Jon Jones had to dig deep against Alexander Gustafsson. | Photo: D. Mandel/Sherdog.com
Round of the Year
By Doug McKay and Jordan Breen
You are Jon Jones. Come on, you know you have daydreamed about it before. However, this time you do not find yourself being mobbed by adoring fans or signing lucrative endorsement deals; you are not making it look easy to beat the tar out of some of the best fighters in the world; you are not even enjoying being rich, young and one of the most gifted athletes ever to walk through the doors of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Instead, the date is Sept. 21. Outside, a cool autumn night surrounds the city of Toronto. Inside, you are trapped in the middle of an eight-sided cage in front of thousands of fans, with countless others watching your every move on screens across the world; and you are in the middle of a firefight. Blood from a nasty cut on your right brow is dripping down into your eyes, making it difficult to see the challenge a few steps away. This is particularly problematic given the fact that what stands in front of you is a 6-foot-4 Swedish wrecking machine named Alexander Gustafsson, and he has spent the past 19 minutes and 19 seconds giving you the toughest fight of your life.
You have absorbed more punishment from Gustafsson already than from any other fighter in your career. You fear you are behind in the fight, and though you do not know it yet, you are indeed trailing on two of the judges’ scorecards. It is the fourth round now and only 41 seconds remain. If you are being honest with yourself, you know in your heart that you are probably losing this round, too; and you have to win it. Your belt depends on it. A record-setting sixth defense of the UFC light heavyweight championship depends on it. Your near-pristine record, marred only by a disqualification in a fight you were clearly winning, depends on it. Everything depends on it. What do you do?
This is all purely theoretical, of course, because there is only one Jon “Bones” Jones. However, what he did in that moment is one of the primary reasons that the fourth frame of the Jones-Gustafsson title fight at UFC 165 earned its place as Sherdog.com’s “Round of the Year” for 2013.
The fourth round of Jones-Gustafsson does not get the nod based on one man’s effort alone. It takes two to tango, and Gustafsson was certainly did his part. Late in the fourth round, he was right in the middle of doing something nobody had ever done before.
In the weeks leading up to the bout, news broadcasts and Twitter feeds were lit up by the oft-observed fact that Jones had never faced an opponent so physically his equal. Here was a light heavyweight that was actually taller than Jones with a reach that was, at 79 inches, at least in the same time zone as the champion’s 84.5. Here was a fighter who ahead of the bout said with absolute confidence, “I can beat Jon Jones any day.”
Through the first three rounds, fans the world over were getting what they paid for and more. In round one, according to FightMetric data, Jones managed to out-strike the challenger 28 to 19. However, Gustafsson’s strikes did more damage, including slicing open the cut above the champ’s brow. He had also managed something never before seen during Jones’ tenure in the Octagon: he took down the champion. Gustafsson won the round on all three judges’ scorecards.
Jones got busy with plenty of leg kicks in the second round, but Gustafsson arguably delivered the harder shots yet again. Jones landed 26 of 42 significant strikes, the challenger 15 of 51. Gustafsson stuffed all three of the champion’s takedown attempts. Judges Richard Bertrand and Chris Lee gave the round to Jones, but the third judge, Douglas Crosby, scored it for Gustafsson. Round three was quite close, as well. Jones outstruck the Swede 28 to 26. Lee and Crosby awarded the round to Jones, but Bertrand gave the Alliance MMA upstart the edge.
So began the fourth round, with Jones behind two rounds to one on the scorecards of Bertrand and Crosby. Gustafsson seemed to have the impossible in sight. After all the talk and braggadocio, all the physical comparisons, all the training, buildup and suspense, he was doing what nobody in five years and 19 professional bouts had done: he was beating Jones.
The pair traded effective strikes for the first two minutes of the round. Then Gustafsson stuffed another takedown attempt from the champion -- Jones was only 1-for-11 in the takedown department throughout the entire fight. Midway through the frame, Gustafsson’s loose fists started landing more regularly, and when Jones, eager for a level change, attempted another takedown at the three-minute mark, the Swede denied him again. With blood flowing more freely from the cut above Jones’ right eye, Gustafsson’s hands continued to find their mark. Jones threw some elbows, a couple of them landing, but the challenger did not falter.
