No one in the near quarter-century history of modern mixed martial arts ever had a year quite like the one Irish superstar Conor McGregor experienced in 2016.
McGregor did what no fighter in the history of the UFC could ever pull off -- not Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones, B.J. Penn, Royce Gracie or anyone else -- and held two weight class titles at the same time.
The 28-year-old Dublin native, who won the UFC featherweight championship in December 2015 with a 13-second finish of Jose Aldo, knocked out Eddie Alvarez in the second round of the main event of UFC 205, the historic first MMA card ever held at New York City’s hallowed Madison Square Garden. In doing so, he added the lightweight title to his collection.
And while Dan Henderson simultaneously held two titles in PRIDE in 2007, he never had a year like McGregor this year, either.
McGregor was scheduled to meet then-lightweight champ Rafael dos Anjos in the main event of UFC 196 in March, but accepted a short-notice welterweight fight with Nate Diaz when RDA dropped out two weeks out. It was unlike many headliners who chose to sit out when opponents dropped out. McGregor lost to Diaz via second-round submission, then immediately insisted on a rematch, at the same weight, with Diaz.
With so much on the line, McGregor rose to the challenge. After a false start when the bout was originally set for UFC 200, McGregor and Diaz re-engaged at UFC 202 in August and put on a back-and-forth battle that will be remembered for years to come. McGregor won a majority decision, avenged his loss, and regained his mojo, leading into UFC 205’s glory.
In doing so McGregor also lifted the entire sport to new heights. The rematch with Diaz did a reported 1.65 million buys, making it the most watched PPV in UFC history. The first match with Diaz at 196 did 1.6M, making it third in history. And while the final numbers aren’t in on 205, it appears that’s going to crack the top three when all is said and done, as well.
It’s been a loaded year for Fighter of the Year candidates, as several competitors put together campaigns which would have won most other years. Michael Bisping had a tremendous run to the UFC middleweight title. Stipe Miocic knocked out heavyweights left and right. Cody Garbrandt came from out of nowhere to the UFC bantamweight title. And Amanda Nunes made short work of a pair of legends in cementing her status as the world’s top women’s bantamweight.
But no one touched all aspects of the business like McGregor. And while some have held his loss to Diaz against him, the historical nature of his accomplishments won out in the end in a close race.
Conor McGregor is the MMA Fighting Fighter of the Year.
2. Michael Bisping: After spending a career in which he always seemed right on the cusp of greatness, but never quite got over the top, Bisping went on a memorable run to win the UFC middleweight title at age 37. Bisping started his year with a memorable, back-and-forth five-round fight against longtime former middleweight champion Anderson Silva in London before winning a unanimous decision. Then at UFC 199, he fought Luke Rockhold, to whom he had previously lost, on two weeks’ notice as a substitute, and won the middleweight title via a devastating first-round knockout.
Bisping finished a dream year with a split-decision victory over Dan Henderson in Bisping’s hometown of Manchester, England in October, evening the score for Bisping’s legendary knockout loss to Hendo back at UFC 100. The fact that two of Bisping’s wins were against fighters north of age 40 likely kept him out of the top spot, but there’s no doubt Bisping had a year to be commemorated.
3. Cody Garbrandt: Each year, it seems, someone comes out of the blue and earns his way onto the list. Few people have ever done so in quite as spectacular a manner as Cody Garbrandt in 2016. The fighter nicknamed “No Love” went 4-0 on the year and culminated it with a UFC bantamweight title victory. The Team Alpha Male competitor’s first three victories were first-round knockouts, taking out Augusto Mendes, Thomas Almeida and Takeya Mizugaki in order.
Then the undefeated Garbrandt topped off his campaign by doing the unthinkable. At UFC 207, Garbrandt went up against Dominick Cruz, the greatest 135-pounder in history, who had never been beaten in his weight class and had not been defeated at any weight since 2007. But it was Garbrandt who looked like the poised veteran on Dec. 30, as he beat Cruz at his own game, from deft footwork to in-ring trash talk, and used his fists like bludgeons as he won the title via unanimous decision and quite possibly ushered in a new era.
4. Stipe Miocic: Another fighter won a UFC championship while compiling a 3-0 record in 2016, and this time, the competitor didn’t go to a single decision. Of course, that’s more likely to happen in the granite-fisted world of the heavyweight division. Stipe Miocic cleaned house at 265 pounds this year, and he never had to go back to his stool and take a one-minute break during his fights. Miocic kicked off his year with a 54-second knockout of former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski at UFC 195. He followed up by going into a sold-out soccer stadium in Curitiba, Brazil, and stunning a crowd of more than 40,000 by flattening Fabricio Werdum in just 2:47 to claim the UFC title.
And then in one of the year’s most memorable events, Miocic went home to Cleveland and met former Strikeforce champ Alistair Overeem in the main event of UFC 203. In a thrilling whirlwind of a fight, Miocic was nearly finished by Overeem before rallying for the knockout at the 4:27 mark to a massive crowd response. Not a bad year for a humble firefighter from Ohio.
5. Amanda Nunes: At times, the UFC’s promotional machine almost seemed to be doing their best to hide Nunes, as she was all but invisible in the buildup to her two biggest fights. But Nunes, the sport’s first major openly LGBT champion, went 3-0 this year. Her year kicked off with a decision win over strong contender Valentina Shevchenko. At UFC 200, she closed the one of the biggest shows in company history with a shocking and swift first-round TKO of Miesha Tate to claim the women’s bantamweight crown.
And Nunes saved her best for last at UFC 207. The American Top Team fighter absolutely steamrolled Ronda Rousey in Las Vegas on Dec. 30, battering Rousey and winning via TKO in just 48 seconds to retain her title. There had been an eight-month period of turmoil beginning in November 2015 in which four women held the UFC women’s bantamweight belt. But after polishing off two of the biggest stars in women’s MMA history back to back, Nunes left no doubt who is in control of the division.