Top 5 Moments from a Thrilling January in MMA

Bradley Popkin@@bradpopkinmmaCorrespondent IFebruary 3, 2015

Top 5 Moments from a Thrilling January in MMA

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    The New Year may have brought forth a rash of injuries and failed drug tests, but by the time January said goodbye it left fight fans wanting more.

    January featured memorable returns, budding superstars and exciting title fights. 

    UFC light heavyweight champion Jon "Bones" Jones and former middleweight champion Anderson "The Spider" Silva withstood battles against gritty foes. No. 1 contenders emerged as vocal Irishman Conor McGregor and knockout artist Anthony "Rumble" Johnson continued their assault on the featherweight and light heavyweight divisions, respectively.

    January's mixed martial arts action wasn't just confined to an Octagon. Former UFC and Strikeforce fighter Jake Shields faced Brian Foster in a welterweight title eliminator at World Series of Fighting 17, while Bellator featherweight champion Patricio Freire defended his title against Daniel Straus. 

    For a look back at the month of MMA that was, stroll through the following pages. But before we do that, let's reveal the honorable mentions. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Former UFC title challenger Jake Shields earns WSOF welterweight title shot 

    The one-time UFC welterweight title challenger took on fellow Octagon outcast Brian Foster in a 170-pound title eliminator at WSOF 17. Foster didn't last very long, as Shields quickly made this a grappling match, submitting him with a rear-naked choke nearly three minutes into the opening round. 

    Shields will now face fellow jiu-jitsu ace Rousimar Palhares later this year.

    Bellator featherweight champion Patricio Freire chokes out Daniel Straus

    After defeating Pat Curran, who originally bested Freire for the 145-pound title in September, the Brazilian striker defended his belt against American Top Team's Daniel Straus. 

    In a bout marred by low blows and eye pokes, Freire won the back-and-forth affair, submitting Straus in the fourth round with a rear-naked choke. 

    UFC middleweight Thales Leites records fifth straight win 

    The top-15 middleweight had displayed much more confidence in his striking than ever before, leading up to his UFC 183 meeting with Tim Boetsch. Leites ate several clean hooks from "The Barbarian" and was on his way to the same fate in the second round. 

    However, Leites found an opening for a takedown, then passed through Boetsch's guard for the arm triangle finish. 

Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone Corrals Two Victories

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    Cowboy likes to live life in the fast lane. After fighting nearly five times in a 12-month span, Cerrone wanted to outdo himself. 

    At UFC 182, Cerrone took on up-and-comer Myles Jury, nearly finishing him in the opening stanza. Though he didn't secure a choke, the Jackson-Winkeljohn fighter outclassed his opponent for the unanimous decision.

    Then, just two weeks later, the 31-year-old lightweight filled in for an ill Eddie Alvarez against familiar foe Benson "Smooth" Henderson in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night: Boston.

    Cowboy and Smooth previously fought twice in the WEC, with Henderson getting the better of Cerrone in both outings. 

    However, that would soon change. Cowboy defeated the former UFC lightweight champion on all three judges' scorecards. 

    Cerrone wasn't as active as he nearly was in previous fights, but a late takedown attempt helped seal the deal. He would reveal in the post-fight presser he plans on taking a vacation, though that could just mean a few months in Cowboy time. 

    Cowboy's attitude, almost like a baby face in wrestling terms, has garnered him an even larger fanbase, though not large enough to topple the other fighters on this list. 

Conor McGregor Continues Knockout Trail, Gets Jose Aldo Fight

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    SBG Ireland's McGregor has not made any friends since debuting in the UFC nearly two years ago. The 26-year-old has ruffled a few feathers, to say the least.

    Octagon veteran Dennis Siver was slated to be McGregor's latest victim in front of a pro-Irish crowd in Boston at UFC Fight Night: McGregor vs. Siver. Dublin's favorite son was able to keep his undefeated Octagon record intact by peppering the Russian/German kickboxer with all kinds of jabs, crosses and head kicks.

