Good things may come to those who wait, but we did not have to wait long for good things to come in 2016.
When Robbie Lawler defended his welterweight championship against Carlos Condit at UFC 195 on Jan. 2, it was immediately hailed as a “Fight of the Year” candidate. There were still 364 days left in the year, and an additional 481 fights would take place in the Ultimate Fighting Championship alone, but sometimes that gut feeling simply cannot be denied. Everyone who watched the fight knew it was special the moment the final bell sounded and both men, side by side, hung on to the fence to hold themselves up. It was an iconic moment befitting of a sensational fight.
The recipe was hard to mess up. Both Condit and Lawler had hard-earned reputations as exciting strikers with equally appropriate nicknames: “Ruthless” and “The Natural Born Killer.” Both came from elite training camps. Both had been champions. Both were coming off of savage, bloodbath performances. Lawler had six months of separation from his all-time classic against Rory MacDonald in the consensus 2015 “Fight of the Year.” Condit was seven months removed from delivering an epic beatdown against resurgent former title contender Thiago Alves in Brazil, where he painted the Octagon red with the DNA of his Brazilian foe before the referee called the stoppage. Lawler was known for his power and technical aggression in the pocket and his superhuman ability to absorb and rebound from punishment. Condit was known for his diverse, unrelenting Tasmanian Devil kickboxing game and diamond-grade chin. All the pieces were there, yet the sum of the parts still did not stack up to the greatness of the whole.
From the opening minute to the fight’s conclusion, they engaged in a dizzying, back-and-forth affair that built up to a violent crescendo before 10,300 fans at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. If there was ever a time to have pity on the judges, this was it. Condit took the lead early, landing more than twice as many significant strikes than Lawler in the opening frame. In the second round, Lawler evened it up on all three official scorecards by narrowing the strike differential and landing the cleaner shots, including the fight’s only knockdown. The dynamic of the first two rounds represented the fight as a whole: Condit would throw and land more strikes throughout the fight, while Lawler would land the bigger, harder shots.
The fight started to pick up steam in the closest and most controversial third round. Condit landed twice as many shots as the incumbent champion and dictated the range, but when Lawler connected, it was not just visible; it was palpable. Round 4 was all Condit. He started pouring it on, outlanding Lawler 47 significant strikes to six. In the eyes of many, he had three rounds in the bag, and all he had to do was maintain his consciousness for another 300 seconds to walk home with the belt. Against the “Ruthless” one, however, one can never be so sure.
Round 5 was a round for the ages. All the clichés of the sport about “leaving everything in the cage” and “putting it all on the line” were exemplified in the final frame. For five minutes, both men channeled every ounce of energy into their limbs and hurled them at each other, and neither man budged. Every punch, kick, knee and elbow was imbued with fight-ending intent, and almost all of them were head shots. To put it in perspective: There were 40 significant strikes landed between the two of them in the first round, 27 in the second, 33 in the third and 53 in the fourth. In the fifth round, a total of 115 significant strikes landed. That was 43 percent of all strikes in the fight, and more than Rounds 2, 3 and 4 combined. This after 20 minutes of battle had already occurred.
A total of 675 strikes were thrown in the fight. Out of the 270 that connected, only two of them were not significant strikes. Of the 268 significant strikes that landed, 178 were head shots. There was no stalling to catch a breather, no pawing jabs or measuring distance. It was 25 minutes of back-and-forth, pugilistic tug-o-war. Naturally, the final verdict was a split decision. The defending champion had his arm raised, but had a single judge scored a single round differently, Condit would have been crowned king of the welterweights. “There were two winners tonight,” Lawler said after the fight, and indeed it was hard to call either man the lesser fighter.
Of course, there were other fights that could be argued as the best of 2016. The chaotic brawl between Cub Swanson and Doo Ho Choi at UFC 206 comes to mind, as the two featherweights beat the stuffing out of each other for 15 minutes. It was not just exciting; it was a tale of a young up-and-comer in the division against a wily veteran, and similar to Lawler-Condit, neither man really lost in the eyes of the fans. There was also the epic rematch between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz at UFC 202, a novel of prizefighting condensed into 25 minutes. It was a grand showcase of skill and grit and perhaps the most compelling narrative arc within a fight all year. Yet the bout that most emphasized the word “mixed” in mixed martial arts had to have been the atomweight fight between Angela Lee and Mei Yamaguchi in One Championship on May 6. Two months shy of her 20th birthday, the undefeated Lee overcame veteran adversity in Yamaguchi, who had 19 more professional fights and a decade and a half of age on her. It was the most technical ground matchup of the year, filled with extended scrambles, transitions and submission exchanges. Finally, the most technical standup fight of the year had to have been the bantamweight title fight between Dominick Cruz and T.J. Dillashaw at UFC Fight Night 81. It was a compelling realization of how far MMA striking has come, a razor-close matchup between two of the most advanced and unique standup artists in the game.
Yet for all the virtues of those fights, the welterweight championship fight between Lawler and Condit stood apart. There was no bad blood, no unique storyline or matchup angle; it was simply a great fight, the best of what this beautiful, brutal sport has to offer.