The immortals have become mortal. The seemingly invincible champions of MMA have fallen by the droves in 2015, leaving a state of shock in their wake.
The sad story of horrors began on Feb. 3. That’s when the world saw the mightiest of former champions, Anderson Silva, the man known by many as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, humbled. No, it wasn’t by the fists or feet of his opponent nor another devastating injury. “The Spider’s” reputation plummeted as the result of a failed drug test. True, Chris Weidman had already shattered Silva’s aura of invincibility within the Octagon, but the Brazilian still carried the perception of what a true mixed martial artist should strive for. That facade came crashing down like a house of cards with each new story of Silva’s drug-test failures. You can now add his name to the long list of fighters who’ve been defeated by lab results. Although we’ve seen high-profile athletes fail tests in other sports, Silva’s test reminded us that virtually no athlete should be without suspicion.
The roller-coaster ride continued at UFC 185. Anthony Pettis headlined the card as the man many pegged to be the future of the stacked lightweight division. Despite a career riddled with injuries, he had become the seemingly perfect fighter once the cage door closed. Possessing outstanding athletic ability, Pettis combined a striking arsenal featuring thudding kicks with a dangerous submission game that forced opponents to think twice about taking him down. Enter Rafael dos Anjos. He didn’t have the fanfare or crowd support of other former challengers to Pettis, but what he did have was the perfect execution of the perfect game plan. Not allowing Pettis to get anything going, dos Anjos suffocated the champ’s offense for the better part of their five-round bout. A trio of 50-45 scores left little doubt as to the dominant nature of the Brazilian’s victory. For as much of a highlight-filled ride Pettis had been on, dos Anjos brought MMA fans back to reality. Despite possessing nearly every desirable attribute a fighter could want, Pettis is still a man. And dos Anjos reminded us that every man can be beaten.
A few years ago, fans may remember entering something called “The Machida Era.” Although heralded as a new wave of MMA, the era crumbled almost immediately. Lyoto Machida had become the unsolvable enigma inside the Octagon, his style so out of this world that nobody could properly prepare themselves for it. He enjoyed great success during his run in the 205-pound division and found similar success in the middleweight division. Machida had only lost one fight, a hard-fought decision loss to then-champion Weidman, during his run in the 185-pound division. Both men took a great deal of punishment in their five-round battle of attrition, but it would leave wounds from which Machida couldn’t recover. The man who’d become an icon of the “hardcore” MMA fan base was defeated in devastating fashion on back-to-back occasions. Machida’s losses reminded us that while everyone may present a new problem, eventually someone is going to solve the riddle.
The tough time continued into the summer months with Cain Velasquez, the man who most closely resembles the Terminator, losing his title to Fabricio Werdum. Velasquez had spent the better part of his career being considered an unstoppable force in the Octagon. Capable of walking through anything his opponent could fire back at him, Velasquez sported cardio as his ultimate weapon. Yet, that weapon failed him in his contest with Werdum. Sapped by the high altitude of Mexico City and the offense of Werdum, Velasquez was unable to offer much resistance to his foe. The loss created a new nickname to describe Velasquez: “Sea-level Cain.” Velasquez could’ve become the first heavyweight to successfully defend the UFC heavyweight title more than twice. Instead, his loss is another reminder of how unpredictable the sport of MMA can be when heavyweights are in the cage.
UFC 190 brought the promotion back to Brazil with a packed bill that featured an unprecedented seven fights on the main card. Among these seven fights, there was the unceremonious exit of one of the true legends of MMA. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira became a staple of MMA during his time competing overseas in the Pride FC promotion. Squaring off against some of the best heavyweights in the world at that time, Nogueira made a name for himself for pulling off incredible submission victories. His UFC tenure became a mixed bag after he lost the UFC heavyweight title, but fans always tuned in when Nogueira fought. After losing to Stefan Struve at UFC 190, Nogueira decided to step away from the sport that he’d given so much to. We’ve seen legends of MMA yesteryear come and go, and Nogueira’s retirement was another reminder that eventually all fighters must face the end.
For the most part, everything was going according to plan for the UFC following UFC 190. There were some upsets along the way, but plans for a pair of stacked events to close out 2015 were coming together nicely. Ronda Rousey would headline a pay-per-view event held within a stadium in Australia, an ambitious move by the UFC. Then, the heavily promoted Conor McGregor-José Aldo rivalry would finally come to a head in the promotion’s final pay-per-view of the year. With the company’s top two draws competing in back-to-back events, the UFC was set to close out 2015 with a huge influx of income.
However, things didn’t go according to plan. Instead of Rousey obtaining a crowning achievement in perhaps the biggest event of her career, she was soundly defeated at the hands of Holly Holm. After years of swarming her opponents into the clinch, Rousey suddenly found an opponent unwilling to stand in front of her. After just a round, the seemingly invincible and unstoppable Rousey collapsed to the mat in a heap. Holm had not only defeated the previously undefeated Rousey, she made her look bad on the biggest stage of their careers. Rousey is still a draw for the promotion, but nothing will ever be able to erase what happened at UFC 193. It was an emphatic beating that reminded fans that no fighter is unbeatable.
Perhaps no event symbolized the fading of our heroes as much as UFC 194. The brash McGregor put an emphatic stamp on his rivalry with Aldo by dropping the champion in a mere 13 seconds. The months and months of buildup, the long list of victims laid to waste by the leg kicks of Aldo, the aura of invincibility surrounding the Brazilian and the doubts about McGregor all seemed to vanish in just 13 seconds. Yes, nothing will make fans forget about Aldo’s run of dominance at the top and he will go down as one of the best fighters in history, but for a lot of fans (read: casuals), their only experience of the almighty former champion is a 13-second blip.
It wasn’t just Aldo that saw his time at the top and his aura fade. Prior to the main event, Luke Rockhold showcased his skills in a one-sided domination of the aforementioned Weidman. Prior to UFC 194, Weidman had appeared to be an unstoppable force. Blending in a solid striking game with some of the best grappling in MMA and an insane amount of durability, Weidman looked to have all the pieces of the puzzle. Rockhold took that puzzle and shattered it with a series of body kicks and vicious ground strikes. The referee finally stepped in to cause a halt to the bout in the fourth round, but only after Weidman had suffered quite a bit of damage. The losses by Aldo and Weidman reminded fans that while it may appear a fighter has the perfect tool set, there’s always an opponent to throw a wrench into their career.
The year 2015 has been a crazy one for the sport of MMA. We’ve seen some of the best the sport has to offer fall off the mountain top. Although we will always be shocked when this happens, it’s simply the course of MMA coming full circle. For every dominant champion, there will always be an unsung underdog waiting to shock the world. In a sport with so many variables, it’s impossible for someone to emulate the unblemished record of a Floyd Mayweather Jr. The year 2016 is fast approaching and brings with it a sense of uncertainty. No longer can we count on the “sure things” we believed coming into 2015. And while there may be some things that MMA fans will count as irrefutable fact, odds are we’ll be talking about those failing our MMA-logic beliefs at the end of 2016.