Year-in-review awards are emotional things in MMA that essentially boil down to how loud we cursed when watching the fights. When Robert Whittaker beat Yoel Romero to snap his eight-fight win streak to take the interim middleweight title in July, a lot of us were like, “Wow, damn. What a story.” But when an apparent non-threat like Rose Namajunas clobbered strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk — on the feet — it was more like, “Holy fucking shit! That’s our breakthrough fighter of the year!” Anybody handing out awards in MMA — fans, media, promoters — is trying valiantly to document history in a nonlinear sport, but more often than not is ranking levels of astonishment.
Most year-in-review awards aren’t perfect, especially in a fickle sphere like MMA where the absence of an offseason takes away from deeper contemplation. Whatever happens last usually takes the shine off what happened six months ago. When Francis Ngannou smoked Alistair Overeem with an uppercut that seemingly originated in hell earlier this month, it was hard to remember that Paul Daley put a dent in Brennan Ward’s head with a flying knee all the way back in last January.
Was Ngannou’s KO more beautiful/brutal than Daley’s? Who knows? But Ngannou’s was perfectly timed for Oscar season, and right now, his XXXL-sized fist is the indie darling.
Anyway, I waited an extra week for this one to let UFC 219 play out and look back at the year to see what mattered most. Forget about knockouts and submissions and breakthrough fighters in 2017 — here’s a list of the best things that went on in MMA that make it the most maddening, incoherent, particularly nonsensical, and ultimately lovable sport going.
Best Exchange Before a Fight: Jones vs. Cormier
First, some context. The backdrop for UFC 214 was that the current light heavyweight champion, Daniel Cormier, was kind of an imposter while the challenger, Jon Jones, was the actual champion. Jones beat Cormier at UFC 182 but had been stripped of his title for various out-of-cage problems. Cormier won the vacant title at UFC 187 against Anthony Johnson and had been parading around with the belt for two years, smiling evilly like a Cheshire cat.
During that time Jones seethed in Albuquerque, waiting for his chance take out his nemesis Cormier, and — for reals this time — repair his reputation. After so many failed attempts to match them back together (most notably at UFC 200, when Jones was pulled from the card during fight week for testing positive for a banned substance), the bad blood between the two was so personal — or rather, so publically personal — that every exchange in the lead-up felt like an awkward dinner table conversation between family members trying to outdo the other in divulging humiliating truths.
During one exchange in particular, which took place the UFC’s Summer Kickoff press event in Dallas in March, it got real enough for onlookers to squirm in their seats.
“So, I’m sitting here, and I see him — like, I see him,” Cormier said, casting a glance over towards Jones. “He’s over there. But is he really going to be in Anaheim [on fight night]? Is this guy really going to go to the fight? Is this guy going to mess this up again by doing steroids or snorting cocaine or sandblasting prostitutes? What’s this guy going to do to mess this up this time?”
“Prostitutes?” Jones said. “I beat you [at UFC 182] after a weekend of cocaine.”
“And prostitutes …” added Cormier.
“I had two great weekends,” answered Jones. “Back-to-back weekends. Cocaine one, your ass the next. It was great. That’s a month for the ages.”
Cocaine? Partying? Prostitutes? Try getting that the next time Tom Brady squares off with Ben Roethlisberger in playoffs. This was exactly what makes the UFC unique. Ribald tales of hedonism cutting a swath through all the righteous tension in the air before a fight. It was actually pretty glorious. For a minute, anyway.
Jones beat Cormier to regain his title and give him a measure of redemption, only to be promptly stripped of that title once again when it was revealed he had — surprise, surprise — been popped for banned substances. Just like Cormier feared.
The Cormier-Jones rivalry is MMA’s greatest tragicomedy, and this exchange was the feud in a nutshell.
The Year’s Best Troll: Colby Covington
It’s tempting to give this honor to “Baby” Junior Albini, who showed up for his fight against Andrei Arlovski in what appeared to be a giant diaper. Turns out he wasn’t trying to give literal meaning to his nickname, though. He said Reebok simply provided him a pair of shorts on fight night that were too big, meaning Reebok was responsible for an unholy image that won’t soon be scrubbed away.
