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Breakthrough Fighter of the Year

Breakthrough Fighter is a category that's easy to talk about but hard to define. What's the difference between having a good year and a breakthrough year? Is it just a nicer way of saying that you sucked right up until January 1st?

These are difficult questions, so to help me answer them I turned to MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani for a spirited, though friendly debate. At least it started out friendly. Then it quickly turned into every other debate we've ever had, which is to say long, fierce, and entertaining...from a distance.

By all means, let's let Ariel start us off.

Ariel Helwani: Look, Ben, I already know what you're going to say upon hearing my pick for Breakthrough Fighter of the Year: a bunch of fighters won four fights this year. A bunch of guys won titles. A bunch of guys won no. 1 contender spots. A bunch of guys were involved in potential Fight of the Year candidates. A bunch of guys added scintillating knockouts to their highlight reels.

But here's what you aren't considering: how many of those fighters accomplished all of that in one 25-minute stretch (well, except for the winning four fights this year part)? The answer? Just one. His name? Anthony Pettis.
Kimbo Slice had a lot of YouTube hits and Gerald Harris had a Sportscenter "Top Play," and neither of them is employed with the UFC anymore.
-- Ben Fowlkes

There may never have been a more perfect candidate for Breakthrough Fighter of the Year than the 23-year-old Pettis. Consider the fact that exactly one year ago Pettis had just been handed the very first loss of his career to veteran Bart Palaszewski. His hype train had been derailed and many wondered just how good he could be. He rebounded from that loss in March by knocking out Danny Castillo in just 2:27 with a head kick KO that is surprisingly not getting as much attention as it should in the Knockout of the Year discussion. A month later, he stepped in on short notice and defeated Alex Karalexis on the WEC's first pay-per-view. Then, he continued his momentum by out-wrestling former All-American wrestler Shane Roller at WEC 50 in August. That win earned him a shot at the WEC lightweight title.

Then "Showtime Kick" happened.

By now you know all about what Pettis pulled off in the final minute of the final fight in WEC history. That kick not only sealed a WEC lightweight title win, it also earned Pettis a shot at the winner of Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard for the UFC lightweight title in 2011. It also made him the singular talk of the MMA world for at least 24 hours. The move was talked about on ESPN, CNN and generated well over two million views on YouTube in less than four days. Pettis also gained over 8,000 new Twitter followers and who knows how many new fans. More importantly, Pettis instantly made everyone who watched the kick want to pay to watch him fight again. Thankfully for the UFC, his next fight will be a title fight and the promotion of that fight just got a whole lot easier.

Not bad for a guy whose claim to fame entering 2010 was a WEC 41 win over Mike Campbell. So I ask you, Ben: who else "broke through" more in MMA than Anthony Pettis? The answer? No one. And don't even get me started on his appearance on MTV's World of Jenks.

Ben Fowlkes:
Let's see, how can I phrase this so that I don't insult you? Your pick of Pettis reminds me of a toddler who regards the bowl of Spaghetti-o's he had for lunch as the best meal he's ever eaten, simply because it's the only one he can still taste on his sticky little fingers.

Oh wait, that was totally insulting. Whoops.

Look Helwani, my mind was just as blown as anyone else's when Pettis pulled off that kick at WEC 53. It was amazing. It was sensational. But it was one kick, and it didn't even end the fight. If he had won the decision without it, I doubt you'd be clinging to it like a raccoon to a shiny ball of tinfoil. Or hey, maybe you would, simply because it was the last fight you watched.

I realize my pick might not be as popular with the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately crowd, but my choice for Mr. Breakout in 2010 is Evan Dunham. On paper, he went a mediocre 2-1 this year. But look closer and you'll see impressive wins over Efrain Escudero and Tyson Griffin, as well as a fight against former UFC champ Sean Sherk in which he got absolutely robbed by the judges.

