It was another banner year for mixed martial arts and the UFC.
Building upon a strong 2015 that saw the rise of superstar Conor McGregor, the UFC reached new heights in 2016, after the Ultimate Fighting Championship was sold for 4.2-billion dollars.
With brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta walking away from the UFC after 15 years at the helm, the reins were passed on to WME-IMG and head men Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell, who took control following UFC 200, a fight card marred by the cancelation of its main event, after headliner Jon Jones was pulled from his rematch against Daniel Cormier due to an anti-doping violation.
The UFC responded after the sale, promoting some of its biggest events to date, breaking down barriers in New York, and welcoming back its biggest female star, Ronda Rousey.
2016 was nothing short of the most exciting year in the history of mixed martial arts, with the UFC crowning eight new champions. However, it was the promotion’s first ever simultaneous two-division champion, McGregor, who stole the majority of the MMA headlines …
Fighter of the Year: Conor McGregor
Claiming his first UFC title and “Fighter of the Year” awards in 2015, McGregor returned to the Octagon in 2016 with one goal in mind — to become the UFC’s first simultaneous two-belt holder.
Initially paired against former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos for a UFC 196 super fight, McGregor would ultimately go on to fight Nate Diaz, who stepped into the main event after dos Anjos was forced from the bout due to injury.
With the lightweight title (temporarily) out of the picture, McGregor entered the fight, which was to be contested at welterweight, as a heavy favorite. But, less than 10 minutes into the fight, Diaz turned the tides after McGregor gassed himself out, forcing the Irishman to tap out to a rear-naked choke.
The defeat was a first for McGregor inside the UFC. And while it’s rare for a fighter with a loss to earn top honors, McGregor not only went on to avenge his loss to Diaz, delivering one of the top performances of the year for his UFC 202 majority decision win, but he also went on to fulfill his destiny as the UFC’s first dual-champion, after he knocked out Eddie Alvarez in the UFC 205 main event.
For making history inside the Octagon, and out, McGregor takes top honors.
Runner Up: Michael Bisping
A ten-year UFC veteran, Bisping began his year with a decision win over the legendary Anderson Silva, before claiming the UFC middleweight title in June by knocking out Luke Rockhold at UFC 199. Bisping capped off his 2016 campaign by defeating longtime rival Dan Henderson at UFC 204.
Female Fighter of the Year: Amanda Nunes
Nunes began 2016 with a decision win over Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 196, but it was her second performance, a dominant first-round submission over Miesha Tate at UFC 200, that propelled her to the women’s bantamweight title.
Six months later, Nunes defended her title for the first time, finishing Ronda Rousey via TKO in just 48 seconds.
The UFC’s first openly gay champion, Nunes, and her trio of victories on three massive cards, takes top honors.
Runner Up: Joanna Jedrzejczyk
The UFC strawweight champion since March 2015, Jedrzejczyk recorded a pair of title defenses in 2016, defeating Claudia Gadelha at The Ultimate Fighter 23 Finale and Karolina Kowalkiewicz at UFC 205.
Still undefeated as a mixed martial artist, Jedrzejczyk is 7-0 inside the Octagon, and will look to extend that streak in 2017.
Championship Fight of the Year: Dominick Cruz vs. Cody Garbrandt – UFC 207 (December 30, 2016, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada)
With Ronda Rousey abstaining from media obligations leading up to UFC 207, the co-main event between Dominick Cruz and Cody Garbrandt served as the fight card’s unofficial main event.
And what a fight it was …
Cruz, a longtime champion, carried a reputation for his elusiveness and ability to nullify the offense of his opponents. Garbrandt, a 25 year old prospect, threw caution to the wind, and handed Cruz his first loss in nearly 10 years.
From the opening bell, Garbrandt asserted himself as a legitimate foe for Cruz, landing punches and kicks, while avoiding any major damage.
With the first two rounds split among the judges, Garbrandt took control in the third round, tagging Cruz with heavy strikes, opening up a massive cut above the former champion’s eye. Garbrandt followed up in the fourth frame, dropping Cruz on three occasions, while displaying showboating antics and theatrics.
