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USA Today

If you work in a particularly horrid office environment, you may be familiar with the "White Elephant Christmas" tradition. The basics are simple—everyone brings gifts and puts them in a giant pile. You draw a number and pick in order.

Everyone brings something. Everyone leaves with something.

Simple, right? Nice even.

But there's a twist. There's always a twist.

Those who follow you in line get the chance to "steal" your gift rather than pick their own. This leads, inevitably, to people stealing the one thing that isn't disposable crap over and over again, hurting feelings and morale in the process.

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USA Today

2014 will not go down as an easy year in MMA history.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it’s difficult to remember another calendar turn when there was such a range of bad news. Cash flow was down, injuries were up, and high-profile arrests seemed weirdly plentiful.

As we thunder toward the home stretch, however, hopes remain high for 2015. Still, choosing a single storyline that “defined” this difficult and occasionally painful year proved a tough task indeed.

Frankly, there were too many headlines to choose from, so please forgive us if your year-defining story of choice didn't make our final list. Here, Bleacher Report MMA writers Jeremy Botter, Chad Dundas (that’s me), Scott Harris and Jonathan Snowden pick their own little darlings and then struggle to come to a consensus.

MMA in 2014: Fight of the Year

By on December 23, 2014

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2014 was a down year in terms of business for mixed martial arts.

But the action in the cage was better than ever, for the most part. There were classic fights from the championship level on down to the lowest of preliminary bouts. We even got the MMA version of a unicorn—and entire Ultimate Fighting Championship card filled with nothing but finishes.

Whittling all of that action down to a single award for Fight of the Year was a nearly impossible task. Our three Bleacher Report lead writers cursed and called one another names. We threatened to quit on several occasions.

But at the end of the day, we were able to figure out a consensus. On Monday, we gave you our Fighter of the Year. On Tuesday, we hand out our prestigious award for the best fight of 2014.

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Getty Images

Perhaps there was a time when Quinton “Rampage” Jackson was worth the hassle.

Maybe back in 2007—when he entered the UFC with three straight victories and won the light heavyweight championship from Chuck Liddell—it was possible to block out all his background noise.

But those days are long gone now.

Considering his advanced age and considerable baggage (Warning: link contains NSFW language), picking a fight over the 2015 version of Rampage Jackson just feels like a lot of trouble the embattled UFC doesn’t need at the moment.

It certainly struck a very weird note on Saturday when the organization breathlessly announced Jackson’s return. It was less than two years ago, after all, that the notoriously disgruntled fighter left the UFC amid scorched earth (more NSFW language) and hard feelings, and, as of right now, we don’t even know if he’s legally allowed to come back.

MMA in 2014: Fighter of the Year

By on December 22, 2014

45,107 reads

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Joe Camporeale/USA Today

2014 was a rocky year for high-level mixed martial arts. While there were spots of excitement and transcendent glory, for the most part, it was a year marked by loss.

First came the disappearance of the UFC's two biggest stars, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre, victims of injury and ennui, respectively. Then its two remaining brightest lights, Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez, were also lost for months to injury. 

What remained were a collection of fights, some great and some forgettable, spread thin over dozens of cards. It was an environment, frankly, that made it hard for individual fighters to stand out. By the time their fight was over, all too often, there was barely time to move on to the next fight, let alone to reflect on what we'd just seen.

Despite this, the three candidates for Fighter of the Year were able to overcome their surroundings, making their mark, not just on the year, but on the sport. Lead writers Jeremy Botter and Chad Dundas join me to run down the contenders and, ultimately, pick a winner.

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Andre Penner/Associated Press

If you want to get technical about it, Lyoto Machida actually threw two kicks Saturday during his main event bout against CB Dollaway.

Really, though, all he needed was the one.

That crushing left to the body—that’s all it took for Machida to dispatch the overmatched Dollaway just one minute and two seconds into the first round at UFC Fight Night 58 and prove he’s still among the best fighters in whichever weight class he chooses to compete.

“CB is a very tough fighter,” the soft-spoken karate master told UFC play-by-play announcer Jon Anik in the cage after it was over. “But the kick landed, and I saw that he felt it, and I went in for the finish.”

After a bounce-back 2014 for Machida, you could categorize that assessment as one of the year’s biggest understatements.

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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

At this point, both Lyoto Machida and CB Dollaway must be like human Rubik’s Cubes for UFC matchmakers.

Twist them, turn them, spend all day fiddling, and it’s still hard to figure out exactly where either guy fits into the middleweight pecking order. When Machida and Dollaway fight on Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night 58, it will no doubt only further muddle an already puzzling picture.

Contenders for Chris Weidman’s championship have been lining up three and four deep for a few months now. Luke Rockhold may lead the pack by a nose after he stopped Michael Bisping in the second round last month, but a February bout between Yoel Romero and Jacare Souza will also yield a deserving candidate.

Given that Weidman is scheduled to finally settle his business with Vitor Belfort at UFC 184 (on the same card as Romero-Souza), it won’t be long before we’ll need some clarity. And here come Dollaway and Machida, just trying to make things even more complicated.

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Getty Images

The UFC’s heavyweights have never really found their stride.

For a brief time during the Brock Lesnar Administration, the 265-pound division felt fresh and vital. It felt—for lack of a better word—big. But first diverticulitis and then increasingly difficult competition felled Lesnar, and the heavyweight ranks lapsed back into their old, unstable tricks again.

Such was the case for almost all of 2014.

Current champion Cain Velasquez may be the most talented man ever to fight in the UFC’s heaviest weight class, but so far, it has been his penchant for injury that has mostly defined him. It also makes him feel like the perfect symbol for this eternally troubled division.

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WSOF

Big fighters. Small fighters. Rich fighters. Poor fighters. Ground fighters. Stand-up fightersMixed martial arts contains multitudesfighters seemingly crafted especially to fulfill their role in the combat sports ecosystem.

But, in this vast sea of archetypes and stereotypes, there is only one Rousimar Palhares, the World Series of Fighting welterweight champion who submitted longtime UFC contender Jon Fitch in just 90 seconds Saturday night on NBCSN.

Fighting is all about misdirection. The most successful prize fighters are the ones who lull opponents into a false sense of security, zigging left at the exact moment their foe expects them to zag right. Trickery, much more than pure force, is the hallmark of the world's best.

Perhaps that, even more than the string of bodies he's left in his wake, is why Palhares inspires such terror. There is nothing tricky about anything he does. His purpose is single-minded. His approach is entirely predictable. 

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Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today

Rafael dos Anjos saw to it that Nate Diaz’s week of bluster ended with a whimper.

From Wednesday to Friday, Diaz had largely set the pace for UFC on Fox 13, grabbing the lion’s share of the headlines when he slept through his open workout, cut a professional wrestling style promo on new UFC signee CM Punk and then missed weight by more than four pounds.

On Saturday, it was dos Anjos’ turn to offer a rebuttal.

The 30-year-old Brazilian pounded Diaz for 15 full minutes in their co-main event bout—punishing his legs with hard kicks from the outset and opening a large cut over his right eye during the second round. Diaz took it all in a style befitting his impetuous reputation, but by the time it was over, the judges called it a lopsided sweep for dos Anjos (30-26 x 2, 30-27).