"Fight of the year" is usually just something people say. In the MMA bubble, it's a phrase often attached to qualifiers like "potential" or "candidate," rendering its meaning as something less than superlative: an entertaining, competitive fight. Officially, if you’ve been a part of a fight of the year, it doesn’t mean you’ve earned a bonus, an all-inclusive Caribbean vacation, or anything except bragging rights. The main purpose of the "fight of the year" designation is to help fill out top-10 lists that people on the Internet write to take vacation days between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s all too easy for the famous and the belt holders to the put their thumbs on the scale: since 2010, all but one of the World MMA Awards’ Fights of the Year was for a title.
But if not fight of the year, how else to describe Cub Swanson versus Doo Ho Choi at UFC 206?
The featherweight bout between Swanson, the 33-year-old contender who's still rebuilding after having had the misfortune of facing Frankie Edgar and Max Holloway back to back, faced Doo Ho Choi, the unassuming 25-year-old "Korean Superboy" whose only defeat came six years ago and who's knocked out all three of his UFC opponents in the first round. This was supposed to be the fight that put Choi over. By the second round, it was clear that would happen, though maybe not as intended.
Both Swanson and Choi swung like they were demolishing a kitchen. Somewhere along the way, Joe Rogan adopted "Kid" as Choi's unofficial nickname while keeping pace with who was smacking whose jaw. The bout wandered everywhere a fight can—on the ground, tied up and brutalizing each other's bodies, just the right degree of separation for a flashy kick or two. Despite the shifts in advantage, the right fighter won: Swanson took two scores of 30-27 and one 29-28, earning a unanimous decision. Wearing scuffs all over his face, Choi told Rogan through a translator, "I prepared for the winning interview, and I really believed that I was going to win, and this is what losing feels like. I’m going to train even more and I’m not going to lose again."
The eruption of cheers for the defeated spoke to why we live for bouts like the one we just saw.
A fight of the year is not about one athlete’s dominance or a bully preying on a victim or one-sided, surgical destruction. It’s about how close one fighter can journey to the brink of certain defeat, only to snap back and send his or her opponent to the edge, then repeat the cycle. They jar us out of the familiar patterns we're used to seeing when two people punch each other in the face for three or five rounds. Think about Robbie Lawler versus Rory MacDonald, or Jon Jones versus Alexander Gustafsson, or Dan Henderson versus Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, and those fights more or less have the same final complexion: a tableau of two fighters spent, bloodied, bruised, pained, sometimes sporting cuts that make everyone else want to barf, their entire world a blur of perception.
We’re drawn to fights of the year because they reveal the highest virtues of a sport that some segment of the population will never understand. They are manifestations of achievement, where humans meet obstacles made of violence and punch their way through them. A fight of the year is more than entertainment. In the most dramatic way possible, it demonstrates all the qualities we hope we could summon ourselves.
And if you aren't too stupid to know better, fights of the year should leave you, the spectator, feeling conflicted. Swanson-Choi is the kind of performances that earn both participants goodwill for years to come precisely because they aren't the kind of things a fighter can do more than a few times. This was a fight that, in fighters' gallows humor parlance, takes years off lives. Odds are at least one of them was pissing blood afterward. With each new generation, fighters tend to get smarter and more thoughtful about measuring and mitigating the damage they've taken, but it's unavoidable: fights of the year are exactly what a longevity-minded fighter avoids for the sake of health and career.
There’s melancholy in the fleetingness of the moment, too. There's no lineal title to change hands, and by the time it gets its due we've usually turned the page on the calendar. Plus Swanson, despite riding a three-fight win streak with the victory over Choi, has four fighters ranked above him, all of whom have beaten him before. For Choi, a loss and a setback are synonyms. Fights of the year exist apart from concerns of championships and contenders, and they can only do so much for a fighter's upward mobility.
All of that seems irrelevant on this Monday morning. Swanson-Choi is this year's 15-minute monument to all that is true and good, two fighters showing us all we wish we could do ourselves. And next year, we'll see it all over again.
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