UFC in 2012: Bendo, GSP bookending triumphs

December 24, 2012, 2:06 PM

By some accounts, 2012 was a down year for the UFC.

There was definitely lots of action featuring many outstanding fights, not to mention the introduction of some future stars (Rory MacDonald, Alex Gustafsson) and the continued dominance of some champions (Anderson Silva and Jon Jones).

But many of the UFC’s belt-holders only competed once in the past 12 months (Junior dos Santos, Georges St-Pierre, Jose Aldo), if at all (Dominick Cruz). This was due mostly to injuries, leading to the creation of two new interim titles (Carlos Condit defeated Nick Diaz to win the interim welterweight belt and Renan Barao beat Urijah Faber at bantamweight).

And there were a plethora of said injuries (more on that) and also a number of fighters suspended for failed drug tests (Diaz and Alistair Overeem, to name a couple).

The timing wasn’t great considering it was also the first year of the UFC’s blockbuster deal with the FOX network, which saw some great shows but overall some disappointing numbers, going from 5.7 million viewers in the debut show in November 2011 down to 4.7 million in the second, 2.4 million for the third and fourth before bouncing back slightly to 4.3 million viewers for December’s fifth FOX show.

2012 may have also been the year that that Canada lost its “title” as the “mecca of MMA” to Brazil. For the first time ever, there were as many shows in the South American country as there were in the Great White North and they did tremendous numbers, both at the venues and on TV, while Canada had shows in Montreal and Toronto that didn’t come close to selling out. Brazil also beat out Canada in getting the first international Ultimate Fighter show.

But that’s not to say there weren’t some great moments, including the return to Japan and debuts in Sweden, China, and of course, Calgary. Not to mention the year will end with two more divisions than in 2011, with Demetrious Johnson and Ronda Rousey as the UFC’s first flyweight and women’s bantamweight champions, respectively.

So lest I sound too negative, here’s a look at some of the most noteworthy things from 2012 in the UFC.

Fighter of the year: Benson “Smooth” Henderson

It’s hard to argue anyone had a better 2012 than lightweight champion Benson Henderson, at least on paper. He was the only UFC fighter to both win a title and successfully defend it, and he did that twice. Overall, he went 3-0 on the year and only a couple fighters bettered that.

While there are many fans out there who believe he really should have been 1-2 because they scored both of his fights against Frankie Edgar for the former title-holder, Henderson certainly proved he deserves to be considered among the best at 155 pounds, cementing that notion with his five-round domination of Nate Diaz.

No fighter displayed the same array of strength, stamina and athleticism as he did so consistently in his trio of winning performances. He has always been a respectful individual, but we also saw him develop an endearing — and even coy — personality, playing with the media over the fact he may have beaten Diaz with a toothpick in his mouth the whole time.

In 2012 Benson truly earned his “Smooth” moniker in more ways than one.

Honourable mention: Demetrious Johnson

The man called Mighty Mouse was the only other fighter to win a fight to become UFC champion for the first time. Like Henderson, two of his fights were controversial decisions, with one against Ian McCall ending in a draw (forcing a rematch that he won) and the other a split decision over Joseph Benavidez for the first ever 125-pound belt. But no matter how you slice it, Johnson helped proved the little guys can fly.

Villain of the year: Jon Jones

After having one of the best campaigns in UFC history in 2011, light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones managed to draw the ire of fans, fellow fighters and the UFC brass with one much-debated decision not to fight a willing Chael Sonnen on nine-days’ notice after Dan Henderson, his original opponent headlining UFC 151 on Sept. 1 pulled out with injury.

This led to the unprecedented cancellation of an entire UFC card. Fans with tickets were left empty-handed, other fighters on the card were left without a paycheque, and the organization was left embarrassed.

While this isn’t to say it was all Jones’ fault or that he didn’t have a right to choose what is best for his career, but it was clear who most people deemed public enemy No. 1 and Jones did not help his cause with an apparent “me-first” attitude that came out of his choice of words.

Dishonourable mention: Alistair Overeem

Don’t mention Overeem’s name to Dana White anytime soon. After telling the UFC boss not to worry about testing clean for his UFC 146 title fight against Junior dos Santos, Overeem ended up failing a test due to elevated testosterone. White was so angry he refused to talk to him anymore, leaving those duties to UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta. He also blasted Overeem on an impromptu conference call immediately after learning the news, but that wasn’t even his craziest tirade of 2012…

Rant of the year: Dana White in T.O.