That is how they arrived at the pivotal moment, with 41 seconds left in round four.
“I knew the rounds were really tough and I knew he scored those takedowns,” Jones later reflected. “It’s safe to say I had some desperation. I was just trying to stay calm and stay focused.”
Jones then did something peculiar. He stopped, taking his focus away from Gustafsson long enough to glance up at the clock to see how much time was left to turn the round back in his favor. For all the damage Gustafsson had exacted upon him throughout the fight, Jones looked away, as if acknowledging, for that one moment at least, that the clock and the dwindling amount of time left on it were even more to be feared.
Thus informed, Jones proceeded to show us what he would do in this situation. He looked down from the clock and suddenly unleashed his trademark spinning elbow, which connected with Gustafsson’s forehead above his left eye. The challenger was taken aback by the strike, which almost instantly drew blood. Jones barely missed with a knee but connected with a hook. He backed Gustafsson against the cage and landed a knee, followed by one hard elbow and then another. Gustafsson tried to put some distance between himself and the champion and danced around the cage in a kind of wobbly diagonal direction that signified his hold on consciousness left something to be desired. “Bones” tried another takedown, but Gustafsson, the blood pouring from his forehead over Jones’ back, somehow managed to stuff it again. Jones delivered a devastating elbow and then another. There were 12 seconds left. He tried another spinning elbow, only to have Gustafsson duck under it. Jones then flew in with another knee that failed connect. With Gustafsson clearly hurt, the only question was whether he could keep it together until the end of the round. Through what appeared to be sheer force of will, Gustafsson shoved the champion down to a knee. Jones sprang to his feet and moved quickly towards his opponent, but before he could get close enough, the final second on the clock ticked away and referee John McCarthy stepped between them.
Gustafsson survived the onslaught, but things had changed.
There is no question that this marked a turning point in the fight. Jones was at a crossroads, in the fight itself and beyond it. This was the first time Jones had the chance to show the masses that he was cut from a rare cloth. Even Jones’ trainer learned something new about the champion.
“I learned that even when things aren’t going his way he just gets kind of tenacious and bulldogging and overcomes the problems that were in front of him,” Jackson said.
Of course, the fifth round mattered -- a lot. However, the fourth, specifically the last few moments of the frame, turned the tide in the bout. Momentum can carry a man far in the world of MMA, and the momentum Jones built in the waning moments of round four carried him through the final five minutes. The champion overpowered the challenger in the final frame, and though both men landed an equal number of significant strikes, Jones’ did more harm. Midway through the round, it looked like he had the resilient-but-staggering challenger nearly out on his feet. Moreover, Jones finally managed to take down Gustafsson in the fifth. All three judges scored the round -- and the bout -- for the champion. His legacy was strengthened. The light heavyweight crown and the record for successful title defenses at 205 pounds belonged to him.
Even in defeat, Gustafsson took away plenty from the fight.
“I will learn from this and I will come back much stronger,” he said. “I’m just starting my career and I have tons of fights to do.”
The impact of the 25-minute encounter on Jones was enormous.
“I’ve been asking for a dogfight for a long time and I finally got that dogfight I’ve been looking for,” Jones said. “I got the victory and I got to prove a lot to myself.”
Jackson sees Jones as forever changed.
“I think he’s going to come out as a much better fighter,” he said. “He’s turning into a veteran now. He understands how to be in a five-round war, how to push the pace. He knows he can.”
2. Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler, Round 5
In combat sports, where individual fights get months if not years of buildup, it is an ever-present concern that events simply cannot measure up to the pomp and circumstance that precedes them. What are the odds that any MMA title fight will be a classic that comes down to the fifth and final round? If lightning does strike and the fight becomes an instant classic, a rematch might follow.