The actual honor goes to welterweight contender Colby Covington, though, who not only trolls current champion Tyron Woodley almost daily on his Twitter feed — who not only trolled the entire country of Brazil by (racistly) calling them “filthy animals” when he was there to fight Demian Maia — but who pinned a Star Wars: The Last Jedi spoiler on his Twitter feed like the Biggest Dick Ever Conceived. People who already disliked him for being a poor man’s Chael Sonnen became downright livid at his inconsideration. To some fans, you can say what you want about people in other countries, but ruin Star Wars? That’s a step too far.
Then again, Covington is obviously a heel that works at it. And as he gets closer to a title shot, his gift of pissing people off will begin to matter more and more. At some point soon, if we’re not there already, people will pay for the hope — nay, the privilege — of seeing him get his ass kicked. In MMA, that’s as good as gold.
Best One-Night Stand: GSP
Let’s be real: We knew what was on Georges St-Pierre’s mind. We knew he was saying all the things we wanted to hear ahead of his UFC 217 fight with Michael Bisping. We knew his heart belonged to welterweight and he would use Bisping to get that middleweight title, and then dump the belt like it meant nothing. Yet we went along with him anyway, and sure enough — god, how could we be so stupid — he was gone before the sun came up.
Actually, St-Pierre held the title for 33 days. And the only one who felt used was UFC president Dana White, who swore to anyone wondering where it was all leading that GSP would defend the middleweight title against Robert Whittaker if he beat Bisping (which he did, via second-round rear-naked choke). White had said he’d be “super-pissed” if GSP hit it and bounced beforehand. But when GSP explained to Dana that it wasn’t him, that it was being diagnosed with colitis after eating so much to make the required 185 pounds, White recovered pretty quickly.
He promoted Whittaker from the interim middleweight champion to the actual middleweight champion and booked his first title defense against Luke Rockhold for UFC 221 in Perth. The only question is whether or not GSP will return (at 170 pounds) … or if that’s truly the last we’ll see of the game’s suavest player.
Best Bit of Reluctant History: Demetrious Johnson
Demetrious Johnson could fly in on a magic carpet, lift up his opponent from across the cage using telekinesis, and then reduce him to ash with red beams of laser light shooting from his eyes and you’d inevitably hear people say the same thing they’ve been saying all along: Yeah, but he’s a flyweight.
Beating Wilson Reis and Ray Borg in 2017 doesn’t look like much on paper. But it is when you turn a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt like Reis into a grappling dummy and tap him out with an armbar to tie Anderson Silva’s all-time title defense record at 10 and then follow that up by completing a suplex-to-midair armbar sequence to finish Borg to break the record.
Submission attempts can sometimes feel to the general public like watching a thief crack a safe — but not DJ’s. His subs are sudden, fluid, and furious, and they often come with names, like the “Mighty Wiz-Bar” that he got Borg with. They appear effortless, which is the biggest lie in the fight game. The truth is he’s just that much better than everybody else. The UFC’s hardship now is to find the man to challenge him, which might have to be the bantamweight champion, T.J. Dillashaw, who threw a monkey wrench into the bantamweight picture at UFC 217. Which, by the way …
Best Monkey Wrench: T.j. Dillashaw
Honorable mention goes to Eddie Alvarez, who ruined a lot of tomorrow’s parties by beating Justin Gaethje — the brawlerbot taking the fast lane to stardom — at UFC 218. Then again, Gaethje just needs to keep fighting like he’s in a movie — throwing and eating blows at breakneck speed — to keep himself in that running.
No, the real monkey wrench this year was T.J. Dillashaw, who was supposed to be the cake at bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt’s true coming-out party. After the 26-year-old Garbrandt schooled Dominick Cruz in one of the most impressive belt-swiping title performances in UFC history to close out 2016, he got a little too cocky against his former training partner Dillashaw. For most of the fight Garbrandt was holding his own just fine, but he got rocked in the second round, and next thing you know Dillashaw is the new champion.
