There were two fights this year that I gave the elusive five-star rating. They actually complement each other very well, and were the best examples of the two basic categories for MMA matches — striking and grappling. Here’s my Top Ten favorite matches of the year, as well as some other year-end awards.
2006 TOP TEN MATCHES
1. Mark Hunt vs. Yosuke Nishijima (PRIDE 31 – 2/26/06)
STAR RATING: (*****) For me, the best slugfest of the year took place on the first PRIDE event of 2006. Mark Hunt was coming off back-to-back wins over Wanderlei Silva and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. Yosuke Nishijima, an accomplished professional boxer, was making his MMA debut. Not a great spot to be making your debut. If ever there was an example of a promotion throwing a fighter to the proverbial wolves, this was it. Nishijima was given zero chance to win. It’s highly doubtful a match-up this disproportionate could have even gotten sanctioned in North America, especially considering the Nevada State Athletic Commission wouldn’t sanction a Mark Hunt vs. Butterbean MMA match. Nevertheless, there are no commissions in Japan, so Nishijima was given a chance to shine in this awful spot, and did he ever. Nishijima survived sixteen minutes with the Samoan monster, even having Hunt on the ropes several times. Nishijima just would not die in this brutal, bloody masterpiece. I’m not surprised this match isn’t getting much year end consideration, considering it took place so early in 2006. If you haven’t seen this match, you should do everything in your power to seek this one out. The intensity of this match is as close to anything I’ve seen in PRIDE since Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama way back in 2002. This was my personal favorite match of the year, comparable to a great exploitation film. The next fight was just as good as this one, and most will argue even better, but for my money — I had the absolute most fun during this match. I was in awe of the next match, too, but Hunt vs. Nishijima takes the top spot for me.
RAMIFICATIONS: Mark Hunt went on to take out Tsuyoshi Kosaka, but then dropped two straight to Josh Barnett and Fedor Emelianenko to round out the year. Yosuke Nishijima remains winless after 2006, having also lost to Hidehiko Yoshida, Evangelista Santos and Phil Baroni.
2. Karo Parisyan vs. Diego Sanchez (UFC Fight Night 6 – 8/17/06)
STAR RATING: (*****) If Hunt vs. Nishijima was like a great B-movie, then this one was like a classic work of cinema by Akira Kurosawa. The greatest part of this match was that it aired on basic cable television for all the world to see. Those who tuned in to Spike TV were treated to a technical masterpiece. For three solid rounds, Karo Parisyan and Diego Sanchez, two of the best young fighters in the game today, put on a clinic in submission grappling. Any Sanchez doubters were silenced with his merciless performance here against one of the top fighters in the world. Parisyan fell a bit short in this match, but not for lack of effort. Plenty of fighters have won matches and looked less impressive than Parisyan did in this one.
RAMIFICATIONS: Diego Sanchez remains undefeated after also defeating Joe Riggs at the next UFC Fight Night, where Karo Parisyan also got back to his winning ways against Drew Fickett — a match that has also made this list.
3. Forrest Griffin vs. Tito Ortiz (UFC 59 – 4/15/06)
STAR RATING: (****) After the first round, it seemed Forrest Griffin was out of his league against Tito Ortiz. The aura of Ortiz, with him being such an icon in the sport, had mentally gotten to Griffin. In an interview later in the year, Griffin admitted to thinking before this match that it would be okay to lose to a star like Ortiz, because it would not hurt his career. Griffin went on to say that after the first round, he began to think that he actually had a real chance in this fight. However much he had doubted his own ability to win, after surviving a hellacious beating from Ortiz in the first round, Griffin was still alive in the fight. His confidence grew immeasurably, and he went on to win what many believe to be the last two rounds of the fight. Ortiz was awarded the split decision victory by the judges, however, so history will show Ortiz as the winner, but there is no way you could have called Griffin a loser after his incredibly impressive performance here, against one of the best to have even stepped into the octagon.
