2012 was full of breakout fighters, crazy knockouts, debilitating submissions, shocking upsets, and one special fighter who earned our Fighter of the Year moniker. In case you need any help figuring out who the best were, Maverick, our panel of judges has figured it out for you. Here are MMA’s Top Guns of 2012. No help needed from the Iceman.
FIGHTER OF THE YEAR – BENSON HENDERSON
In one of the UFC’s deepest divisions, Benson Henderson emerged as not only the UFC Lightweight Champion, but perhaps as an “era champion” who’s in the early stages of greatness…and in 2012, he’s FIGHT! Magazine’s Fighter of the Year.
The year 2012 was an embattled one for the UFC, particularly for its champions. In most cases, injuries were the story. Jose Aldo fought only once, as did Georges St-Pierre. Junior dos Santos fought twice, and ceded his belt at the end to Cain Velasquez. Anderson Silva defended his title once and beat Stephan Bonnar in a patchwork bout, while Jon Jones—so prolific in 2011—made only a couple of appearances. Dominick Cruz and his ACL, curse the luck, didn’t fight at all.
In any case, title fights were at a premium in 2012.
Yet in the UFC’s divisional powerhouse, lightweight Benson Henderson won the belt from one of the game’s pound-for-pound best in Frankie Edgar, defended it in a rematch, and put an exclamation mark on 2012 against a reinvigorated Nate Diaz. The first two bouts were very close—the last was totally dominant.
It was three title fights—three showcases of athleticism, and 15 rounds of strength, agility, prowess, and inexhaustible cardio. Benson is a recipe for success: two tree stump thighs and furiously whipping legs; one cool, super-focused head with Medusa-esque locks and a toothpick casually lolling to the side of his mouth. That tells you everything you need to know about “Smooth”—here’s a man who can go hard for five rounds and barely break a sweat. He is one of the best-conditioned fighters in the game. And the best part? The Champ is coming into his own…right before our eyes.
That’s why Henderson is FIGHT! Magazine’s 2012 Fighter of the Year, becoming only the fourth fighter in 64 issues to grace this cover twice (joining Dan Henderson, Jon Jones, and Urijah Faber). This was his breakout moment.
So, how does the man himself assess his big year?
“It was okay, you know,” Henderson says. “It wasn’t terrible. I don’t think it was the worst year ever—it was decent. I won a belt and all that stuff, which is cool. It’s nice. But I think the second Edgar fight, as close as it was, left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, and in my mouth.”
Greatness is rarely without some form of controversy—particularly in the fight game, which can deal in the gray area of human judgment. For Henderson, that Edgar rematch at UFC 150 was too close for comfort. It was narrow and right down to the wire, but Henderson was awarded the split decision.
“In the NBA, if somebody hits a game-winner with 0.7 seconds left the crowd goes crazy,” he says. “In the NFL, if somebody scores a touchdown with time running out—a 70-yard run—the crowd goes crazy. Soccer is the same way. In the UFC, and in MMA, it’s not good to have close decisions. What’s exciting for the NBA and NFL is not so exciting for the UFC.”
As Henderson heads into 2013, he has revised definitive goals he’d like to uphold. The first would be to avoid the judges’ scorecards altogether. His last seven bouts, going back to the infamous Anthony Pettis kick at WEC 53—which he says, “people remind me of every day”—have gone the distance. Given that streak, along with the asterisk from the Edgar fight still fresh on his mind, it’s something he’ll look to change.
“Yeah, one of my goals would be to end all my fights,” he says. “I definitely feel as if I’ll win. I will always be fully prepared, and I feel very confident about getting my hand raised against any opponent. But, as far as the manner of the win, I would like to have no decisions in 2013—I’d definitely like to finish all my opponents. But me saying that is not me changing up my fighting style. I’m not going to fight differently. It’s just me continuing to do everything I have done in the past and staying on my feet and staying after it. Not looking for the knockout, but if a knockout presents itself, being good enough to take the knockout, or to take any submission that they give me. But I don’t want any decisions in 2013. I’m coming to end everybody.”
It’s a scary thought, but the Bendo we’ve seen to this point is still very much a work in progress. At 29 years old, he’s only been training MMA for six years. He doesn’t sugarcoat things, particularly in the stand-up game, where he says, “I know I can get a lot better, and I will get a lot better.” For all his success, this still makes him a story of untold potential.
