MMA in 2014: Fighter of the Year

By on December 22, 2014

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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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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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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).

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In the end, it was perhaps too much, too soon for Rose Namajunas.

They came to the cage as opposite portraits. Namajunas was all bounce and intensity, singing along with Young MC and generally looking like someone who came to Las Vegas to complete her journey.

Carla Esparza, who perhaps won walkout song of the decade by strolling to the cage to the dulcet tones of "Harvester of Sorrows" by Metallica, looked calm and perhaps even a little scared. It was as though the moment had gotten to her and that perhaps she was not ready for it.

But then the fight happened, and we learned what fighters look like when they are walking to the Octagon is not the best of indicators when it comes to what happens in the actual fight.

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It was weirdly comforting on Wednesday to hear Nate Diaz say he slept through his open workout.

The younger Diaz has been gone for a minute—out some 13 months squabbling with ownership over his pay—and when he returns on Saturday to fight Rafael dos Anjos in the co-main event of UFC on Fox 13, it will be to a fight company that has made some tectonic shifts in his absence.

With third-party sponsors being cut out, high-profile brand partnerships in the works and a greenhorn professional wrestler now touted as the UFC’s next big drawing card, it felt good to be reminded that some things stubbornly refuse to change.

“I didn’t realize it was time to be there,” Diaz told MMAJunkie.com’s Steven Marrocco and Matt Erickson, after he no showed the media event. “I woke up and they were calling me, and they said, ‘You kinda missed open workouts.’ I kind of slept in. I wish I could’ve made it, but I didn’t make it in time.”

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Pat Barry met Rose Namajunas when she punched him in the head.

Barry was sparring at Roufusport one day, working on his stand-up game. Out of nowhere, this tiny waif of a girl, who is now competing for a UFC championship, comes over and punches him in the side of the face.

Stunned, he turned to look at her.

"You're Pat Barry, right?," she said.

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For more than seven years, welterweight Jon Fitch built a reputation as one of the UFC's toughest fighters. He fought a who's who of the world's best at 170 pounds—and beat almost all of them.

Over the course of his tenure in the Octagon he went 14-3-1 with one no-contest. As records go, they don't get much better. But, in many ways, Fitch failed to make his way. His ground-centric style didn't make him any fans with the UFC brass. 

He got just a single opportunity at the UFC championship. He failed to capture gold, though he extended champion Georges St-Pierre to five hard rounds. But instead of being a perpetual contender, he festered.

Worse, to maintain the status quo he had to be nearly perfect.