tommy Hayden) within the first round. The two fights were quick but they were high level and entertaining.
Next up featured the return of Charlie Brenneman, who last year became a fan favorite when on two days notice he stepped up in his hometown as a heavy underdog and beat rising star Rick Story. Sadly the could-be Cinderella story was cut short in his next fight when Anthony "Cookie Crumble" Johnson head kicked him out of consciousness in his next bout. The fans still love him and Friday night in Nashville he took on the tough Daniel Roberts. Their is not a lot of flash in Brenneman's game but his hard work and constant energy makes him a fun guy to root for. In a 3 round decision Brenneman took home the win and he'll return to the gym to keep on developing his skills.
It's said "never leave it in the hands of the judges" and there is more to that statement than you may think. The UFC's new deal with FOX provides mixed martial arts with an avenue into America's living room. It's an opportunity that cannot be squandered. On May 31, 2008 CBS took a chance on mixed martial arts and presented "EliteXC Primetime." The card was headlined by YouTube brawler Kimbo Slice. The result was a total letdown and it must have been embarrassing for everybody at CBS and probably the whole sport. The card was excruciatingly long, their was 'poke in the eye' no-contest, and the main event was a total bust. Slice won against a real jobber in James Thompson by way of questionable knockout and in the post-fight interview he was so exhausted he could barely stand let alone answer questions. Slice was humbled and never recovered. His looks and attitude make him a scary guy, but all those muscles require a lot of oxygen, and any fighter will tell you that is not a good thing. Perhaps Kimbo should take the reverse route of Brock Lesnar and call up Vince McMahon. In the UFC's presentation of mixed martial arts to the masses they are being very smart. UFC on FOX in November was a clearly calculated simple formula. One hour for one fight between two heavyweights for the UFC Heavyweight Championship. You just knew there was no chance the judges would have to render a decision. Two towering titans throwing leather. When you have an attentive audience you must deliver and the UFC is going to require not only winning but putting on a show. Winning 3 straight is a huge feat in top level MMA, but if you do in a boring fashion then you aren't helping yourself. A prime example came later on the UFC on FX main card when Mike Easton defeated Jared Papazian in a forgettable match. The 3 judges cageside gave the match to Easton but i'm sure the judgmental fans could care less. Luckily this was the only dud of the night and in retrospect that is amazing for a 10 bout bill.
The 5th preliminary bout of the night was a tongue twister for the announcers. Kamal Shalorus of Iran vs Khabib Nurmagomedov or Russia. Shalarous is a late blooming veteran who was dominated by the young unknown Sambo technician Nurmagomedov. The pace was fast and Shalarous was lucky to survive the first round after being knocked on his back by a counter left hook. Yet the veteran recovered, but never fully and was finally submit via rear-naked choke in the third round.
At this point there was only one fight left to go and this preliminary card was turning out to be far more entertaining than most other promotions main cards. Making the headline bout even more exciting was the fact that Jorge Rivera had announced a day earlier that this would be his last fight in the Octagon and in the sport. 15 times he had entered UFC's Octagon and in his career he has fought the likes of Anderson Silva, Rich Franklin, Chris Leben, Michael Bisping, and the list goes on. His opponent was Eric Shaffer who had fought 9 times in the UFC dating back to 2006 but had never put together enough wins against the right opponents. It was clear the fans wanted Rivera's swan song to be special. In a Hollywood like ending Rivera first found himself defending off his back against Shaffer's onslaught. But after being reset on their feet in round 2 Rivera bloodied and slowed Shaffer before landing consecutive hard shots to force the 'best in the business' Herb Dean to stop the fight. Jorge Rivera was overcome with emotion and walked to the center of the octagon, kissed the mat, and waved goodbye. In a statement at the press conference Rivera explained his decision to retire was mainly due to his age but also the caliber of young guys coming up the ranks in the UFC. He called them "no joke."
In the opening bout on FX, two heavyweights in do-or-die situations battled it out in a grueling bout. Christian Morecraft had never made and octagon statement and Pat Barry had been knocked down (and usually choked out) in any attempt at toppling a name. The bout opened stuffy and cagey for 2 minutes until the men slowed to put on a show. Barry and Morecraft exchanged blows until Pat Barry slipped a punch and threw a bomb left hook to knockdown and out Christian Morecraft. The big man tumbled and Barry laid on powerful shots until Morecraft was out. Almost as entertaining was the post-fight interview in which Barry apologized for being a common choke victim in the Octagon. Props to Barry for realizing not many pundits had much faith. Yet the showing lands Barry back in 'big fight contention' as it's lovely to say.
After the Easton-Papazian snoozer came solid action. Duane 'Bang' Ludwig fresh off finally getting credit for UFC's 'fastest knockout' stepped in with 44 fight veteran and 'honorary Diaz brother' Josh Neer. Neer had signed with the UFC an unheard of four times...four times! Ludwig seemed to have the upper hand in the first few exchanges showcasing his Muay Thai skills with powerful knees to the body. Neer was swollen and bloodied until he found gold in Ludwig's exposed neck. Neer sunk in an elbow high choke that didn't even give Ludwig enough time to finish tapping out before he was passed out. Neer, a true mixed martial, artist calmly notified Josh Rosenthal his opponent was out the bout was stopped 3 minutes into the first round. Neer is going to be fun to watch, again.
Finally, the headliners made their way to the cage to end a great night for the sport, FOX, and the UFC. Jim Miller and Melvin Guillard are two high ranking lightweights hoping to 'get back into the title picture.' In his last bout the humble Jim Miller was humbled by Ben Henderson who is now in training to face the champ Frankie Edgar. Likewise Guillard's last fight was over in under a minute after he was caught charging into a Joe Lauzon punch and then quickly submit. Both men needed a win. At the opening it was Guillard piling on pressure and throwing a lot of flying knees. He certainly hurt Miller but not enough. Miller is a fighter who keeps on fighting and is still dangerous when hurt. Guillard's mistake was giving up his back and even standing Miller was able to lock in a rear-naked choke. Guillard's weakness is his submission defense and it's something he needs to really work on. In 2012, a successful UFC fighter needs to recognize that their weakness will be exploited by any headlining fighter. You can no longer get by with only your strength, you can no longer be one-dimensional.
You could not have asked for more in the first real event put together by FOX and the UFC. The 2012 schedule is slowly coming together and the stakes have been raised. In the next two weeks their is another dose of free fights on FOX proper with Evans Vs. Davis and then Super Saturday in Las Vegas with Nick Diaz vs. Carlos Condit on PPV. Let's hope the big names watched Friday's fights in Nashville and got the message that mediocrity won't be a step forward. Evans has to impress or the masses will call for Dan Henderson vs. Bones Jones. Georges St. Pierre may stay injured if Nick Diaz does to Carlos Condit what he did to BJ Penn. It's a new year and a new era for mixed martial arts and an even better time to be a fight fan.