It can be argued with much substantiating evidence that 2015 was the best year yet for mixed martial arts. Seven UFC titles changed hands, legends and forgotten veterans of the sport made successful comebacks and further progress was made with longstanding problems such as weight cutting and performance enhancing drug use. Records, both in-cage and out, were broken. Now that we’re exactly one week into 2016, let’s look back at the best MMA had to offer in 2015.
Best Female Fighter – “The Preacher’s Daughter” Holly Holm: In last year’s Inaugural TuffGnarl.com MMA Awards, the caption below Ronda Rousey’s picture read, “Until she’s defeated or leaves the sport, there’s little chance any female fighter will unseat Rousey as the best in her field.” Looming below the accompanying paragraph, in the runners-up section, was the name of the woman who inevitably would: Holly Holm. She exposed the former bantamweight champ and pound-for-pound contender over a round and a half before putting her out of the game in devastating fashion via the first head kick knockout in women’s UFC history. In the week that followed, Holm—widely considered among the best female boxers in the world prior to her entry into MMA—filled in for Rousey during the requisite post UFC 193 media tour. That she did exceptionally well in a role not written specifically for her just goes to illustrate how little we know of what her true ceiling really is.
Runners-up: Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Ronda Rousey, Cris “Cyborg” Justino, Meisha Tate and Angela Lee
Best Male Fighter – “The Notorious” Conor McGregor: Conor McGregor is the human embodiment of belief and effort in perfect congress. Riding a 13-fight win streak up to his title contest with then #1-ranked pound-for-pound kingpin Jose Aldo, the combative pride of Dublin followed through on the promise he made years ago to be the best in the world in his chosen field. Were he to have chosen filmmaking or music, he would likely have become just as successful. His unprecedented success in the UFC was culminated just 13 seconds into UFC 194’s main event, when a perfectly time and placed left hook announced the “McGregor Era” long prognosticated by the man himself. He is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, arguably as good outside of the cage as in it. And with his sights set on the 155 lb. title this year, we may only have begun watching the show.
Runners-up: Robbie Lawler, Demetrious Johnson, Max Holloway, Donald Cerrone and Demian Maia
Breakthrough Fighter of the Year – Holly Holm: Even while Holly Holm was biding her time destroying inferior competition in Legacy Fighting Championship, whispers circulated about how she may have what it takes to give Ronda Rousey as stiff a test as anyone else had until that point. But that talk all extended only far enough to suggest that she would be able to get outside the first and perhaps the second round with “Rowdy,” an undefeated champion who had by then developed a mythical aura of invincibility. Anyone who says they picked Holm to dethrone Rousey did so secretly knowing they were wrong, but now that we are all sitting on the other side of the looking glass, few are giving Rousey a chance in the rematch. That’s the definition of a breakthrough.
Runners-up: Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Henry Cejudo, Aljamain Sterling and Max Holloway
Best Fight – Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald II (UFC 189): Not only was this fight among the best of the year, it was unequivocally one of the greatest fights of all time, period. Lawler, a tenured brute who proved the axiom that old dogs can’t learn new tricks wrong, took on MacDonald, a former protégé of all-time great Georges St-Pierre long believed to be the future of the sport. For five rounds, these two stripped away pieces from one another that will never grow back. They likely lost years of comfortable in exchange for glory and our entertainment. No other fight is more deserving.
Runners-up: Daniel Cormier vs. Alexander Gustafsson (UFC 192), Tony Ferguson vs. Edson Barboza (TUF 22 Finale), Patricio Freire vs. Daniel Straus 2 (Bellator 132), Nate Diaz vs. Michael Johnson (UFC on Fox 17), Andrei Arlovski vs. Travis Browne (UFC 187) and Justin Gaethje vs. Luis Palomino (WSOF 19)
Best Knockout – Holly Holm vs. Ronda Rousey (UFC 193): This category was a toss-up between Holm’s upset head kick knockout over Rousey and Conor McGregor’s shocking one-and-done sleeping of Jose Aldo just one UFC pay-per-view later. However, the disparity in odds—Sportsbook had Holm at +575 and Rousey at -900—were what really clinched it. That, and how absolutely brutal the knockout was. This was an eye-opener for casual fans, who tuned in just to see Rousey destroy her next opponent but instead were treated to the stark reality of MMA. It’s brutal, visceral, sometimes hard to watch and there hasn’t been a single hero propped up who hasn’t inevitably come tumbling down.
