2018 (First Half) MMA Awards
We’re almost two thirds of the way though 2018 so this isn’t exactly going to be awards for the first half of the year but much like the film industry, MMA tends to “save the best for last” by stacking events towards the end of the year. The UFC loves to end the year with a bang and ever since MMA was legalized in New York they’ve treated their annual November trip to Madison Square Garden like its the Super Bowl. Not to mention the return of Conor McGregor in October and whispers of comebacks for Brock Lesnar, Jon Jones, and Georges St. Pierre. We’ve got plenty to look forward to over the final four months but before we sprint down the stretch lets take a look back and reflect on the best things we’ve seen so far. It hasn’t been a banner year to this date to say the least. Some of the biggest headlines of the year have more to do with fights falling through, our biggest star in legal trouble, and one of the pound for pound best dealing with some potentially career threatening issues. Despite that, there has been plenty that reminds us why we love this sport. Lets get to it.
(You can discuss, agree, disagree, or submit your own nominations on the BSL Board here.)
Fighter of the Year – Daniel Cormier
It doesn’t get much better than this. DC could sit out the rest of the year and would probably still win this award come January 1st. Obviously there have been better years than this, look no further than Cormier’s biggest rival Jon Jones the year he won the belt, but fight two times and win two different belts to become only the second fighter in UFC history to hold two of them simultaneously. In January at UFC 220 he TKO’d Volkan Oezdemir in the second round to win back his light heavyweight championship six months after he was knocked out by Jones at UFC 214. Obviously we know the story of how Jones tested positive for a banned substance and had the fight overturned, vacating the belt, but to come back from such adversity and look like vintage DC despite suffering the first KO of his career was a great feat. To top that off by going up to heavyweight six months later and knocking out the champion with the most heavyweight title defenses in UFC history in Stipe Miocic at UFC 226, thats something else. He cemented himself as a legend of the sport with that first round finish. Despite losing twice to Jon Jones I don’t see how you can exclude Daniel Cormier from the top 5 pound for pound fighters in MMA history. He has a fight lined up to defend his heavyweight title against Brock Lesnar early in 2019 but says hes looking to defend his light heavyweight belt before the end of 2018. If Jones can become eligible that would be a nice trilogy to headline the MSG card (UFC 230) in November. We shall see.
Honorable Mentions – Henry Cejudo, Rose Namajunas
Fight of the Year – Robert Whittaker vs. Yoel Romero, UFC 225
Again, much like Daniel Cormier, this one is going to be tough to top come the end of the year. These guys had a great first fight at UFC 213 when Whittaker won by a close but clear unanimous decision. The sequel was even better. Romero earned a rematch by knocking out Luke Rockhold to win the interim middleweight title at UFC 221 after Whittaker had to pull out due to injury. The rematch started off looking similar to the first fight but it didn’t take long for things to get crazy. Come to find out later that Romero broke his orbital bone in the first round and Whittaker broke his hand not long after but it didn’t slow them down. Whittaker won the fight via split decision (I had it scored a 47-47 draw) but it was a war that could’ve gone either way. Whittaker probably won three close rounds but the two rounds he lost, he lost definitively and was almost finished multiple times. Both of these guys hit hard, have granite chins, and are as tough as nails. Taking beatings like this probably aren’t good for your future performances (just ask Carlos Condit and Robbie Lawler) but they certainly entertain the viewers and earn you fans for life.
Honorable Mentions – Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje (UFC on FOX 29), Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UFC 223)
Card of the Year – UFC 225
There have actually been a lot of really good cards this year. Most of them have been top heavy but the UFC Pay-Per-Views have pretty much all delivered. UFC 225 wins this pretty handily for me. Obviously having the current fight of the year in the main event doesn’t hurt but it had a little bit of everything throughout the rest of the card. Colby Covington might be the most hate-able fighter on the roster but he put on a high paced, relentless performance against Rafael Dos Anjos to win the interim welterweight belt (which is set to be stripped from him in a few weeks but I digress…). The first ever non-title women’s featherweight fight when Holly Holm beat Megan Anderson. A young heavyweight prospect taking out a tough veteran (Tai Tuivasa over Andrei Arlovski). A freak show with CM Punk losing his second fight against an 0-1 Mike Jackson. Curtis Blaydes elbowing Alistair Overeem’s face off, Claudia Gadelha robbing Carla Esparza, Mirsad Bektic climbing the ladder over Ricardo Lamas, Anthony Smith retiring Rashad Evans, Sergio Pettis winning a close decision over Joe Benavidez, and Charles Oliveira submitting Clay Guida.
