It began as the next greatest month in MMA history with the next greatest fight in MMA history.
With no obvious way to live up to the bombastic hope and hype, January 2009 slipped and slid down the slippery slope into unceremonious sliminess.
In a milestone matchup for MMA, Georges St. Pierre retained his UFC title and welterweight mantle with a blowout bashing of nemesis B.J. Penn at UFC 94 in the month's final hours. St. Pierre's statement toward his place in the pound-for-pound universe, however, was the topic of interest only ephemerally after the bout. Just as quickly as the MMA populace was beginning to pronounce St. Pierre a legitimate saint, "Rush" and his corner were besieged with accusations of overstepping decency with Vaseline between rounds.
While the world waits to see what action, or more likely inaction, is taken by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, debate rages as to whether St. Pierre is the unfortunate victim of his muay Thai trainer Phil Nurse's indiscretions, or a complicit, chronic lube abuser. In the wicked and twisted world of sports, perhaps it's not surprising that what started as a hotly anticipated 31 days of action, punctuated with a major exclamation point between two pound-for-pound talents, will ultimately be remembered for petroleum jelly impropriety.
That's not to say that UFC 94 was without its charms. In addition to a live gate in the neighborhood of $4.3 million, the sixth biggest in UFC history, the card also put brilliant, unique offense on display from 205-pound elite Lyoto Machida and 205-pound prospect Jon Jones.
Machida, who has labored in the Pavlovian tradition to make the word "elusive" either elicit arousal or vomiting from MMA fans, turned in the best offensive performance of his career in crushing former fellow undefeated Brazilian Thiago Silva. The finish came at the first-round buzzer via a ramped-up rendition of Machida’s Shotokan karate stylings for the first stoppage on a card that to that point had boasted eight straight decisions.
Of those decisions, none offered more engrossing offense than precocious 21-year-old Jon Jones' unanimous verdict over TUF alum Stephan Bonnar. Name another fighter to land a spinning back elbow (never mind that it hit Bonnar in the brainstem; style points count), a side kick, a harai goshi, a massive foot-sweep from the double-collar tie, a German suplex and a lateral drop with double overhooks in a single fight. While his lack of a gas tank or boxing fundamentals clearly indicate he's far from a finished product, Jones' unique spin on offensive prizefighting has earned him the throne as the sport's animated .gif king.
Even Aldo Can’t Sweeten a Sour Ending
The brouhaha stemming from UFC 94 was not the only main event misgiving of the month. Just a week prior, Zuffa's other promotion, World Extreme Cagefighting, had its attractive lightweight title bout between champ Jamie Varner and Donald Cerrone end with an unceremonious technical split decision for the incumbent when a Cerrone knee caught a grounded Varner in the eye with less than two minutes to spare.
Despite the best efforts of Manaus manchild Jose Aldo in his brilliant sparking of Rolando Perez, the sour note of the otherwise entertaining main event, coupled with a notably pointless rematch (in a sport full of pointless rematches) in Urijah Faber-Jens Pulver 2, made for a less-than-stellar WEC outing.
Words Talk Cheap
A night earlier, two hours away in Anaheim, Affliction staged its "Day of Reckoning" card, which despite a surprisingly strong gate and surprisingly strong early buy-rate data, was met with much dismay from MMA fans. The main event (no, not Jay Hieron's mugging of Jason High) gave us the month's most indelible moment, as heavyweight kingpin Fedor Emelianenko went skeet shooting with an atomic overhand right that left former UFC champ Andrei Arlovski inspecting the canvas at close range.
Amidst the unconscionable overmatching of a young Kiril Sidelnikov against veteran Paul Buentello, Vitor Belfort's highlight reeling of would-be politician Matt Lindland and Josh Barnett's full mount marathon against Gilbert Yvel, MMA anti-hero Tito Ortiz turned in an idiot-savant performance on color commentary. Despite having a clear and outstanding gift for instantaneous technical analysis in the fight game -- a trait very few MMA color commentators are blessed with -- it appeared Ortiz's mouth was actively conspiring against him. As a result, despite the instant recognition of Lindland's discomfort against a fellow southpaw and knowledge of Arlovski's favored striking combinations, we were treated to intellectualisms such as, "Vitor Belfort is at 131 years old," and, "I have to commit both guys for this fight," and the epic "Words talk cheap."
Team America, Meet Your Coach
And while bad commentary may have led one to believe that the Republic of Ireland was annexed by Great Britain shortly before Jan. 17, UFC 93 nonetheless went off in Dublin, where Rich Franklin and Dan Henderson duked it out for the right to coach Team America (YEAH!!) in the 51st season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Henderson emerged victorious via split decision, while giving this author a proper platform to spaz out about how elite fighters need to be fighting five-round non-title bouts.
Despite featuring Dennis Siver's spinning back kick crumpling of Nate Mohr, Martin Kampmann’s pounding of Alexandre Barros in his welterweight debut and Alan Belcher railroading Zuffa's desire for South Korean expansion by upsetting Denis Kang, the more dubiously memorable moment of the evening was the return of 2005's consensus badass of the year, Mauricio Rua. “Shogun” avenged his shocking February 2006 loss to Mark Coleman but in a train wreck of a fight. Of course, in a fashion befitting this messy month, Rua sparked a polar debate of his own after the bout, as defenders cited his two recent ACL tears and ring rust for his uninspiring performance while detractors prognosticated literal death at the hands of Chuck Liddell when the two meet in April.
