The Best MMA and UFC Fighters of 2012

Jeremy BotterMMA Senior WriterJanuary 8, 2013

The Best MMA and UFC Fighters of 2012

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    It's no secret that mixed martial arts fans were denied plenty of desirable match-ups in 2012. The UFC's injury woes are well-documented at this point, so there's no reason to delve into the topic yet again.

    But even with The Curse wrecking fight cards on all corners of the globe, we were still treated to plenty of great fights, great events and great individual performances.

    You can read through our picks for Best Fights and Best Events if you want, but today we're closing our our 2012 Awards by focusing on the fighters who had the best overall performances over the course of the entire year.

    What follows is our 10 best fighters from the year 2012, from No. 10 all the way down the fighter we deemed as worthy of winning our Fighter of the Year award. 

    Let's get started.

10. Cub Swanson

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    2012 record: 3-0

    Cub Swanson lost his UFC debut in 2011, but 2012 saw a complete change of fortunes for the Jackson's MMA veteran.

    Swanson opened the year in January with a TKO win over George Roop, but that was a fight he was supposed to win. It was his TKO win over the heavily favored Ross Pearson in June that really opened eyes to Swanson's evolving game.

    He followed that up with a knockout win over Charles Oliveira in another fight where Swanson went in as the underdog, but came out as a ferocious winner.

    Swanson already has a highlight-reel knockout loss to featherweight champion Jose Aldo, making it that much tougher to secure a title shot. But two or three more wins, and it'll be tough to deny Swanson his place in the division.

9. Stefan Struve

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    2012 record: 3-0

    Dutch skyscraper Stefan Struve has never been able to sustain any type of lengthy winning streak, but if 2012 was any indication, the young heavyweight looks to finally be gaining some momentum.

    After closing out 2011 with a win over Pat Barry, Struve opened up his 2012 campaign win a February win over Dave Herman. He then moved on to defeat Lavar Johnson at UFC 146, then scored a big win as an underdog against Stipe Miocic in September. 

    Struve has 12 UFC fights on his record, and he's still just 24 years old. That's an amazing thing to consider, and the future could be very bright for this very skilled heavyweight fighter.

8. Demetrious Johnson

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    2012 record: 2-0-1

    The road to becoming the first-ever UFC flyweight champion wasn't an easy one for Demetrious Johnson, but he passed with flying colors. 

    After going to a March draw with Ian McCall in the first round of the four-man UFC flyweight championship tournament, Johnson rebounded by beating McCall in June to advance to the finals.

    He faced Joseph Benavidez, the man many considered the uncrowned flyweight champion, at UFC 152 in September, and captured the belt with an emphatic five-round performance.

    Johnson will open his 2013 campaign with a title defense against John Dodson later this month, but one thing remains clear: this speedy fighter has every chance of holding onto his belt for the foreseeable future.

7. Johny Hendricks

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    2012 record: 2-0

    Johny Hendricks packs thunderous knockout power in both of his hands, and he used that trait to climb ever higher on the welterweight ladder in 2012.

    Hendricks closed out 2011 with a 12-second knockout of perennial contender Jon Fitch. He next faced Josh Koscheck in May, beating the veteran by decision.

    After that, Hendricks moved on to yet another knockout, this time a 46-second destruction of Martin Kampmann.

    After all of that, you'd think Hendricks would've earned a title shot. But he'll have to wait, having been passed over for the big-money Nick Diaz/Georges St-Pierre fight.

    Hendricks is scheduled to face Jake Ellenberger on the same UFC 158 card, but if Diaz screws up his promotional responsibilities in any manner at all, Hendricks will move up to face St-Pierre.

    Even if he doesn't get the next title shot, it's only a matter of time before Hendricks gets his chance at the gold.

6. Cain Velasquez

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    2012 record: 2-0

    Cain Velasquez felt like his title loss to Junior dos Santos at the end of 2011 was an aberration, and he couldn't wait to set the record straight.

    And set the record straight, he did.

    Velasquez issued a dramatic beating to Antonio Silva in May to earn his rematch with dos Santos, and then the American Kickboxing Academy product made the most of his chance at the title by crushing dos Santos in one of the most one-sided title fights in UFC history.

