Bleacher Report MMA Awards: 2015's Best Fighter, Fight, Finishes and Moment
What a year for the sport of MMA. After a humdrum 2014 defined by injuries and weak events, 2015 delivered every kind of drama that a fan could hope for.
From both competitive and business perspectives, the sport changed from top to bottom. Stars were born, legends faded, and more than a dozen major titles changed hands over the last 12 months. Big names took over the sport in a way never seen before, and promotions courted fans in bold, new ways.
Through all that, however, the centerpiece of MMA remained the fighting, and there was a lot of glory to be had during the year.
But which fight was the most suspenseful? Which finishes were the most satisfying? What moment touched the most people? And who dominated the sport like none other? Bleacher Report MMA writers Jeremy Botter, Mike Chiappetta, Sydnie Jones, Steven Rondina and Scott Harris teamed up to figure out the answers to these questions.
Read on to find out the best fighter, fights, finishes and moment of 2015.
Submission of the Year: Fabricio Werdum Guillotine Chokes Cain Velasquez
Did Fabricio Werdum outclass Cain Velasquez at UFC 188 when he guillotined him to unify his interim heavyweight title? Or was it something in the air?
After 20 months off, Velasquez's return was highly anticipated. He was a finishing machine, with 11 of his 13 wins coming via KO/TKO. His only loss prior to UFC 188 was to Junior dos Santos, which he rectified twice over. The excitement to watch him come back and deliver one of his signature beatings to unify the belt was palpable.
Werdum, on the other hand, was perennially underestimated, despite ending Fedor Emelianenko's 10-year winning streak in 2010 and despite his wins over Mark Hunt, Roy Nelson and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
In the first half of Round 3, Velasquez shot in for a double leg, bent at the waist and exposed his neck, which Werdum seized on immediately. He locked up an arm-in guillotine as he fell backward and closed his guard, cinching up the choke as Velasquez struggled. The uproar from the crowd was deafening. Werdum was so certain he had the choke that he was smiling before Velasquez even started tapping.
Werdum predicted that "Cardio Cain" would tire in the high altitude of Mexico City—7,832 feet above sea level—and he'd see Velasquez "gassing after three or four rounds." It happened much faster than that.
It only took one round for Velasquez to become visibly fatigued and two rounds to become seriously fatigued. While exhaustion was a significant factor in Velasquez's loss, he was also bloodied more after Round 1 than he possibly ever had been in a first round. He never looked rocked, exactly, but he was getting tagged by Werdum while not catching him in anything. To the surprise of many, Werdum bested Velasquez from the start.
The guillotine may not have had the quick-thinking and innovative dazzle of Ronda Rousey's 14-second armbar on Cat Zingano or the technical complexity of Luke Rockhold's mounted triangle kimura on Tim Boetsch, but Velasquez had never been submitted before. One of the UFC's more mythical talents was deconstructed in less than 13 minutes and submitted for the first time ever.
Werdum and Velasquez meet again at UFC 196 on February 6 at a considerably lower elevation—the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. This will be another chance for Werdum to prove the title is rightfully his and that his win was not solely attributable to the concentration of oxygen in the air, as his detractors would insist.
Regardless of the outcome at UFC 196, submissions at heavyweight are a rarity. So for Werdum to get one, on the legendary Velasquez after besting him for two-and-a-half rounds in a title unification bout, makes this our pick for Submission of the Year.
Knockout of the Year: Holly Holm
We can count the MMA knockouts that have permeated the cultural zeitgeist on one hand. Before 2015, there was one. It was back in 2007, when Chuck Liddell had broken through with appearances on TV shows like Entourage and Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Fresh off these star-making turns, Liddell was promptly knocked out by Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.
No one picked up the crossover mantle until Ronda Rousey came along. Armed with a wicked submission game, sharp wit and kick-ass attitude, she became the poster girl for empowered women, and Hollywood quickly fell in love with her, too. With multiple movie roles completed and accepted, Rousey marched into UFC 193 as a massive 16-1 favorite.
Amazingly, that betting line didn't seem out of line. While Rousey had demolished everyone before her, Holm, a longtime boxing star, had only a pair of lackluster performances in her two prior UFC bouts.
Still, Rousey had become a one-woman event, and on fight night, the world was watching. A UFC-record crowd of over 56,000 packed Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, and well over 1 million pay-per-view buys were forecast.
It was in that backdrop that Holm was cast as a massive underdog. When it came time to perform, the bout was one-sided—only it was in Holm's favor. The New Mexican controlled range while punishing Rousey with straight left hands. By the end of the first, Rousey looked flummoxed. As the challenger mounted more offense, Rousey made an unforgivable mistake while scrambling to her feet, dropping her hands and turning her back as she rose. In that instant, Holm uncoiled a left high kick that dropped her.
