The First Annual TuffGnarl.com MMA Awards

All in all, 2014 was one hell of a year for mixed martial arts, with enough ups, downs, twists and turns to make even casual fans dizzy. With just a week left on the calendar and zero UFC events remaining on the docket, we figured there was no better time than now to look back on the year’s best.

Until she’s defeated or leaves the sport, there’s little chance any other female fighter will unseat Rousey as the best in her field. | Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Best Female Fighter – “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey:  The face of women’s mixed martial arts may be going all Hollywood on us sooner rather than later, but the 135 lb. dynamo still managed to turn in two brilliant and dominant performances against Olympic wrestling silver medalist Sara McMann and Alexis Davis. Her total in-Octagon time: one minute and 22 seconds. When people compare boxing and MMA, many look for equivalents. Anderson Silva could be MMA’s Mohammed Ali and there’s a case to be made for Fedor Emilianenko as Rocky Marciano, but few would have ever predicted that the sport’s closest approximation to Mike Tyson would come in the form of a female blonde Olympic bronze medalist judoka, but there you have it.

Runners up: Carla Esparza, Rose Namajunas, Holly Holm, Jessica Aguilar, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Herica Tiburcio.

Best Fighter – “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler:  In all honesty, it was neck-and-neck between Lawler and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (who went 4-0 with three finishes compared to Lawler’s 3-1 with just one finish). However, you just can’t ignore the quintessential prodigal son story inherent in the rise, fall and redemption of one of MMA’s most enduring figures. After losing to Johny Hendricks for the vacant UFC welterweight title early in the year, he rebounded with two dominant wins and, earlier this month, closed out the year victorious in their rematch. Thus far the only Strikeforce champion to also capture a UFC title, Lawler, if he stays successful, may wind up being in the conversation for greatest welterweights of all time.

Runners-up: Donald Cerrone, Neil Magny, TJ Dillashaw, Anthony Johnson and Kelvin Gastelum.

Breakthrough Fighter of the Year – TJ Dillashaw:  Not a single person gave Dillashaw a chance when he stepped into the cage against Renan Barao at UFC 173. In fact, many cried foul, citing other fighters’ better resumes and pointing to the Team Alpha Male member’s losses to current flyweight contender John Dodson and Rafael Assuncao as failed litmus tests of his athletic ceiling. How wrong we all were. For more, see “Upset of the Year” below.

Runners-Up: Conor McGregor, Rose Namajunas, Justin Gaethje, Will Brooks and Kelvin Gastelum.

Best Fight – Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler I (UFC 171):  I remember watching this fight and thinking to myself that there was absolutely zero chance that these two guys could sustain this sort of contest for a full five rounds. How wrong was I?! For four and a half rounds, Hendricks and Lawler faced off within trapping distance, pawing and parrying strikes, neither man willing to give ground to the other. It was among the most intense bouts in the history of the division and elevated both fighters’ stock. Other fights came close—most notably Chris Weidman vs. Lyoto Machida (UFC 175) and Jose Aldo vs. Chad Mendes II (UFC 179)—however, at the end of the day, I believe that of all the fights that occurred this year, none will be remembered as vividly as the one delivered by these two.

Runners-up: Jose Aldo vs. Chad Mendes II (UFC 179), Chris Weidman vs. Lyoto Machida (UFC 175), Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler II (UFC 181), Matt Brown vs. Erik Silva (UFC Fight Night 40) and Pat Curran vs. Daniel Strauss III (Bellator 112).

Damacio Page vs. Brian Hall. That’s about as clean as it gets, folks.

Best Knockout – Damacio Page vs. Brian Hall (Legacy FC 36):  There has never been more MMA on TV than there is today and, consequently, fans shouldn’t feel all too guilty if they miss most of the fights that don’t occur in the sport’s premier league. However, every once in a while something happens in one of MMA’s smaller organizations that causes everyone to collectively stop what they’re doing and stare agog. This is such an instance. After watching the Page dispatch of Hall, I found myself thinking the same thing I did when I saw Dan Henderson knock Michael Bisping out at UFC 100: “God… I hope he’s not dead.”