It wasn’t that Garbrandt lost his title so much as Dillashaw won it. Garbrandt was a champion on the verge of becoming a star. When Dillashaw fights, he hears hissing noises — the sounds the fans make who see him as a snake in the grass for leaving Team Alpha Male (where Garbrandt still trains). When Dillashaw flexed his muscles and screamed over the fallen Garbrandt, there was a collective sigh at Madison Square Garden that said well that’s not how things were supposed to go.
Other honorable mentions for 2017 MMA monkey wrenches:
- Zach Freeman, the midwestern yeomen who ruined super-prospect Aaron Pico’s debut at Bellator 180.
- Brent Primus, the man who came out of the woodwork to take Michael Chandler’s lightweight belt on that same Bellator card.
- Germaine de Randamie who, well — about Germaine de Randamie …
Second-Best One-Night Stand: Germaine de Randamie
I want to say the sooner we forget this night ever happened the better, but it was a night of such ridiculous lunacy that it becomes comical at a remove. UFC 208 was, for all intents and purposes, one big mistake. When the UFC couldn’t find a title fight to headline its Brooklyn pay-per-view in February, it invented the women’s featherweight title out of whole cloth. Yet because Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino wasn’t ready — Cyborg, also known as the best and most feared 145-pound fighter in the world and the only reason for the UFC to create a women’s featherweight division to begin with — the promotion pitted bantamweights Holly Holm vs. Germaine de Randamie against each other because … well, just because.
Yet before people could even squint to see what the UFC was up to, things went from silly to senseless. Cyborg was sitting cageside ready to at least square off with the winner, which ended up being de Randamie (who won a controversial decision over Holm, having landed illegal shots after the horn sounded). When de Randamie was asked about the inevitable clash with Cyborg, the inaugural champion of the UFC’s featherweight division said, “Right now, I really need surgery on my hand. I’m going to get surgery on my hand, and let’s see after.”
Say what? When Joe Rogan asked her what was wrong with her hand, she said she tore ligaments in it during her fight with Larissa Pacheco, which was, let’s see here, one, two, three … 23 months back. The Barclays was the most depressing place to be in the entire U.S. that night. There was no meaning to anything. Not only was the fight cobbled together, but now its unconvincing new champion had no intention of fighting “Cyborg.”
Three months later, de Randamie announced her decision to head back to bantamweight, saying she wouldn’t fight Justino on principle given her past transgressions with PEDs. That led to the UFC booking Cyborg for the vacant title against at UFC 214 against Tonya Evinger, thus closing the book on de Randamie’s short, pointless run as a UFC champion.
Most Bullyproof Fighter: Rose Namajunas
Even though she came up three years ago with the all-strawweight cast on The Ultimate Fighter 20, Namajunas made a damn good case for breakthrough fighter of the year in 2017. I know one thing for sure, though: She’s the least bullyable.
Heading into her title fight against Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217, Namajunas was in a pressure cooker. She was fighting at Madison Square Garden against the most decorated striker in the division on a major pay-per-view. Adding to the situation was that it was a title fight — a thought that gave her the heebie-jeebies in 2014 when she took on Carla Esparza for the inaugural 115-pound belt (and ultimately wilted under the pressure).
Everyone (including Jedrzejczyk) had watched Namajunas grow up in the fight game, and at times shrink away from it — saw her morph from a raw prospect with long blonde hair to a purposefully quiet contender with a shaved head. There was a feeling that high expectations had spooked her early on, going back to when Dana White insinuated that she would be the “next Ronda Rousey” during the TUF 20 season. Jedrzejczyk picked up on that and tried to burrow into Namajunas’s psyche before the bout, especially when Namajunas said she was in a far better mental place heading into her second title fight.
“Hey, listen to yourself,” Jedrzejczyk said to Namajunas on a media call a week beforehand. “You didn’t even want to do media. You didn’t want to do extra media. How do you want to be a champion and deal with all of these things? You know what? You are not stronger mentally. You are mentally unstable, and you are broken already, and I will break you in the fight.”
