Mixed martial arts is a sport that is principally defined by moments. That is what fans tend to remember more than anything else as time elapses. Baseball has its statistics which tie together eras and put players in context. In basketball, championship rings are what define the most celebrated players. MMA has titles, records and stats like any other sport, but we tend to remember fighters more for their most iconic moments than any accolades that can be written down on a sheet of paper.
Anderson Silva held the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight belt for nearly seven years and set records for title defenses and consecutive wins. However, that is not what fans think of first when they remember Silva’s career. Instead, they remember the spectacular front kick knockout of Vitor Belfort. They remember the last-ditch triangle that saved his title against Chael Sonnen. They remember the way he made Forrest Griffin swing at air before gliding back into range to exact furious vengeance. It was not about Silva winning; it was the way he won.
It is largely forgotten that Chuck Liddell’s fights sometimes had stretches that were dull because they usually ended with a spectacular knockout and frenzied celebration. Belfort and B.J. Penn continued to capture the public imagination even when they were not fighting well because the memories of their most remarkable triumphs stuck with them much more than any setback.
Unlike team sports where fans often just want to see their side win, individual sports need to be driven to some degree by excitement. Once fans have attachment to a particular fighter, they will be engaged in that fighter’s bouts even when they are not that scintillating; however, it is hard for that attachment to form without the initial thrills. Those thrills usually come in the form of memorable moments that fans then tune in hoping to see again.
Unbeaten Bellator MMA welterweight Michael Page is a fighter who delivers such moments. There are often slow periods in his fights, but when he strikes on an opponent, it is a sight to behold. His athleticism and unique style lead to an offensive repertoire that is varied and distinct. Between that and his larger-than-life personality, he has all the makings of a potential superstar in the sport. If he reaches that status, 2016 will have brought one of his first signature moments: the Sherdog “Knockout of the Year” over Evangelista Santos.
Sometimes the telling blow in a fight will not stand out as it is thrown. Rich Franklin knocked Liddell out cold with a little short right hand that looked like any other punch, while Mark Hunt became only the second person to knock out Roy Nelson with an uppercut that looked as pedestrian as any punch from the iron-fisted Samoan can seem. Page’s knockout of “Cyborg” was not one of those shots.
Page’s leaping knee sounded like a shot as it connected at Bellator 158 on July 16 in London. It was quick, and it was violent. Referee John McCarthy, in the cage for more big MMA fights than any other human being, called it the hardest knee he had ever seen. It was less snake bite and more hammer to the head. It was an emphatic statement from the British showman. Santos went down in a crumpled heap. He had been knocked out plenty of times before, but this one was distinct.
Just like some blows can land harder than they appear, some blows appear to land harder than they do. Fighters who are down for a significant time after a knockout loss often recover well enough to make it to the post-fight press conference. Page’s knee was not one of those shots, either. Unfortunately, the knee had scary consequences. Santos suffered a cracked skull and needed to undergo surgery. He sent out a gruesome and sad picture of the dent in his skull -- a reminder of the ever-present danger that mixed martial artists face when they enter into competition.
It remains to be seen how well “Venom” will do as he steps up in competition. His next fight after “Cyborg” was against Fernando Gonzalez, and it was not a promising performance. However, with his gift of gab and the way he carries himself as a star, Page does not need to win every time out. The way he communicates that he is something special, when combined with the potential to deliver moments like his knockout of Santos, will be more than enough to make his fights must-see events. In that way, this knee will pay dividends for “MVP” for years to come.
The runners-up for “Knockout of the Year” similarly created moments that will be remembered for some time to come. Like Page, Yair Rodriguez is a fighter on the rise. The UFC matching him with the aforementioned Penn in the main event of a marquee show that will air after the NFL playoffs is a signal of the sort of potential it sees in him. That potential was on display with his electrifying flying kick knockout of Andre Fili at UFC 197 on April 23.
Fili is no slouch in his own right, a young fighter with big potential. Rodriguez starched him with a leaping shin right to the face. It was the sort of kick you tend to see from experienced veterans of the game, and here Rodriguez was executing it with perfect precision at age 23. Even if Rodriguez goes on to become champion, it is likely to remain a staple of his highlight reel, much like Jon Jones’ spinning elbow to Stephan Bonnar.
If Rodriguez’s knockout of Fili was a harbinger of things to come, Henderson’s knockout of Hector Lombard at UFC 199 on June 4 was a reminder of memories from the past. Henderson has created plenty of lasting memories over the course of his career, and against Lombard, he authored one last moment for fans to remember him by. Lombard had him in big trouble early, but Henderson’s toughness got him through. A head kick and backward elbow were too much for Lombard to survive.
It is hard to isolate a few top highlights from Henderson’s career, but he is a perfect illustration of how specific impressive performances tend to stand out over time more than anything else. His knockouts of Michael Bisping, Wanderlei Silva and Fedor Emelianenko stand out, not only in Henderson’s career but in theirs, as well. His knockout of Lombard was a fitting final knockout.
Like Rodriguez’s finish of Fili, Lando Vannata’s knockout of John Makdessi at UFC 206 on Dec. 10 was the announcement of a fighter to watch moving forward. It was going to be hard for Vannata to top his impressive debut against Tony Ferguson, but he thrilled with a wheel kick reminiscent of Edson Barboza’s early 2012 knockout of Terry Etim that is still talked about today. Vannata has set the bar so high for himself that it will be difficult for him for clear it in the future. It will be fun to watch him try.
Yoel Romero’s flying knee knockout of Chris Weidman at UFC 205 on Nov. 12 was scary to watch. The proud former champion Weidman was a big favorite at home and was doing well early against Romero. However, Romero silenced the crowd at Madison Square Garden with a brutal knee that left Weidman lying in a pool of his own blood. Romero has created plenty of memorable moments over the course of his career, but the finish against Weidman will resonate longer because of who it came against. Romero is likely to receive top competition from here on out and will have plenty of opportunities to create a lasting legacy for himself.
There was no shortage of impressive knockouts in 2016. With so much competition, Page’s win stands out even more. Regardless of where his career goes from here, he created something that will live on, the essence of what gives MMA its vibrancy.