Runners-up:  Mark Hunt vs. Roy Nelson (UFC Fight Night 75), Roy Nelson vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (UFC Fight Night 39), TJ Dillashaw vs. Renan Barao (UFC 173) and Joe Schilling vs. Melvin Manhoef (Bellator 131).

Best Submission – Luke Rockhold vs. Michael Bisping (UFC Fight Night 55):  There wasn’t anything fancy about it, but something about the almost casual way Rockhold locked that one-armed guillotine choke onto his rival Bisping’s neck exuded elegance in pure technique.

Runners-up: Ben Saunders vs. Chris Heatherly (UFC Fight Night 49), Pat Curran vs. Daniel Strauss III (Bellator 112), Rousimar Palhares vs. Jon Fitch (WSOF 16), Charles Oliveira vs. Hatsu Hioki (UFC Fight Night 43) and Alex Caceres vs. Sergio Pettis (UFC on FOX 10).

Comeback of the Year – Dominick Cruz:  Writing this now, knowing what we all know… bittersweet doesn’t even begin to describe it. After suffering not one, not two, but three injuries that shelved him between 2011 and September of this year, the former bantamweight champion (whose belt he was forced to vacate due to inactivity) arose like a phoenix reborn when he returned against an always-tough Takeya Mizugaki. Even his worst rival, Urijah Faber, had some complimentary things to say about the performance which placed him on track to challenge for the title now held by Faber’s teammate, TJ Dillashaw. Sadly, an ACL tear on his previously uninjured knee has sidelined Cruz once again.

Runners-up: Kat Zingano, Anthony Johnson, Andrei Arlovski, Todd Duffee, and Matt Brown vs. Erick Silva (UFC Fight Night 40).

Upset of the Year – TJ Dillashaw vs. Renan Barao (UFC 173):  Before this fight occurred, many fans and MMA media members rained criticism on the UFC, and rightfully so; nothing—and I mean NOTHING—that TJ Dillashaw had done previously lent any credence to the idea that he could offer Barao, then undefeated since 2005, a semblance of opposition. And we were all so unbelievably wrong. The TJ Dillashaw fans saw in the cage that night was a revelation and, overnight, every single one of them changed their tune about the Ultimate Fighter runner-up.

Runners-up: Will Brooks vs. Michael Chandler I (Bellator 120), Rafael dos Anjos vs. Benson Henderson (UFC Fight Night 49), Joe Warren vs. Eduardo Dantes (Bellator 128), Bobby Green vs. Josh Thomson (UFC on FOX 12) and Herica Tiburcio vs. Michelle Waterson (Invicta 10).

Best Coach – Duane “Bang” Ludwig:  Much of Dillashaw’s success is attributable to former kickboxing champion and UFC competitor Duane Ludwig, who signed on as head coach at Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male and took a particular shine to pupils TJ Dillashaw and Chad Mendes. Both men turned in the finest performances of their careers this year and, despite Ludwig’s departure for more self-centered enterprising elsewhere, his indelible mark on his students will likely only grow stronger as their skills sharpen further.

Runners-up: Ray Longo, Greg Jackson, Javier Mendez, Rafael Cordeiro and Edmond Tarverdyan.

Best Non-UFC Promotion – Bellator MMA:  This may not have been the case last year while the promotion was still under the heavy-handed rule of now-deposed CEO Bjorn Rebney, but, under the steadied guidance of former Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker, the organization has generated some goodwill for the first time in… well, a long, long time. Other promotions—MMA World Series of Fighting, Titan FC, Legacy FC, Invicta FC and, more locally, Fight Time Promotions, House of Fame, Absolute Fighting Championship and Island Fights Championships—are surely gaining ground, but, for the time being, the Viacom-backed cage fighting organization maintains second fiddle rights.

