Bleacher Report 2017 MMA Awards: Best Fighter, Fight, Finishes and Story
It's not that 2017 was a bad year for mixed martial arts. Fight cards happened around the globe, stars emerged (Justin Gaethje) and departed (Tito Ortiz), legends returned (Georges St-Pierre) and plenty of television hours were filled with all-too-valuable content.
But something was missing. Or, rather, someone.
The Conor McGregor era, a uniquely prosperous and exciting time in MMA history that started in 2013, came to a sudden and unexpected end in 2017 to the disappointment of just about everyone. The biggest box office attraction the sport has ever team spent his time playing boxer, grabbing the world's attention for a fight outside the UFC's Octagon with Floyd Mayweather Jr. He never stepped into the cage in 2017 and no one else stepped up to claim his crown as UFC kingpin.
The result, in many ways, was a sport stuck in neutral, waiting for something to come and give it some gas.
There were, of course, moments that grabbed the heart and awed the senses. Bodies, as the Drowning Pool song promises, did indeed hit the floor, necks were squeezed until blood could no longer flow, and limbs were twisted and torqued in grotesque ways.
You know, the good stuff.
What follows are the best fighters, bouts and finishes of the year, as well as the stories that moved us the most in 2017. Here's hoping 2018 has even better things in store.
Story of the Year: Conor McGregor Goes Boxing
I spent months assuring everyone at Bleacher Report not to get too worked up about rumors of a potential Conor McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather match. It was, I said often and loudly, never going to happen.
In my defense, the very idea was farcical.
McGregor hadn't stepped into a boxing ring as a professional. Mayweather, likewise, had never defended a takedown or learned to block a kick. A bout between the two, contested in either's world, was inherently unfair, a mismatch.
Besides, McGregor's promoter, Dana White, is a famous control freak and vehemently opposed to copromotion of any kind. Yielding control to Mayweather, a fighter powerful enough to never step into a ring without decision-making authority at every level, was seemingly against White's very nature.
Yet, beyond reason and defying all explanation, there I was in Las Vegas last August, witness to the greatest spectacle in combat sports history. MMA, for the first time ever, had truly arrived in the mainstream.
Runner-up: Jon Jones does more Jon Jones things
I figured I'd be using this time to write about the improbable storybook return of Jon Jones.
Jones, a man who has long conspired against the angels of his better self, came back from exile earlier this year a changed man. He always had all the talent in the world, but like so many of us, he also had a tendency to follow a tiny nagging inner voice that led him, with destructive consequences, down the wrong paths in life.
How many of us can relate to Jones and his struggles? I can. I've spent a lifetime making decisions I regret once I have enough space and time to see them for what they are. I can only imagine how those consequences would be amplified were I afforded the same level of financial freedom and public exposure given to Jones.
But Jones was good to go, or at least it seemed like it. He came back and said the right things. He did the right things. The public, long-suffered and bracing for disappointment, accepted him again. They cheered for him over Daniel Cormier, a man whose only crime is that he is perhaps too earnest, too sweet-natured and too kind for such a bloodthirsty sport. And when he knocked Cormier out, besting him once again, they cheered and jeered and made memes making fun of Cormier crying, because there is apparently nothing worse than someone who cares deeply enough to have their heart broken by a moment.
But it was all an act. Jones tested positive for a banned substance that July weekend. The title went back to Cormier, who accepted it uneasily, because the sting of that night had yet to wear off. Jones, who swore he's never used steroids (after the first failed test a year earlier), started the whole process again.
But this time, the fans didn't buy it. Jones is the boy who cried "contaminated supplement," only mixed martial arts fans are perhaps too clever, after all, to fall for it again.
Fight of the Year: Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Johnson
You know how you can tell Justin Gaethje and Michael Johnson put on the fight of the year?
It was happening at the end of a classic six-hour slog through a Fox Sports 1 event, with 90 percent of the East Coast long in bed, and it took over the sport anyway.
Back and forth Gaethje and Johnson went, never more than an arm's length from one another for the two rounds they fought. Gaethje, working in his patented peekaboo shell and relying on his chin to cover the times he was found, was steady and consistent in his smothering of Johnson, who was as game as they come.
The end epitomized the cumulative effect of attrition, with Johnson succumbing to the abuse he'd endured and being saved by the ref. Gaethje had won his UFC debut as only he could and became an overnight sensation in the process.
It was the best fight of 2017 and nothing else was even close.
Runner-up: Yancy Medeiros vs. Alex Oliveira
If someone traveled back in time and told me that Eddie Alvarez vs. Justin Gaethje wasn't going to be the most exciting fight on the UFC 218 card, I would've questioned their sanity. That's precisely what happened, though, as Yancy Medeiros and Alex Oliveira stole the show with their back-and-forth brawl in Detroit.
Defined by its massive momentum swings, Oliveira vs. Medeiros was a testament to both men's toughness, with dueling near-finishes and a dramatic finish that saw Cowboy collapse under the relentless offense of Medeiros.
Knockout of the Year: Francis Ngannou Steals Alistair Overeem's Soul
Covering combat sports allows us all to see many knockouts. In 2017, there have been over 200 in all of MMA, but few truly strike fear into your soul as you watch them happen. On December 2, in Detroit, such a knockout happened.