What are the odds that the rematch can ever adequately live up to the first?
Forget all of that. Chandler and Alvarez do not abide by those percentages. Their November 2011 contest -- a fourth-round submission win for the upstart, underdog Chandler -- immediately entered the canon of classic MMA. Even the rosiest optimist threw cold water on the notion they could approach the spectacle of the first. Yet, there they were, four rounds deep into their championship rematch on Nov. 2 in Long Beach, Calif., all the chips in the middle of the table, winner take all.
Though judge Mike Beltran had Chandler up 39-36 heading into the fateful fifth, Derek Cleary and Steven Davis both had 38-38 cards. This dynamic alone is enough to create heightened drama in an already-great fight like Chandler-Alvarez 2, but Bellator MMA’s best lightweights exceeded themselves in the final frame.
Both men were still moving well to start round five, with Alvarez on the attack as Chandler moved and countered. The action surged when the champion landed a stiff flying knee, an overhand right and dumped Alvarez on the mat, instantly transitioning to his back. He Gable-gripped and ripped across Alvarez’s jaw, reminiscent of how he ended their first encounter, but the challenger spun out, smashing Chandler with short hooks to the face and busting open the mouse under his left eye.
At this point, every single strike, every defended takedown, represented a swing in momentum that could have decided the fight. Just when Chandler started to respond to Alvarez’s crisper punching, the Blackzilians representative found a stiff knee that hurt his foe. The Philly fighter ripped Chandler with punches up against the fence, determined to author his own fate. When a desperate Chandler dropped and rolled for a kneebar, Alvarez dove on his back and sought the rear-naked choke, a dizzying reversal of fortunes. Alvarez dug hard for two chokes that looked like they could force the bloodied and exhausted Chandler to tap, but instead, the champ escaped with 30 seconds to go.
Chandler could not muster much in the final moments of the bout but still set the table for an iconic MMA image. The former Missouri Tiger slammed Alvarez to the canvas from a waist lock, desperate for any late offense. Alvarez sat on the canvas, face swollen and smeared with the blood of two men, and flashed a smile and a thumbs up as time ticked down.
Minutes later, Alvarez’s hand was raised by split decision. It was as triumphant and redemptive as any single win in MMA history, defeating his archrival and again becoming the champion of a promotion that he had fought in court all year long in an effort to become a free agent. All eight-and-a-half rounds of Alvarez-Chandler have been delightful thus far, but this one truly shines. We can only hope for another quintet.
3. Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez, Round 3
In discussing MMA superlatives in 2013, the Melendez-Sanchez bout on Oct. 19 has proved divisive. Many fans and media members instantly proclaimed it the year’s greatest fight, while others derided it as a brutally one-sided boxing lesson. There is a finer point, however, that no one seems to quibble with: round three kicked considerable ass.
For 10 unrelenting minutes in Houston, Melendez punished the first “Ultimate Fighter” winner. “El Nino” stuffed Sanchez’s takedowns, tore his eyebrow wide open and rocked him with right hand after right hand after right hand.
Melendez out-landed Sanchez 30-13 and 27-8 in the first two rounds, and the power and cleanliness with which the former Strikeforce champion was landing could not be undersold. It was jaw-dropping to watch, but whether or not it constituted “great MMA” was open for debate.
The third round did not start out dissimilarly from the others. Melendez kept picking off the southpaw Sanchez with one-twos. Some 70 seconds into the frame, the Californian let loose with four laser-guided right hands that crashed into Sanchez’s jaw in quick succession. One could almost see the rage build in Sanchez as he started to fire back with both hands, as if Melendez’s technical superiority was an affront to his masculinity. The Toyota Center crowd roared and whistled, producing a deafening sea of noise, only briefly hushing when referee Kerry Hatley paused midway through the round to have the physician take a peek at Sanchez’s left brow cut.
