Bleacher Report MMA Awards: 2016's Best Fighter, Fight, Finishes and Story

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2017

Bleacher Report MMA Awards: 2016's Best Fighter, Fight, Finishes and Story

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    Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Traditionally, MMA flows like a sine wave. Highs are inevitably followed by comparable lows, and any joy one feels will likely be offset by a similar helping of disappointment 12 months later. 2015 was a damn good year of mixed martial arts and, as such, it was easy to feel bearish entering 2016.

    Boy, was that streak broken. That strong 2015 was followed by an even stronger 2016, which delivered shocking twists and turns on an almost monthly basis.

    There were the usual roundups of amazing fights, of course, like Dooho Choi vs. Cub Swanson and Robbie Lawler vs. Carlos Condit. There were plenty of feel-good moments like Michael Bisping capturing UFC gold and Stipe Miocic riding shotgun at the Cleveland Cavaliers' NBA championship parade. And there was major, industry-shaking news on an almost monthly basis with MMA being legalized in New York, free agency coming front and center and major chatter about fighters organizing as a workforce.

    There was a lot to love in 2016 and that made it incredibly difficult to pick the winners for the Bleacher Report MMA Awards. The team of Patrick Wyman, Scott Harris, Nathan McCarter, Steven Rondina and Josh Gross was up to the task, though, and managed to sift through all the action to pick out the year's biggest and best.

Submission of the Year: Miesha Tate Def. Holly Holm Via Rear-Naked Choke

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    There were several excellent submissions during 2016, but there were two that stood above the rest.

    Nate Diaz submitting Conor McGregor and Miesha Tate putting Holly Holm to sleep. Interestingly, both of these submissions happened on the same event (UFC 196). While Diaz’s submission set the stage for one of the highest-grossing pay-per-views in UFC history (UFC 202), it did not win out. The co-main event performance from Tate will take home the award.

    Holm was coming off the violent and astonishing knockout of Ronda Rousey just a few months earlier. She stopped the unstoppable, and her first opponent was someone who failed spectacularly against Rousey twice before. Tate had always been seen as tough, but she wasn’t thought to be a more difficult challenge for Holm.

    And Holm was well on her way to retaining her championship. She was up 38-37 on each of the judge’s scorecards and winning the fifth (h/t Until a relentless and hellbent Tate got a takedown with 2:02 left in the round.

    Holm got over to the cage but allowed Tate to get one hook in while take taking her back. As Holm stood, Tate got her arm under the chin of Holm.

    MMA is a game where one tiny happening alters everything. One mental lapse or one minuscule detail can be the difference between winning and losing. On this night, that’s what happened.

    Holm tried throwing Tate over the top of her, and she was very nearly successful. However, that one hook put in by Tate as Holm moved to the cage allowed her to keep position. She almost lost it during the throw, but by maintaining it she now had Holm’s back, with the choke, on the mat. A second hook soon followed, and Holm had nowhere to go.

    Holm fought until she went unconscious. Tate put her to sleep.

    The story of Tate’s resiliency will stick with fans for quite some time. It is the mark of her entire career. She knew she was down and went all out to become the new undisputed champion.

    Nathan McCarter

Knockout of the Year: Michael Page Def. Evangelista Santos Via Flying Knee

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    Let us harken back to Bellator 158, held on July 16. Here is when Michael Page, the English striking prodigy, faced off against Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos, the veteran hailed by the magnanimous for toughness.

    What followed was the year’s greatest MMA knockout.

    As the second round wound down, Page found his opening. He’s not the type to be laissez-faire about openings. Santos ducked into the danger zone. A flying knee cleared the tower and connected with Santos’ head with a sickening crunch. That’s the standard for Page, who unabashedly cites video game characters as an influence on his game. Santos hit the mat like a bag of wet laundry, writhing in obvious pain.

    No one needed the ref’s immediate stoppage to know the contest was over. Page certainly didn’t, as he launched imaginary fireballs across the cage in a Pokemon-inspired celebration.

    Santos’ discomfort, while not what you’d call a mystery, wasn’t fully unraveled until hours later.

    Page’s knee had fractured Santos’ skull, per MMA Fighting's Guilherme Cruz.

    Just in case there were any doubting Thomases in the crowd, Santos and his team posted a brain scan and a photo of Santos in a hospital bed. Both images clearly showed a patella-shaped dent in the center of Santos’ cranium that required surgery. According to at least one trained observer, that kind of injury is more often associated with car wrecks than cage fights. 