Francis Ngannou took out Alistair Overeem with a thunderous left hook at the 102-second mark to announce himself as the No. 1 contender in the heavyweight division.
I sat cageside at UFC 218, and Ngannou's knockout of Overeem terrified me. I watched, in stunned silence, through the chain links as Overeem lay unconscious on the canvas while Michigan's Unarmed Combat Commission attended to him. Ngannou's KO was one that stoked immediate concern for the well-being of the victim rather than celebrating the finish.
Once Overeem rose to his feet, then reflection could be had on what had just transpired. Ngannou's knockout was a statement-making masterpiece that ushered in a sense of excitement for a burgeoning superstar and the heavyweight division as a whole. That makes it even more meaningful and 2017's Knockout of the Year.
Runner-up: Paul Daley knees Brennan Ward
Everyone knew this one was a powder keg. The ending was so explosive, it caught even the most seasoned fan by surprise. When British headhunter Paul Daley knocked the consciousness out of swang-and-bang bro Brennan Ward with a flying knee, plenty of viewers leapt to their feet and social media accounts.
The excitement was tempered a bit, however, when the extent of the blow became clear. Ward left the cage on a stretcher, destined for the hospital. He was later released and pronounced (relatively) healthy, but not before worrying a few people. In the end, that flying knee was right at the top of the short list of 2017's memorable flattenings.
Submission of the Year: Demetrious Johnson Armbars Ray Borg
I've been watching mixed martial arts a long time and I thought I'd seen everything, like really seen everything there is to see. Except of course I hadn't seen everything, because Demetrious Johnson is still an active fighter, and as long as Demetrious Johnson is an active fighter, you can't really rest comfortably and pretend like nothing will surprise you.
Because as it turns out, you can be quite surprised, indeed.
Even now, watching it a few months later, Johnson's final-round submission of Ray Borg on October 7 seems like fantasy. Like something out of a pro-wrestling-finisher playbook. And maybe that's because a pro wrestling finisher is exactly what it was. A suplex into an armbar applied while the opponent is in mid-air?
That would take supreme athleticism and limb coordination on the part of both the wrestler executing the move and the guy on the receiving end.
But (are you kidding me) because Demetrious Johnson, the best mixed martial artist the world has ever seen, he did it to an unwilling opponent. Ray Borg was not going along for the ride. He wasn't helping out to make things look good. And still Johnson launched Borg up into the air with, as the late and great Gordon Solie would say, a German soooplayyyy.
And then Johnson applies one half of the armbar before Borg's shoulders hit the ground and then quickly latches in the other. You can tell from watching the replay that Joe Rogan and Jon Anik had no idea what in the blue hell they'd just seen, because all they could do was the same thing the rest of us could do: grunt out the sort of noise we all make when confronted by something that defies expectation and stretches the boundaries of imagination.
Runner-up: Georges St-Pierre chokes out Michael Bisping
When Georges St-Pierre was signed as an opponent for Michael Bisping in an 185-pound title fight, responses were mixed, to be kind.
When Georges St-Pierre choked Michael Bisping out cold to cap off UFC 217 on November 4, responses were unanimously glowing.
Goes to show we don’t always know what we want until we see it.
The idea that GSP, after four years away and in a bout with a much bigger opponent, would put on his most entertaining fight in a decade and score his first stoppage win in almost as long, was almost too much to believe.
A great win and a great submission.
Fighter of the Year: Demetrious Johnson
In many ways, 2017 was business as usual for UFC men's flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.
He made two dominant and successful title defenses—just as he's done nearly every year since becoming the 125-pound champ in 2012—while making astoundingly little headway impressing MMA's all-important "casual" fans. His April victory over Wilson Reis at UFC on Fox 24 drew the second-lowest ratings in that series' history, and his win over Ray Borg in the co-main event of UFC 216 in October sold an estimated 200,000 pay-per-views.
In short, Johnson went on building his resume as arguably the greatest MMA fighter of all time—and nobody outside the hardcore combat sports bubble noticed.
A few things did make Mighty Mouse's 2017 notable, however.
After more than five years carrying the flyweight strap, he broke Anderson Silva's record for consecutive UFC title defenses, with 11. His fifth-round armbar of Borg should also be a shoo-in for submission of the year honors. Perhaps most importantly it felt as though, little by little, he finally began to get a bit of the respect from fans, analysts and his bosses that he should've earned years ago.
Without one truly standout performance in the Octagon this year, it was all good enough to earn Johnson Bleacher Report's 2017 Fighter of the Year honors. With a potential high-profile 2018 matchup with bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw looming, it's possible his long-delayed ascent is finally underway.
Runner-up: Robert Whittaker
As soon as Robert Whittaker was introduced on The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes in 2012, it was obvious that he would end up being an exceptional talent. While it took five years and a change in weight classes, that talent was fully realized in 2017.
Hot off the heels of a surprisingly easy win over longtime contender Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Whittaker captured his first piece of gold at UFC 213 by outpointing and outlasting the fearsome Yoel Romero. While his rise to the top was unfortunately caught up in the drama surrounding Georges St-Pierre's controversial 32-day reign as middleweight champion, it's impossible to deny that this was the year of Bobby Knuckles.