At CombatDocket we’re obsessed with what actually goes on inside the cage (and ring), and we figured it made no sense to start doling out year-end awards when there were still stellar UFC, Rizin, and World Series of Fighting cards on tap in the last week of 2016. Now that the year is actually over, we humbly present our selections for Fighter, Fight, and Upset of the Year, plus several other categories highlighting the best of the best in a great year of MMA.
2016 Fighter of the Year: Stipe Miocic
In the drunken afterglow of UFC 207 it was tempting to give this award to the lady of the hour, Amanda Nunes, or maybe even newly-minted bantamweight champ and pound-for-pound neck tatt king Cody Garbrandt. But a sober review of 2016 in MMA yields a single clear answer to the question of best fighter of 2016, and that answer is UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic.
The man’s 2016 credentials are impeccable. Following a first round demolition of then-streaking Andrei Arlovski (how quickly things change in the 265 pound ranks), the typically mild-mannered Miocic put himself on the map as a marketable contender with an adrenaline fueled post-fight rant that put Joe Silva and the rest of the company on notice: give Stipe a title shot, or face the considerable wrath of the firefighting facepuncher. And Stipe was ready when he received that title shot against all-time great Fabricio Werdum, in his opponent’s homeland of Brazil no less. Werdum, perhaps intoxicated by the feelings of invincibility that come with finishing nearly everyone that ranks as an all-time heavyweight great, charged straight into the Ohioan’s range and found himself planted facefirst on the canvas for his troubles. Miocic seemed nearly as stunned as the silent Brazilian crowd as he ascended the cage and screamed the words that every pugilist dreams of from day one – “I’m the champ!” – and the fairy tale was to become even sweeter at UFC 203, when the champ faced another all-time great in top form in Alistair Overeem. This time Miocic had the benefit (and added pressure) of defending the belt in his hometown of Cleveland, and he didn’t disappoint the local fans with a gutsy comeback knockout of the Reem after the challenger had planted him firmly on his derriere early in the bout.
Three fights against legends and former world champions, three first round KOs, and 34 year old Stipe Miocic ends the year as the baddest man on the planet and the king of the UFC’s heavyweight division. It’s hard to top that sort of year, and history tells us that it’s even harder to keep momentum rolling in the chaotic heavyweight ranks. But if any man is well-equipped to set a new UFC heavyweight title defense record it’s Miocic, who enters 2017 as the clear #1 in the world and an imposing roadblock for any man who dares challenge him for the crown.
Fighter of the Year Honorable Mention:
Amanda Nunes – She went from being just another contender to being the baddest woman on the planet with a close win over Valentina Shevchenko and thrashings of Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey. Two minor quibbles that set her year a notch below Stipe’s: the fact that her two latest victories came against members of the old guard who are rapidly on the way out of the sport, and the lingering image of kickboxing specialist Shevchenko taking down the slowing Nunes and holding top control in round 3 of their UFC 196 bout.
Michael Bisping – Three for three is a great year, and who would ever expect that Bisping would have the chance to fight for the 185 belt this late in his career and actually win it. But the Silva and Henderson fights were debatable outcomes that each added new contours to Bisping’s facial topography; not quite Stipe-level domination.
Cody Garbrandt – This mention is almost entirely based on the strength of his mindblowing UFC 207 performance against Dominick Cruz. Taking out Takeya Mizugaki and Thomas Almeida is also impressive, but when we’re talking fighter of the year we’re picking nits by default and those names are not nearly as top-quality as the opponents defeated by Miocic, Nunes, and Bisping.
Conor McGregor – Sure, we love Conor McGregor in the cage, and you should too. Booking shenanigans aside Mystic Mac was the Champ Champ for a little while, and if this category was “MMA Sports Entertainer of the Year” or “Bankable Draw of the Century” then he’d obviously get the nod. But at CombatDocket we’re all about the face punching, and the admirable accomplishment of starching Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight strap doesn’t overshadow the fact that one of his three 2016 outings involved a contentious decision over Nate Diaz that served as revenge for getting embarrassingly splattered by the same man a few months earlier. Not quite Fighter of the Year material.