The stats you cite in support of Pettis – Twitter followers and YouTube hits – that's a metric that tells us more about the time we live in than it does about Pettis. You want me to get excited about wins over Alex Karalexis and Shane Roller? How do you think they'd do against a guy like Sherk? Better yet, how do you think Sherk or even Griffin would do in the WEC's relatively thin 155-pound division?

It's nice to have highlights, to be suddenly famous. But Kimbo Slice had a lot of YouTube hits and Gerald Harris had a Sportscenter "Top Play," and neither of them is employed with the UFC anymore, so you tell me what that's worth. Dunham faced tougher fighters and proved himself on a bigger stage. His year wasn't as flashy and it won't get him on MTV, but I think his future is brighter than Pettis', even if he doesn't have a kick named after him.
We're talking about a fighter who 365 days ago was just another young prospect dealing with the reality of losing his first fight.
-- Helwani on Pettis

AH: Wait a sec, Evan Dunham? No disrespect to Dunham, but I totally thought you were going to pick Jon Jones. I could have lived with that.

But you're picking a fighter who went 2-1 in 2010, with wins over one fighter who no longer fights in the UFC (Escudero) and another who fought in the opening bout of UFC 123 ... and lost. (Yeah, I know Griffin got robbed, but for the sake of this argument I am going to ignore that small fact.)

I'm disappointed in you, Ben. I thought you were going to put up somewhat of a fight here.

It's cute how you disregard the YouTube hits, the Twitter followers, the buzz. You know, some of the things we here at MMA Fighting use as tools to measure our own impact within the MMA community.

We're not talking about what he will do in the years to come because none of us can predict the future. We're talking about a fighter who 365 days ago was just another young prospect dealing with the reality of losing his first pro fight. Today, he's 4-0 in his last four fights, the final WEC lightweight champion, the no. 1 contender to the UFC lightweight title and the owner of one of the greatest moves in MMA history. There's only so many different ways I can explain this to you.

And just for the heck of it, might I remind you that Pettis' next fight is for the UFC title, while Dunham fights Melvin Guillard in January. You tell me who had the better year.

BF: To tell you the truth, I was going to pick Jon Jones. Then I got to thinking about it, and his breakthrough year was really 2009. In 2010 he just continued dominating, which is impressive, but not exactly what we're looking for here.

While you may be willing to ignore "small facts" like Griffin's unjust loss to Nik Lentz (or, for that matter, Dunham's unjust loss to Sherk), I'm not. Scratch that loss from Griffin's record and his only defeats are to Dunham, Sherk, Gomi, and Frankie Edgar. That's decent company to be in.

The same can't be said when you beat Alex Karalexis and Danny Castillo. I mean, seriously? Dunham wishes he got to fight guys like that. It'd be like a night off with pay.

And did you just appeal to the authority of the "buzz"? Who are you, Gary Shaw? Next are you going to tell me what happens when you walk into a steakhouse with Anthony Pettis?

Yes, we do use internet stats to gauge our impact. That's because our employers use them to sell ads, and they use that ad money to pay our salaries. It's kind of like how publishers put a huge emphasis on book sales, but it doesn't mean you won't get punched in the face if you try to argue that Dan Brown or Tom Clancy is America's greatest living author.

Pettis had a good year, capped off with one great fight. But let's be real son, you're picking him on the basis of that one fight, maybe even one kick, both of which just happened to come at the end of the year. That's fine, just like it's fine for you to show up with a Giants hat on the day after they won the World Series. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

You and the rest of the MMA world can continue denying Dunham his due and falling all over yourself for the latest highlight reel addition if you want. I'm going with the guy who had a former champion telling him that he'd have a belt around his waist before it's all said and done.

You can keep your YouTube hits, your Twitter followers, your ephemeral buzz. Anybody can argue in favor of the latest big thing. It takes real vision to see quiet, latent talent like Dunham's. Without such vision, all you can see is what's directly in front of your face from one moment to the next.

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