And yet, he has a northbound mentality that is only starting to register with his fan base (as well as his detractors). Henderson has openly stated that he is chasing Anderson Silva’s records—wherever Silva leaves off in the UFC record books for wins and title defenses is where Henderson projects himself to be at the end of the day. And not just be—he wants to one-up the greatest MMA practitioner of all time.
Ambitious? Sure. Particularly with guys like Anthony Pettis, Gilbert Melendez, Gray Maynard, and Donald Cerrone on the docket dead ahead. But Henderson is wired in ways that are mysterious. He’s a fine blend of humility (which comes from upbringing) and cockiness (which comes with the territory in fighting). That sort of duplicity confuses people.
“For whatever reason, it rubs people the wrong way when you set a lofty, long-term goal [like breaking Anderson Silva’s records],” he says. “I don’t know their reason why, but there are a lot of people out there who get upset, like you’re talking smack personally to them by setting a lofty and pretty high goal. For me, yeah, my goal is definitely to put Anderson Silva at No. 2 in all the record books for consecutive wins in the UFC, most title defenses, all that stuff. He’s amazing. He’s the best fighter on the planet pound-for-pound right now period. He’s No. 1 in all the record books. I want to beat that. I want to be better than that.”
We’ll better gauge how lofty that goal is in 2013, when he grows accustomed to life as the target. But coming in, the single most admirable trait of Henderson is his ability to let his fighting do the talking. If 2012 was a tale of “what could have been” if not for injuries, it was also a story of “talk.” People talking their way into title fights, titleholders talking their way into fighting specific challengers.
Henderson is an action man. He wants to fight them all, in no particular order, and he therefore buttons his lip.
“I’m not going to prove to anybody that I’m the best fighter on the planet, or prove I’m the best 155-pounder in the UFC—I’m not going to prove any of that, to anybody, by talking,” he says. “But what I will do, I’ll do it inside the cage. I’ll make sure you guys watch. That’s the point I was trying to get across. The media loves those guys that keep talking—talk more, talk more. I’m not the best talker. I’m not very eloquent. I’m not very articulate. But, my job is not to talk a whole lot, and say I’m the best fighter. What I will do is show you what I’ve got inside the Octagon.”
Well said, Bendo. Well said.
KO OF THE YEAR – EDSON BARBOZA DEF TERRY ETIM VIA SPINNING WHEEL KICK – UFC 142: 1.14.12
If you’ve ever seen Edson Barboza fight, you know the man is a kicking fool. His leg-kick destruction of Mike Lullo at UFC 123 in 2010 was a case study in lower extremity obliteration. Seriously, how many times have you seen a TKO via leg kicks to an opponent’s thighs? If Jose Aldo’s leg-kicking beatdown of Urijah Faber’s thighs at WEC 28 in 2010 was a work of art, then consider Barboza on the verge of cutting off his left ear and moving to the south of France—he’s a master of the craft, which brings us to his main card bout with Terry Etim at UFC 142.
Heading into the third and final round, Barboza probably figured he was ahead on the scorecards in the back-and-forth affair. He had already landed a slew of impressive spinning back kicks and switch kicks to the body. However, leg-kick art is interpretive, and he didn’t want to take any chances with uncultured judges.
With four minutes remaining, Mike Goldberg went into infomercial mode and began slinging UFC Firsts, a series of DVDs that included the first head kick knockout, first submission, first fighter with 10 consecutive wins, etcetera. Probably sensing that Goldberg was putting viewers to sleep, Barboza decided to unleash a full-throttled outside leg kick. He bounced, recomposed his hips, and hop-stepped into a monstrous spinning wheel kick to Etim’s head. The Brit’s body seized from the knockout, and with a frozen face and arms rigid to his side, Etim was felled like an oak (albeit a 155-pound oak).
UFC commentator Joe Rogan immediately commented that Barboza’s whirling dervish was the first KO via spinning wheel kick in UFC history. Barboza didn’t just momentarily paralyze Etim, he progressed the sport of MMA forward another foot in the right direction. It was a position later validated by the kick’s inclusion in SportsCenter’s Top Plays and an ESPY nomination for Play of the Year.
If Barboza ever challenges you to a shin-kicking contest like one of those wankers who stuffs straw into his pant legs and locks into a pre-teen slow-dance hold, offer him all the money in your wallet and take off running.
