Fighter of the Year: Chris Weidman does the impossible

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor
When looking at the Fighter of the Year, you get torn between evaluating someone based on what they did inside the cage and their importance to the sport as a whole. And then there are the little things that get involved, such as those pesky items of whether they are a credit to the profession.

You have to look no farther than the reaction to Georges St-Pierre, who walked away after being one of the most dominant fighters in history, and tried to set a standard by volunteering for the most comprehensive drug testing program for any championship fight in MMA history.

You also have the timing issue. Cain Velasquez's championship win over Junior Dos Santos took place three days before the end of 2012. Had it happened a week later, you'd have someone who beat the champion, one of the greatest fighters in the history of the weight class, in one-sided matches, on two occasions. In between, Velasquez destroyed a top contender in Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, in the first round. But with two wins in the calendar year instead of three, Velasquez's resume doesn't quite hit the level to be Fighter of the Year. He's still a strong contender for a top five spot.

And then you have Vitor Belfort, who had three of the year's most spectacular knockouts, all against durable top-tier competition. But then you've got a different form of the drug question, in his case, the use of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), to deal with. What he did was approved. He did nothing against the rules except be, at 36, a far more devastating fighter than he was at 28. In fact, the big question when it came to fighter of the year through most of December seemed to be whether you would or wouldn't vote for Belfort, based on personal beliefs as to whether you agree with the commission rulings on what he could do before his fights.

But fortunately, that is not an issue any longer.

In 2013, Chris Weidman knocked out the person most felt seven months ago was the single greatest fighter in the history of the sport, Anderson Silva, to win the UFC middleweight title. In doing so, he gave finality to several of UFC's most significant records that seemed to have no end in sight, such as most consecutive wins, most title matches won, and longest title reign.

And then he did it again. This time Weidman nearly knocked Silva out with punches on the ground in the first round, before finishing him when Silva's leg was broken after Weidman checked a low kick.

Weidman beating Silva the first time was the most talked about story of the year inside the cage. Weidman beating him the second time was one of the biggest fights in UFC history.

Weidman overcame being displaced from home for much of the early part of the year due to Hurricane Sandy, and rushing back into a fight with Silva, after shoulder surgery.

Unlike many of Silva's opponents, who seemed like they were beaten before the fight even started, Weidman exuded a level of confidence before the first fight that none of Silva's opponents in years exhibited.

Even though many felt Weidman's strengths on paper - strong wrestling, strong top control, great submission awareness and conditioning - added up to the style that could beat Silva. This wasn't exactly Silva's first opponents with the wrestling skills on paper to beat him. Granted, Dan Henderson didn't have the conditioning when he fought Silva, nor did Travis Lutter. Chael Sonnen didn't have the submission defense. Nor did Nate Marquardt. Demian Maia and Thales Leites couldn't get him to the ground. Vitor Belfort seemed like he had already lost the fight even before he was front kicked into the next country in the first significant move of the bout.

The first win was one of those moments where your brain can't immediately register and make sense of what your eyes just saw. People screamed fix because they simply couldn't comprehend the idea that Silva was knocked out. Then when they got past the disbelief, the second emotion came, that it did happen, but it was a fluke. Lightning struck at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and everyone knows lighting doesn't strike twice in the same place.
The second fight, one largely dominated by Weidman from the start, eliminated the thoughts of it being a fluke or a lightning bolt.

2. Vitor Belfort

At 36, Belfort not only beat three different top-ten fighters in 2013, but knocked all of them out with head kicks.
But that's only part of the story.

Michael Bisping, victim No. 1, had only been finished once in his entire career. Luke Rockhold, victim No. 2, had only been finished once in his entire career.

Dan Henderson, victim No. 3, had lost a few years earlier by submission, but he was the prototype iron-jawed warrior who could be beaten, but couldn't be knocked out. Yet he was, in just 1:17, in a performance so impressive nobody could argue Belfort didn't deserve the next middleweight title shot.

As far as we can prove, Belfort did nothing against the rules. If one believes that testosterone replacement therapy should be against the rules, that's a different argument. But it's not fair to not consider a fighter with the results he had over the last calendar year because you don't like the rules.

As luck would have it, No. 1 and No. 2 from 2013 are headed on a collision course in 2014 over the middleweight belt.

As big a seismic shift in the UFC foundation as Weidman's win over Silva was, nothing was bigger than the introduction of women into the UFC on Feb. 23 in Anaheim with the Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche fight. It went from UFC President Dana White not wanting women in the UFC, to women having some of the most exciting fights of the year. The success of the first division led to the planned introduction of a second women's weight division, strawweights, in 2014.

The women fights often stole the show in 2013. There was far more interest in women than men on The Ultimate Fighter season, which Rousey coached.

The reality is had the promotion for Rousey vs. Carmouche flopped, as many suggested it would and that people wouldn't buy a pay-per-view headlined by women, women would not have been long for UFC.

Instead, the opposite happened. With the exception of Brock Lesnar, no UFC fighter ever debuted drawing the kind of pay-per-view business the women did. While The Ultimate Fighter ratings for people watching live took a hit with the move to FS 1, the DVR viewership of the show set records.

And as crazy as this would be to even suggest one year ago, today you can make a strong argument, with Silva and St-Pierre out of the picture, that Rousey is UFC's biggest star, even if she's clearly not the most popular.

Rousey's second fight of the year, with Tate, was one of the biggest of the year. Rousey fought twice, both in title matches, winning both fights by armbar. But while her wins don't carry the weight that Weidman's did, when it comes to overall impact on the sport, she was the most influential fighter this year.

Johnson was the only UFC champion in 2013 who made three successful title defenses, all headlining network prime time events on FOX.

The flyweight champion first won a hard-fought five round decision over John Dodson on Jan. 26 in Chicago. Next was a fifth-round submission win in a fight he dominated against John Moraga on July 27 in Seattle. And he finished the year with his most impressive win of his career, a knockout in 2:08 over the consensus No. 2 man in the division, Joseph Benavidez, on Dec. 14 in Sacramento, Calif.

While there are always new contenders, Johnson has accomplished something no other current champion in the promotion has to date, as he holds wins over all of the top four contenders.

The UFC lightweight champion spent much of the year battling knee problems, but when he did step into the cage this year, he was flawless.

Pettis first knocked out Donald Cerrone in just 2:35, which is even more impressive than it sounds. Cerrone, in 29 kickboxing matches and 24 MMA fights prior to their Jan. 26 fight in Chicago, had never been knocked out nor stopped via strikes.

Then he followed up by winning the championship from Benson Henderson via submission in 4:31 in his home city of Milwaukee on Aug. 31. Up until that point in time, Henderson appeared to be impossible to submit, and was riding a strong winning steak.

The quality of those opponents, finishing both in the first round, winning a title and the nature of both finishes cracks a tough top five for this year.

Honorable mentions:

Cain Velasquez
Georges St-Pierre

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