2016 Fight of the Year: Cub Swanson vs. Doo Ho Choi (UFC 206)
Yes, this fight was utterly awesome on replay – thanks for the Christmas eve review on FOX, UFC! – but anyone who watched live enjoyed an even more special treat. The scorecards suggest that Swanson won the bout handily, but in reality this was the kind of rare knock-down, drag-out war where it was obvious that both men were embracing peril with reckless abandon throughout and could potentially fall at any moment. We all knew that the Korean Superboy had dynamite in his fists coming into this one, and he detonated those bombs with regularity, but this fight gave us the opportunity to learn that Choi has a chin and a will to endure that matches those offensive talents. Unfortunately for Choi that means that we saw him take an unbelievable arsenal of strikes upside the head, with Swanson regularly rocking him with huge, flush punches complemented by flying attacks and a pair of remarkably on-the-money cartwheel kicks. On the other side of the coin Swanson reminded everyone why it’s nearly impossible to defeat him on the feet, as he weathered dozens of punches from the Superboy that would have buckled or flat-out knocked cold nearly any other 145 competitor in the world. Even the end of the fight was far more satisfying than most that go to the judges’ cards, with Cub waylaying his enemy with a final bloody salvo and nearly finishing the bout with Donkey Kong ground strikes as the round three bell tolled; give him another 30 seconds and this one would almost certainly go in the books as a TKO. Either way, this was undoubtedly the grittiest and bloodiest war that also doubled as a highly skilled MMA contest in 2016, and is the kind of fight that propelled both the winner and the loser to greater heights of stardom than they enjoyed prior to the show.
Fight of the Year Honorable Mention:
Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 2 (UFC 202) – Another true battle of will and skill, and if we’re considering external factors like Hype then this one may well take the cake. But in terms of in-cage action, while this fight was great it certainly paled in comparison to the wall-to-wall violence of Swanson-Choi.
Robbie Lawler vs. Carlos Condit (UFC 195) – A slow build to an insane ending. This one has received a ton of play in other sites’ prematurely delivered awards columns, but swap two combatants that weren’t already your favorite fighter in place of Lawler and Condit and I doubt it would take top billing. A satisfying bout for sure, and round 5 may well have been the most intense and action-packed of the year taken in isolation, but the bout as a whole failed to quite hit the FOTY mark when you factor in the intermittently action-filled first 1200 seconds.
Polo Reyes vs. Dong Hyun Kim (UFC 199 prelims) – No, neither of these guys will be contending for the belt anytime soon, and the level of technique on display paled in comparison to the previously mentioned fights. But these two went at it like gladiators in a match to the death, plain and simple. Insane offense, very little face defense, and incredible determination from both competitors make this one of the bouts of 2016 that should be replayed and remembered for a very long time.
2016 Upset of the Year – Cody Garbrandt vs. Dominick Cruz (UFC 207)
No, Cody Garbrandt certainly wasn’t the longest betting underdog to win in 2016; the undefeated upstart was around a 2 to 1 dog heading into his title challenge against Cruz, largely on the strength of the promise that he had 25 minutes to catch the champ with his proven nuclear fists. What nobody saw coming was the type of masterclass of domination that Cruz himself is known for, yet that’s exactly what Garbrandt had on offer as he dodged, weaved, danced, and outstruck the formerly untouchable champ over five full rounds. Garbrandt looked less like a stodgy Team Alpha Male wrestleboxing product and more like the grandmaster himself, playing matador to Cruz’s increasingly desperate striking attempts and countering with clinical efficiency. One thing that Cody brings to the table that Cruz lacks is fight-changing power, and he managed to floor the Dominator on more than one occasion; yet when Cruz was on the deck Garbrandt chose to dance and taunt rather than finish, as if his intent was to prove conclusively that he is the better all-around fighter over 25 minutes rather than a man that needs the KO to prevail. That’s exactly what this fight proved, and that’s why it’s our upset of the year – even the man’s backers couldn’t have expected Cody Garbrandt to put on a performance suggesting that he might be the best pound for pound fighter in the world, yet that’s exactly the stratosphere in which the brand new champ finds himself heading into his 2017 campaign.
Upset of the Year Honorable Mention:
Michael Bisping vs. Luke Rockhold (UFC 199) – This one carried longer odds than our winning fight for sure and could certainly take the top nod without much argument. It was an unbelievable night for The Count, who planted the consensus world #1 on his keister with a snappy left hook and followed up with perfect finishing shots to earn the title. Heck, the fact that Bisping found himself in a title fight in 2016 on the heels of squeaking out a win against Anderson Silva ranks as an upset on its own. But we still rank Bisping’s KO surprise a notch below Garbrandt’s shocking and thorough ascension to prominence at the hands of one of the all time greats.
