Friday, January 5, 2018

UFC: 2017 Awards

By Pat Luhta, @PLuhta

Now that 2017 is over, we can look back on the year that was in the UFC. The year started a bit slow with only 3 PPV’s in the first 4 months, but it picked up as we went along and delivered plenty of memorable events. Great fights and fantastic finishes have become the norm but 2017 delivered 2 new divisions(women’s featherweight and flyweight), an upset for the ages, a record breaking title defense streak and the return of one of the greatest fighters ever.

Let’s look back on the year of 2017 by handing out some awards and discussing what’s next in 2018 for this ever growing sport.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Justin Gaethje – After spending over 3 years in WSOF(World Series of Fighting), Gaethje made his debut in July and instantly put the lightweight division on notice. He defeated Michael Johnson by TKO in the 2nd round, and overall impressive and dominating fight capped off by a backflip off the cage in celebration. That vaulted him all the way into the top 5 lightweight rankings, as he then went on to be a coach in the new Ultimate Fighter season, coaching against his next opponent and former lightweight champ, Eddie Alvarez. He ended up losing to Alvarez at UFC 218, his first ever professional loss, in a fight that many consider the fight of the year. 2 memorable fights and a top 5 ranking all in a half a years work, Gaethje made a huge impact in 2017 as a UFC newcomer.

SUBMISSION OF THE YEAR: Demetrious Johnson’s armbar vs Ray Borg – As if he wasn’t already considered the best pound for pound fighter in the company, “mighty mouse” added some extra flare to his fight technique. At UFC 216, Johnson took on Ray Borg, and as he outclassed and outperformed Borg through the first 4 rounds of the championship fight, coasting to a decision win wasn’t good enough for him. Johnson went for a belly to back takedown and on the way down to the mat he managed to transition into an armbar and lock it in for the win. The incredible speed, athleticism and precision to make a quick move like that is almost unimaginable, Brian Ortega’s standing guillotine on Cub Swanson also stands out but Demetrious Johnson’s armbar takedown has to be the best of 2017.

KNOCKOUT OF THE YEAR: Marlon Moraes against Aljamain Sterling – Big KO’s are expected in the heavier divisions(Though Francis Ngannou knocking Alistair Overeem into 2019 was a serious contender here), so when a big time KO happens in the lighter divisions then it garners more attention. In a bantamweight bout at a UFC Fight Night in December, Marlon Moraes delivered one of the most memorable knockouts in recent history in his fight against Aljamain Sterling. Early in the first round, Moraes staggered Sterling with some blistering shots and knocked him down where the fight was nearly called. Sterling attempted to hook Moraes in a triangle choke which prompted Moraes to stand up and let Sterling get back on his feet, though it was clear that Sterling was still wobbly from those strikes. Sterling immediately tried getting it back to the ground with a takedown attempt, but Moraes threw a vicious knee as he was coming in for it and it landed flush on his forehead for the KO. It took minutes for Sterling to wake up from that knockout, a scary sight at the time which fortunately ended with no serious injuries, but this was about as memorable a knockout as it gets.

DISAPPOINTING FIGHT OF THE YEAR: Tyron Woodley vs Stephen Thompson – I really don’t care for this category only because I’m just a guy that sits on his couch and watches fights while these guys actually get in the cage and risk it all, so who am I to really critique these fighters? But Tyron Woodley vs Stephen Thompson was a major letdown here as this rematch did not live up to their fight in 2016. They first linked up at UFC 205 in New York City in November of 2016 and put on a show that was potentially the fight of the year, both fighters nearly finished the fight and after 5 rounds of edge of your seat entertainment, it was determined a majority draw. So a rematch was in place and fans were ready to see these two throw down again just like they did at UFC 205, the sequel did not live up to the original though. Both fighters seemed timid and weren’t taking risks to finish the fight, each landing just over 50 strikes each in 5 rounds with Woodley getting the lone takedown in this one. Woodley prevailed by decision to retain his title, but it was a lackluster performance overall especially when comparing it to their first fight.

UPSET OF THE YEAR: Rose Namajunas defeats Joanna Jedrzejczyk
– This wasn’t just an upset of the year, this was a top 5 upset of all-time. Joanna had basically cleaned out the 115 lbs straw weight division and her fight against Namajunas seemed more of a formality as everyone just figured she would win and then possibly move up to the new 125 lbs women's division to challenge for the title there. To make Rose's odds seem even more unfavorable, her 2 losses in the UFC were to Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Carla Esparza, 2 women that Joanna has beaten so if she couldn't beat them and they were unable to defeat Joanna then the transitive property says that Rose cannot beat Joanna. But at UFC 217, Rose Namajunas did the unthinkable, she stopped Joanna midway through the 1st round via TKO(punches/verbal submission) to become the new straw weight champion. And it's not just that she beat her, but the way she did. Joanna is renowned as the best striker in the division and she has outclassed everyone that has stood and traded with her, for Rose to dominate her on her feet and get a TKO win by knocking her down and punching her until Joanna verbally told the ref to call it is just mindblowing. Huge win for Rose Namajunas and easily the 2017 upset of the year.

FIGHT OF THE YEAR: Yancy Medeiros vs Alex Oliveira - At UFC 218 in Detroit, this fight stole the show. 2 guys that laid everything they had out there on the line, they stood and rocked each other with huge haymakers, both had takedowns and near submission finishes, just everything you want in a fight. Medeiros got the TKO in the 3rd round after escaping a takedown and rear naked choke attempt then blistering Oliveira with huge shots until he fell down and covered up, prompting the ref to step in and call it. Entertaining fight that was given a well deserved standing ovation by the crowd in attendance, an instant classic that fight fans could and should watch over and over.

FIGHTER OF THE YEAR: Max Holloway - This was tough to say, so many great candidates here such as Demetrious Johnson(who broke the record for most consecutive title defenses), Cris Cyborg, Rose Namajunas and Rafael Dos Anjos. I know that some will disagree and cite that Holloway only fought twice in 2017 and it was against the same opponent in Jose Aldo, but Holloway's year cemented himself as the cornerstone of the featherweight division and true heir to the throne that Aldo sat on for so many years. He first defeated Aldo at UFC 212 by TKO in the 3rd round, unifying the featherweight title that was vacated by Conor McGregor. Then at UFC 218 he took Aldo on again, this time on short notice after injury forced Frankie Edgar to withdraw from the fight. He once again stopped Aldo by TKO in the 3rd round, leaving no doubt in anyone's mind that he is the best featherweight in the world. And with both Frankie Edgar and Brian Ortega waiting for their shot at the champ, Holloway's 2018 could end up topping his 2017 campaign.

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