Runners-up: Conor McGregor vs. Jose Aldo (UFC 194), Thomas Almeida vs. Brad Pickett (UFC 189), Hisaki Kato vs. Joe Schilling (Bellator 139), Vitaly Bigdash vs. Igor Svirid (ONE Championship 32) and Justin Gaethje vs. Luis Palomino 2 (WSOF 23)
Best Submission – Ronda Rousey vs. Cat Zingano (UFC 184): Zingano’s reasoning for trying to be the bull against Rousey—a fighter whose entire career has depended on her playing that role—was not without its merits, but it proved ill-advised. The then-champion is an Olympic judoka, after all, and using a charging opponent’s momentum against them is Judo 101. Rousey tossed Zingano over and applied a modified armbar to set a new record for the fastest win in UFC title fight history in just 14 seconds, which, although broken by McGregor at UFC 194, is a tremendous accomplishment nonetheless.
Runners-up: Angela Lee’s twister on Natalie Gonzalez (ONE: Pride of Lions), Fabrico Werdum’s guillotine on Cain Velasquez (UFC 188), Liam McGeary’s inverted triangle on Tito Ortiz (Bellator 142), Demetrious Johnson’s armbar on Kyoji Horiguchi (UFC 186) and Aljamain Sterling’s arm triangle from guard on Takeya Mizugaki (UFC on Fox 15)
Comeback of the Year – Benson Henderson: The former UFC and WEC lightweight champion had hit a rough patch. With a record of 2-2 following his second title loss to Anthony Pettis and on a two-fight skid against current champion Rafael dos Anjos and Donald Cerrone, “Smooth” had little options at 155 lbs. So what did he do? He moved up to welterweight, a division he flirted with visiting back when he was champion and St-Pierre was still atop the 170 lb. heap. In his first fight he faced Brandon Thatch, a comparatively gigantic fighter who’d until then run roughshod over his opposition. And Henderson submitted him. He followed that victory up with a win over an always tough Jorge Masvidal at UFC Fight Night 79 by way of entertaining split decision. All of a sudden the future looks awfully bright for Bendo.
Runners-up: Daniel Cormier, Neil Magny, Daniel Straus, Phil Davis, Amanda Nunes and Uriah Hall vs. Gegard Musasi (UFC Fight Night 75)
Upset of the Year – Holly Holm vs. Ronda Rousey (UFC 193): I’ll say it again—nobody who picked Holm to defeat Rousey did so without secretly knowing they were picking incorrectly. Her win sent shockwaves not only through the world of MMA, but through the entire fabric of pop culture.
Runners-up: Fabricio Werdum vs. Cain Velasquez (UFC 188), Rafael dos Anjos vs. Anthony Pettis (UFC 185) and Uriah Hall vs. Gegard Mousasi (UFC Fight Night 75)
Best Coach – Rafael Cordeiro (Kings MMA): Formerly of the legendary Chute Boxe Academy, Rafael Cordeiro has created another combative renaissance though Kings MMA. His two star pupils, heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum and lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, captured their first UFC titles this year using a combination of creative, aggressive striking, smart pressure, the constant threat of level change and takedown and a willingness to exchange in areas avoided by previous challengers. With a stable that also boasts Wanderlei Silva, Shogun Rua, Beneil Dariush, Fabricio Camoes, Pedro Munhoz, Kelvin Gastelum and Giga Chikadze, Cordeiro’s camp is a festering snake pit of legitimate killers.
