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Fighter of the Year: Cain Velasquez

Cain VelasquezAt 6-foot-1 and around 240 pounds, Cain Velasquez is no small man in the ordinary world, but among the UFC's supersized heavyweights, he hardly stands out for his size.

In fact, many heavyweights are either taller or heavier than Velasquez, and most are both. Yet by the end of 2010, it was Velasquez that reigned over the group of monster athletes.

For capturing the UFC heavyweight championship and completing a rapid rise to the top, Velasquez is MMA Fighting's 2010 Fighter of the Year.

The American Kickboxing Academy product fought just twice during the year, but exhibited dominant performances in both matches. In February, he took on the durable Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and needed just 2:20 to knock him out, marking the fastest loss of Nogueira's esteemed career. Then in October, he got his chance to fight Brock Lesnar for the championship.

At the time, Lesnar was fresh off his UFC 116 victory against Shane Carwin in which he overcame a hellacious first-round beating, survived, and submitted Carwin in the second round. The win served to prove that Lesnar was fully recovered from a dangerous bout with diverticulitis that sidelined him for months, and added to his reputation as a potentially unbeatable fighter.

By fight time, Lesnar was nearly a 2-to-1 favorite against Velasquez.

The fight itself was one-sided, but not in the way many expected. In a frantically paced, 4-minute, 12-second round, the two combined for three takedowns, over 100 strike attempts and and spent equal parts standing and on the ground. But it was nearly always Velasquez who seemed to be the one moving towards victory.

Exploited the holes in Lesnar's game, Velasquez hurt the champion with strikes, at one point sending Lesnar stumbling and sliding backwards in hopes of an escape. None would come. Velasquez's onslaught continued until the fight went to the ground, where he pounded on Lesnar. It seemed to be following the same script as Lesnar-Carwin, but Velasquez learned from those mistakes and chose his shots wisely. His punches breaking through Lesnar's defense, it became clear the champ was falling, and a new king would be crowned, and eventually that was the case, as Velasquez earned a stoppage victory.

He's a man that rarely smiles in the cage, but his face lit up, however briefly, upon the realization that he had become the champion.

It was the culmination of a dream for a man whose father had come to the US in hopes of a better life, and the storyline also resonated with fans who prize stories of success. Nearly as importantly, Velasquez helped the UFC continue its inroads to Spanish-speaking fans, heavily promoting his fight in Mexico and to Spanish-language news outlets, and perfectly setting him up for even bigger stardom in the future, as long as he can continue navigating through the land of the giants.

The runners-up:

2) Frankie Edgar
Like Velasquez, Edgar became a champion in 2010, defeating BJ Penn in April. But because there was some controversy about the first decision, he was forced to do it again.

This time, Edgar proved it was no fluke, shutting Penn out by winning all five rounds on the judges' scorecards.

Beating an all-time legend like Penn twice finally proved that Edgar was not too small for the lightweight division as many of his critics claimed.

3) Anthony Pettis
Perhaps no one came so far, so fast as Pettis, who was a virtual unknown to start the year, but through an appearance on the MTV show "The World of Jenks," a perfect 4-0 record, and the year's best action highlight with the "Showtime Kick" during his recent WEC title win over Ben Henderson, launched himself into the MMA spotlight.

Pettis began the year coming off a loss, and ended it as the WEC champion and No. 1 contender to the UFC lightweight title.

4) Nick Diaz
Kickboxer Marius Zaromskis was riding a five-fight win streak when he faced Diaz. So what happened? Diaz TKO'd him in less than a round. Then he went to Japan and tapped out Mach Sakurai in less than a round, and he followed that up by avenging a 2007 defeat to KJ Noons in a unanimous decision win.

5) George Sotiropoulos
One of the more surprising runs of 2010 came from the Aussie Sotiropoulous, who showed he could hang with the very best of the lightweight division, earning strong decisions over Joe Stevenson and Kurt Pellegrino before closing out the year with a second-round submission against Joe Lauzon.

Dominick Cruz went 3-0, capturing the WEC bantamweight championship and possibly setting himself up for a big-money match against Urijah Faber.

Jim Miller was among the most active fighters in the UFC, going a perfect 4-0 with finishes over Duane "Bang" Ludwig and highly regarded prospect Charles Oliveira. Miller's strong year gave him six straight wins altogether and put him in the lightweight title hunt.

An unfortunate injury knocked Jose Aldo out of a UFC 125 match, but with wins over Urijah Faber and Manny Gamburyan, Aldo continued to make a case for a move up the world's pound-for-pound rankings.

Velasquez may have won Fighter of the Year for 2010, but not far behind was Junior Dos Santos, who went 3-0 with two finishes in moving to No. 1 contender status, where he awaits Velasquez sometime in 2011.

Joe Warren's 2010 was essentially encapsulated into a five-month span, where the Bellator fighter went 4-0 and captured the promotion's featherweight championship after beating the previously undefeated Joe Soto by knockoiut.

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