Honorable Mentions – UFC on FOX 30, UFC 226
Breakout Fighter of the Year – Israel Adesanya
Coming into 2018 I hadn’t even heard of ‘StyleBender’ an undefeated kickboxing transplant who ended up making his UFC debut at UFC 221 in Australia. He made a splash there TKO’ing Rob Wilkinson after fending off a bunch of takedown attempts and then spitting fire on the mic afterwards. He comes back two months later and wins a decision over a very tough fighter and fellow prospect Marvin Vettori. It was a split decision but I thought it was pretty clear he won at least two rounds. Most impressively was his next fight three months later where he schooled a ranked fighter in Brad Tavares. He put on a striking clinic after Tavares couldn’t take him down. Two of his three fights earned performance bonuses and his mic skills and marketability show serious star potential in the middleweight division. He’s currently scheduled to fight Derek Brunson at UFC 230 in Madison Square Garden where he could set himself up for a top contender fight with a win.
Honorable Mentions – Brian Ortega, Curtis Blaydes, Sean O’Malley, Paulo Costa
Knockout of the Year – Lyoto Machida (Front Kick) over Vitor Belfort, UFC 224
Machida took a page out of all-time middleweight great Anderson Silva when he flicked his foot right in front of himself to kick Belfort in the face and send him collapsing to the canvas. It was beautiful. He set it up nicely by being very defensive and inactive in the first round. When he did throw a kick it was to the leg or the body. So when he went high in the middle of the second round Vitor didn’t see it coming. The surprising aspect of it is what made it so exciting in the moment but it was the slow motion replays that gave us all time to really drink it in and appreciate it fully. If you take the stakes out of it I think its a better knockout than Silva’s. But obviously that was in a title fight with both guys at the top of their games. After this fight Belfort retired (for now) and Machida left for Bellator.
Honorable Mentions – Yoel Romero over Luke Rockhold (UFC 221), Brian Ortega over Frankie Edgar (UFC 222)
Submission of the Year – Paul Craig (Arm Triangle) over Magomed Ankalaev, UFC Fight Night 127
There haven’t been any fancy submissions a la Demetrious Johnson’s ‘mighty wiz-bar’ where he transitioned from slamming Ray Borg into an arm bar in mid-air (at least that I’ve seen, there is a lot of MMA out there…) but Craig’s arm triangle buzzer beater was certainly something to remember. At least for those who saw it. It was a fight between two guys most fans haven’t heard of on the prelims of a Fight Pass card. But it was exciting. Craig commented after the fight that he was going to retire from MMA with a loss. And losing he was if this thing went to the judges. The fact that he was able to take Ankalaev down and catch him in a desperate submission attempt as time was winding down is like something scripted for a movie. Something to seek out if you’re one of the 99.9% of people who missed it the first time around.
Honorable Mentions – Anthony Pettis over Michael Chiesa (UFC 226), Ilir Latifi over Ovince St. Preux (UFC on FOX 28)
Upset of the Year – Henry Cejudo over Demetrious Johnson, UFC 227
This might have happened at the last UFC event to air but make no mistake there is no recency bias at play here. Ever since he dropped down to flyweight Demetrious Johnson has been unbeatable. He won the inaugural 125 pound belt and then proceeded to defend it a record breaking 11 times. One of those times was a first round TKO against Cejudo back in 2016 at UFC 197. And sure, Cejudo would go on to look much improved over his next three fights – an extremely close split decision loss to Joe Benevidez, a TKO win over Wilson Reis, and a dominant decision victory over Sergio Pettis. But going into his rematch with ‘Mighty Mouse’ I’d say he was still a very big underdog. But he came into the co-main event of UFC 227 looking to be in the best shape of his career by far. And he overcame what looked to be a foot or ankle injury very early on to out-wrestle DJ. It appeared to be tied at two rounds apiece heading into the fifth and final round, a situation we’ve never seen Johnson in. I personally scored the fight in favor of DJ but it was close and I can see the argument for Cejudo winning. But there is no argument needed because the judges gave it to him and he had the belt strapped around his waist to become just the second champion in UFC flyweight history. We might get an immediate trilogy fight or we might get a “superfight” between Cejudo and TJ Dillashaw (for some reason) but what we got for sure was the upset of the year.
Honorable Mentions – Alexander Hernandez over Beneil Dariush (UFC 222), Khalil Rountree over Gokhan Saki (UFC 226)
Top 10 Most Anticipated Fights for the Remainder of 2018
.1. Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov (UFC 229)
2. Gegard Mousasi vs. Rory MacDonald (Bellator 206)
3. Cris Cyborg vs. Amanda Nunes (UFC 232)
4. Nate Diaz vs. Dustin Poirier (UFC 230)
5. Frankie Edgar vs. Chan Sung Jung (UFC Fight Night 139)
6. Chris Weidman vs. Luke Rockhold 2 (UFC 230)
7. Tyron Woodley vs. Darren Till (UFC 228)
8. Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Yair Rodriguez (UFC 228)
9. Chael Sonnen vs. Fedor Emelianenko (Bellator 208)
10. Donald Cerrone vs. Mike Perry (UFC Fight Night 139)