Cruz would go on to take the final round, but following 25 minutes of non-stop action, the UFC bantamweight title was handed over to Garbrandt, the division’s newest champion.
The bout was a perfect display of technical mixed martial arts, featured a transcendent performance by Garbrandt, and a passing of the torch from Cruz.
Runner Up: Robbie Lawler vs. Carlos Condit – UFC 195 (January 2, 2016, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada)
Fight of the Year (non championship): Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor II – UFC 202 (August 20, 2016, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada)
A rematch of their UFC 196 bout, Diaz and McGregor entered UFC 202 as part of the most heated rivalry in mixed martial arts.
With Diaz taking the first contest via submission, the pair returned for an immediate rematch. This time Diaz was pegged as the favorite.
Again fighting at 170 pounds, McGregor displayed tremendous poise in the second bout against Diaz, tagging the California native with heavy left hands, while dropping him to the canvas on several occasions.
Diaz was not to be finished, however, and in the fourth round, he nearly stopped a fading McGregor, dominating the frame.
In the fifth, McGregor returned to his championship form, eventually winning the round, and the fight.
Runner Up: Cub Swanson vs. Doo Ho Choi – UFC 206 (December 10, 2016, Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Knockout of the Year: Yair Rodriguez vs. Andre Fili – UFC 197 (April 23, 2016, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada)
A rapidly rising featherweight prospect who headlines the first UFC card of 2017, Yair Rodriguez was 3-0 inside the Octagon heading into his UFC 197 main-card showdown against Andre Fili.
Rodriguez had already built a reputation as a creative striker with a deep Taekwondo base, winning the debut season of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, but his second-round knockout of Fili cemented his place as a top-15 fighter. The perfectly timed roundhouse kick instantly dropped Fili to the mat, hands raised over head.
Controlling the first round with his crafty kicks and a takedown, Rodriguez came out for the second round much like the first, and brought Fili to the mat, where took top position and landed some ground strikes. Fili soon found an opening to return to his feet, but the standup game was his downfall, as Rodriguez found his range, forced the action across the Octagon, and deftly jumped forward off of his right foot, launching his left shin directing into Fili’s jaw.
Runner Up:Lando Vanatta vs. John Makdessi – UFC 206 (December 10, 2016, Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Submission of the Year: Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor – UFC 196 (March 5, 2016, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada)
The story of Nate Diaz’s second-round submission of Conor McGregor may have, inadvertently, altered the course of mixed martial arts as we know it.
A three-to-one underdog going into the first fight with McGregor, Diaz was coming off the couch on less than two weeks notice to take on the UFC’s newly minted featherweight champ in a pay per view headlining bout.
Two months prior, in December 2015, Diaz had publicly called out McGregor with a profanity-filled tirade on live network television. Now he was receiving the shot to derail McGregor on the biggest stage possible in mixed martial arts.
McGregor stormed out of the gates in the first round, dominating Diaz in the striking game, landing lefts and combos, controlling the range and opening up a cut over Diaz’s right eye. But McGregor was unable to finish Diaz, a savvy veteran, early, and would eventually wilt midway through the second. With Diaz finding his range, landing shots at will, McGregor dove for an ill-advised takedown after he could take no more punishment on the feet.
Once on the ground, Diaz slithered into grappling mode, first attempting a guillotine choke, then transitioning into a full mount, where he threw some punches, before McGregor gave up his back, allowing Diaz to sink in the rear-naked choke.
A miraculous, come-from-behind upset, Diaz left UFC 196 as the first man to beat McGregor inside the Octagon, and established himself as a pay per view draw in the process.
Runner Up: Miesha Tate vs. Holly Holm – UFC 196 (March 5, 2016, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada)
Round of the Year: Tony Ferguson vs. Lando Vanatta, Round 1 – Ultimate Fight Night 91 (July 13, 2016, Denny Sanford Premier Center, Sioux Falls, South Dakota)
A short-notice replacement for an injured Michael Chiesa, “Groovy” Lando Vanatta stepped in to face third-ranked Tony Ferguson, a winner of seven straight bouts. The two delivered an absolutely brilliant first round, filled with every facet of mixed martial arts.