Jose Aldo DEF. Chad Mendes – UFC 142 : 1/14/12
Stephen Thompson DEF. Dan Stittgen – UFC 143 : 2/4/12
Anthony Pettis DEF. Joe Lauzon – UFC 144 : 2/26/12
Pat Curran DEF. Joe Warren – Bellator 60 : 3/9/12
SUBMISSION OF THE YEAR – CHARLES OLIVEIRA DEF. ERIC WISELY VIA CALF SLICER – UFC ON FOX 2: 1.28.12
Calf Slicer? It sounds like the newest sandwich on Subway’s five-dollar footlong menu. Enjoy a tasty Calf Slicer with hot au jus sauce for a limited time only. Delicious, right? Not so much.
When the calf slicer made its Octagon debut at UFC on Fox 2, announcer Joe Rogan, an unabashed lover of all things jiu-jitsu, was left without his normally descriptive color commentary as Charles Oliveira slipped from a knee bar into the rarest of rare submission. Most fans (including Rogan) were concentrating on the fact that Oliveira had Wisely’s back, not the spaghetti knot of arms and legs. However, the excruciating look of pain on Wisely’s face, and the fact that he tapped seconds later, made it clear that Oliveira was doing something Draconian.
Calf slicers aren’t allowed in many BJJ competitions, and the only time they’re used in practice rooms is to enforce street justice against another jiu-jitsu student who might be misbehaving. That Oliveira had intended to place his leg between Wisely’s thigh and calf and secure the compression lock seemed preposterous, until the video was replayed and you could see him deliberately putting everything into position.
Oliveira earned a $60,000 Submission of the Night bonus courtesy of Dana White, but the real bonus was for MMA fans, who got a glimpse of a rare submission, proving that there are still plenty of surprises left to be sprung in the cage.
Ronda Rousey submits Meisha Tate via Armbar – Strikeforce: 3/3/12
Nate Diaz submits Jim Miller via Guillotine Choke – UFC on Fox 3: 5/5/12
Chan-Sung Jung submits Dustin Poirier via D’arce Choke – UFC on Fuel TV 3: 5/15/12
Marcin Held submits Rich Clementi via Toe Hold – Bellator 81: 11/16/12
FIGHT OF THE YEAR – CHAN SUNG JUNG vs. DUSTIN POIRIER – UFC ON FUEL TV 3: 5.15.12
When Chan-Sung Jung and Dustin Poirier met inside the Octagon in May 2012 for their scheduled five-rounder, many pundits suspected the matchup between the two brawlers would produce a Fight of the Night performance. Not only did the scrap earn that designation, but now you can replace “Night” with “Year.”
Chang-Sun Jung doesn’t look like a zombie, but with a forward-marching style that seems to absorb any punishment, the South Korean sure as hell reminds fans of their favorite bad guys from shows like The Walking Dead. Zombies, who lack a beating heart or cognitive brain function, don’t have a choice in the matter—they’re simple flesh-consumers. Jung has both brain and heart, which means every time he eats a jab or takes a foot to the face he acknowledges the strike, but instead of heel-toeing in retreat, he plods toward the pain.
Dustin Poirier is no zombie killer, but the Louisiana native and Fightland documentary star is filled with Bayou courage and showmanship. When the two met in the Octagon at UFC on FX 3 in Fairfax, Virginia, the pace of the Korean Zombie and the unstoppable desire of Poirier clashed for the year’s most entertaining fight.
The Korean Zombie dominated much of the first two rounds, putting Poirier on his back several times. Poirier’s Cajun veracity kicked in at times, leading him to earn sweeps and takedowns, but as the second frame closed, Jung was rotating between an elbow-twisting armbar and a vise-grip-tight triangle. It wasn’t until the third round that Poirier stood his ground, kept his feet, and peppered the Korean Zombie from a distance. Injured and exhausted, Jung slogged toward Poirier, eating three jabs in the hopes of landing a single uppercut. As the round ended, Jung’s face seemed to morph into an extra on Zombieland.
The fight ended in the fourth when Jung was able to land an uppercut that forced Poirier to reach for a single-leg takedown, but Jung left him crawling on the canvas. With the brain of a human and the soullessness of his nickname, Jung locked in a d’arce choke and sent Louisiana’s finest home with his first UFC loss—and a lesson in how not to kill a Zombie.