    The MMA community exploded. At first, there was controversy over who would pay for his surgery and how (to its credit, Bellator stepped up). But a GoFundMe page hastily established by a second Cyborg, Santos’ ex-wife Cris Justino, fueled controversy on the topic and led to a fresh round of questions over fighter pay and well-being. Page himself weighed in, tweeting his best wishes and encouraging followers to donate.

    There are plenty of highlight-reel knockouts every year in MMA, and 2016 did not buck that expectation. Conor McGregor’s crushing of Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 in Manhattan left an instant memory, as did Yoel Romero’s own flying-knee KO of Chris Weidman at the same event. Lando Vannata’s spinning wheel kick on John Makdessi was an absolutely spectacular display of soul-stealing. There were others.

    But after some back and forth, this one emerged as the clear favorite for its combination of artistry and devastation.

    Hey Bellator, how about a top-flight opponent for Page in 2017? I know I’d watch.

    Scott Harris

Story of the Year: Zuffa, LLC Sells the UFC to WME-IMG

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    From its explosive beginnings in 1993 through the dark days of political pressure and mismanagement to an incredible resurrection and resurgence, as much as anything else the improbable success of the Ultimate Fighting Championship has hung on the passion of the people who ran the business.

    This is why mixed martial arts' defining story of 2016 centers on the eye-popping value of the UFC's blood-and-sweat equity and the fallout of an ownership change that shook up a sport.

    At $4.02 billion, the purchase price of the UFC in July set a short-lived record for the largest transaction in the history of professional sports. Two months later, Formula One auto racing sold for double that price. However, considering that the UFC business grew by orders of magnitude after being bailed out for $2 million in 2001 by casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, there's no debating it's an enormous return on their investment.

    The price of the sale of the UFC by Zuffa to talent agency WME/IMG made headlines far and wide, crescendoing an incredible entrepreneurial story, yet the ramifications portend to be far more significant than even the enormity of the closing price.

    Under the leadership of the Fertittas and their close friend Dana White, whose desire to grow the business knew no bounds even when it seemed like it wouldn't work at all, the UFC went from surviving to stable to making cage fighting a mainstream sports attraction and global niche.

    When Lorenzo Fertitta announced that he would leave his family's casino business to work with the UFC full-time in 2008, White lauded the news as a pivotal point in the history of the company. Incapable of envisioning where the UFC was headed, many people didn't grasp what White meant. Of course, he was proved correct. Under Fertitta's control, the UFC elevated itself in every way imaginable, morphing into a media company that created and packaged thousands of hours of content that landed the UFC on FOX as part of a seven-year television rights agreement that will expire in 2018.

    This is one of the reasons WME/IMG, headed by entertainment industry power players Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell, moved on the UFC despite potential of briar patches getting in the way.

    With Fertitta now gone as chairman and CEO of the UFC, control of MMA's most established and important brand—in some respects the sport itself—has shifted as the business prepares to clash head-on with the growing pains of a budding major sports league.

    Labor concerns regarding treatment, compensation and financial protections for the fighters are at the top of the list of likely headaches for new ownership. An antitrust lawsuit persists, and in Congress, legislation is being considered to alter the business of MMA to look more like boxing, which would give athletes in the UFC significant control of their careers in ways they do not have today.

    The stars of the sport are already operating with more leverage than they ever have, and even rank-and-file competitors seem to have coalesced around the idea that they weren't getting enough of that $4 billion pie.

    The Fertittas get credit for seeing what was coming and selling when they did, and as always, White, who pocketed a reported $360 million on the sale and remains in charge of the day-to-day operation of the UFC, is bullish on the trajectory of the promotion.

    Josh Gross

Fight of the Year: Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor 2

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    We owe the two biggest fights of 2016 to Rafael Dos Anjos.

    More specifically, the two fights between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, two of if not the highest-selling pay-per-views in UFC history, only came about because Dos Anjos broke his foot and was forced to withdraw from a scheduled lightweight title fight with McGregor at UFC 196 in March.

    With just 11 days to go before the event, Diaz stepped up to face the featherweight champion. The rest is history. McGregor had a strong first round, but in the second, he tired following a heavy flurry, ate a sharp series of punches from Diaz, shot an ill-advised takedown and shortly thereafter tapped to a rear-naked choke.

