My Favourite MMA Fights of the Year
2016 was another typical year for Mixed Martial Arts. It had its highs, its lows, its controversies, its crushing disappointments, its shocking upsets, and its rousing victories.
There was a Performance of the Year, Fighter of the Year, Knockout of the Year, Submission of the Year, and Fight of the Year, all of which will be revealed below.
It was also the year in which I saw my first Fight Card live, UFC 204 at Manchester, and I’d like to take a quick moment to talk about that. Not so much the fights themselves, which were actually all pretty great, but the crowd.
MMA is largely seen by those outside of it as a sport for thugs, especially in this country where it is still predominately known as cage fighting, which sounds like something for animals. The fans are therefore also seen as brainless thugs. As bad people. In some cases, this may not be entirely unfair, but on the whole it’s an unjust accusation.
For evidence of this, one only need to listen to my experience in Manchester on that night. The card didn’t actually kick off until gone midnight, as it needed to air at a reasonable time for the American market, so when we finally sat down a number of people were already somewhat inebriated and getting impatient. But whilst we were waiting a man and his son made their way into the Octagon. The boy, an eight year old Martial Arts enthusiast who had lost his limbs to meningitis when he was younger, was presented with a full sized replica UFC belt (which I later found out had been signed by all of the fighters on the card). The crowd fell silent and paid attention. And as the boy made his way to each side of the cage, stopping to raise his belt in jubilation as though he was the champion of the world, we stood. All at once, without conferring with one another, just shy of twenty thousand fans cheered and gave the champ in the centre of the Octagon a standing ovation. It was a great moment. These aren’t bad people. They are a bunch of affable men and women with a strong love for the sport.
Anyway, onto the listings.
FIGHTER OF THE YEAR
Mike did a lot this year, but really, he is here for that moment.
Listen to Goldberg’s commentary “Rockhold has this air of invincibility… never more confident”. The world was in agreement. Rockhold was the champion, the best Middleweight on the planet, facing Michael Bisping for the second time after easily beating him the first. Not to mention that Mike was stepping in on short notice after an injury forced Chris Weidman to pull out of the fight. Bisping’s own son famously bet against him.
And yet four seconds after Goldberg stopped talking Rockhold had been dropped by one of Bisping’s punches, and a few seconds after that Michael “The Count” Bisping was the champion of the world.
Last year Bisping was seen as, at best, a gatekeeper. A fighter who would never make it to the top, who hangs around the top fifteen of the division alternating wins and losses, but isn’t a threat to the top guys. In 2016 he beat two guaranteed future Hall of Fame fighters and knocked out the best Middleweight in the world in one round.
Yes, he’s a bit of a dick, and everything he says outside of the cage is awful. But for what he did inside the cage, he’s 2016’s Fighter of the Year. Every show needs a villain. MMA couldn’t ask for a better one.
RUNNER UP –
Conor tasted defeat for the first time in his UFC career this year (resulting in Nate Diaz’s quote of the year “I’m not surprised motherfuckers!”) but rather than letting this crush him, he came back to beat Diaz, and then go on to fight for and win the Lightweight title. He is now the first man to hold two championship belts simultaneously in the UFC. A Hall of Fame worthy accolade to be sure.
KNOCKOUT OF THE YEAR
ANTHONY “RUMBLE” JOHNSON V GLOVER TEIXEIRA
It’s not a crazy spin kick, or a flying knee. It’s just an uppercut from the scariest power puncher in the game. The people Rumble knocks out are known for not getting knocked out. These aren’t nobodies. These are elite fighters, and Rumble touches them and they cease to exist. Terrifying power.
RUNNER UP –
LANDO VANNATA V JOHN MAKDESSI
Because everyone loves spin kicks. And this just might be the smoothest I’ve seen in a while.
SUBMISSION OF THE YEAR
MIESHA TATE V HOLLY HOLM
This wins it for me because it was such a display of heart. Tate was picked apart on the feet and was definitively down three rounds going into the fifth and final round of this championship fight. That fifth round looked to be going the same way, with Tate eating punches. But she ate them because she knew she had to in order to get in close, and once she did she got the take down, locked in tight, and put the champ to sleep.
Despite her subsequent performances this year being disappointing and eventually resulting in her retirement, Miesha is one of the pioneers of women’s MMA and deserves to be recognised as such alongside Ronda Rousey and Gina Carano. This performance shows why.
