An MMA Thanksgiving: 2013 Edition

Nov 28, 2013
Cain Velasquez has emerged as MMA’s premier big man. | Photo: Dave Mandel/

In various parts of the world on Thursday, people will pause to give thanks. In conjunction with the Thanksgiving holiday, various members of the staff sat down and opened up about what they were most thankful for in the world of mixed martial arts:

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Mike Fridley, managing editor: I am truly thankful and grateful for the continued opportunity to work daily with a talented group of people that enjoy what they do as much as myself. I am beyond blessed to work in an industry of go-getters that are passionate about the sport and put their blood, sweat and tears behind the scenes to bring the MMA landscape to the masses. From those in the trenches such as Brian Knapp, Jordan Breen, Chris Nelson, Mike Whitman, Tristen Critchfield, Dave Mandel, TJ De Santis, Yael Grauer, Greg Savage, Jeff Sherwood, Wade Armstrong and John Keefer all the way up to the trend setters such as Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White, Bellator MMA CEO Bjorn Rebney and all that fit in between, I salute each and every one of you.

Who could forget the pioneers that laid the foundation? Royce Gracie, Mark Coleman, Kazushi Sakuraba and countless others inspired all of us to log on to debate the intangibles of combat sports. Also, I am thankful for the sport’s youthful movement that will carry this thing of ours into the next generation. MMA is full of bright young stars such as Michael McDonald, Sergio Pettis, Kelvin Gastelum, Max Holloway, Andre Fili and so on.

Last but not least, without exciting fighters putting it on the line and aiming to finish fights, our beloved sport would simply not exist as it does today. The Jon Joneses, Cain Velasquezes, Matt Browns, Eddie Alvarezes and Ronda Rouseys of the world do not get the credit they deserve, for a fighter’s true value is measured in the ability to entertain once the cage doors close.

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Photo: D. Mandel/

Sonnen moves the needle.
Jack Encarnacao, Sherdog “Rewind” host: I’m most thankful for Chael Sonnen, as the UFC should be. From satiating Fox and the media’s bottomless hunger for sound bites and bringing along hot prospect Kelvin Gastellum as a magnanimous coach on “The Ultimate Fighter” to putting up eyebrow-raising ratings for the debut of Fox Sports 1 and his shocking win over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, there may have been no more important cog in the UFC machine all year.

To be sure, it was far from Sonnen’s banner year; the Jon Jones and Rashad Evans wipeouts were hardly inspiring.

However, we’ll be reminded how little that matters when fight week arrives before his grudge match with Wanderlei Silva next year, and it’s the most interesting, written-about and entertaining fight on the card.

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Brian Knapp, features editor: Musicians want to be heard, actors want to be seen and writers want to be read. I’ve spent nearly half of my 35 years on this earth in the journalism field and realized very early on that readers are at the heart of what we do, whether you work for a small-town community newspaper or the largest mixed martial arts website in the world. They are the fuel behind our industry; they demand our best every single day; they motivate us to reach higher; and I make it a point never to lose sight of them.

To the loyal readers of, I offer up my sincere and humble thanks. From positive feedback to full-blown criticism, you force us all to strive, from copy editors and feature writers to radio hosts, executives and reporters. Because of your willingness to allow us into your homes and your places of business, we are afforded the opportunity to live out a dream, covering a dynamic and unpredictable sport where the intrigue and drama never seems to end.

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Photo: D. Mandel/

Pettis captured UFC gold.
Yael Grauer, freelance contributor: I’m thankful for the rise in women’s MMA, which continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Invicta Fighting Championships alone will have promoted more than 40 matches this year; we got to see women on Season 18 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” and they all made weight; and UFC President Dana White is even talking about introducing a 115-pound division, paving the way for a stacked and talented new weight class.

We’ve been hearing fewer and fewer arguments about the lack of depth in women’s MMA and see less and less of the misguided belief that women cannot make weight

Though some people obviously still have some issues seeing females compete in the sport, premature stoppages and poor commentating are becoming the exceptions, not the rules. Seeing the focus on women’s MMA evolving from the Gina Carano show and an overplayed rivalry between Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey to actual discussion on matchups between skilled competitors has been fantastic to watch.

I’m thankful for big upsets and close fights, for a sport that really is all about unscripted drama. Sometimes even the most valiant efforts don’t secure the W on the judges’ scorecards -- Alexander Gustafsson and Johny Hendricks come to mind -- but it’s exciting to cover a sport where Chris Weidman can take it to Anderson Silva and Anthony Pettis can dethrone Benson Henderson.

I’m thankful for the fact that MMA fighters are accessible, authentic and fun subjects about which to write. Elsewhere in sports media, athletes go through extensive media and public relations training, and it’s a struggle to get them to open up or discuss anything that veers off a politically correct track. In addition, most athletes in other sports are inaccessible to a large section of writers and bloggers. Not every writer can get to the bottom of every issue in the sport, but getting the chance to take a stab at it is invaluable.

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Photo: D. Mandel/

In 2013, the best fought the best.
Todd Martin, freelance contributor: Often in life, the things for which we ought to be most grateful are the things we take for granted. It feels like our loved ones will always be there or that our health will never take a turn for the worse.

In that spirit, this Thanksgiving I would suggest that we MMA fans be appreciative of something we don’t often think about. Namely, we should be thankful that we get to see the elite fighters in each weight class consistently compete to prove who the best is. That seems pretty basic, but it hasn’t been the case for much of MMA history.

It certainly isn’t the case in boxing today; and there is no guarantee it will continue to be the case in the future.

