Given the unassuming nature of UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, it is perhaps fitting that the performance which earned him his title, a sensational knockout of Fabricio Werdum at UFC 198, has slid somewhat under the radar this year.
After all, this is the same guy who, despite being the Baddest Man on the Planet, continues working full-time as a fire fighter. It’s this blue-collar, grab-your-lunch-pail-and-go-to-work attitude that has endeared him to fans in his hometown of Cleveland and that may also have played a role in his relatively unheralded rise to UFC title contender.
Going into UFC 198, the focus was around Fabricio Werdum and whether a win that night would cement him as the greatest heavyweight mixed martial artist of all-time. No one counted out Miocic, a durable, athletic, hard-hitting guy, but the general belief was that he wasn’t dynamic enough to finish Werdum and the talk centered around where a win put Werdum in the “best ever” conversation. But those talks, and Werdum, were put to bed 2 minutes and 47 seconds into the first round when Miocic delivered a back-stepping right hand that crumpled the champ, earning Miocic the UFC heavyweight title and MMA Fighting’s 2016 Knockout of the Year.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Miocic’s one-punch kill shot is among the best of the year. As Werdum comes rushing wildly at Miocic, he calmly circles away and then lands a short right hand that drops Werdum like a sniper shot, leaving the all-time heavyweight great slumped over on top of himself, a highlight that will play on UFC intros for years to come. The knockout is made all the more impressive when considering that Miocic had never shown true one-hitter-quitter power before and Werdum had only been stopped once previously after a barrage of punches from arguably the biggest hitter in the heavyweight division, Junior dos Santos.
But Miocic shutting the lights off on Werdum isn’t only a spectacular KO, it was also incredibly important. Going into the fight, Werdum was fighting for his legacy and Miocic was fighting for his lineage. A native of the Cleveland suburbs, Miocic wanted to end the “Cleveland Sports Curse”, and three minutes after the bell rang, he delivered the first championship to Cleveland since 1964, running across the Octagon, jumping over the cage, and shouting “I’m world champ!” as his coaches swarmed him and Werdum lay prone on the canvas.
While there is debate over whether Miocic’s win broke the curse, just one month later Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers upset the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA championship and had Miocic lead their victory parade through the city.
All things considered, Miocic’s knockout of Werdum is the best marriage of significance and aesthetic beauty since Holly Holm’s head kick of Ronda Rousey won Knockout of the Year last year. In a year with a bevy of gorgeous knockouts, Miocic’s stands above the rest.
2. (tie) Michael Bisping knocks out Luke Rockhold with punches (UFC 199, June 4): Though it lacks the pure aesthetic appeal of Miocic sleeping Werdum, Michael Bisping’s knockout of Luke Rockhold to claim the UFC middleweight championship is arguably more impressive.
Until 2016, Bisping was the perennial also-ran in the middleweight division, always “in the mix” of title contention without ever getting a shot. Then Chris Weidman withdrew from his rematch against Rockhold and Bisping stepped in on less than two weeks notice to face the man who had throttled him just 18 months prior. To most, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. But not to Bisping.
In the pre-fight interviews, Bisping kept reiterating that “all it takes is one punch” and that’s what he would do, but nobody believed him. After all Bisping had never been known as a power puncher and it had been years since he’d stopped an opponent. But Bisping’s declaration proved prescient, landing a left hook that hurt Rockhold badly before following up with strikes as Rockhold went reeling back against the cage.
Bisping has always had good timing and he saved the best punch of his life for the biggest moment of his career. It was a stunning knockout, one that changed the trajectory of his career forever and single-handedly rewrote his legacy. Bisping’s knockout of Rockhold is a worthy No. 2 for KO of the Year.
2. (tie) Lando Vannata knocks out John Makdessi with a wheel kick (UFC 206, Dec. 10): On the other end of the spectrum is Lando Vannata’s sensational knockout of John Makdessi at UFC 206. While not as historically significant a victory as Bisping’s KO of Rockhold, Vannata’s wheel kick gets top marks for the pure, visceral spectacle of it.
Vannata debuted in the UFC in July coming in on short notice to fight one of the top lightweights on the planet in Tony Ferguson. After a respectable showing against Ferguson, Vannata had some buzz surrounding him to see how he would look against an opponent closer to his level of development. He did not disappoint. Makdessi is a well-respected veteran and Vannata set up and executed a spectacular wheel kick on him that looks almost exactly like the one Edson Barboza landed on Terry Etim to claim second in our 2012 Knockout of the Year voting. In a year with less historically significant knockouts, Vannata might well have taken the top spot.
4. Yair Rodriguez knocks out Andre Fili with a flying head kick (UFC 197, April 23): Yair Rodriguez is one of the brightest prospects in the UFC’s featherweight division and his performance against Andre Fili at UFC 197 showed why. Showing an exciting array of exotic kicks throughout the bout, Rodriguez actually set up the finishing sequence earlier in the round in space, but failed to connect. Once Rodriguez backed Fili up against the cage however, he feinted a low kick before throwing a jumping left head kick that landed as Fili ducked into it. The result is a knockout that would wow even the most cynical MMA veteran.
5. Dan Henderson knocks out Hector Lombard with a back elbow (UFC 199, June 4): Few people in MMA have given us more incredible knockouts than Dan Henderson and in 2016 “Hendo” added one final one to his highlight reel. Heading into UFC 199 most people felt that Henderson was likely on his way out of MMA and many were concerned about matching the 45-year-old up against one of the hardest hitters in the division in Hector Lombard. Those people were pleasantly surprised when Henderson landed a head kick (yes, seriously) and, as Lombard held onto his leg, threw a vicious, chopping back elbow, dropping Lombard to the ground where he followed up with more brutal elbows.
It was an unexpected moment of joy for MMA fans to see one of the true pioneers of the sport get such a spectacular finish and it ended up catapulting Henderson into a title fight against Michael Bisping for one last shot at the belt. Henderson lost a decision there but his knockout of Lombard will live on.
Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2016 Knockout of the Year played out:
Anthony Johnson knocks out Glover Teixeira with a punch (UFC 202, Aug. 20)
Charles Bennett knocks out Minoru Kimura with punches (Rizin 2, Sep. 25)
Conor McGregor knocks out Eddie Alvarez with punches (UFC 205, Nov. 12)
Donald Cerrone knocks out Matt Brown with a head kick (UFC 206, Dec. 10)
Michael Chandler knocks out Patricky Freire with a punch (Bellator 157, June 24)
Michael Page knocks out Evangelista Santos with a flying knee (Bellator 158, July 16)
Ryan Bader knocks out Ilir Latifi with a knee (UFC Fight Night 93, Sep. 3)
Tyron Woodley knocks out Robbie Lawler with punches (UFC 201, July 30)
Yoel Romero knocks out Chris Weidman with a flying knee (UFC 205, Nov. 12)