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2014 Fight of the Year: Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler, UFC 171

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Five thrilling fights. Four title affairs, the other a former champion trying to hold his ground against a rising contender. All five went to the championship rounds. All of them had their outcome in doubt going into the final moments; some because score was a tossup, others because the guy clearly behind on the cards was pulling out all the stops going for the finish.

Elsewhere in 2014 retrospectives, you'll hear about TRT, drugs, injuries, oversaturation, and lawsuits. But here's where we remember why we all started watching the sport in the first place, the reminder that mixed martial arts at its finest is truly transcendent.

All of them are worthy of reminiscence as we get ready to flip the calendar to 2015. But only one can be MMAFighting.com's Fight of the Year.

As good as the rest were, only one had the added kicker of a vacant championship hanging in the balance when the contestants were summoned from their corners for round five. So without further ado ...

1. Johny Hendricks def. Robbie Lawler, unanimous decision, UFC 171, Dallas, March 15: After 20 minutes of rock 'em, sock 'em action, Hendricks and Lawler were all tied up heading to the final round. Hendricks had looked strong over the first two rounds. In the third, though, Lawler began fearlessly wading into Hendricks' wheelhouse and landing big blows, a patten which continued through the fourth. In the end, Hendricks went back to his wrestling base and won both the fifth round and vacant UFC welterweight championship in front of his fans in his adopted hometown. Lawler, for his part went back to work after his setback, won a pair of fights, and defeated Hendricks in a rematch at UFC 181 even tighter than their first fight.

2. Chris Weidman def. Lyoto Machida, unanimous decision, UFC 175, Las Vegas, July 5. For three rounds, the undefeated Weidman appeared to be well on his way to a rout. Weidman pressured Machida and landed often enough to keep Machida off-balance and prevent him from executing his favored, patient game plan. In round four, though, Machida unleashed a hellacious onslaught, electrifying the crowd at Mandalay Bay and putting Weidman into the most trouble he's ever experienced in his pro career. Machida hunted for the knockout right up to the fight's finish, but Weidman showed a champion's heart in weathering the storm and hanging on to the gold.

3. Jose Aldo def. Chad Mendes, unanimous decision, UFC 179, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Oct. 25. Team Alpha Male's Mendes was looking for redemption after his first-round knockout loss to Aldo in 2012. While he didn't win the title, he gained in stature after a thrilling, wild brawl of a title fight. Both fighters were guilty of fouls over the course of the fight, but that was shoved aside as the intensity of the brawl came front and center. Aldo, often criticized for playing it safe, notably answered the call whenever Mendes rocked him, unleashing vicious flurries in response, which ultimately turned the fight in his favor, ensuring his combined WEC/UFC featherweight title reign would surpass its fifth anniversary.

4. Junior dos Santos vs. Stipe Miocic, unanimous decision, UFC on FOX 13, Phoenix, Dec. 13. Part of the excitement of heavyweight fights is the idea that the bout can end at any moment, given the concussive capabilities in the big boys' fists. But what if that knockout never comes? In that case of former heavyweight champ dos Santos and the upstart Miocic, that meant for a gripping 25 minutes of back-and-forth standup action. Miocic started off fast and appeared to have dos Santos on the run. But he slowed considerably in the middle rounds, which gave the iron-chinned dos Santos his opening to get back into the fight. Given the damage evidence on the faces of both fighters after the bout, one could question if the punishment was worth it. But no one should question the courage or valor of either fighter after such a memorable display.

5. Pat Curran def. Daniel Straus, R5 submission, Bellator 112, Hammond, Ind, March 14. Fighting near his hometown, Curran put in a game effort against Straus in an action-packed bout. But Straus, who had defeated Curran to win the Bellator featherweight title back in November, pulled ahead over the championship rounds and appeared on the verge of retaining his title via decision. Curran, however, never stopped looking for a finish, and he was rewarded with one of the most spectacular results in recent memory. Curran got Straus into a rear-naked choke with about 90 seconds left in the fight. It appeared Straus was going to ride it out, as he gave the ref the thumbs-up sign more than once. Suddenly, though, Straus tapped with 14 seconds left, surrendering the belt back to Curran.