Jedrzejczyk played the same mentally weak motif all week, while Namajunas just stared at her during every encounter with dead-eyed calm, mouthing little incantations over and over like she was a member of a cult. It was impossible to know whether or not Jedrzejczyk really had gotten to Namajunas, until midway through the first round of the fight when the 4-to-1 underdog Namajunas clocked Joanna with a punch that staggered her. As Jedrzejczyk recovered and went back on the offensive, Namajunas crashed home a left hook that dropped her. Moments later, after a few follow-up punches, Namajunas was having Jedrzejczyk’s belt wrapped around her waist. Talk about making somebody eat their words.
Hollywood couldn’t have written a better story of vindication.
Best Disappearing Act: Conor Mcgregor
How strange of a year was it in MMA? Conor McGregor, the UFC’s biggest star, never once stepped foot in the Octagon, yet made appearances in the boxing ring and the Bellator cage, the latter which he stormed to celebrate a teammate’s victory and ended up in a crazed tussle with referee Marc Goddard (who had the gall to try to shoo him out).
McGregor’s boxing bout with Floyd Mayweather was a lot of things. At best, it was a detour in one man’s personal odyssey to bend the fight game and everything that comes with it to his own will. MMA had never seen anybody gain that kind of power, and — for perhaps that reason alone — it’s been fascinating to watch. At worst, the Mayweather interlude looks more and more like the moment that McGregor crossed over to a place of eccentric wealth, where defending a UFC lightweight title feels like a pauper’s gig and eating aspic in seal slippers becomes an Instagram post.
As we close out 2017, the UFC rolls on without McGregor. Tony Ferguson is in possession of the interim lightweight title, but there is no indication that the Irishman has any interest in fighting him. In fact, at this point, the only fight that feels sure to happen is Act 3 of the trilogy with Nate Diaz. The real question is will the UFC have the gumption to strip McGregor of his lightweight title just as it stripped him of the featherweight belt?
Right now he is the most visible absentee fighter the UFC has ever been forced to build so many exceptions around. Not that he’s above ridiculing those who are active, especially those that wear Dagestani war wigs. Speaking of which …
Best Reappearing Act: Khabib Nurmagomedov
Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but there was a brief moment about midway through Nurmagomedov’s 15-minute chew-toy session with Edson Barboza at UFC 219 — Khabib’s first fight back in 13 months — when the idea of Dagestan’s finest fighting McGregor became almost epiphanic. For starters, booking McGregor against Nurmagomedov is the kind of fight that harkens back to the UFC’s wild beginnings — a striker of certain renown against a man who grappled with bears in his youth and now ragdolls grown men.
Who wins? It’s one of those fun hypotheticals.
Nurmagomedov is susceptible to getting hit, and that has to have McGregor licking his chops. McGregor is rubbish if he’s on his back, which has to give Nurmagomedov a special kind of (sadistic) thrill. Either McGregor could dole out Nurmagomedov’s first loss in 26 fights by knocking him out or people would get the privilege of seeing McGregor flailing for dear life as hammerfists bounce off his head. What could be better?
Nurmagomedov might be a dark horse to lure McGregor back into the Octagon for these reasons. Interim champion Ferguson is a scramble-crazed tension wire who can kick a teacup off your head, and he’s very hard to figure out, whereas Nurmagomedov will invite you to touch his chin at your peril. Besides, Nurmagomedov shrugs off McGregor as a “bullshit guy,” which is just the way to handle a megalomaniac who needs to be the center of attention. McGregor has even been firing back at Nurmagomedov this week on Twitter.
The UFC really can’t go wrong with any combination of the three — Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov (which has been booked three times before and has fallen through each time), Ferguson vs. McGregor (to unify the titles), or Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor (a fight that could very well break McGregor’s PPV record from UFC 202, the rematch with Diaz) — but a Dagestan-Ireland showdown?
That might be the biggest fight of 2018.
An earlier version of this story misstated the belt Rose Namajunas fought for in 2014. It was the 115-pound belt, not the 125-pound belt.