B/R MMA 2017 Half-Year Awards: Best Fighter, Fight, Finishes and Story

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistJune 29, 2017

B/R MMA 2017 Half-Year Awards: Best Fighter, Fight, Finishes and Story

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    2017 has been a down year for MMA thus far.

    That's not really up for debate in a year that hasn't seen any of MMA's biggest stars compete and the majority of its most exciting fights get cancelled. That said, there has been some fun to be had.

    Big knockouts and impressive submissions haven't been scarce, and meanwhile the stars have been aligned for a booming second half of the year. While it has been a long while since a "fight night" felt like an "event," fighters have still poured their hearts out over the last six months to deliver high-level, entertaining action.

    So rather than dwell on the bad, let's take a look at 2017's high points so far and pick out the best fighter, fight, finishes and story we've seen up till now.

Knockout of the Year: Paul Daley Def. Brennan Ward Via Flying Knee

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    2017 has been a good year for knee knockouts. The year started with Michael Page winning Bleacher Report’s 2016 Knockout of the Year for his skull-crushing finish of Evangelista Santos, and things haven’t slowed down since.

    Between Alistair Overeem faceplanting Mark Hunt, and Edson Barboza nearly decapitating Beneil Dariush, there have been plenty of good choices for knockout of the year. The winner in this writer’s book, though, is Paul Daley’s high-flying finish of Brennan Ward.

    After a brief clinch exchange, Daley threw a hard spinning backfist that Ward blocked. Still, the strike was enough to get Ward to step back, giving Daley the room he was looking for to work his striking game. W

    hether he felt more confident in getting an overreaction through unorthodox strikes or was expecting a takedown attempt from the former wrestler is anyone’s guess. But Daley opted to initiate the next spurt of action with a picturesque flying double knee.

    The first didn’t come close to landing but baited Ward into ducking directly into the second. It landed. Hard. Very hard. Ward was busted wide open and was so dazed after that he needed to be stretchered out of the cage after.

    It was easily the best knockout of Daley’s MMA career, and for a guy who has endured in high-level MMA exclusively based on his heavy hands, that’s one heck of an achievement.

Submission of the Year: Valentina Shevchenko Def. Julianna Pena Via Armbar

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    Julianna Pena approached Valentina Shevchenko in the exact right way. Shevchenko, you see, is an accomplished kickboxer with an overfilled trophy mantel.

    Giving her room to work? Letting her get comfortable standing? That’s a recipe for disaster for anyone.

    With that in mind, Pena did everything in her power to keep Shevchenko close and off-balance. It wasn’t perfectly executed—Shevchenko still managed to score points in the clinch and on the ground—but it was still the kind of fight that Pena wanted and the kind of fight she wins more often than not.

    While the first round was something of a toss-up, the second round was shaping up very well for Pena. For three minutes, she had Shevchenko pinned against the cage and seemed set to seal up an easy 10-9 round when she scored a takedown with two minutes left on the clock.

    Unfortunately for Pena, Shevchenko’s striking credentials make it easy to forget about her submission skills.

    With Pena getting reckless with her ground-and-pound, Shevchenko whipped her leg past Pena’s face, got hold of her wrist and stretched it out for an armbar. Pena tried to roll her way free, but Shevchenko countered, made the adjustments and kept hold until the tap.

    That win earned Shevchenko another crack at Amanda Nunes and cemented her place as the most dynamic threat in the women’s bantamweight division.

Story of the Year: Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor Becomes a Reality

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    Conor McGregor does things that no other fighter has done.

    Casually absorb punches from Chad Mendes? Assassinate Jose Aldo? Fight twice at 170 pounds as the 145-pound champion? Hold two UFC titles at the same time? Nobody does those things!

    But while the Irish striker had already broken down many of the UFC’s dusty old barriers, he pulled off the seemingly impossible when he made a boxing superfight with Floyd Mayweather a reality.

    Few pundits or promoters believed the contest would come to be, despite all the money at stake, and the contest stands as an affront to pretty much every promotional precedent set by the UFC over the years.

    The organization has never been keen on sharing its competitors or willing to let them compete in any pugilistic events. Not only that, but the UFC ceding, or even sharing, promotional status on an event has always been a deal-breaker.

    But here it is! The UFC is handing it over to Showtime, with which Dana White has an ugly history. For a fight with Floyd Mayweather, who White has also beefed with over the years. And they’re all friends now!

    It’s a wild turn of events that has completely changed the summer’s sports horizon. The bout may or may not end up being good, and it may or may not be an affront to both sports. But boy, it’s hard not to be excited for it.

Fight of the Year: Travis Browne vs. Derrick Lewis

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    There hasn’t been an especially great fight so far in 2017. In fact, to this point, the year has largely been defined by how uneventful the sport has been, with no Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, Robbie Lawler, Nate Diaz or other sure-to-deliver-the-goods competitor.

    As such, picking the best fight of 2017 so far is tough, but the best option available is Derrick Lewis’ comeback victory over Travis Browne.

    The Black Beast seemed dead to rights during the first round of their fight. Browne was flicking front kicks to Lewis’ body and they had taken an obvious toll on him, both psychologically and physically. His guard was dropping to protect his body, and Browne, despite turning in his “elite heavyweight fighter” badge years prior, was more than good enough to take advantage of that.

    As his confidence grew, however, Browne got a bit sloppy on a Brazilian kick, which Lewis countered with a hard combination. He stayed upright for a time but never actually recovered, stumbling and scrambling on wobbly legs until a right hook from Lewis dropped him to the ground for good.

    It was an impressively resilient display from Lewis that propelled him from brawler to legitimate top-10 heavyweight, something many have forgotten after he laid a verbal smackdown on Browne after (which unofficially stands as the 2017 MMA Moment of the Year). While he has since lost to Mark Hunt, this contest showed that Lewis is very capable of rebounding well from adversity. His next opponent should be more than a little nervous about that.

Fighter of the Year: Max Holloway

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    Fighter of the Year is always the most difficult category to hash out when deciding half-year awards. The achievement is usually a balancing act of in-cage dominance, strength of competition and other outside factors. Pruning back the sample size usually reduces that to something of a “best performance of the year.”

    And in that sense, the 2017 Fighter of the Half-Year was pretty easy to pick out. It’s the new UFC featherweight champion, Max Holloway.

    At UFC 212, Holloway stepped into the cage with longtime great Jose Aldo and, for the most part, dominated the Brazilian on his home turf. While the first round was a back-and-forth affair, the 25-year-old adjusted to Aldo’s offense, posted a strong second round and then ended the fight in the third. It was a devastating loss for the now-former champion and stands apart from his 2015 bout with Conor McGregor as a thorough dissection of his entire game, rather than an anomalous lightning strike.

    It will be a bit tough for Holloway to hold this spot in December, of course. He’s on pace for two fights in 2017 and likely next faces Frankie Edgar, a fighter against whom it is difficult to look good, even in victory.

    That said, given how great he has become over the last two years...would it be shocking if he steamrolls Edgar?