Cub Swanson and Doo Ho Choi at UFC 206 put on one of the most painful fights I have ever seen in my nearly 18 years of watching mixed martial arts. For that reason, I had to go back and watch it half a dozen times, especially its second round: Sherdog.com’s 2016 “Round of the Year.”
Sure, I’m the man behind Sherdog’s All-Violence Team, so it’s easy to imagine that any predilection I might have for the second round of Swanson-Choi would be predicated on its car crash-level violence. Here’s a fourth-wall breaking disclosure: In our veiled, surreptitious Sherdog year-end awards voting, I put the fifth and final round of Robbie Lawler-Carlos Condit on top of my “Round of the Year” ballot, one spot ahead of the stanza about which I now write. The reason I needed to re-watch this particular five minutes of delightful MMA history was entirely different and maybe even slightly embarrassing.
With the Ultimate Fighting Championship taking its Dec. 10 pay-per-view event to Toronto, my adopted home for the last four years, I was naturally covering the event for this site. Typically, my course of action for any UFC event is to record the undercard fighter scrums in the media room, which is located in the bowels of the venue, and then creep out to my press row seat for any particularly thrilling main card fodder. Those athletes are usually reserved for the post-fight press conference.
Sometimes, I’ll even be too cool for school and sneak into any unoccupied seats in the stands for the headliner. It may sound silly, but it in the right context, it can be thrilling. Just over three years earlier, in the same Air Canada Centre that housed UFC 206, I crept into the lower bowl for the main event of UFC 165 and was rewarded with a truly unique and electric experience for the best fight I’ve ever witnessed live, as Jon Jones prevailed over Alexander Gustafsson.
When I think of Swanson-Choi now, less than a month later, I wish I was in those stands to be a part of a raucous crowd that lost its mind watching some truly wild fighting. Instead, I was in the media room, dripping in sweat, holding a microphone in Emil Weber Meek’s face, pretending to be intrigued by his post-fight responses instead of enthralled with what was developing on the TV sets mounted around the room.
As Swanson and Choi were just getting started in the cage, the UFC PR staff brought the victorious Meek to the back, where he fielded questions about his successful debut over Jordan Mein minutes earlier and about the Ontario Athletic Commission forcing him to shave off his beard. As the press scrum started, I stuck my mic into the Norwegian’s face and then craned by head back over my far shoulder to make sure I wasn’t missing anything in Swanson-Choi. Within seconds, I gave up any serious hope of paying attention to the interview, staring off at the TV in the opposite direction.
If Swanson and Choi had just smashed on each other for the first five minutes, I could have readjusted my body and my attention. Instead, they served up the “Round of the Year” in the next period, so I stayed frozen in place, eyes locked, dripping sweat, with my arm outstretched, having now fully fallen asleep. It pained me to stand there like that, and it pained me to not get to focus on this beautiful brawl developing. Admittedly, my pain pales in comparison to its participants.
After a competitive first round, certainly Choi’s best, Swanson’s cornermen told him to make the “Korean Superboy” go backwards, as they felt he was much less effective doing so. Swanson did as his corner asked but certainly not how it asked. Within the first 30 seconds, Jackson-Wink MMA charge, well, charged. Swanson let loose with whipping overhand rights, bobbing up and down as he chased Choi across the cage, denting him in the face. Choi clinched long enough to survive the salvo, but Swanson’s corner was already having a coronary.
Swanson-Choi featured the typically cerebral and serene Greg Jackson absolutely losing his mind in the corner. For the entirety of the 15-minute skirmish, Jackson screams at Swanson to be more methodical in his approach. However, nowhere is Jackson more uncharacteristically irascible and desperate than in Round 2. With Swanson’s first serious battery of shots on Choi, Jackson begins screaming from the corner in an increasingly frantic string of coaching buzzwords: “Circle! Circle! Clinch! Discipline! Discipline! Move your head! G-- dammit! G-- dammit! Discipline!”
This was when Swanson was landing in the second round. Just past the 60-second mark, Swanson pushed Choi back with another massive overhand right and an inside leg kick, followed by a savage series of hooks. Choi sat on the canvas, huddled against the cage for a moment, looking as if he may cower and crumble into the fetal position and this would be over. Instead, Choi got to his feet, only for Swanson to keep landing hooks with both hands, running the South Korean all the way to the opposite side of the cage with flush, clean right hands.
At this point, Jackson’s screaming from the corner was even more piercing -- and with good reason. Just when it looked like the fight was done, Choi ripped the encroaching Swanson with a left hook and then a brutal right cross. Swanson tipped sideways, as if he would topple over entirely before a massive Choi right hook was followed by another Swanson near-fall. Then Choi ripped his right hand into Swanson’s body and crushed him with a right hook up top. Swanson tilted even further to his side, looking like a stiff breeze might blow him onto his back.
“I was surprised in his quickness. I thought that I’d be a lot faster than him,” Swanson said after the bout. “He was getting me to bite on some of his fakes, and that’s the reason why I switched my game plan -- and definitely his toughness. When I started giving it to him, I couldn’t believe how fast he was recovering, and he’s definitely got heart. I’ll be a fan of his forever.” Moments later, a botched throw from over-unders had Swanson in back mount threatening Choi’s neck. When Choi scrambled to guard, Swanson put heavy punches on him while he furiously bicycle kicked his legs from guard until he made enough space and regained his feet. From here, Swanson started to put his imprint on the round and, ultimately, the fight. The California native landed a nasty left hook, followed by a capoeira-style banana kick that smacked Choi right in the dome and then a no-look double jab.
In the twilight of the round, Choi landed back and moved his foe to the far side of the cage, but Swanson unloaded a volley of blazing hooks on him and then a clean spinning back fist that segued into a flush four-punch combo. With less than 10 seconds to go, it was clearly Swanson’s round, but Choi still grabbed the clinch and punctuated the five minutes with a sharp knee-hook that got Swanson’s attention.
The horn sounded. Sure, my arm had ferocious pins and needles, but I hadn’t noticed them for the last five minutes, nor had I noticed much of what the truly charismatic and engaging Meek had to say.
“I was telling my coaches backstage that I don’t even try to hit a heavy bag that hard,” Swanson told Luke Thomas on his SiriusXM Radio show after UFC 206. “Toward the end, I had him on the fence. I wanted to turn around and look at the ref, like, ‘Are you serious?’ but he just kept reviving.”
The “Round of the Year” saw Swanson establish momentum and damage that would ultimately lead him to eventual victory, taking a unanimous decision after an increasingly dominant third round, where he nearly finished Choi on several occasions. In addition to its wanton violence, it is all the better that the second round of Swanson-Choi also served as the linchpin moment in one of the year’s very best fights.
“They were giving him the opportunity for him to shine,” Swanson told the media at the UFC 206 post-fight press conference. “I can see why they would want him to be right up in the mix, but I just felt like I wasn’t going to let him make a name out of himself off of me. He can do it to somebody else, just not me.”
I’m not so sure Swanson’s correct about that. If you saw the fight -- live in the arena, on your couch, in a bar, holding up a microphone in the back of the arena while staring at a monitor -- Round 2 alone is enough to make you remember Choi’s name.