FIGHTS OF THE YEAR
Tyron Woodley v Stephen Thompson, Dominick Cruz v TJ Dillashaw, Dong Hyun Kim v Polo Reyes, and Claudia Gadelha v Joanna Jedrzejczyk were all superb fights, narrowly missing out on making it into the top five.
NO. 5 – ANGELA LEE V MEI YAMAGUCHI
I always keep an eye out for great fights in organisations outside of the UFC that might not reach the same audience that the sport’s premier promoter’s fights do. I looked at Michael Chandler vs Benson Henderson in Bellator which was good, but not quite good enough to make the list. I looked at Justin Gaethje v Luiz Firmino in WSOF, a wild fight that was held back by an unfortunate doctor’s stoppage. But none reached the heights of a fight I’d seen earlier in the year.
No fight this year contained as much wild ground fighting as ONE Championship’s women’s title fight between Angela Lee and Mei Yamaguchi. This fight is an instant classic. It has it all: non stop action, take downs, ground and pound, scrambles, knockdowns, arm bar attempts, guillotines, leg locks, heel hooks, darce chokes, triangle chokes, and more. It has everything you could want from a five round title fight.
NO. 4 – MICHAEL BISPING V ANDERSON SILVA
(Sorry for the video. Couldn’t get the official highlights)
This was an absolutely crazy fight, as much as for what happened between rounds as what happened within them.
The fight began as a perfect showcase of both fighters styles. Bisping was constantly working. Throwing mid-power punches and kicks and keeping the pace. Silva dodged and weaved and would occasionally threaten with bursts of activity whilst coasting for the rest of the round. Then towards the end of round three Bisping lost his mouthpiece and attempted to call a time out. Only the referee can do that so the fight went on, and as Bisping was distracted Silva landed a flying knee that dropped Bisping in the frame’s final second. The buzzer went and Silva ran and jumped onto the side of the cage in celebration.
Except the fight wasn’t over. Silva’s corner rushed into the cage to celebrate, followed by the commission who were trying to get him off the cage and back into the fight, whilst ref Herb Dean kept shouting the fight is not over.
It was absolute madness in the middle of one of the tensest fights this year.
NO. 3 CONOR MCGREGOR V NATE DIAZ 2
(Once again, sorry about the highlights.)
The first fight was superb. This was even better. The most entertaining feud in the sport today. I know everyone is getting tired with rematches these days, but I could watch these two go toe to toe ten more times and not get sick of it.
Diaz had long been one of the most underrated fighters in the sport, and here, as in the last fight, he really proved what makes him special.
Conor showed himself to be much more than a wicked left hand, showing patience, perfect timing, and grit and determination. A back and forth battle without a dull moment in it.
NO. 2 – DOO HO CHOI V CUB SWANSON
I kept swapping my number one and two picks around, not sure which deserved it more. I finally came to a decision and this wild brawl comes in second. A masterpiece of mayhem, a brilliant barrage of blows, a classic of carnage, this three round fight has more action in it that almost all the rest of these fights put together.
Both fighters put on a performance that will cement them as fan favourites for the rest of their careers.
The only thing that stopped it earning the top spot is there was a very clear winner, and as exciting as it was, it didn’t have the tension the number one fight had as it was clear early on who was going to win. But that slight issue aside, still a fantastic fight.
NO. 1 – ROBBIE LAWLER V CARLOS CONDIT
So for the second year in a row Robbie Lawler has been in my “Fight of the Year”. His style just lends itself to these types of fight. He is easy to hit, but also throws right back with abandon. He is the best fifth round fighter I have ever seen. He knows how to steal fights, coming out when he is down on the scorecards and just leaves everything in the cage.
Carlos Condit was the perfect dance partner for him. Both men are world class strikers and both men only have one mode: Go. Condit threw none stop, with a mind boggling number of different, creative strikes. Robbie threw less, but harder, landing bombs at key moments in the fight. When the bell sounded at the end of that thrilling final round, both men almost collapsed. Only the cage kept them standing. I watched as they stood side by side, breathing heavy and covered in each others blood, it was clear then, and it is as clear now, that both men had put on one hell of a show. They had put on the fight of 2016. Congrats fellas.
So there you have it, MMA in 2016. 2017 is starting off with the more than likely ill advised return of the greatest lightweight of all time: BJ Penn. Will 2017 prove to be as weird and wonderful as last year? Well, to paraphrase a wise man, I wouldn’t be surprised, mother f***ers.