RAMIFICATIONS: Tito Ortiz went on to whoop Ken Shamrock twice, before suffering an extremely disappointing loss to Chuck Liddell at UFC 66. Ortiz failed in what may end up being his last attempt to regain the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship he once held. Forrest Griffin went on to beat Stephan Bonnar once again to reestablish momentum. That momentum was suddenly halted at UFC 66, though, when Griffin suffered the biggest loss of his career against Keith Jardine. Speculation was rampant that Griffin would be next in line for a title shot, but now he’s going to have to regroup once again. Too bad Stephan Bonnar is off on suspension for the steroids.
4. Matt Hughes vs. B.J. Penn (UFC 63 – 9/23/06)
STAR RATING: (****) An epic rematch that delivered on all the hype. Matt Hughes was supposed to be fighting Georges St. Pierre, but due to an injury, he was out. So, in came B.J. Penn — literally the one guy who was able to beat Matt Hughes in the five years prior to this bout. Penn had fallen short in his number one contender match with Georges St. Pierre (which is also on this list) earlier in the year, but when St. Pierre went down with an injury, the door was opened for Penn to get his much-deserved rematch with Hughes. For three exciting rounds, Hughes fended off Penn, who looked like he might have Hughes’ number again, until Hughes was finally able to find redemption in the form of a TKO victory. These are two of the greatest warriors to have ever taken part in an MMA match, and their skills shined as bright as ever on this night.
RAMIFICATIONS: After suffering his first-ever second straight loss, albeit against the UFC’s top two welterweights, B.J. Penn is dropping down to the lightweight division. His exciting style should match up well against some of the lighter fighters. Penn will be a coach on The Ultimate Fighter 5, with Jens Pulver, and the two coaches will fight at the show’s finale. Matt Hughes went on to suffer only his second loss in over five years to Georges St. Pierre at UFC 65. Hughes will be taking on Chris Lytle at UFC 68, in the pursuit of regaining the UFC Welterweight Championship.
5. Josh Barnett vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (PRIDE Final Conflict Absolute – 9/10/06)
STAR RATING: (****) Two of the top five heavyweights in the world clashed in the semi-finals of the PRIDE 2006 Open Weight Grand Prix. Ever since his debut, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira has been basically untouchable. The only fighter that has been able to handle Nogueira has been Fedor Emelianenko. Other than Emelianenko, Nogueira has had his way with many of the best fighters in the world. A win against Nogueira would be the biggest of Josh Barnett’s career, and thanks to a split decision, Barnett got it, but not without taking one helluva beating from Nogueira in the process. You’d be hard pressed to find a better technical match between two heavyweights than this one.
RAMIFICATIONS: Josh Barnett, having taken too much punishment from Nogueira, was not able to muster up the testicular fortitude necessary to match wits with Mirko Cro Cop in the finals of the tournament. Barnett ended up being the PRIDE 2006 Open Weight Grand Prix runner-up. After beating the doped-up Pawel Nastula at PRIDE 32, Barnett and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira had a rematch on New Year’s Eve, where Nogueira knotted up the series in another fantastic match. Hopefully we’ll get Barnett-Nogueira III in 2007 to complete an epic trilogy.
6. Drew Fickett vs. Karo Parisyan (UFC Fight Night 7 – 12/13/06)
STAR RATING: (****-) Karo Parisyan managed to make this Top Ten list with back-to-back UFC Fight Night matches. After an amazing performance against Diego Sanchez, Parisyan was next pitted against Drew Fickett. Most folks weren’t thinking Fickett had much of a chance against the Judo master, with Parisyan himself going so far as to call Fickett a B-level fighter. In this match, Fickett stepped up his A-game and brought the fight to Parisyan like few not named Sanchez have. Fickett was seemingly seconds away from finishing the fight at the end of the second round. Parisyan, though, was not about to lose two in a row, and vanquished Fickett’s hopes with a tremendously dominating third round performance.
