It was a bad time to be the best.
As the dust settles on a wild, comeback year for the UFC, one of the things we can say for sure is that the Octagon’s most dominant champions were among the sport’s biggest losers in 2015.
Saturday’s UFC on Fox 17 was event No. 41 for the fight company this calendar turn, and Rafael dos Anjos should consider himself lucky to jerk the curtain closed with a successful title defense against Donald Cerrone.
Many UFC champions didn’t fare quite as well. Turnover at the top was swift and unforgiving. In all, seven new titlists were crowned during 2015—at the expense of a few we thought might never relinquish the gold.
Ronda Rousey lost.
Jose Aldo lost.
Jon Jones found himself forcibly deposed, and he spent the bulk of the year on suspension for conduct unbecoming of the GOAT.
Anybody who claims they saw even half this stuff coming is either magic, the sharpest sharp on the planet or an out-and-out liar.
Ironically enough, the year began with a definitive confirmation of the status quo when Jones turned back the challenge of Daniel Cormier at UFC 182 on January 3.
Cormier was expected to be the biggest threat yet to the 28-year-old New Yorker’s unparalleled reign over the light heavyweight division. When Jones leapt past him via a clear-cut unanimous decision during the UFC’s first event of 2015, it was seen as a sign the champion would stay on his throne as long as he wanted.
As it turned out, the biggest threat to Jones’ dominance was Jones himself.
In February we learned he’d tested positive for cocaine during the lead-up to the Cormier bout. In April, the UFC stripped him of the title and put him on indefinite suspension in the wake of a hit-and-run accident in his adoptive hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
By May, the promotion had put the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world in its rearview—at least temporarily—as Cormier topped Anthony Johnson at UFC 187 to become the first new 205-pound champion since 2011.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the die was cast for the rest of the year.
The only meaningful mantra would be to expect the unexpected.
And maybe think twice before taking your slam-dunk parlay to the betting window.
If Cormier spoiled our predictions of who would finish the year as UFC champs, Holly Holm took a freaking jackhammer to everything we thought we knew at UFC 193 on November 15.
Holm may as well have shredded the UFC’s playbook going forward—and most of its financial projections too—when she knocked out Ronda Rousey in the second round of their fight in Melbourne, Australia.
Up until the moment she crashed face-first onto the canvas, Rousey had been both the company’s biggest star and its most untouchable champion. In an instant, Holm transformed her into a figure (apparently) deserving of Internet scorn. The memes flowed like wine, and TMZ shot video of Rousey slumping through an airport with a pillow pressed over her bruised face.
Talk surrounding Rousey went from whether she would retire undefeated at a young age to speculation about whether she has a prayer of beating Holm in the obligatory immediate rematch. It was a sobering lesson in the fickle nature of MMA fame as well as the fragility of best-laid plans.
Luckily for the UFC, Conor McGregor was able to ensure that at least one of the company’s cash cows kept its place in the barnyard.
Aldo was the longest reigning champion on the organization’s roster when McGregor felled him in just 13 seconds at UFC 194 on December 12. It was the final surprise in a year full of them.
The two had originally been scheduled to meet at UFC 189 in July before Aldo pulled out with a rib injury. McGregor showed up and became interim featherweight champion when he defeated Chad Mendes by second-round TKO.
When they finally got together in Las Vegas in the UFC’s final pay-per-view event of the year, it was supposed to be an epic battle. Instead, McGregor made short, easy work of the only 145-pound champion the Octagon had ever known.
In the process, he backed up the trash talk he’d been spewing since arriving in the Octagon in 2013. His rise has been historically meteoric, and with Rousey out licking her wounds, McGregor becomes the UFC’s biggest star now almost by default.
You get the impression that much of the promotion’s success or failure during 2016 will rest on the Irishman’s shoulders. He’s already announced his intentions to add the lightweight title to his personal treasure trove. He also could have big-money bouts with Frankie Edgar or Nate Diaz (or nearly anyone else on the roster) if he so desired.
At the same event where McGregor thwarted Aldo, Luke Rockhold took the middleweight title from Chris Weidman via fourth-round TKO. Weidman had not yet ascended to the same lofty status as the UFC’s other longstanding dominant champions, but he certainly had that potential.
He shocked the world when he wrested the title away from Anderson Silva at UFC 162 in July 2013. He’d breezed through nine previous fights in the Octagon and came into his bout with Rockhold 13-0 overall.
Unfortunately, Rockhold was too much for him. After an ill-advised spinning kick landed Weidman on his back midway through the bout, Rockhold took control. He battered the champion with heavy strikes on the ground until the referee mercifully stepped in to stop things three minutes, 12 seconds into the championship rounds
Those two divisional sea changes capped a year in which Dos Anjos also dethroned Anthony Pettis to claim the 155-pound crown, Joanna Jędrzejczyk stopped Carla Esparza to become the second women's strawweight champ in organizational history (both at UFC 185) and Fabricio Werdum surprised Cain Velasquez at UFC 188.
It amounted to an awful lot of unexpected upheaval in a year that otherwise turned out to be a very good one for the UFC at the box office.
Now we await 2016, to see if the pendulum might swing back in the other direction.
We already know that Rousey, Jones and Velasquez will likely get immediate chances to get their titles back.
Velasquez gets his opportunity to become heavyweight champion for the third time when he rematches with Werdum on February 6 at UFC 196.
A do-over between Rousey and Holm is widely speculated to be in the plans for the gala UFC 200 event scheduled for next July. It might even double up with McGregor’s next fight and therefore surely break all previous UFC PPV buyrate records.
Jones will get a crack at regaining the light heavyweight belt he never really lost, and he dropped hints on his Instagram account that a rematch with Cormier might be targeted for April 23. A lot of observers are already chalking that up as another win for the former champion.
It seems that 2015 will be remembered as one of the most surprising and volatile years on record for the UFC.
As we voyage into the new year, it also stands as a reminder to the fight company’s roster full of fledgling champions:
Don't get too comfortable.