Benson Henderson routed Nate Diaz at UFC on Fox 5, retaining his lightweight crown. | Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
The anticipation for UFC on Fox 5 began in August, when the promotion announced three big-ticket bouts would go down at the Key Arena in Seattle on Dec. 8.
After the first two UFC on Fox events got the newly-minted partnership between Zuffa and Fox off to a promising start, ratings dropped significantly for the Las Vegas-based organization’s next two offerings on the network. A variety of factors received blame for the decline -- Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White even claimed that “The Avengers” movie premiere stole some of the audience for the UFC on Fox 3 in May -- but one thing was clear: the UFC needed to make every effort to deliver exciting, relevant bouts with recognizable names for its final appearance on Fox in 2012.
By stacking the top of the main card with three headline-worthy fights -- Benson Henderson vs. Nate Diaz, Alexander Gustafsson vs. Mauricio Rua and Rory MacDonald vs. B.J. Penn -- the UFC did exactly that; and, in a remarkable stroke of luck considering the year that was, none of the aforementioned six were injured in the four-month interim after the bouts were booked.
“I have not been this excited for a fight in a long time. I really haven’t,” White said at the pre-fight press conference. “This is gonna be a good one. This is the baddest fight ever on free television.”
White did not give the event enough credit. UFC on Fox 5 turned out to be the baddest fight -- or collection of fights -- in 2012, period. In an era in which the proliferation of events and injuries makes it increasingly difficult to produce a quality fight card from top to bottom, UFC on Fox 5 delivered on all fronts.
The event effectively served as a springboard for three relatively new stars -- Henderson, Gustafsson and MacDonald -- while building intrigue and storylines for 2013 at the same time. In addition, the preliminary bouts were thoroughly enjoyable, starting with Scott Jorgensen’s buzzer-beating submission of John Albert all the way to Yves Edwards’ perfectly placed right hook counter that sent Jeremy Stephens crashing to the canvas.
Moreover, the show drew the UFC’s biggest audience on Fox since its second event in January, peaking at 5.7 million viewers during the Henderson-Diaz headliner and averaging 4.4 million viewers throughout the main card broadcast.
While the middleweight title rematch between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen at UFC 148 might have been the year’s single biggest fight, the shindig in Seattle was its all-around best. For its combination of violence, star power and significance, UFC on Fox 5 is Sherdog.com’s “Event of the Year” for 2012.
If mixed martial arts events were entities capable of emotion, UFC on Fox 5 would have begun the weekend with a hippo-sized chip on its shoulder. Despite gushing with excitement in his opening statement at the pre-fight presser, White managed to upstage the very same card he called “the baddest fight ever on free television” within a half-hour timeframe. By introducing Ronda Rousey as the inaugural UFC women’s bantamweight champion at that same news conference and subsequently announcing that “Rowdy” would headline UFC 157, White shifted the focus from a potential “Fight of the Year” candidate between Henderson and Diaz to proceedings more than three months away.
When all was said and done, however, Henderson made sure the spotlight was focused squarely on him. After eking out two narrow decision victories against Frankie Edgar at UFC 144 and UFC 150 earlier in the year, the former World Extreme Cagefighting ruler had his share of doubters heading into his title defense against Diaz, who had scored increasingly impressive victories over Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller since his return to 155 pounds in 2011.
For five dominant rounds, “Smooth” authored the type of victory that placed him firmly atop a deep and talented lightweight division. He punished Diaz with leg kicks and punches and controlled the tempo with tie-ups and takedowns; when his opponent attempted to turn the tide with leg locks, Henderson was calmly able to escape from danger. In short, it may have very well been the most complete performance of the MMA Lab product’s career to date.
That, coupled with the intrigue surrounding Henderson’s alleged sleight-of-toothpick skills, made him the breakout star of the card.
“I think it was more of a case, stylistically, the last couple fights were a little bit closer, but when you only have two or three skirmishes per round, it’s hard to have a really decisive fight,” Henderson said in attempting to explain the differences between fighting Edgar and Diaz. “We all fight to end fights, but sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes when you have an opponent that walks forward and you walk forward, you get better stylistic matchups, and that was the case tonight. We matched up pretty well, and it went my way.”
With another challenger vanquished, talk turned to a potential meeting with former Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, and Henderson did not shy away from the speculation.
“I want to fight the best guys on the planet at 155,” he said. “Line them up. I’m not going nowhere.”
Henderson was not the only fighter to make strides at UFC on Fox 5. Anointed by many as the last great challenge on the 205-pound horizon for reigning champion Jon Jones, Gustafsson continued to make steady progress toward that meeting with a unanimous verdict over Rua. Gustafsson blended striking and takedowns effectively throughout the contest, gradually wearing down “Shogun” over the course of three rounds. Outside of a heel hook attempt from Rua in round one, the fight belonged to the talented Swede.
While it is not entirely clear what 2013 holds for “The Mauler,” the light heavyweight contender already has designs on going after the belt currently possessed by Jones.
“All I can say is, I’m a ready for a title shot -- whoever has the belt,” Gustafsson said. “When I get a chance to fight for the title, I’ll be more than ready for it.”
Perhaps the most polarizing personality to emerge from the card was MacDonald, who earned a pair of 30-26 scorecards in a one-sided thrashing of the renowned Penn. The Tristar Gym representative drew the ire of those in attendance by utilizing his own version of the Muhammad Ali shuffle against the reeling Hawaiian.
At the post-fight press conference, MacDonald claimed it was a technique intended to help him relax, not a means of taunting a battered opponent. Trainer Firas Zahabi would later support his fighter’s claim.
“I can’t believe people perceived it that way,” Zahabi told the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown” show. “It makes no sense to me because the shuffle is a technique. It’s a way to draw your opponent’s attention. Rory did the technique three or four times, and he followed it up with a superman punch. It’s exactly what we drilled. He was trained to do that. He was not just doing it to showboat. He was doing it to execute a strike.”
Despite Zahabi’s claims, MacDonald -- perhaps unwittingly -- appears to be well on his way to being one of the sport’s top heels in 2013.
There were plenty of other memorable moments from UFC on Fox 5. Jorgensen earned a pair of post-fight bonuses for his first-round submission of Albert, while Edwards captured “Knockout of the Night” honors for his work against Stephens. Additionally, “The Ultimate Fighter 15” alumnus Daron Cruickshank wowed onlookers with a spectacular head-kick knockout of Henry Martinez; Dennis Siver established himself as a force to be reckoned with at featherweight with a blowout win over Nam Phan; and Raphael Assuncao out-dueled Mike Easton in a matchup of bantamweight contenders.
Perhaps the only person who felt cheated was lightweight Tim Means, who suffered a sauna mishap just one day before he was set to face promotional debutante Abel Trujillo on the undercard. Trujillo instead earned a second-round technical knockout over Marcus LeVesseur.
Even Means would have to admit the night was pretty darn entertaining. Past and present stars, relevant storylines, high-quality violence and solid ratings meant that UFC on Fox 5 had a little something for everyone. Future UFC on Fox broadcasts have a tough act to follow.