We no longer have to wonder who would win between a Frank Shamrock and a Kazushi Sakuraba, a Urijah Faber and a Norifumi Yamamoto, a Brock Lesnar and a Fedor Emelianenko. Instead, we just get to see the best fight the best. For all the complaints that can be levied against this or that in the world of MMA in 2013, the most basic appetite we have as fight fans is satiated. For that, I’m surely appreciative.

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Photo: Mike Sloan/

Weidman squashed “The Spider.”
Mike Sloan, freelance contributor: Every Thanksgiving, I always try to sit back and reflect on what has happened in my life, both good and bad. Oftentimes people neglect to realize how fortunate they are to be alive and to have it as good as they have it, but not me. I’m always grateful and thankful for everything, including the fact that I’m a member of the media that covers the fight sports.

Seeing that I live in the fight capital of the world, I always have a lot for which to be thankful, especially in MMA.

For starters, I am thankful that Anderson Silva got knocked out because he played around too much against Chris Weidman. Not only did it stir up all sorts of debate for days on end, but it ultimately leads to their massive rematch next month. Silva will be at his all-time best and Weidman will never look better. It’s the one fight I look forward to the most, thanks to “The Spider” acting like a fool back in July.

I am thankful the UFC is fronted by Dana White. He is the antithesis of the old dinosaurs that have almost completely ruined boxing, and he never is one to bite his tongue on anything. His drive, passion and work ethic keeps the UFC firing on all cylinders. Without someone like him, I wouldn’t be watching a UFC event almost every single weekend.

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that Bellator is on television nearly every Friday of the year. While it may not be quite on the same level as the UFC, it’s close enough. Thanks to Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney and Viacom for that one.

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Photo: D. Mandel/

Gustafsson surfaced as a threat.
Tristen Critchfield, associate editor: For all the acclaim that professional sports most tenured dynasties receive, there is nothing that makes an extended reign more interesting than a serious test from an upstart challenger. The same ideology holds true for mixed martial arts, which is why I am most thankful for the trio of worthy heirs that staked their claim to royalty over the course of the past year.

At the beginning of 2013, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and George St. Pierre were the unquestioned leaders at the top of the pound-for-pound heap.

Their exact rankings may have varied from person to person, but with all due respect to Jose Aldo, their status as the sport’s Big 3 was nearly undisputed. Fast forward to the present day: Silva is no longer middleweight champion, Jones is no longer viewed as an invincible blend of reach and creativity and St. Pierre is on indefinite hiatus. While a number of factors have certainly contributed to the change in status quo, three stand out above all the rest: Chris Weidman, Alexander Gustafsson and Johny Hendricks.

As fun as it was to debate greatness merits of “The Spider” vs. “Bones” vs. “Rush,” it has been far more compelling to see them tested or, in Silva’s case, bested.

If all goes according to plan -- which we all know is rarely the case in MMA -- 2014 is shaping up to be mighty interesting. Say Silva gets revenge on Weidman on Dec. 28. Wouldn’t a trilogy be the next logical step? Meanwhile, Jones and Gustafsson have some work to do before they can settle their unfinished business from UFC 165; Jones has to get past Glover Teixeira, while Gustafsson must beat Jimi Manuwa. Finally, Hendricks has to hope that St. Pierre eventually returns to the Octagon and gives him another chance to do what many think he already did at UFC 167: topple the longtime welterweight champion.

No matter how things play out from here, it is obvious that Weidman, Gustafsson and Hendricks have already done their part to upset the order at the top of the UFC’s hierarchy. I’m thankful they did.

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Photo: Alan Oliveira/

Belfort is phenomenal again.
Jordan Breen, administrative editor: This has been an easy year to be thankful for. Not that 2012 -- or any year -- had a shortage of noteworthy fighting, but this calendar year quickly gave us and then continued to produce 25-minute “Fight of the Year” candidates, typically in championship bouts of MMA’s two biggest promotions. We’ve had new champions crowned and a legitimate shake-up in the pound-for-pound universe. This is what fight fans crave but are typically denied due to the realities of the sport: injuries, upset losses, promotional favorites, warring promoters, whatever the externality. Surely we can all be thankful when the sport’s best laid plans stay intact and deliver on a grand level.

For me, the charms of 2013 far exceed the year’s bounty of spectacular fights, knockouts and submissions. We’re talking about a year in which the biggest story in MMA is the testosterone saga, essentially a philosophical debate in real time about what is moral and appropriate in a world of professional savagery. No less, it’s a year in which the most engrossing, headline-grabbing fighter is a 36-year-old Vitor Belfort. Belfort’s sudden head-kicking theatrics have become ammunition for both champions and detractors of testosterone replacement therapy -- the centerpiece in a strange-yet-crucial discussion.

Somehow, despite being a wacky, niche sport, MMA manages to publicly confront many fundamental sporting issues. This year also saw Fallon Fox’s brief ascent and fall in MMA underscoring this same sensibility. Fox wasn’t the first transgendered athlete to lobby for the right to compete and she won’t be the last, but she is undoubtedly now the most widely known. Her crossover fame literally makes her one of the most well-known fighters on the planet. Think about that for a second.

I’ve seen no less than 20 spinning kick knockouts this year. Doug Marshall fought for a major MMA title. Nick Diaz retired and started his own MMA promotion. A man legally named War Machine dates one of the most prominent porn stars in the world. UFC veteran Waylon Lowe launched a lawsuit after disfiguring his genitals with sex novelty lubricant. Breakthrough urine imbiber Luke Cummo cropped up after threatening his ex-wife and posting bizarre video blogs while on the lam from authorities. At its best, MMA is not just a panorama of technical, breathtaking violence; it’s a quaint freak show that calls out for our social examination. I’m thankful for the circus.
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