RAMIFICATIONS: Both of these fighters are sitting pretty in the UFC welterweight division after this grueling match. Karo Parisyan is the higher-ranked fighter, and the bigger star who will be getting all the perks, but Drew Fickett is slowly establishing some superstardom of his own.
7. B.J. Penn vs. Georges St. Pierre (UFC 58 – 3/4/06)
STAR RATING: (****-) This number one contender match was to determine the next opponent for UFC Welterweight Champion Matt Hughes. Georges St. Pierre won the split decision, but definitely was looking the worse for wear after the fight, with his bloodied face. Despite the blood, St. Pierre continued to come at Penn like a unforgiving Cyborg hell-bent on destruction. Penn fended off St. Pierre well, dishing out a plate full of beatdown to the Canadian. In the end, though, the judges went with St. Pierre, so he would get the title shot at UFC 63…
RAMIFICATIONS: …or not, as Georges St. Pierre suffered an injury in training. Instead, B.J. Penn was given the title shot and was unsuccessful. St. Pierre would get his chance at the title at UFC 65, where he finally unseated the champion Matt Hughes to regain the UFC Welterweight Championship. St. Pierre was supposed to be defending his title against TUF 4 winner Matt Serra at UFC 67, but he has once again suffered an injury in training that will delay the title match.
8. Shonie Carter vs. Matt Serra (UFC The Ultimate Fighter 4 – Aired 10/19/06)
STAR RATING: (***+) The four and five-star matches are always technically the best matches, but it’s the three-plus-star matches that are some of the most fun. They may not go down in history as the greatest matches ever, but they are ones that you’ll remember for a long time to come. Personally, this was one of my favorite matches of the year. Taking away the star ratings and just ranking matches on how much fun they were for me personally, this one would be a lot higher on my list. Since this match was part of the TUF tournament, Shonie Carter and Matt Serra got an unusually lengthy build-up for this match. Outside of TUF, there is little forum for this type of promotion for a match. Weeks and months went by, as tension built between these two in the TUF mansion. Serra suffered the only KO of his career against Carter. Serra had to live in the same house as Carter, bearing witness to his bizarre behavior day in and out, all the while knowing this clown was the one guy to KO him. Serra was going mad with anticipation for a rematch. Carter was fairly nonchalant about the whole thing, even saying he’d rather not fight Serra again. There was no way this match couldn’t be made once the opportunity presented itself, though, so in the TUF 4 semi-finals, we got Carter-Serra II. Serra won the match, but may have found his greatest redemption in having survived a spinning backfist from Carter.
RAMIFICATIONS: As soon as Georges St. Pierre heals up, Matt Serra will get the title shot he earned by winning TUF 4. Shonie Carter tried for yet another comeback at UFC Fight Night 7, where he lost a unanimous decision to Marcus Davis. Love him or hate him, Shonie Carter is a true star and he will be back.
9. Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic vs. Wanderlei Silva (PRIDE Final Conflict Absolute – 9/10/06)
STAR RATING: (***+) Before the semi-finals of the PRIDE 2006 Open Weight Grand Prix, Wanderlei Silva had only ever lost twice by TKO, once due to a cut and once to Vitor Belfort due to strikes in the UFC. No one had ever officially knocked out Silva, that is until Mirko Cro Cop landed a brutal head kick that KO’d the monster. I’d be scared not to call Wanderlei Silva the best fighter that has ever lived, for fear that he’d eat my children. I am actually frightened of how frightened Silva makes me, he really is that scary. Silva and Cro Cop in the same ring is like a dream come true. They met once before, at PRIDE 20, but the bout ended in a draw after three rounds. This rematch was long in the waiting, and when it finally came, it delivered fireworks. Cro Cop landing that kick to the head of Silva is an image I will never forget. Only in a year as amazing as 2006 could a match of this magnitude actually fall to number eight on this list.
RAMIFICATIONS: Cro Cop of course went on to win the PRIDE 2006 Open Weight Grand Prix tournament, and then by year’s end, he signed with the UFC. Cro Cop will be making his octagon debut at UFC 67 against Eddie Sanchez. While Sanchez is a quality fighter, he is no Wanderlei Silva. Silva will be returning to the ring in February for PRIDE’s second U.S. show in Las Vegas.