It was a perfect meeting of preparation and opportunity, and after more than a dozen years of toiling somewhat anonymously as a professional athlete, Holm became an overnight star as the one who conquered the unconquerable.
Biggest Moment: Holly Holm Knocks out Ronda Rousey
Holly Holm's knockout of Ronda Rousey is the biggest upset in MMA history for reasons other than actual MMA.
In retrospect, the fight logic is forehead-smackingly clear: Play matador to Rousey's bull. It was just that simple.
The mental optics made it amazing, though. Rousey's perceived invincibility, only leaving the first round once. Her maniacal will to dominate all life as Sauron in a sports bra. The unparalleled celebrity she achieved, pulling all of MMA behind her.
And then that kick. The head kick and the pic, that perfect pic, where Rousey's face is moving faster than her skull. That image is what a fall from grace looks like. Nowhere else but in MMA does being knocked off your pedestal come this close to literal.
It would be silly to try to psychoanalyze the emotional floodgates that moment released. But they were widespread, far-flung and deeply felt. Nothing else came close to the reaction Holm elicited when she found Rousey's Achilles' heel on the side of her head. No matter what side you're on, nothing comes close to the size of this moment, and it might be a while before anything dives that deeply again.
Fight of the Year: Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald 2
The thing that we'll probably all remember forever, because this is the way memories work, is that moment when Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald quit fighting at the end of the fourth round and just stared at each other, dead in the face, bleeding all over the place, wounds and mouths and eyes open and perhaps even souls, if you cared to look hard enough.
It took a lot for those two warriors to get to that point. And I hate using the term "warriors" because, well, you can use that word for so many things that are far more important than cage fighting. But with Lawler and MacDonald—on that day and pretty much every other day—I can't think of a better word to describe them.
What I'd say about how they got there, to that point where they were just staring at each other after taking chunks of flesh and splaying them across the Octagon, was that it's one of those long and drawn-out moments that come to a standstill, both in the moment and then long after.
In my memory now, six months later, I think there was probably a buzzing in the arena and a hazy glow around them. That kind of thing happens with the best fights. Your brain adds its own mystique, long before someone emerges as something resembling a winner. It isn't a real mystique, but it's there all the same, and that's how you know it was a good one.
You also know it was a good one because, unfortunately, it probably took more than just chunks of flesh from both of them. Lawler and MacDonald probably won't be the same ever again, not after that, and how could they be? They pretty much tried to kill each other for sport, right there in front of all of us. It felt public and altogether too personal, like we were seeing something we weren't supposed to see.
These two men are intertwined forever, and I suspect there will come a day when they are old and ruined and they remember that shining night in July when they put down a fight that will never be forgotten by anyone who saw it. There were plenty of those kinds of fights in 2015, but I reckon none of them took as much from the participants as this one did.
Fighter of the Year: Conor McGregor
On paper, this was probably the year's most competitive category. In reality, however, it was a blowout. Conor McGregor is the 2015 Fighter of the Year.
Plenty of other fighters deserve mention here. Joanna Jedrzejczyk went from afterthought to champion to scariest fighter in the sport within the last 12 months. Holly Holm went 3-0 in 2015 and took the UFC women's bantamweight title from Ronda Rousey with a performance that will be remembered for decades. Luke Rockhold and Rafael dos Anjos both took UFC gold and looked downright fearsome in their fights. Max Holloway had another four-win year against stiff competition, extending his winning streak to eight.
Nobody else, however, dominated both the MMA news cycle and the in-cage opposition as thoroughly as McGregor did.
McGregor's year started with him blowing away the UFC's ratings records on Fox Sports 1, drawing an average of 2.75 million viewers at UFC Fight Night 59. Oh, and the fight? That bout saw him play the cat to Dennis Siver's mouse, toying with him before delivering the coup de grace in the second round.
That set up a title fight with Jose Aldo at UFC 189, and while it didn't pan out, the press tour ahead of the fight provided more than a few memorable moments (most notably NSFW incidents like Aldo flipping McGregor the middle finger and McGregor swiping Aldo's belt). When Aldo withdrew from the fight, he was replaced by Chad Mendes, and while the elite featherweight managed to mount some offense, McGregor sapped his energy with series of body kicks, leading to another second-round knockout.
You probably know the rest. Aldo vs. McGregor would finally happen at UFC 194, and McGregor, remarkably, under-promised and over-delivered on his pre-fight boasting by knocking Aldo out cold in just 13 seconds.
The Irish striker divided fans with his in-your-face attitude and wacky, sometimes childish antics, but none can deny the man's in-the-cage accomplishments in 2015. In less than 20 minutes of work, McGregor dispatched an at-the-time Top 10 staple, a pound-for-pound-ranked contender and a candidate for greatest of all time. That's a damn good year.