MMA in 2014: Fighter of the Year
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.
Disagree with our assessment? Let's hear your choice in the comments.
Candidate: Robbie Lawler
It seems a little strange to vote someone with a loss on his record as Fighter of the Year. I cannot remember another instance where the same type of thing has occurred. But I cannot, for the life of me, fathom giving anybody else this award, loss or not.
Yes, Robbie Lawler's comeback story is movie-script stuff for the ages. But we can't use the past decade and measure how far Lawler has come when we're giving out awards for a single year's worth of performances.
How lucky, then, that Lawler's 2014 will stand the test of time. He lost a close decision to Johny Hendricks—in a bout that will almost certainly headline many "fight of the year" awards ballots—and his stock went up in the process. He returned almost immediately to the Octagon, beating Jake Ellenberger and then Matt Brown to book a return trip with Hendricks.
And then Lawler made the most of his second chance, winning the welterweight championship and fulfilling, after so many years, the promise once seen in him.
Candidate: Ronda Rousey
I'm sure it feels good to name Robbie Lawler Fighter of the Year. It would be inhuman not to feel all the feels about a fighter we've all seen struggle so desperately finally right the ship and earn UFC gold, even if it is the strap GSP just sat down for a minute while he got his riddum back.
But to me, the Fighter of the Year doesn't lose fights. He doesn't struggle against journeyman Matt Brown. And he doesn't have his moment of greatest triumph called into question by a large portion of the viewing audience.
Robbie Lawler is a feel-good story for sure. But Fighter of the Year? Don't make me laugh.
What makes Lawler's eventual coronation so funny is the existence of a truly dominant candidate. This champion not only dispatched two top contenders in just one minute and 22 seconds, she did it while attempting to add a new wrinkle to her game, not in her area of greatest strength.
Ten wins. Ten finishes.
Ronda Rousey defies definition—and she does so while recreating what it means to be a star in this sport. Want to find your Fighter of the Year? She's staring you right in the face, in Metro PCS commercials, big-budget movies and, all too fleetingly, in the Octagon.
Candidate: Donald Cerrone
Several fighters reached greater heights than Donald Cerrone this year—they won titles, they main evented pay-per-views—but nobody did it as often or with as much aplomb as the Cowboy. After a 2013 that saw him go just 2-2, Cerrone bounced back to post a 4-0 record during 2014. He stacked up stoppage victories over Adriano Martins, Edson Barboza and Jim Miller and then capped things off with a unanimous decision over the debuting Eddie Alvarez at September's UFC 178.
For the first time this year, it seemed as though Cerrone had found some consistency and finally harnessed the potential that lurked in the background while he went 8-3 in the UFC from 2011-13. He now stands on the brink of contender status in the lightweight division. If he can get past Myles Jury at UFC 182, he’ll earn a spot in the conversation with other top title hopefuls like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Rafael dos Anjos.
Winner: Robbie Lawler
In the end, Lawler's narrative was just too compelling to overlook. The idea that he would one day hold the UFC welterweight title, one of the most prestigious in the sport's history, would have once been so far-fetched as to be laughable.
This is a man who, just a few years ago, was losing fights to unheralded prospect Lorenz Larkin and journeyman Tim Kennedy. Today, he's one of the pound-for-pound best in all of mixed martial arts.
Sure, he lost a fight early in the year to Hendricks. But it's a loss that works with Lawler's story. Robbie had to overcome disappointment and defeat even as he became Fighter of the Year.
Somehow, that just seems right.