Demetrious Johnson DEF. Ian McCall 1 – UFC on FX 2: 3.3.12
Martin Kampmann DEF. Thiago Alves – UFC on FX 2: 3.3.12
Joe Lauzon DEF. Jamie Varner – UFC on Fox 4: 8.4.12
Jon Fitch DEF. Erick Silva – UFC 153: 10.23.12
UPSET OF THE YEAR – JAMIE VARNER DEF. EDSON BARBOZA VIA TKO – UFC 146: 5.26.12
MMA cannon fodder: a fighter regarded as expendable in the face of enemy fire.
That was Jamie Varner’s expected role at UFC 146 against Edson Barboza. Varner, who was serving as a late-notice replacement for an injured Evan Dunham, spent 2011 fighting for regional promotions XFC, XFO, and Titan FC after being released from the WEC in 2010. On the other hand, Barboza was on the hype train, enjoying a perfect 10-0 record on the heels of his KO of the Year destruction of Terry Etim via spinning wheel kick.
Sportsbooks listed Varner as a +460 underdog, while Barboza came in as the -540 favorite. That’s an odds spread of 1,000. If those metrics are confusing, just keep in mind that Varner was expected to lose…and lose in dramatic, painful fashion. The only problem was that Jamie Varner wasn’t listening.
Barboza opened the action with three leg kicks and a head kick before Varner caught a leg and scored a takedown. But that didn’t last, and the Brazilian got back to his feet to continue his kicking assault. The Las Vegas crowd, which had a heavy Brazilian contingency that came to watch the main event of Junior dos Santos vs. Frank Mir, began chanting “BAR-BO-ZA, BAR-BO-ZA…”
Varner must not have liked what he heard. He went into swarm mode, closing the distance with two straight rights and a thudding body-head combo before staggering Barboza with a right hook and a barrage of shots against the cage. Barboza braved the onslaught valiantly, but Varner landed another huge right hand that felled the Brazilian before hammer fisting his way to a TKO at 3:23 of the first round.
“I just wanted to come out here and put on a good performance,” said Varner in his post-fight interview to Joe Rogan. “I didn’t care if I won or lost. I wanted to come out here and fight for the fans.”
Varner put on a great fight for the fans, especially the ones who bet on him.
Other Upsets of the Year
Jamie Varner (+450) defeats Edson Barboza (-540)
Eddie Yagin (+423) defeats Mark Hominick (-480)
Steven Siler (+410) defeats Cole Miller (-460)
Cung Le (+400) defeats Rich Franklin (-450)
BREAKOUT FIGHTER OF THE YEAR – RONDA ROUSEY
In the complex and competitive world of mixed martial arts, no athlete has been able to traverse to the top echelon of the sport as swiftly and efficiently as Ronda Rousey. In just one short year, Rousey has enthralled us with her slick and devastating armbar submissions, her dynamic art of trash-talking, and the ability to become the new face of women’s MMA.
With just four professional fights totaling 138 seconds of cage time in 2011, Rousey poised herself for a big 2012 with a step up in competition. When Rousey challenged Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Champion Miesha Tate for the title on March 3, 2012, she gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “You fight like a girl.” In the end, which happened at 4:27 of the first round, it was Rousey who took the title (and almost Tate’s arm) with another unforgettable armbar submission.
Five months later in her first title defense, Rousey called on her superb armbar skills once again to take out former Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Champion Sarah Kaufmann in 54 seconds. After the win, Rousey wasted no time in calling out former Strikeforce Women’s Featherweight Champion Cris Cyborg, brashly calling her “Cyroid,” in reference to Cyborg’s recent failed drug test.
In 2012, Rousey became a media sensation by posing artistically nude in ESPN The Magazine: The Body Issue, letting her brash opinions fly on social media, and championing the cause for legalizing MMA in New York. In short, she has truly become the new face of women’s MMA, making fans out of unlikely viewers—even Dana White, who once said there just wasn’t enough talent to host a women’s division in the UFC.
Rounding out her stellar breakthrough year, Rousey did something few thought would happen for at least decade…if ever. She became the first woman to sign with the UFC, and thus, its first UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion. In her UFC debut on February 23, she will become the first woman to headline a UFC pay-per-view event alongside opponent Liz Carmouche.
Breakout, breakthrough, break your arm… Rousey did it
all in 2012.