Foot Fetishes, Face Dances
With so much MMA mania in the latter half of the month, it seems like eons ago that Sengoku staged 2009's first major effort, crowning two unlikely (or at least for parent company World Victory Road, undesirable) champions. The seventh installment of Sengoku on Jan. 4 saw Maximo Blanco's “Lord of the Dance” impression on Seigo Inoue's face, prized prospect Dave Herman punched out by cult hero heavyweight Mu Bae Choi, another fantastic entrance from "King Mo" Muhammed Lawal and an incredibly expensive fight that no one cared about in Sanae Kikuta taking on Hidehiko Yoshida.
Resurgent Jorge Santiago, who had mulled over retirement after being bounced from the UFC in 2006, notched a come-from-behind chokeout of Kazuo Misaki in the fifth round to become Sengoku's man in the middleweight division. Flamboyant Satoru Kitaoka exhibited the foot fetishism of training pal Masakazu Imanari, submitting former divisional ruler Takanori Gomi in just 101 seconds with an Achilles lock that earned him the Sengoku lightweight crown and forced Gomi to the sidelines on a sabbatical.
The Regional Appetite
Unpredictability reigned even on regional shows. The Palace Fighting Championships’ Jan. 22 effort saw its flyweight finale between Rambaa "M-16" Somdet and Pat Runez cancelled at the 11th hour due to Somdet’s nagging neck injury. Wilder still, MMA's most beloved madman Olaf Alfonso locked up a quick and tidy armbar over Jeremiah Metcalf to take the promotion's welterweight crown.
Offbeat Rings offshoot ZST handed out a welterweight crown of its own on Jan. 25, as veteran Osami Shibuya choked out Masayuki Okude in the fifth round. The real bit of craziness is in the fact that ZST, a promotion that still doesn’t find it particularly important to have strikes on the ground or judges for 95 percent of its fights, took the enterprising step of having a title fight with unlimited five-minute rounds. Now if only A-level Japanese promotions would realize that sometimes 15 minutes can't cut it.
The Jan. 24 Beast of the East card in Zutphen, Netherlands, saw Belgian judoka and MMA novice Cindy Dandois take an upset unanimous decision over veteran elite Marloes Coenen. A more promising surprise was in store Jan. 10 in Paris, as 100% Fight drew a crowd of approximately 4,200 to Pierre de Coubertin Stadium in a country where MMA was illegal just 12 months ago. French MMA got another boost of sorts as well, as former French judo teamer Ferrid Kheder added to the ill fortunes of UFC veteran Drew Fickett, knocking him out in the third round of their Jan. 20 bout.
Perhaps not all was unexpected, however. Despite the pullouts of Eddie Alvarez and Wilson Reis, the Jan. 23 Extreme Challenge still featured Tara Larosa in her first action in 14 months. The female star took a doctor stoppage over a very underrated Alexis Davis in the third frame.
Meanwhile, leading Shooto promoter Sustain adhered to tradition with Shooto Tradition 5 -- a weak January card that featured three unsatisfying draws in the card's three major bouts, including another lackluster performance from Shooto 123-pound world champion Shinichi Kojima, who fought to evens with Guam's Jesse Taitano in a non-title affair. Although the evening's main event of Kotetsu Boku and Yusuke Endo was at least entertaining, it was nonetheless ungratifying as Boku had a rightful W snatched from him by the stingy Shooto judges.
For Excellence in the Field …
And now, because my editors told me, it's time to hand out hardware for the month that was. I've consulted with the most important figures of the month, including King Numa Pompilius, Martin Luther King Jr. and Saraswati Maa. The spoils of January go to:
KO of the Month: Naturally, Fedor Emelianenko's Dim Mak death touch on Andrei Arlovski leaves other contenders not even worth honorable mentions.
Submission of the Month: While it lacked the aesthetic value of the pair of guillotines turned by Urijah Faber and Scott Jorgensen against Jens Pulver and Frank Gomez respectively, Jorge Santiago's race-against-the-clock rear-naked choke of Kazuo Misaki had higher stakes under higher pressure.
Fight of the Month: The mega-month for MMA didn't turn in many great end-to-end burners. The Cerrone-Varner and Endo-Boku bouts both featured quality back-and-forth action but were spoiled by unappealing endings, so honors go to John Howard and Chris Wilson who fought nip-and-tuck for 15 minutes all the way to a split decision that actually went to the right guy.
Upset of the Month: Cindy Dandois put herself on the map by besting Marloes Coenen.
Most Arbitrarily Awesome of the Month: Between entrance music, potential upside and awe-inspiring offense, The Martian Manhunter Jon "Bones" Jones takes the cake.
Have your own thoughts on January’s best? Let us know in the Sherdog.net Forum. Selected opinions could appear in the next edition of The Doggy Bag.