10. Amanda Buckner vs. Tara LaRosa (BodogFight – 8/22/06)
STAR RATING: (***+) Anyone who doesn’t feel there is potential in women’s MMA matches, need look no further than this match for proof that there is room for women in MMA. You’re not going to catch either of these world class fighters foxy boxing or mud wrestling. Amanda Buckner and Tara LaRosa are two of the best female fighters in the world right now. Women’s MMA is still pretty limited, and thus, so are the number of quality fighters. If the skill level exhibited in this match, though, is any indication of what is in store for the future, people will have no choice but to take these athletes seriously someday. The UFC, still struggling to gain mainstream acceptance for the sport in general, understandably can’t really even consider women’s MMA matches at this point, but the smaller, more niche promotions can and do successfully promote women’s matches. Many mainstream audiences still wince at the idea of grown men in MMA matches, so gaining mainstream acceptance for women is still going to take quite awhile. The number of women interested in watching and participating in MMA, though, continues to grow rapidly, so it’s not a matter of if — it’s a matter of when — there is more proportionate gender equality in MMA. Kudos to these two ladies for leading the way. I’d love to see a rematch of this highly competitive bout in 2007.
RAMIFICATIONS: With this victory, Tara LaRosa earned a spot on the BodogFight PPV, where she defeated Russian Red Devil fighter Julia Berezekova. Thanks to the ubiquitous Calvin Ayre and Bodog, women’s fighting is getting a chance to earn the respect it deserves. With so many smaller promotions regularly featuring a women’s match, 2007 will continue to see a growth in female participation in the sport.
10 More of the Best Matches of the Year
Melvin Manhoef vs. Evangelista Santos (Cage Rage 15 – 2/4/06)
Luiz Azeredo vs. Joachim Hansen (PRIDE Bushido 10 – 4/2/06)
Andrei Arlovski vs. Tim Sylvia (UFC 59 – 4/15/06)
Chris Horodecki vs. Erik Owings (IFL Championship 2006 – 6/3/06)
Kendall Grove vs. Ed Herman (UFC The Ultimate Fighter 3 Finale – 6/24/06)
Matt Lindland vs. Quinton Jackson (WFA King of the Streets – 7/22/06)
Pete Sell vs. Scott Smith (UFC The Ultimate Fighter 4 Finale – 11/11/06)
Drew McFedries vs. Alessio Sakara (UFC 65 – 11/18/06)
Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz (UFC 66 – 12/30/06)
Josh Barnett vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (PRIDE Shockwave 2006 – 12/31/06)
So, that wraps up my favorite MMA matches from the year. Now, time for some individual honors.
BEST FIGHTER OF THE YEAR – Chuck Liddell
Liddell successfully defended his title three times in 2006, taking out some of the best fighters in the light heavyweight division — Randy Couture, Renato Sobral and Tito Ortiz. The recent comparison of Liddell to Mike Tyson in his prime is about an accurate a comparison as can be made.
Runner-Up – Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic for also going undefeated in 2006, in the process winning the PRIDE 2006 Open Weight Grand Prix. Cro Cop jumping to the UFC is one of the biggest MMA moves in years.
BEST KNOCKOUT OF THE YEAR – Scott Smith’s KO over Pete Sell (UFC The Ultimate Fighter 4 Finale)
Sell delivered a debilitating punch to the ribs of Smith. Smith, who was in the process of falling to the ground, threw a Hail Mary punch at Sell in a last-gasp effort to save himself. The punch landed square to the button of Sell and both fighters fell to the mat. Sell was out cold, so Smith won the match, even though he wouldn’t have been able to continue on in the match otherwise.