Despite getting creamed, the crowd bellowed “Diego! Diego!” on the restart, as the Albuquerque, N.M., native pounded his chest, whipping kicks at Melendez’s ribs while walking through his artillery. The stanza went nuclear, however, with just under two minutes to go. Sanchez, still plugging forward, threw a Mortal Kombat-style right uppercut from below his waist and nearly punched through the bottom of Melendez’s face. Like the punches with which Melendez hit Sanchez throughout the fight, if not for “El Nino’s” monster chin, he would have been catching a snooze then and there.
Sanchez took Melendez’s back with both hooks, threatening for the fight-ending rear-naked choke. Melendez managed to free himself from back control, rolling in on a takedown. Sanchez countered with a guillotine, which again sent collective hearts into throats. Melendez escaped, lacing into Sanchez with a hard knee and clinch elbow on the way up. A Sanchez spinning back kick led to Melendez getting his waist, only for Sanchez to sit out and hit a switch to escape. Perhaps thinking that things had gotten too technical late in the game, both men opted to go into Mexican Fighter Stereotype Mode when they heard the 10-second clapper, throwing bricks with both hands, middle fingers to the world, until the final air horn blast brought us, breathless and exhilarated, back to reality.
The final outcome was not in dispute, as Melendez took a tidy unanimous decision, and it was a no-brainer that they would each grab the $60,000 “Fight of the Night” bonus. The debate surrounding the bout will undoubtedly keep up in the future, serving as either an all-time feel-good favorite or a symbol of the “Just Bleed” car-crash culture that often permeates MMA. We need never worry, though, about anyone attempting to impeach the final five minutes.
4. Wanderlei Silva vs. Brian Stann, Round 1
The 205-pound clash between Silva and Stann on March 3 was earmarked for action. It was the headliner of the UFC on Fuel 8 card from the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, where for years under the Pride Fighting Championships banner Silva had produced some of the most thrilling moments in MMA history in front of his Japanese faithful. Stann, Silver Star recipient and arguably the hardest man to ever set foot in the UFC Octagon, was not going to shy away from a gunfight. However, the consensus was that Silva-Stann would end as soon as the first powerful shot landed, just a brief, shining blaze of glory. Fortunately for fight fans, Silva and Stann let this one burn.
Thirty seconds was all it took for these two to light it up. After bobbing and weaving and backing Silva down, Stann rushed in with a salvo of punches. Silva’s circuits sparked the moment Stann’s first punch came, instantly provoking a two-handed retaliation. For two seconds, they swung like animals until one of Silva’s swipes knocked Stann to a knee. The Brazilian swam to his trademark clinch, blasting knees while Stann hammered back with hooks and uppercuts. They reset and started it all over again.
Stann cracked Silva, who smiled and waved him in before punching back. Then, just as they had moments earlier, both men went into Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots Zone, flailing with both hands. This time, Stann’s right paw put “The Axe Murderer” on the canvas for a moment. Not even two minutes into the fight, both men had hit the deck. Shortly after, Stann inadvertently kneed Silva in the groin during a follow-up attack, but the brief pause in the action was just that -- brief.
With just under a minute left, a left hook-right hook combo from Stann backed up Silva, and another right over the top stumbled the former Pride king along the cage and almost put him on one knee again. The wounded animal lashed out with the same two-guns-a-blazin’ tactic until, again, Stann’s legs flew out from under him in cartoonish fashion. Silva tried to grab the Thai plum and knees, but Stann ripped him over the top with punches, sending Silva careening back into the fence wall. Stann powered his way through more Silva knees, tackling his man to the mat, punching and elbowing until the horn ended and Silva’s face was bloody.
It was Stann’s round, but it hardly mattered. People knew winning the rounds was not necessarily of paramount importance in this fight, and they were right. With just under a minute to go in the second round, Silva landed a rugged right hook-left hook combo that put Stann on his back, and his four follow-up shots splayed Stann out flat.