One of my predictions at the beginning of the year was that White would have a meltdown in 2012. Not sure if this exactly qualifies, but his remarks at the UFC 152 post-fight press conference in Toronto constitute something a promoter should never do — tell his fans to stop watching his product.

Actually, it was even worse than that. In reaction to those who booed and/or criticized the first-ever flyweight title about between Johnson and Benavidez, who battled for 25 hard minutes of action in the co-main event of the Sept. 22 show at the Air Canada Centre, White was livid and went as far as calling them “morons.”

“Let me tell you what: If you didn’t like that flyweight fight, please, I’m begging you, don’t ever buy another UFC pay-per-view again,” White said. “Don’t ever buy another one. I don’t want your money. You’re a moron, you don’t like fighting and you don’t appreciate great talent or heart if you didn’t like that flyweight fight.”

White’s outrage did not end there as he then directed another staunch criticism at Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons for a column he posted that week which he claimed contained numerous factual errors. He was right, though he was sort of splitting hairs.

Honourable mention: Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen

Any time entertaining old Chael opens his mouth you’ll usually find words worthy of rant of the year consideration. But it was when Silva finally responded, saying on a conference call that he was going to break every bone in Sonnen’s body, that people really took note. As if their rivalry couldn’t have gotten any more heated.

Buzz word of the year: Injury bug

A common theme that ran through 2012 in the UFC (more appropriately, haunted the UFC in 2012) was the “injury bug.” While injuries are an expected thing to occur in a combat sport, it seemed to reach ridiculous proportions this year, leading many to wonder if there were some sort of virus going around.

Last-minute injuries led to multiple main events getting scrapped or swapped and even led to the aforementioned cancellation of one show.

But it was no more evident than at July’s UFC 149. The debut show in Calgary had every single one of its originally scheduled bouts changed, which soured people on the event and had many actually calling for that show to be cancelled believing the new card not worthy of the ticket price.

Honourable mention: Super-fight

This word was bandied about so many times, it almost lost its meaning, being applied to simple title fights like Aldo vs. Edgar simply because Edgar was the former lightweight champion. But the running debate throughout the latter part of the year was whether we would see Silva vs. GSP or Jones vs. Silva anytime soon. That’s likely a question for 2013.

Newsmaker of the year: Georges St-Pierre

Even though he spent most of the year on the sidelines and fought only once all year, nobody made headlines in 2012 like GSP.

The questions were continually raised right from January about how the welterweight champion from Montreal was doing in his rehab from the knee injury he suffered in December 2011 and subsequent surgery. Everyone wondered when he’d be able to return, and when he did, would he be the same dominant fighter we last saw at UFC 129 in April 2011.

Any time St-Pierre released any updates on his status, fans and media were all over it, and he made it easy with his constant documentation through video blogs and social media.

Once it was finally announced he was returning to the cage on Nov. 17 at UFC 154 in Montreal, people were filled with anticipation. Any new quote of his — such as him saying he didn’t believe he was the champion for lack of defending his belt, and was looking to dethrone Condit — was magnified.

And when he entered the Octagon to face Carlos Condit to unify the welterweight titles, he did not disappoint. Five rounds later, the champ was back. And the UFC had its pay-per-view king again.

Of course, the headlines didn’t end then. The talk then turned to who would be next. The UFC wanted Anderson Silva, many fans and purists wanted Johny Hendricks, but St-Pierre wanted Nick Diaz. And when you carry the amount of clout that GSP has (and fully regained with his dominant win), you get what you want.

Considering how many eyes St-Pierre draws to the UFC, he deserved it. And he also deserves the title of newsmaker of the year for 2012.

Honourable mention: Ronda Rousey

She didn’t even compete in the UFC in 2012, yet the Rowdy one found herself in the news almost as much as St-Pierre. Winning the Strikeforce women’s title in March and then defending it in August — both by highly-impressive first-round armbar — the question was whether her star power would be enough to get women in the UFC for the first time. That was confirmed on Dec. 6, which to some could be a game-changer.

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