It’s the holiday season, and with the new year quickly approaching, Combat Press is taking a look back at the best of MMA in 2015. Throughout the remainder of the year, Combat Press will announce its award winners in multiple categories, covering everything from the action in the cage to the biggest stories surrounding the sport.
2015 was a banner year for MMA fans. We had loads of intriguing bouts, barn burners and incredible finishes. But there was one card, one event, that stood out from the rest.
There are two main ingredients that need to come together to make a great event. First, enough people need to care enough about it to watch it and it has to live up to expectations at the very least. And, to make an event of the year? Well, let’s just say the hype has to be huge and the end result had better exceed those very high expectations.
When UFC 189 was announced, it was originally slated to feature José Aldo defending his title against the up-and-coming phenom Conor McGregor. In many fans’ minds, this was going to be McGregor’s first “real” test. However, Aldo pulled out of the fight with a little less than a month to go. There were conflicting reports — maybe his rib was fractured or maybe it wasn’t. Either way, Aldo was out and McGregor needed an opponent. Chad Mendes took the fight on very short notice, and it was announced that it would be for the interim championship.
There were some who thought Aldo was being disrespected. He had defended his title nine months before, so why was there a need for an interim title? And there were others who thought Frankie Edgar deserved the chance. The controversy over the interim championship, the rib and even the opponent had the MMA world up in arms. But Mendes/McGregor it was, and it had all the attention.
The week before the fight was electric. In Las Vegas, it seemed the Irish were staging an invasion. Every day the crowds grew more Celtic. Weigh-ins are usually made of a few dehydrated and hungry fighters, their entourage, Zuffa brass and media types, plus a few hardcore fans. But this weigh-in had approximately 11,500 fans in attendance (a record broken only by UFC 194’s weigh-ins when McGregor and Aldo met to unify the featherweight championship). Irish fans chanted “Ole Ole Ole” throughout the entire proceedings and then partied all night all along the strip.
The UFC Fight Pass undercard started off in a normal fashion. The first two fights went to decision with Cory Pfister and Louis Smolka earning unanimous decision victories. The first three fights on the undercard also went the distance. The Irish fans were disappointed when Cathal Pendred dropped a decision to John Howard.
Things really heated up when undercard headliner Matt Brown squared off against Tim Means. Brown has been a crowd favorite ever since competing on The Ultimate Fighter 7. Means started off well, but fell victim to Brown’s guillotine choke in the first round. UFC 189 had its first finish of the night. The crowd roared its appreciation.
The main card kicked off with Thomas Almeida and Brad Pickett. Almeida learned quickly that the bantamweight Pickett packs a huge punch. Pickett dropped Almeida in the first round and continued to bloody him until the bell rang. But the Brazilian Almeida wasn’t done. Almeida scored the first flying knee TKO of the night and earned himself a “Performance of the Night” bonus.
Up next, welterweights Brandon Thatch and Gunnar Nelson. Nelson started his martial arts training with karate, but he has really blossomed in jiu-jitsu. He holds a black belt under Renzo Gracie, and he showed it off against Thatch. The stoic Nelson got the rear-naked choke before the third minute was complete and everyone learned about his “happy face.”
Jeremy Stephens and Dennis Bermudez were supposed to fight at 145 pounds, but Stephens had trouble making weight and the bout ended up as a catchweight affair. The first two rounds were further evidence that this particular cut had been rough on Stephens. It looked like Bermudez had Stephens on the ropes a few times. But in the third, Stephens put a well-timed knee on Bermudez and scored the other flying knee TKO of the night.
The co-main event of the card would normally have been the engine of the hype train, but it was almost overshadowed by the drama of the McGregor fight. Robbie Lawler was to defend his welterweight belt against Rory MacDonald. They’d met before in 2013 with Lawler edging MacDonald in a split-decision win.
The first two rounds were all Lawler. His power and striking kept MacDonald flummoxed and at bay. But the challenger was not put away yet. In round three, MacDonald surged and returned the beating. MacDonald scored a head kick that rocked Lawler despite it being partially blocked. MacDonald, looking to capitalize on the stunned Lawler, rushed in. It looked like MacDonald was going to finish Lawler. The referee was poised to step in and wave him off, but Lawler was able to weather the storm.
The fourth round was more even, with both fighters trading shots. Neither fighter wanted to concede an inch of ground. They went to their corners, but neither man sat down. Each fighter’s determination and desire to win were evident. It was in their eyes, their body language. You could see it oozing out of their bodies with every heartbeat. They stared at each other for the duration of the break. When the bell rang for the fifth round, everyone watching the fight knew they were watching one of the greatest fights, possibly ever.
And then the fifth round happened. Lawler’s big right hand found MacDonald’s nose right before the first minute was over. He followed it with a few more bombs, leaving MacDonald crumpled.
Both fighters gave their all and made a statement as to why they are the elites in the welterweight division. They seemed determined to keep the spotlight on their fight.
On almost any other night, that is the fight that would have been remembered and talked about on Monday by the water cooler. But this wasn’t just any night. This was UFC 189.
Conor McGregor had been plowing through the featherweight division, but he had not yet fought a top-10 contender. There were doubters (this writer among them). There were a lot of fans and journalists who thought giving McGregor the title shot against Aldo was premature and that Aldo’s injury gave us a chance to see if he actually deserved it.
“Conor has never faced a top-notch wrestler,” we said. When Mendes was announced, many of us thought this match-up would derail the McGregor hype train. We were excited to see a Mendes/Aldo rematch, having seen their previous bout go the distance and earn “Fight of the Night” honors.
The first two rounds were just as we, the McGregor doubters, expected. Mendes was able to take McGregor down easily. McGregor spent a fair amount of those two rounds on his back. The Irishman was able to scramble up and stay out of danger, though, and it looked like Mendes was about to head into the third round up two rounds to none.
However, just before the end of the second round, McGregor’s left hand landed. It was quick, precise and powerful. Mendes was wobbled and McGregor rushed in to end the fight. With only three seconds left in the second round, the fight was stopped.
And the crowd went wild. The TV audience went wild. The entire MMA world, it seemed, went wild.
McGregor’s detractors were silenced. McGregor’s fans were not. Not even close. The place was pandemonium. McGregor became the interim champion and the stage was set for McGregor and Aldo to unify the belt at UFC 194.
The night started off fairly slowly. Five decisions in a row. An Irishman lost. It didn’t look good for UFC 189 to meet the expectations. But the final five fights, those fights will live on in our hearts and minds. And who knows? Lawler vs. MacDonald could be the reason some kid decides to start training MMA, and maybe that kid will be crowned champion 10 years from now.
Other finalists: UFC Fight Night 68, Invicta FC 13, UFC 194
Make sure you check out the rest of the Combat Press 2015 MMA Award winners.