    Nate Diaz wasn’t surprised (warning, NSFW language), but the rest of the world sure was. The UFC looked to capitalize with an immediate rematch at UFC 200, but McGregor’s attempt to lessen his media obligations led to the fight being pulled.

    Instead of headlining what was supposed to be a seminal card in UFC history, the rematch was set for the innocuous, seemingly unimportant UFC 202 on August 20. Even the week of the fight, it seemed to be flying under the radar, at least until a bottle-throwing incident at the pre-fight press conference (warning: NSFW language) made clear how many eyes would be watching.

    To overcome the tall, durable southpaw, one of the few fighters in the sport who could exceed his pace and eat his powerful punches, McGregor would have to transform his aggressive, guns-blazing style into something more measured and sustainable. Discipline and personal growth were the essential cornerstones of that transformation.

    McGregor did all that and more. He showcased his power in the early going, blasting Diaz with sharp counters and knocking him down three times in the first seven minutes while avoiding the kind of quick-paced flurries that had drained his gas tank in their first meeting.

    The tide turned, though, as the second round wore on. Diaz had taken McGregor’s best shots and weathered the early storm. The American got his long jab going and turned up the pressure, sensing that McGregor was tiring and the momentum had turned.

    Diaz carried that momentum into the third round, landing over and over on the visibly tired McGregor and laughing through an increasingly bloody face as the Irishman desperately tried to get away.

    In the fourth round, however, the momentum shifted yet again. After a rough opening minute, McGregor flashed some of his new tools and a more disciplined approach, sticking and moving with the jab as the usually tireless Diaz slowed a bit himself from the accumulated body shots and low kicks McGregor had landed.

    It wasn’t always pretty, and there were points in the fourth and fifth round where McGregor literally turned and ran to avoid Diaz’s pressure. At the end of the day, though, it was enough for the Irishman to scrape out a tight split-decision victory.

    No fight in 2016 had the combination of raw action, shifts in momentum and larger meaning that the rematch between Diaz and McGregor featured. This was an all-timer of a fight between two men that drew out the best in both of them, and the icing on the cake was the biggest box-office result (per Dave Meltzer of Wrestling Observer Newsletter via MMAPayout) in UFC history.

    Patrick Wyman

Fighter of the Year: Conor McGregor

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    2016 mirrored 2015 in many ways. The shows were grandiose, the action was solid, the business boomed. And of course, Conor McGregor was named Bleacher Report's Fighter of the Year.

    While McGregor was an easy choice in 2015, there was a significantly more crowded field in 2016. As was previously discussed, McGregor wasn't perfect inside the cage and in any other year, or with any other set of variables, this slide would be weighing the stellar performances of Michael Bisping, Amanda Nunes, Stipe Miocic and Cody Garbrandt. McGregor's 2016, however, was just too fun, too wild, too enterprising and too great to lose out in this category. 

    Of course, despite posting a 2-1 record, McGregor did have a fantastic 2016 in the cage. His rivalry with Nate Diaz, which saw them split fights at UFC 196 and UFC 202, went above and beyond any expectations fans could have had for it, delivering two amazing contests that easily could have claimed more spots on this slideshow. From there, he became the first man to hold two UFC titles simultaneously by dissecting Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205.

    On that alone, a strong case could be made that McGregor was Fighter of the Year. Snuggled between those fights, though, were a slew of broken records, memorable moments and one-of-a-kind milestones that, frankly, nobody else could hope to pull off. 

    At UFC 196, McGregor set the new benchmark for pay-per-view success by drawing more buys than UFC 100. Then he did it again at UFC 202. He blew away the record for the most-shared social media post in sports with his "retiring young" tweet. He was the main event at the UFC's first show in New York City. Oh and once again, he became the first man to hold two UFC titles at the same time! Believe it or not, the list goes on.

    In 2016, McGregor challenged fans' expectations, modern sports conventions, the boundaries MMA fighters are confined to and the UFC machine itself. While it may have taken him more than one try, he managed to win each one of those battles.

    He may not have been perfect inside the cage, but MMA has never been a sport where competitors are purely measured in wins or losses. McGregor was perfect outside the cage, and that's more than enough to make him the 2016 Fighter of the Year.

    Steven Rondina


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