    Velasquez's next opponent will likely be Alistair Overeem, provided Overeem beats Silva in February. After that? Many future rematches with dos Santos may be in store. No matter what happens down the road, it's obvious that Velasquez is once again the king of the heavyweights.

5. Anderson Silva

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    2012 record: 2-0

    The best fighter in the world once again had a stellar year, but that should come as no surprise.

    Silva's year didn't start until July, when he put to bed his long-running feud with Chael Sonnen at UFC 148 by finishing the mouthy former middleweight in the second round. 

    Surprisingly, Silva's year didn't end there, as he elected to take a fight with Stephan Bonnar on short notice to save October's UFC 153 card in Brazil. Silva crushed Bonnar, sending him into retirement in embarrassing fashion, especially after it was revealed that Bonnar failed a post-fight drug test.

    Silva's next challenge may come in the form of Michael Bisping, provided Bisping beats Vitor Belfort later in January. After that? Potential super-fights with Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre may be in the offing.

    And Silva just signed a new 10-fight deal with the UFC, which means we may see the greatest of all time for a few more years.

4. Chris Weidman

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    2012 record: 2-0

    Chris Weidman didn't have the easiest year. His home was wrecked by Hurricane Sandy, and an injury forced him out of contention late in the year.

    But when Weidman did step in the cage, he made his own case for title contendership. Weidman took a January fight against the dangerous Demian Maia on extremely short notice, but was able to do enough to secure a decision win.

    For his next trick, Weidman stepped in the cage with the dangerous Mark Munoz (the man many believed would be the next contender for Anderson Silva) and utterly demolished the affable Munoz, finishing him in the second round.

    Weidman will return at some point in 2013, and if history is any indication, he'll pick up right where he left off.

3. Ronda Rousey

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    2012 record: 2-0

    Ronda Rousey started off the year as a virtual unknown. By the time it ended, she was one of the sport's biggest stars and single-handedly ushered in the era of female fighters in the UFC.

    Rousey captured the Strikeforce women's bantamweight title with a horrific armbar submission win over Meisha Tate, backing up all of her pre-fight trash talk and sending a message to the rest of the division that she was for real.

    Rousey defended her title in August with a (you guessed it) armbar submission win over the very technical and very good Sarah Kaufman. Even when faced with top-tier talent, and even when her opponents knew exactly what she wanted to do, they still couldn't stop her.

    On top of that, Rousey became a media sensation, appearing on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, TMZ, the Jim Rome Show and countless others. And so while 2012 was a very good year for Rousey, it appears that the sky may be her only limit in the future.

2. Jon Jones

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    2012 record: 2-0

    Jon Jones continued to excel in 2012, at least in the cage. If anything, he put even more distance between himself and the rest of the light heavyweight division.

    Jones opened the year by vanquishing bitter rival Rashad Evans at UFC 145 in April. After that, Jones had the much-publicized DUI incident (in which he wrecked his very expensive Bentley), and then took the brunt of the blame when he decided not to face late-replacement Chael Sonnen at UFC 151 in September, forcing the first-ever cancellation of a UFC event.

    But Jones rebounded later in September by surviving a scary armbar attempt from Vitor Belfort, moving on to submit Belfort later in the fight. After that, Jones was chosen as the coach of the next season of The Ultimate Fighter against new nemesis Sonnen.

    We may have to stop considering Jones in terms of how great he is against his current fellow light heavyweights. Instead, it's probably time to start thinking of Jones from a historical perspective.

1. Benson Henderson

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    2012 record: 3-0

    Disputed wins against Frankie Edgar or not, it's clear that Benson Henderson is an easy choice for Fighter of the Year.

    Henderson was more active than any UFC champion after capturing the belt from Edgar in February. He defended the title against Edgar in August, then moved on to easily defeat Nate Diaz in December.

    Many people believe Henderson didn't do enough to beat Edgar. And perhaps you feel the same way. But Henderson's performances in both Edgar fights showed that he had the skills to compete with Edgar in all areas of the sport, if not outright beat him. And his destruction of Diaz showed that he's continually improving as a mixed martial artist.

    Henderson hasn't quite caught on with the public in the way the UFC wants, but 2013 could change all of that. He'll likely face several more top contenders this year, including Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez, so he'll be given plenty of chances to prove that the Edgar wins were no fluke.