The pair caught the $50,000 “Fight of the Night” bonus in spite of a great night of fights all around, and Silva doubled up with “Knockout of the Night.” Stann, smart cookie that he is, called it a career after the contest to focus on his military not-for-profit Hire Heroes USA, as well as becoming a color commentator for ACC football on Fox Sports South. Silva, closing in on 40 years old, will have to be physically barred from the cage before he retires. Stann and Silva are vastly different men, but for one night in Saitama, Japan, they agreed on violence and produced a scintillating first round and more.
5. Dennis Bermudez vs. Matt Grice, Round 3
The third and final round of the Feb. 23 featherweight clash between hard-hitting wrestle-boxers Bermudez and Grice is different from most “Round of the Year” mentions, this year or any year. The best rounds of hand-to-hand combat are normally back-and-forth, ebb-and-flow affairs in which both fighters trade offense at a shocking rate. This was not one of those rounds, yet it was undeniably one of the year’s most engrossing.
Grice and Bermudez put the pedal to the floor quickly in their matchup, as Bermudez got full mount within mere seconds of the first round.
He was then was dropped by his Oklahoman foe with a left hook and swarmed with punches that had referee Herb Dean taking a serious look at stopping the fight. There was no question Grice took the first, and most onlookers seemed to agree he earned the second, as well. After the 10-minute mark, this fight got fascinating.
To those aforementioned viewers, it seemed like Grice was up 20-18 and that the hard-charging Bermudez would need some vintage haymakers and slams to stop “The Real One” in order to win. In actuality, only judge Wade Vierra saw the second round for Grice, while Michael Bell and Mike Beltran had it 10-9 Bermudez. Though the assumption was that desperation might create a violent atmosphere in the last round, the invisible truth is that there was everything to fight for in the third.
That, my friends, is how these two brutes fought. Barely 15 seconds into the last round, Bermudez doubled his right hand and forced Grice back to the fence. A left hand forced Grice to move and then two rocket right uppercuts jacked up his jaw and removed his legs. Grice was on his seat, scrambling for a desperate takedown as Bermudez thrashed him with punches and elbows. Incredibly, Grice fought back to his feet, only to have the more compact Bermudez continue measuring him with destructive rights. Right hooks and uppercuts raked Grice again and again as he wobbled and stumbled on the Octagon perimeter. Standing stoppages are no longer an anomaly in MMA, and we have seen UFC bouts stopped for much less than what Bermudez dished out to Grice.
Grice, however, refused to bow. Minute after minute, he walked through Bermudez’s firepower, returning strikes himself, pushing for takedowns, cracking kicks to his opponent’s ribs. With 90 seconds left in the fight, Grice was frozen with his back to the cage again, getting smashed with right hooks to the body and wild uppercuts. Grice absorbed all of the punishment Bermudez had to offer and defied it, resulting in raucous screams and cheers from the Anaheim, Calif., crowd at the bout’s conclusion.
In the final round, Bermudez landed 98 strikes to Grice’s 25 and a full two-thirds of his significant strikes. Most had Bermudez penciled in for a 10-8 round three, and a 28-28 scorecard overall. None of the three judges had a 10-8 in the third -- an instance of questionable judging but likely a testament to Grice’s toughness and eagerness to keep engaging, even while being savaged. Yet no one seemed outraged by the potential slight; folks were more thrilled by the violence and valor on display, one of the truest instances of the usually-stale “The real winners were the fans!” trope. Not surprisingly, the 145-pounders earned $50,000 for their no-brainer “Fight of the Night” effort.
“I felt I won the first round and he took the last, and it was up to the judges who took the second round. I don’t feel too bad. I wanted to win, but I think the fans are going to remember that fight and, maybe, they will get to see it again someday,” Grice said.
A rematch is unlikely to happen. On Sept. 8, Grice was involved in a horrific auto accident. A portion of his skull was removed to alleviate swelling on his brain while he clung to life in the subsequent weeks. Grice pulled through and speaks actively about his recovery and his long-term hopes to fight again. Regardless of whether or not he ever sets foot in a cage, Grice’s perseverance in the third round against Bermudez will not soon be forgotten, forever serving as testimony to the man’s indefatigable spirit.
Continue Reading » Upset of the Year