Off to a slow start in the first minute after Vanatta accidentally landed a low blow, the action picked up in the second minute, with the pair gracefully trading kicking attacks while swiftly gliding across the Octagon. Ferguson briefly dropped the UFC debutante with a stiff jab, but Vanatta quickly returned to his feet, bouncing on his toes before storming in for a spinning backfist.
Slightly stunned, Ferguson fired back with punches, kicks, and a brief standing guillotine attempt, while Vanatta pressed forward, landing clean punches. Ferguson replied with a spinning back elbow. The spins, kicks, and constant movement continued.
Ferguson seemed to find his range, landing jabs and kicks, while stuffing a Vanatta takedown attempt and forcing a snapdown from a standing front-choke position. But Vanatta rattled off an impressive sequence, catching a Ferguson body kick while landing a head kick of his own that sent the UFC veteran to the canvas.
“El Cucuy” instantly returned to his feet, but Vanatta followed up with a second and third knockdown punch. Dazed by the damage, Ferguson brought the bout to the mat, where he rolled into a leg lock attack to avoid any further damage from a surging Vanatta.
A highly skilled jiu jitsu practitioner, Ferguson used the final minute of the round to attempt and inverted heel hook, before rolling for an armbar from the bottom.
Runner Up: Robbie Lawler vs. Carlos Condit, Round 5 – UFC 195 (January 2, 2016, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada)
Event of the Year: UFC 205 (November 12, 2016, Madison Square Garden, New York, New York)
Nineteen years after the New York state mixed martial arts ban was repealed, the UFC made its Manhattan debut with the deepest fight card the company has ever promoted.
Headlined by an historic Conor McGregor vs. Eddie Alvarez lightweight title fight, UFC 205 also featured a welterweight championship bout between Tyron Woodley and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, and a fight between Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Karolina Kowalkiewicz for the strawweight strap.
Former champions Chris Weidman, Frankie Edgar and Miesha Tate were also on the card, as was number-one lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov, who delivered a masterful performance against Michael Johnson. But the fight, the night, the event, and the entire week, full of wild press conference antics, belonged to McGregor, who made UFC history by knocking out Alvarez to claim his second title.
Runner Up: UFC 199 (June 4, 2016, The Forum, Inglewood, California)
Upset of the Year: Michael Bisping vs. Luke Rockhold – UFC 199 (June 4, 2016, The Forum, Inglewood, California)
A former The Ultimate Fighter winner and a breakout MMA star in England, UFC veteran Michael Bisping never made it to a title fight during his first ten years inside the Octagon.
The biggest opportunities always seemed to elude Bisping, who came within a win of a title shot on several occasions during his UFC tenure. His February win over Anderson Silva was considered to be his career-defining moment, until Chris Weidman was forced from a UFC 199 title shot against Luke Rockhold.
In the middle of filming a movie, Bisping received the call that he had earned a second crack at Rockhold, to whom he lost in November 2014. Bisping was instantly pegged as an enormous underdog against the champion; Rockhold was in his physical prime and just coming off a dominant fight against Weidman to win the belt.
However, Bisping would not be denied at UFC 199. His quick and efficient knockout of Rockhold with a pair of left hooks and subsequent follow punches was the biggest stunner of the year.
Runner Up: Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor – UFC 196 (March 5, 2016, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada)
Story of the Year: The UFC Sale to WME-IMG
2016 was a phenomenal year for mixed martial arts, with new champions being crowned, history being made, and a fair share of controversy. But no MMA story was bigger in 2016 than the sale of the UFC, from Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, to WME-IMG and principle owners Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell.
The sale of the company was wild enough, but it was the 4.2-billion dollar price tag that stole headlines. A company that was purchased for two million dollars in 2001 was now being sold for four billion, completely altering the future of the UFC, and mixed martial arts, which, in just 23 years has become valued on the same financial level as the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys.
Runner Up: Conor McGregor, The UFC Dual Champ
2016 Picks Record: 81-41-1, 1 NC
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