Knockouts are what make combat sports a little different than others.
Whether it's football, baseball, basketball or hockey, a team hopelessly behind on the scoreboard is tied to its fate, forced to finish out a game it is destined to lose. But in fighting sports, the possibility of a knockout is what keeps things interesting. No matter how far behind a fighter is on the scorecard, one well-placed strike can turn everything on its ear.
Knockouts come in all shapes and sizes, especially in MMA, where the tools of the trade vary considerably. Placed in the context of a meaningful, high-stakes event, a KO can do wonders for a reputation -- for better and worse.
That's why Fedor Emelianenko's stoppage of Andrei Arlovski at Affliction's Jan. 24 event is Sherdog's 2009 KO of the Year. Going into the match, Emelianenko was regarded as the world's best heavyweight and maybe its best pound-for-pound fighter. Against the talented Arlovski, though, he would encounter the kind of challenge he hadn't seen in the nearly three years since he outpointed Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic.
In the six bouts following that epic performance in Pride, Emelianenko's sole rough spot consisted of a few scary moments against slugger Mark Hunt, wrapped around one-sided blowouts of overmatched competition.
It was expected that Arlovski would bring more to the dance, given his 6-foot-4 frame, striking and athletic ability. Still, while his physical game was unquestioned, Arlovski had suffered from hot and cold performances since losing his UFC title to Tim Sylvia in 2006. At times overwhelming and at others seemingly disinterested, the ex-champ knew his work was cut out for him against Emelianenko.
Arlovski seemed confident that he could use his 4-inch height advantage, snapping a hard low kick home in the opening seconds. He then slipped a Fedor right and landed home a crisp cross counter. Although Fedor's stand-up will never be featured in a striking textbook, the champ's sense of timing and the ability to explode into small openings make his blows effective and opponents wary of opening up.
But Arlovski wasn't fazed, using his sharp boxing and reach to slip in and out of range, landing a punch here, a kick there, planting the seeds for what seemed to be shaping up as an upset. As the round progressed, Andrei's confidence seemed to grow as Fedor's aura appeared to evaporate. At 4:05 in the round, Arlovski landed a glancing right, a couple of slapping low kicks. Fifteen seconds later came another nice counter cross, when Fedor missed after wading in for a finisher that went nowhere as Andrei smartly moved back.
Frustrated from range, Emelianenko did what the great ones always do: He took the fight elsewhere.
Fedor's knockout was impressive. Tying up Arlovski on the ropes, he roughed him up with a quick knee to the midsection, only to find himself on the defensive, falling back and bouncing off the ropes to avoid a pair of upper-body toss takedowns. After more inconclusive clinch work, the pair separated at 2:30 and resumed stand-up action. With each Arlovski attack, Fedor seemed to be registering the proper angles for a counter, but Andrei kept switching up. He connected with a nice right lead at 2:11 that clearly got Fedor's attention. Arlovski mixed in a stiff body jab moments later, backing Fedor into a corner.
If you hadn't believed it before, it was clear at that point: Arlovski was beating Emelianenko to the punch and, it seemed, setting the stage for something spectacular. Arlovski landed another right hand, sending Fedor again into the corner -- another perfect strike that scored points while denying Fedor the range to fire back.
Then everything changed.
Driving Fedor into the corner with a quick left push kick, Arlovski, feeling his oats, stepped into what was meant to be a flying left knee. But Emelianenko countered with a booming right hand that landed flush on the chin as Arlovski sailed toward him. The stunning turnaround only cemented Emelianenko's reputation as a great fighter, one able to exploit the smallest openings and make the most of them, regardless of what his opponent had accomplished to that point.
Interestingly, both men would fight Brett Rogers in their next bouts, with results mimicking the outcome of this match. In Strikeforce's June show, Arlovski was taken out in 22 seconds by Rogers in an upset that sent shockwaves through the sport and earned Rogers a shot against Emelianenko. In the Fedor-Rogers showdown on Nov. 19, which headlined Strikeforce's debut on CBS, Emelianenko survived a broken nose and some scary moments before landing a thundering right hand that turned the momentum of the bout and led to a KO finish.
That's what makes Fedor who he is -- and the rest of us fortunate enough to merely live in his world.
Dan Henderson KO 2 Michael Bisping
With the prefight machinations featuring trash talk aplenty, perhaps the lesson here -- at least for Bisping and other young up-and-comers facing veterans such as Henderson -- is to let sleeping dogs lie. With bad blood and middleweight mojo on the line, Henderson took a round to gauge the striking of Bisping, who flitted in and out without really planting his feet or landing anything effective.
In the second round, Henderson delivered the bomb -- his trademark overhand right -- sending Bisping toppling to the canvas. In perhaps one of the more delicious finishes in recent years, Henderson pounced on a hapless Bisping as he lay on the canvas, connecting on a doozy of a right hand before being pulled off.
Lyoto Machida KO 2 Rashad Evans
As the defending UFC light heavyweight boss, with a 14-0-1 record to boot, Evans probably was one of a handful of undisputed, unbeaten champs in any combat sport to enter his first defense as an underdog. Given a 2-to-1 favorite line by sportsbooks for the fight, challenger Lyoto Machida had been impressive while dusting off a string of 205-pounders en route to his title shot.
After a largely uneventful first round, during which Machida and Evans circled and elicited some boos from the crowd, the Brazilian karate stylist let loose in the second. Known for his unorthodox blending of karate, foot sweeps and precision counters, Machida stunned Evans with a nifty left hand and then finished the job with a pinpoint onslaught that seemed otherworldly. It was the proper way to win a title and a nice beginning to a reign that grew controversial (and competitive) with his close decision over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua months later.
Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.