Miesha Tate vs. Holly Holm (UFC 199) – Many saw this as a tune up fight for Holm, and an opportunity for the recent Ronda-vanquisher to get a title defense under her belt in advance of a rematch whenever the former queen was ready for revenge. And through four rounds that looked to be the case, as Holly largely controlled the distance and kept at bay Miesha’s attempts to turn the fight into a grappling contest. Yet when the fifth round bell struck Miesha was transformed into a different type of beast altogether, hunting Holm like a predator desperate for survival and choking the short-time champ cold when she found a chance to latch onto her neck in the final minutes. An amazing accomplishment for Tate, who seemed destined to remain at also-ran level so late in her career, and a great surprise win to hang her hat on as she enters 2017 with a promising gig behind the microphone.
Joe Taimanglo vs. Darrion Caldwell (Bellator 159) – You wouldn’t guess it from the first two categories, but this isn’t just a UFC list – Bellator and other organizations are more than welcome, even if elite-level UFC action has dominated the nominations thus far. As far as sheer odds go this one takes the cake, as hardly anyone rated Joe Taimanglo a threat to Darrion Caldwell’s wrestling-based dominance heading into the Bellator 159 main event. For two rounds the +900 price tag on Taimanglo looked accurate, yet it all took was one lazy shot from Caldwell and the Guamanian sunk in an inextricable guillotine that earned him the main event duke and a worthy spot on this list of 2016 shockers.
Alexis Dufresne vs. Marloes Coenen (Bellator 155) – Coenen has long held the #2 spot at 145 pounds behind Cris Cyborg, and the Belgian was the odds on favorite to earn the first Bellator featherweight title. Yet when title opponent Julia Budd dropped out, short notice replacement Alexis Dufresne took full advantage of the opportunity to face one of WMMA’s all-time greats. Unlike the Taimanglo upset, “The Sneaky Zebra” didn’t hook in a flash submission out of nowhere; rather, she startled the MMA world by dominating the fight from the start and ending her opponent’s night with a guillotine late in the first. If Dufresne can ever figure out weight cutting – she came in heavy for this one, after failing to make weight in either of her UFC contests – then she is likely to become a dominant force in the WMMA landscape for years to come.
Javy Ayala vs. Sergei Kharitonov (Bellator 163) – Many observers, your truly included, figured that Javy Ayala wasn’t anywhere near the same level as Sergei Kharitonov. Then “Eye Candy” proved that he belonged by dropping an asteroid on Sergei’s head to spring one of the most shocking heavyweight upsets in recent memory.
And the Rest of the Awards:
2016 Fight Card of the Year: UFC 206
We’ve already gone over the majesty of Doo Ho Choi versus Cub Swanson, but even if you took the Fight of the Year off of the UFC 206 card you’d still be left with an unbelievable night of action. Although it suffered from taking place after the collective mass adrenaline dump that was Choi-Swanson, Donald Cerrone vs. Matt Brown was a brawl for the ages that saw Brown batter Cerrone for the better part of two rounds; yet as soon as Brown offered a gesture of friendship before round 3 it was all over, as Cerrone want into Super Cowboy mode and annihilated his opponent with a thudding head kick that will probably be replayed on UFC Ultimate Knockout packages for years to come. The main event was no slouch either, as the unbelievably talented Max Holloway beat the tar out of former UFC golden boy Anthony Pettis for three entertaining rounds before ending things with a roughly 17 shot head and body combo against the fence that would make nearly any man wilt. Misha Cirkunov enjoyed a break out performance against internet favorite Nikita Krylov that marked him as a light heavyweight contender to watch in 2017 and beyond. And lest you’ve already forgotten, Lando Vanatta earned his first UFC win and a place in the company’s all-time highlight reel with a ridiculous spinning kick that sent John Makdessi straight into dreamworld. Top-to-bottom, this one looked like pure action in advance and UFC 206 delivered in spades. Imagine if the originally scheduled main event pitting Daniel Cormier against Rumble Johnson had gone off as planned – this could well have gone down as one of the best shows of all time.
Honorable Mention: UFC 205, UFC 199.