Runners-up: Mike Winkeljohn, Greg Jackson, Firas Zahabi, Javier Mendez, Matt Hume and Ricardo Liborio
Best Non-UFC Promotion – Bellator MMA: Bellator MMA has, under the guidance of Scott Coker, transformed from a frustratingly dull promotion marred by self-imposed tournament rules into a compelling mixture of top talent tussles and freak show fare. With the UFC shedding some excess skin in the wake of an overweight 2014 and 2015 schedule, look for the Spike TV promotion to become even more formidable in 2016.
Runners-up: ONE Championship, World Series of Fighting and Legacy FC
Best Podcast – The Co-Main Event Podcast: Hands down the funniest fisticuffs-focal show on the inter-waves, this weekly offering from Bleacher Report’s Chad Dundas and MMA Junkie’s Ben Fowlkes gives fight fans a much-needed respite from the seriousness often associated with traumatic brain injury, severely underpaid athletes and rampant drug abuse in the sport we all love so dearly. Every week, we’re delivered a dose of insightful and hilarious listener mail responses; three rounds discussing the prime topics of the week; “Are You Fucking Kidding Me,” a send-up of MMA’s most ludicrous developments; “Just Saying Stuff,” where Dundas and Fowlkes offer constructive criticism; and, if we’re lucky, some “MasterTweet Theatre” courtesy of one Sir Nigel Longstock, where the hosts try to guess who authored an often cringe-worthy tweet.
Runners-up: The MMA Hour, The MMA Beat, The Promotional Malpractice Live Chat, 560 WQAM’s Fight Night with Alex Donna and Frank Zaffere, The MMA Insiders, Talking Combat with Chris Toplack, Let’s Get It On with Big John McCarthy and Sean Wheelock, The Parting Shot Podcast, Ten Minute First Round, Heavy Hands, Untethered MMA, The FRB Show, Sucka Radio, Knuckle Up and If I Did It
Journalist of the Year – Chuck Mindenhall: The words “long-form” were thrown around the MMA blogosphere possibly more so this year than ever before when describing articles that could be slotted in as featured pieces in, say, Rolling Stone, Time, or, more appropriately, Sports Illustrated. Many writers threw their proverbial hats into their respective proverbial rings, but there wasn’t a single story this year that resonated more with longtime fans than Mindenhall’s In Search of Strange Brew, a nearly year-in-the-making story about Ultimate Figher Season One washout Jason Thacker. It proved there is already a wealth of stories yet to be told in a sport just past its formative years. MMA journalism will produce works like this more often in the years to come, but Mindenhall, with this superlative opus, has added a solid layer to its foundation.
Runners-up: Ariel Helwani, Luke Thomas, Jack Slack, Jonathan Snowden, Duane Finaly, Jason Floyd, Ben Fowlkes and Jeremy Botter
Biggest Story of the Year – The UFC/Reebok Partnership: As Matthew Roth put it on Untethered MMA, the UFC gave Reebok a “sweetheart deal”: a six-year, $70 million exclusive sponsoring partnership. Almost immediately upon its implementation, fighters and fans began to cry foul. Fighters, whose “independent contractor” status already deprived them of numerous rights granted to employees, lost a tremendous amount of money because they couldn’t wear their sponsors’ logos in the cage. Further, the payment tier—at first based on rankings and later on a fighter’s tenure in the UFC—was inherently faulty. Trust between fighters and promoters has always been tenuous, but this deal—done with a seemingly complete disregard for the UFC’s prime resource: it’s fighters—was just plain mind-boggling, as is the fact that they have another five years to go with it. Add onto everything the fact that Reebok can’t seem to even get the fighters’ names right on their merchandise and there’s a lot of nasty fat to chew on.
Runners-up: Holly Holm upsets Ronda Rousey, Seven UFC titles change hands, UFC and USADA ban IV use, ONE Championship overhauls weight cutting, NSAC suspending Nick Diaz for inconclusive positive marijuana test prompts national outcry and White House response, Anderson Silva fails post-fight drug test, Jon Jones arrested after hit-and-run and stripped of title, War Machine/Christy Mack horror prompts HBO’s “Real Sports” to release an expose on domestic violence in MMA and Conor McGregor dethrones Jose Aldo
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