Both were hurt, bloodied, disfigured. As the round ended, Lawler turned his face to the ground and spewed blood at the canvas. When he looked up, Lawler and MacDonald caught each other's gaze for a good five seconds.
Lawler scowled. MacDonald stared calmly back at him. It was like they were both searching for any sign the other was breaking and coming up empty. And the stakes couldn't have been higher. MacDonald has been labeled "the future" of the sport since he was 16. Georges St-Pierre's protege. Lawler finally realized his full potential in 2014 after 13 years in the sport, not ready to cede the throne so quickly.
This fight, which Lawler won by TKO in the fifth round, ranks up there with the greatest fights in UFC history. Lawler broke MacDonald's nose with punches at some point. By the middle of the third, MacDonald's face was virtually unrecognizable. UFC commentator Joe Rogan described it as a "mask of blood."
It was the third round in which MacDonald turned the fight in his favor, though. He wobbled Lawler with a right head kick in the final minute. Lawler was on shaky legs as he went to his corner in between rounds. When he came out in the fourth, MacDonald hit him with kicks again. Referee John McCarthy could be heard asking Lawler if he was OK. Lawler's response was indignant. Of course he was OK.
When Lawler came out in the fifth, he was actually behind 39-37 on all three judges' scorecards. He needed a finish to defeat MacDonald, and he got it one minute in, when he caught MacDonald with his signature left hand. After MacDonald crumpled to the canvas, he tried to sit up but fell back again. Video of the jarring moment was widely circulated on social media.
Three months after the fight, in an interview with ESPN.com inside the MGM Grand, where the fight took place, Lawler said, "I hope I never have to go through another fight like that. That was a war. It was a great performance by both fighters, but I don't want to have to do that again. No one wants to fight like that if they don't have to. ... That's just heart and determination. You rely on it if you have to."
For the second time in two years, Gustafsson pushed a light heavyweight champion to the brink of defeat, only to see that champion rise to the occasion in the final round. Gustafsson has to be sick of this narrative, but he shouldn't be ashamed of it. His fight against Jon Jones at UFC 165 was the 2013 fight of the year, and his decision loss to Cormier in October was nearly as good. Cormier and Gustafsson have contrasting styles, but they are such great fighters, and they surprised each other at times during this fight with their strengths. You had Gustafsson taking Cormier down on several occasions and Cormier outstriking the lanky kickboxer in others. As was the case in 2013, this fight revealed the size of each light heavyweight's heart. Judges were split after five rounds, with Cormier getting the nod.
This UFC Chicago event will be remembered mostly for TJ Dillashaw's second win against Renan Barao and Miesha Tate earning a title shot she never received. But the best 15 minutes of the night came in a lightweight fight between Barboza and Felder, two lightning quick fighters. This was a violent, technical chess match on the feet, and it took place at warp speed, with Barboza winning by unanimous decision. Wouldn't mind seeing this one again someday.
Going in, there was a very real feeling that Henderson was biting off more than he could chew. Coming off a split-decision loss in January he felt he won, Henderson agreed to move up in weight to fight one of the bigger men of the welterweight division on two weeks' notice. There is no question size matters in MMA, but Henderson reminded us that technique can trump all. This was one of the greatest wins of his career.
Every Gaethje fight is wild, but he and Palomino took it to another level twice in 2015. Their rematch in September was good, but the original was better. Palomino went down multiple times. At the end of the first round, Gaethje recklessly front-flipped into Palomino's chest, apparently for the sheer heck of it. It was a test of endurance and pain tolerance. Gaethje ultimately won both fights.