Runners-up: MMA World Series of Fighting, Titan FC, Legacy FC and Invicta FC.

Untethered MMA’s Mike Fagan keeps his and Patrick Wyman’s weekly show clocking in at just around an hour every week. | Photo: GoPixPic.com

Best Podcast – Untethered MMAHeaded up by former Bloody Elbow and MMA Owl writer and current Cage Potato and MMA Sucka scribe Mike Fagan, Untethered MMA’s weekly program underwent a lineup change this year, first with the departure of fellow MMA Owl pundit Derek Suboticki (now of MMAInsider.net) and, later, former Bleacher Report, MMA Mania and Bloody Elbow writer Matthew Roth. Fagan’s replacement for Suboticki was an inspired one: MMA scout/analyst and Sherdog staff writer Patrick Wyman (also formerly of Bloody Elbow). What was once a heated panel discussion that often devolved into entertaining, albeit heated, arguments has now become a thoughtful, measured and insightful look into the complexities of the sport that makes you laugh as often as it makes you think.

Runners-up: The MMA Hour, The MMA Beat, Heavy Hands, Promotional Malpractice Live Chat, The Co-Main Event Podcast, 560 WQAM’S Fight Night with Alex DonnoUltimate Fighting Weekly with Chris Toplack and The MMA Insiders.

Journalist of the Year – Brent Brookhouse: Bloody Elbow’s managing editor and longtime writer Brent Brookhouse has some of the finest investigative chops in the business and has been breaking news hither and thither for years now. This month, he dropped a bombshell on the entire industry when he and John S. Nash broke news about a class action lawsuit being filed by Cung Le, Nate Quarry and Jon Fitch against their former employer, the UFC. Earlier, in September, Brookhouse was the first to go to press with word that the mother of two of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson’s children had alleged years of abuse, including an incident in which he knocked out two of her teeth. The result: the UFC benched Johnson until the issue could be investigated further. Go through Brookhouse’s article history and you’ll find an innumerable amount of similar type stories. The guy’s a rock.

Runners-up: Luke Thomas, Ben Fowlkes, Ariel Helwani, Jonathan Snowden, Jeremy Botter, Jack Slack, Duane Finlay and Jason Floyd.

Biggest Story of the Year – Former UFC fighters file an antitrust class action lawsuit:  It’s been a wild year for MMA news. Heightened drug testing standards made the sport cleaner than ever before; testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), long considered an abused practice, was removed from the conversation altogether when the Nevada State Athletic Commission banned its use in February; the UFC added a 115 lb. weight division, announcing its fighters’ arrival with one of the most memorable seasons of The Ultimate Fighter in recent memory; former WWE star CM Punk jumped to the front of the MMA line when he signed on to make his professional debut in the UFC next year; big figures in the sport walked away or, in the cases of Bellator’s Bjorn Rebney and the UFC’s Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva, were forced out. But by far the biggest story of the year was the lawsuit which, according to an article by Sports Illustrated, could, if successful, spell the end of the UFC.

Runners-up: Chael Sonnen fails two consecutive drug tests after condemning Wanderlei Silva for his own failed drug test, CM Punk signs with the UFC, UFC signs exclusive sponsorship deal with Reebok (effectively barring all other in-cage sponsors and banners), the arrival of the women’s strawweight division, Scott Coker takes over Bellator MMA, and Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier’s feud gets very, very real.

Agree? Disagree? Please feel free to comment below.

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Jesse Scheckner

A freelance MMA, entertainment and business journo born, raised and residing in Miami, FL, Jesse Scheckner is a former semi-serious musician, cinephile and recovering ne’er-do-well who still believes Mickey Rourke’s finest performance in film has yet to come. He is TuffGnarl.com's editor-in-chief, a feature staff writer for MMASucka.com and the 2014 MMA Media Correspondent winner at the Florida MMA Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner to talk about the stuff he writes about with him.

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