The Fight Game in 2015: Lots of Good, But What Was Great?

Image Credit: Kyle Terada | USA TODAY Sports

Fight fans, 2015 is almost gone. There’s just one major event left: Nobuyuki Sakakibara’s attempt to bring back the traditional New Year’s Eve show in Japan.

On this side of the Pacific Ocean, the year is pretty much done.

So, what impression did it leave you?

If nothing else 2015 enjoyed a busy calendar in the worlds of MMA, boxing, and kickboxing.

MMA saw the continued dominance of the UFC, with headline bouts from Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey carrying the day. The latter champion ended her year in disaster — knocked senseless by Holly Holm, who I had argued hadn’t even merited a title shot. Ouch. 2015 was marked by the rise of Kings MMA under the old Chute Boxe trainer Rafael Cordeiro, whose charges Fabricio Werdum and Rafael Dos Anjos scored championship gold in memorable upsets… that don’t even seem like upsets looking back.

It also saw the continued rise of Scott Coker-helmed Bellator MMA, who ended up surprising many by boasting one of the most-watched bouts of the year in Kimbo Slice vs. Ken Shamrock.  That spectacle may not have been much of a fight, but it brought more viewers to Spike TV than many of the UFC’s Fox events.

Bellator also tried to bring back the “Dynamite!” theme from the heyday of Japanese MMA scene, blending kickboxing and MMA. It had mixed success, as we discussed here, but it was fun to see something different.

I’m happy to see attempts by MMA promoters to bring change in the fields of weight cutting and drug testing in 2015. Got to give credit where it’s due there.

Maybe it didn’t turn into the year “boxing strikes back” as described back in February here at MMA Nuts. But it certainly took center stage and there was a ton of action to enjoy. But did you? Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao captured the public’s attention and broke every record to be found. It left many with a sour taste all the same.

Me — just looking back? I’m kind of exhausted. It was just so — busy. With shows every week it’s hard to keep events feeling like, well, “events,” as in the case of Mayweather vs. Pacquiao.

The good news is, well — the fight game has turned into any other sport. Shows are accessible all the time, everywhere. It’s just like the NBA with its 82 game season.

The bad news is, the fight game has turned into any other sport.

Of course, the year saw several solid showings from Invicta and Glory. But with a few exceptions — the dominance of Rico Verhoeven in Glory’s heavyweight division, for example — I’m struggling to remember them closely.

A gritty performance by Robert Guerrero in defeat against the superior Keith Thurman kind of sums up the Premier Boxing Champions series for me, sadly. It was at times compelling, but just hasn’t quite found a winning formula. Similarly, I just don’t have much to say about Wladimir Klitschko huffing and puffing against the clownish Tyson Fury in the year’s biggest heavyweight fight.

Other writers are listing their “fight of the year” candidates and their picks for show of the year. The obvious choice as the year’s best show was UFC 189, which lived up to its hype and then some. For me, the emotional ebb and flow in Robbie Lawler’s brawling middleweight title defense against Rory MacDonald highlighted a spectacular night of bouts. Others will list Conor McGregor’s defeat of Chad Mendes, which saw the UFC’s poster boy prove his doubters wrong by surviving Mendes’ ground assault and score a spectacular knockout win.

I’ve criticized the UFC for sometimes getting a little stale in their presentation, so I’ll give credit where it’s due: the main event was given its platform that night. The live music on both fighters’ entrances to the Octagon was a brilliant touch — and as Matt pointed out on last week’s show, the UFC’s Fight Pass archive of the event has the music intact, rather than their usual (and awful) “nu metal” dub.

Still, I may have actually had more fun watching last month’s PPV broadcast of Miguel Cotto’s title defense against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. The main event was a perfectly nice championship bout, with the undersized Cotto trying to jab his way to victory against Canelo, who struggled to cut off the ring. I had it a competitive bout; a lot closer than the judges, but no problem with the decision. It may not have been a classic fight, but one felt the crowd got their money’s worth.

The undercard probably helped: featuring a spectacular back-and forth brawl between Francisco Vargas and Takashi Miura and a typically dominant defensive performance from Guillermo Rigondeaux.

Here’s where I’m supposed to write “bring on 2016!” But the truth is it all feels a little shaky. MMA is facing legal struggles, with fighters frustrated by limited compensation and a feeling of unfair treatment in the current UFC-dominated climate. I still enjoy the sport, but I find myself struggling to argue with UFC middleweight Tim Kennedy when he says “where the sport is now is tragic and pathetic.” Meanwhile, boxing remains in a weird lull, and Glory leads kickboxing’s charge to be the most frustrating aspect of the fight game.

But, as in the case of Vargas vs. Miura, there’s always another great fight on the horizon — maybe from somewhere you don’t expect. Maybe that’s as good a way to remember 2015 as any.