5 More of the Best Knockouts of the Year
Mirko Cro Cop’s Head Kick KO over Wanderlei Silva (PRIDE Final Conflict Absolute)
Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto’s Flying Knee KO over Kazuyuki Miyata (K-1 Hero’s 5)
Anderson Silva’s Knee KO over Chris Leben (UFC Fight Night 5)
Chris Horodecki’s Combination Kick KO over Erik Owings (IFL Championship 2006)
Diego Sanchez’s Running Knee KO over Joe Riggs (UFC Fight Night 7)
BEST SUBMISSION OF THE YEAR – Shinya Aoki’s Gogoplata Submission over Joachim Hansen (PRIDE Shockwave 2006)
I’ve seen plenty of fighters try for a gogoplata, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen someone actually use the move to secure a victory. Aoki tied Hansen up into a pretzel and got him to tap out in a way most fighters only dream of being able to finish a fight. Winning a fight by a gogoplata submission is akin to winning a basketball game by hitting a half-court shot, or winning a football game by catching a Hail Mary pass in the end zone with no time left on the clock. It’s not going to happen that often, and when it does, all you can do is sit back in wonder and amazement.
5 More of the Best Submissions of the Year
Jason MacDonald’s Triangle Choke Submission over Ed Herman (UFC Ortiz vs. Shamrock III: The Final Chapter)
Marcus Aurelio’s Arm Triangle Choke Submission over Takanori Gomi (PRIDE Bushido 10)
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua’s Kneebar Submission over Kevin Randleman (PRIDE 32)
Renzo Gracie’s Jumping Guillotine Choke Submission over Pat Miletich (IFL Gracie vs. Miletich)
Travis Lutter’s Armbar Submission over Patrick Cote (UFC The Ultimate Fighter 4)
BEST COMEBACK OF THE YEAR – Hermes Franca
After going 0-3 to end 2005, Franca came back with a vengeance in 2006. Franca went an amazing 7-0 in 2006, and he wasn’t facing slouches. Franca scored wins over Gabe Ruediger, Ryan Schultz, Joe Jordan and Jamie Varner. Franca really stepped up his game in 2006, and with a new UFC contract in 2007, he’ll be looking to continue his winning ways on the big stage.
Runner-Up – Josh Barnett for taking out Kazuhiro Nakamura, Aleksander Emelianenko, Mark Hunt and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, before losing to Mirko Cro Cop in the PRIDE 2006 Open Weight Grand Prix finals. With a 5-2 record in 2006, Barnett rose to the upper echelons of the heavyweight rankings, after having gone 1-2 throughout all of 2004 and 2005. Both of those losses, of course, and one of his losses in 2006 were all to Mirko Cro Cop. Now that the pesky Cro Cop has left for the UFC, there is no reason why Barnett shouldn’t get a shot at the PRIDE Heavyweight Championship against Fedor Emelianenko. Barnett is one of the few heavyweights in PRIDE that Emelianenko has yet to dispose of, and Barnett has certainly earned a shot at the title.
BREAKOUT FIGHTER OF THE YEAR – Denis Kang
While Kang’s potential has been touted for some time now, 2006 was the year he really broke out. He turned potential into results, with victories over Murilo “Ninja” Rua, Amar Suloev and Akihiro Gono. Kang made it to the finals of the 2006 PRIDE Lightweight Grand Prix, but lost a controversial decision to Kazuo Misaki. Misaki had already tapped out to Paulo Filho in the tournament, but Filho could not continue, so Misaki got his spot in the finals. While Kang didn’t win the Grand Prix, he did manage to live up to, and perhaps exceed, the hype that has been surrounding him.
Runner-Up – Kendall Grove for defying the odds and winning TUF 3, as well as winning his first post-TUF match over Chris Price at UFC Ortiz vs. Shamrock III: The Final Chapter.
BIGGEST UPSET OF THE YEAR – Joe Lauzon over Jens Pulver (UFC 63)
In his UFC debut, Lauzon scored an unbelievable knockout in less than a minute over a fighter who was once considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. All eyes will be on J-Lau in his next UFC match.