2016 Non-Fighting Story of the Year: WME-IMG Buys the UFC
Sure, some folks rank MMA’s legalization in New York as the top story of the year but in reality the late addition of one state to the circus touring schedule has practically zero impact on anyone other than local residents and fight promoters. On the other hand, we’ve yet to fully comprehend just how important the sale of UFC to Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG will be for the landscape of the sport going forward. Change has already been afoot, with every executive who had a sweetheart deal with the previous regime ushered out immediately and an increased emphasis on money fights as the new corporate masters seek to justify the $4.2 billion that they shelled out to the Fertittas. And if you thought the Culinary Union was an annoying enemy to UFC’s goals of domestic and global domination, the new owners have rival billion dollar talent agencies to contend with that are already attempting to undermine WME-IMG by obliquely funding and/or supporting and/or flat-out organizing UFC-focused unionization efforts. Some fans fear that the sale will result in UFC devolving into a sports entertainment organization rather than the home of the best fighters on the planet, and 2017 will go a long way toward telling us whether those fears are well-founded.
Honorable Mention: New weighting cutting rules, the continued talent explosion in Russia, the Money Fights Era, MMA re-debuts in New York
2016 Submission of the Year: Mackenzie Dern’s Omoplata/RNC versus Montana Stewart (Legacy 61)
— Zombie Prophet (@ZPGIFs) October 15, 2016
Finally a category with a worthy non-UFC winner. Anyone allergic to hype was likely suspicious of Mackenzie Dern, who was already being hailed as a future world champion prior to her first appearance in an MMA cage. Yet at Legacy 61 the BJJ prodigy did everything she could to justify the advance billing, turning experienced opponent Montana Stewart into a human pretzel with an omoplata and simultaneously adding in a rear naked choke for good measure. For our money, Dern’s unique and aesthetically pleasing combo submission slightly outranks Ben Rothwell’s gogo choke triumph over fellow submission ace Josh Barnett at UFC on FOX 18.
Honorable Mention: Ben Rothwell gogo choke vs Josh Barnett (UFC on Fox 18), Miesha Tate RNCs Holly Holm (UFC 196), Nate Diaz RNCs Conor McGregor (UFC 196), Jenny Huang’s gogoplata vs. April Osenio (ONE: Age of Domination), Brian Ortega’s slick triangle sequence vs. Diego Brandao (UFC 195)
2016 Knockout of the Year: Lando Vannata spin kick KOs John Makdessi (UFC 206)
— Denis La Funk (@DenisLaFunk_) December 11, 2016
This category is almost laughable in 2016, and in a very good way; there were so many excellent knockouts in the UFC and worldwide in the past 12 months that you could justifiably select dozens for the honor. For our peronsal favorite we’ll go with the previously mentioned Lando Vannata skillfully crushing John Makdessi with a spinning back kick straight to the jaw at UFC 206. A very strong honorable mention goes to Gerald Harris, who came back from retirement to face an opponent who checked in 50 pounds overweight at Legacy 63 and promptly slammed him straight to hell with one of the most vicious finishes we’ve seen in quite some time.
Honorable Mention: Gerald Harris slams Aaron Cobb through the mat (Legacy 63), Michael Bisping’s left hook shutters Luke Rockhold for the title (UFC 199), Yair Rodriguez’s switch kick decimates Andre Fili (UFC 197), Dan Henderson topples Hector Lombard via headkick and backfist (UFC 199), MVP puts a dent in Evangelista Santos’s skull with a killer flying knee (Bellator 158), Yoel Romero flying knee obliterates Chris Weidman (UFC 200)
2016 Global Promotion of the Year: Absolute Championship Berkut
No real contest in this category. ACB has quickly grown into the inarguable #1 promotion in Russia, featuring frequent and deep fight cards, top regional and international talent, the best color commentator in the world in Frank Mir, and a dedication to officiating fairness and willingness to change errant decisions that’s decidedly unique in MMA world. Not only that but ACB has successfully begun expanding into Europe and beyond; their first show in the U.S. on January 13th will be an interesting marker of how far their popularity has spread and whether the western hemisphere is a reasonable destination going forward. Either way, with an ever-expanding talent pool and great fights on the horizon like Mahmed Khalidov vs. Luke Barnatt in March, ACB looks primed to continue their growth and provide more memorable moments for MMA fans worldwide in 2017.
Honorable Mention: KSW, Rizin, M-1, Cage Warriors.