Regardless of what happens next week at UFC 168 in Las Vegas, there is no denying that 2013 was a year of monumental change in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Fittingly, championship fights featuring two of the major catalysts of said change will headline the final event of the year, as women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey defends her title against her nemesis, Miesha Tate, while middleweight titleholder Chris Weidman faces off with Anderson Silva in a rematch of their UFC 162 battle that brought Silva’s epic winning streak and championship reign to a end.
Right now, we’re preparing for the Rousey-Tate rematch, a couple weeks after from the two rivals starring as opposing coaches on The Ultimate Fighter, and an even shorter period of time removed from the announcement that the UFC will add a second women’s division in 2014.
By this time next year, the UFC will have crowned the first-ever women’s strawweight champion – after the first-ever all-female season of The Ultimate Fighter – and women fighting in the Octagon will seem like something that has just always transpired. However, the reality is that it was just this time last year that Rousey was introduced as the first female fighter to join the UFC ranks.
There is no way to downplay the importance of this change – it is significant from a cultural standpoint in that women are finally competing on equal footing with their male counterparts on the biggest stage in the sport, and also in terms of the development of the sport, as the depth of talent and quality of the competition in the female ranks inside and outside of the UFC continues to improve by leaps and bounds with each passing month.
We saw this plain as day on the last season of The Ultimate Fighter, as a trio of distinguished veterans – Tara LaRosa, Shayna Baszler, and Roxanne Modafferi – all fell to younger, less established competitors at different stages of the competition.
The biggest change of the year came atop the middleweight division, when Weidman ended Silva’s 2,457-day reign atop the weight class and 16-fight UFC unbeaten streak by doubling up on his left hook as “The Spider” clowned with his hands down early in the second round at UFC 162.
Call it a fluke, karma, or simply the outcome of a fight – however you look at it, Weidman’s win over Silva in July ushered in a new era in the 185-pound ranks. Even if he loses next weekend, the Long Island native proved that the Brazilian icon wasn’t unbeatable after all, and could potentially close out the year by driving that point home with a second win over Silva.
Of course, no discussion of change in the UFC this year would be complete without addressing Georges St-Pierre’s recent decision to vacate the welterweight title and take an indefinite hiatus from the sport.
This marks the first time in more than five years that the French-Canadian superstar hasn’t been on top of the division – and the first time in seven years that neither man has held UFC gold.
While the decision to step back and relinquish the title was his own, many believe he lost his championship pairing with Johny Hendricks at UFC 167. Even if you’re on the other side of that debate, there is no arguing that it was the closest battle during St-Pierre’s tenure at the top, and the gap between the once untouchable superstar and his 170-pound rivals has narrowed considerably, if not disappeared altogether.
Change is inevitable and Father Time is the only one that truly goes undefeated in this sport – stick around long enough, and eventually everyone loses a step and gets upstaged by the next wave.
In St-Pierre and Silva, we have latest transcendent stars to come back to the pack a little; the same way Chuck Liddell did a few years ago and current champions will in the future. But they’re not the only members of their era to lose ground to the rising talent on the UFC roster.
The light heavyweight division has seen two former champions (Quinton Jackson and Tito Ortiz) depart the organization as shells of themselves, another (Forrest Griffin) hang up his four-ounce gloves for good, and a fourth (Mauricio Rua) regress to the point where a first-round knockout win over a fighter ranked outside of the Top 10 was a somewhat surprising result.
Other relics from the Pride era like Dan Henderson and The Nogueiras have clearly lost a step (or three) and slipped in the rankings, while former heavyweight champion and perennial contender Frank Mir will carry a three-fight losing streak into his UFC 169 match-up with Alistair Overeem on Super Bowl Saturday.
As Bob Dylan said, “The times, they are a-changing,” but the UFC is poised to just keep rolling right along.
Even with Silva and St-Pierre falling from the top of their respective divisions, the organization already has a pair of dominant champions in their midst – Jon Jones and Jose Aldo – with Rousey certainly showing the ability to follow that path as well.
Weidman could take another step towards achieving that status with a second consecutive victory over Silva, and more people need to acknowledge flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson’s dominance as well, seeing as “Mighty Mouse” has posted three victories in 2013 and has managed to turn aside the very best the division has to offer in less than two years.
While they may struggle to identify and manufacture stars at times, the UFC has always been fortunate to have an overlap between dominant champions – a few stars that can continue to carry the company flag when their predecessors call it quits.
We’re seeing that now as Silva and St-Pierre move aside for the next generation, just as Jones and others will somewhere down the line.
Despite their preparedness and ability to simply keep rolling along, there is no denying that 2013 has been a year of significant change – one that will leave an indelible mark on the UFC for years to come.