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Midseason MMA Awards: Top Fighter

Stop and think for a moment about where Chris Leben was in his mixed martial arts career at the beginning of 2010: In his most recent fight he had been submitted by the eminently mediocre Jake Rosholt. Before that he had served a suspension for testing positive for steroids following his loss to Michael Bisping. It had been 22 months since he last won a fight, and he was probably one more loss away from getting cut from the UFC.

But what a 2010 it's been: Leben is 3-0 this year, he's cashed bonus checks for Fight of the Night and Knockout of the Night, and he's gone from being known mostly as a guy who acted like a jerk on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter to getting a huge ovation from the crowd after winning the co-main event at the UFC's biggest card of the year.

Leben, who will turn 30 on July 21, has had an absolutely incredible career resurgence this year, beating Jay Silva, Aaron Simpson and Yoshihiro Akiyama and looking like he has turned into a more complete martial artist than he was early in his caerer, without losing the brawling mentality that he brought to the Octagon in his early days.

I don't think Leben is ever going to be a UFC champion, and he'll probably never even be in the Top 10. But at this point in 2010, no fighter in the whole sport has impressed me more.

Honorable mention:

Gerald Harris: Like Leben, Harris is 3-0 this year. He's won Knockout of the Night twice, first against John Salter in January and then with a brutal slam of Dave Branch at UFC 116.

Alexander Shlemenko: I love fighters who stay active, and it's hard to get more active than Shlemenko, who's already 5-0 this year. After knocking out Jean-Francois Lenogue and Sean Salmon in February and March, Shlemenko won three more times on his way to the Bellator middleweight tournament title. Up next is a bout with Hector Lombard that, if Shlemenko should win, would make him a strong contender for Fighter of the Year honors at the end of 2010.

Cris Cyborg: The best female fighter in the world has followed up her TKO victory over Gina Carano in 2009 with two more TKO victories, over Marloes Coenen and Jan Finney, in 2010. I just wish Strikeforce could find someone to challenge her.

Junior dos Santos: MMA's best heavyweight knockout artist has claimed two more first-round victims in Gilbert Yvel and Gabriel Gonzaga. I think he's ready for a title shot against Brock Lesnar right now, but first he'll take on Roy Nelson in August.

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