Runner-Up – James Thompson over Hidehiko Yoshida (PRIDE Shockwave 2006)
FIGHTER WITH THE BIGGEST HEART, BUT THE WORST RECORD – Ross Pointon
On The Ultimate Fighter 3, when none of the light heavyweights were willing to step up to replace the injured Matt Hamill in the semi-finals against Michael Bisping, Pointon was more than willing to move up in weight to fight Bisping. Although Pointon had already lost to Kendall Grove in the middleweight portion of the show and lost to Bisping once before, he did not hesitate in accepting the opportunity. Pointon lost to Bisping once again, as was expected, but no one, absolutely no one, can question his heart. In his next UFC outing, Pointon again lost quickly, this time to Rory Singer. The charisma and courage Pointon has shown in the UFC keeps getting him more opportunities. There aren’t many 4-7 fighters that the UFC is going to keep promoting, but Pointon is one of them. He’ll be back again at UFC Fight Night 8, where he’ll square off against Rich Clementi.
Runner-Up – Yosuke Nishijima for continuing to try and try again. In boxing, Nishijima was feared. In MMA, he’s become somewhat of a laughing stock. After going toe to toe with Mark Hunt for three rounds in his debut, Nishijima went on to lose three straight matches by submission. While I consider his match with Hunt to be the best match of the year, his three other matches in 2006 really left something to be desired. Nishijima has a ton of heart, but his lack of preparedness against submissions may very well be what keeps him from ever getting a win in this sport. Nishijima isn’t going to be winning any awards for his intelligent gameplan, but he’s got as much heart as anyone in the sport today.
FIGHTER WHO MOST NEEDS TO RETIRE – Kazushi Sakuraba
Kazushi Sakuraba is my personal favorite fighter of all time. Sakuraba redefined the sport for me. After the early UFC had pushed violence so much, Sakuraba came along and was the most humble and vibrant fighter I had ever seen. Sakuraba brought a flair to MMA that had been missing. He incorporated pro wrestling showmanship into fighting, and the entire sport benefited. We now sit over a decade removed from Sakuraba’s debut in the sport. Sakuraba has fought some of the best fighters in the world, and has taken a lot of punishment in the process. In late September, Sakuraba was diagnosed with damage to the vertebrobasilar system of his brain. This damage was stopping the proper flow of blood to the base of Sakuraba’s brain. This injury was attributed to the many years of blows to the head and neck that Sakuraba has taken in MMA and his amateur and professional wrestling careers. As would be expected for Sakuraba, brain injuries be damned, he was back fighting again on New Year’s Eve for K-1. Sakuraba lost to Yoshihiro Akiyama via TKO. Controversy surrounds the match, as Sakuraba has claimed Akiyama was greased up for their match, limiting Sakuraba’s ability to secure a submission. The real controversy should be why Sakuraba was even fighting at all in the first place, after being diagnosed with this medical condition. The legacy of Sakuraba will never be forgotten. All that is left now is for Sakuraba to continue to tarnish his reputation by fighting beyond his time. It is painful to watch your hero go out like this. Please Sakuraba, go out on your own terms. Hang up your boots while you still can. You’ve done far too much for this sport to be going out on someone else’s terms.
Runner-Up – Mark Coleman for bringing his two young daughters into the ring after Fedor Emelianeko had tenderized his face. Coleman, like Sakuraba, is one of the best ever, but unfortunately, his time has come. At this point, he can only hurt the legacy he has worked so hard to build.
YOUR THOUGHTS? Are there any matches that I left off my Top Ten list that you feel deserve mentioning as the year’s best? Send in your own Top Ten (or any other number) lists and we can post them here on MMATorch. If you can list it, we can print it. Send in your favorite matches, submissions, knockouts or whatever of 2006. You can put them in straight list format, or you can give us some insight behind your choices. Now that you’ve heard what I think, let’s hear what you think about the year in MMA that was 2006.
Your opinions on the Best of the Year for 2006, as well as any other comments, questions, concerns and the like can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.