    Following the win, McGregor fled the Octagon and confronted what will be his biggest adversary to date, one of the pound-for-pound best in Jose Aldo. 

    McGregor is arguably the UFC's most talked about fighter and can sell out arenas in his birthplace without batting an eyelash. Plans were nixed on a title fight in Ireland, but if his following is as large as it seems, they'll have no trouble traveling to Sin City. 

Anthony Johnson Rumbles to a Victory over Alexander Gustafsson

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    Like the men that have preceded him, Rumble has made quick work of much of his opponents. But that wouldn't be doing him justice. 

    Johnson has manhandled each of his light heavyweight opponents since his second UFC stint began in April 2014. Since then, the former Octagon outcast has reeled off destructive victories over Phil Davis and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. 

    The 30-year-old captured his biggest win to date against former No. 1 contender Alexander Gustafsson in Stockholm, Sweden. Johnson finished the Swede with strikes just over two minutes into their bout, shocking the MMA community yet again. 

    Rumble came out from the title eliminator unscathed; a reoccurring theme throughout his nine-fight winning streak. The Blackzilians standout is unequivocally the most dangerous fighter the UFC has under contract. 

    Johnson has rarely, if ever, not pushed forward in his past three Octagon appearances. He has shown nothing but sheer disdain for his opponents' abilities.

    His win over Gustafsson nets him his biggest catch yet: the reigning light heavyweight champion.  

Jon Jones Outlasts Daniel Cormier in Epic Duel

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    Bones and "DC" engaged in one of the most highly publicized UFC feuds in recent memory. The pair also engaged in a costly media day brawl at the MGM Grand.

    Cormier and Jones were never destined to be buddies. Their war of words, and fists, boiled down to a showdown at UFC 182. 

    The 35-year-old Cormier brought the fight to Jones' doorstep early, instigating the clinch, while looking to utilize his dirty boxing. The energy dump would cost DC, as it allowed the light heavyweight champion to distance himself from his challenger. 

    Cormier's gas tank was on empty heading into the championship rounds. Jones launched elbows, shin kicks, body shots and even landed a few takedowns against the Olympic wrestler. 

    Even after going toe-to-toe for 25 minutes, these two still couldn't get along. Still, Jones is well on his way to achieving the title of best ever.

    The Jackson-Winkeljohn fighter is eight title defenses into his reign as 205-pound champion. Jones is now two defenses away from passing this next man, who recently passed him the GOAT torch.

The Spider Returns to Defeat Nick Diaz

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    It has been 13 months since we've seen the greatest middleweight champion MMA has had the pleasure of knowing.

    In December 2013, Silva crumbled to the ground in agony after his leg kick was checked by current UFC middleweight title holder Chris Weidman. On January 31, a different type of tear was shed by The Spider; that of joy. 

    Anderson Silva has steadily made his way back from the gruesome broken leg he suffered trying to recapture the belt he lost to Chris Weidman at UFC 168. In July, the 39-year-old agreed to fight the returning former Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz at UFC 183.

    With talk surrounding his impending title shot, retirement and recovery, the public was exposed to a different side of The Spider that we hadn't ordinarily seen. No one knew what version of Silva to expect last Saturday. 

    One thing is for certain, Diaz and Silva didn't disappoint. For 25 minutes, the two striking specialists engaged in what was a thoroughly entertaining rodeo. Sure, Silva didn't uncork as many kicks, or knees, as he could've. 

    In fact, as we'd find out in the post-fight presser, neither fighter pushed forward as best as they could've.

    What the 13,000-plus fans packed inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena witnessed was a genuine MMA super fight. It may not have seemed that way, with both Silva and Diaz coming into the bout possessing two straight losses, but each has long been a student of the sport.

    Both men have spent at least a decade in MMA perfecting their craft, capturing titles and defending them on the highest plateaus. And even if they both decided to call it quits today, we'd still be every bit thankful for their prowess in the cage, and their sacrifice out of it.