Chaos reigns supreme in the fight game. If nothing else, the absurd unpredictability of 2016 has proven that. But sometimes, every so often in this world, we’re dealt a guarantee. One single hand so fanciful, so fantastical, so loaded with ferocity, possibility, and just the right amount of crazy that it cannot possibly deliver anything less than promised. Whether it’s a fight too good to be true or an event too loaded to disappoint, call it a gift from the blood gods above.
And Robbie Lawler vs. Carlos Condit always felt like that.
We all knew what we were getting into once UFC 195 was booked. Logistically, the fight made zero sense. Condit was 2-3 over his last five and owned only one win since shredding his knee to bits against Tyron Woodley. But the prospect of seeing two of welterweight’s most ruthless aggressors locked together in a steel cage was reason enough, and it says something that the memory of the first main event of 2016 lasted through all of the insanity that proceeded it — through the Great SBG-Stockton Wars, through the Bicentennial Slog, through the Coronation in New York. Even after the single most transformative year in the sport’s history, the recollection of Lawler and Condit baring empty their souls the day after New Year’s still manages to evoke giddy shivers, one of those rare instant classics that was billed as such beforehand and yet somehow exceeded the hype.
Or as Carlos Condit so eloquently put it just minutes before the fight began: “Me and Robbie Lawler are going to go in there and try to f*ck each other up.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
So it went that the new year began with Las Vegas once again being torched to the ground. The action was fast and frenetic as Condit drew first blood, downing the reigning champ with a lunging shovel hook just 90 seconds into the opening round. But Lawler merely stood up and smirked, a taste of things to come, the look of a man who lived to find the storm and was once again amongst those familiar tempest waves. Then the champ responded in kind, dropping Condit in the second with a counter right hook amidst a flurry of pocket violence.
And from there, the floodgates opened.
Together, they traded blow after blow — head kicks, jumping knees, spinning strikes — Ruthless and The Natural Born Killer, two of the game’s most frightening unloading everything in their arsenal to no avail. A back-and-forth third frame gave way to a Condit fourth. The night wore on, and with time running low and the scorecards uncertain, the desperation of the moment began to set upon Las Vegas. And then one of the greatest spectacles of 2016 unfolded, and the legend of Fifth Round Robbie Lawler was truly born.
Even a year later, it is incredible to look back and witness the demon that alighted inside of Lawler in those waning minutes at UFC 195. All sense of caution was thrown out of the window. The champ became a hellbeast, wading forward and exacting unholy vengeance on the challenger who bravely and gamely stood his ground and traded. Somehow they both absorbed it all, super missile after super missile bursting upon flesh and bone.
And then, as if by magic, it was over. The two arsonists who burned down the MGM Grand were back to being men, just Robbie and Carlos, a couple of guys cut from the same cloth, exhausted and simply trying to catch their breath together against the side of the cage. An iconic image of athletes stretched to their absolute limits in ways that only this sport can provide.
Many observers that night, present company included, felt that Condit should have left the arena with UFC gold in tow. He didn’t, and now who knows if he ever will. Neither Condit nor Lawler has won a fight since, and both lost their next outing in mere minutes. A prizefighter can only take so much, and there is no doubt that both of them left a piece of themselves in the UFC cage that night.
But controversy on the scorecards cannot diminish the magic that happened on Jan. 2 at UFC 195. And for that we thank Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit, and we award them the honor of MMA Fighting’s 2016 Fight of the Year.
2. Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 2 — UFC 202
The rivalry that defined 2016 also gave us two of the year’s wildest and most unpredictable fights.
Nate Diaz stunned the world in March, submitting Conor McGregor with a textbook rear-naked choke at UFC 196 mere months after the Irishman cemented himself as an international superstar by ending a legend in 13 seconds. A rematch was quickly booked, and though there were some hurdles along the way, by the time Aug. 20 rolled around, Las Vegas felt like the center of the entire world.
With the battle lines drawn, McGregor would ultimately find the revenge he sought, rallying back from a harrowing third round to eke out a majority decision and keep alive his hopes of two-divisional glory. Whether it’s in 2017 or beyond, the rubber match can’t come soon enough.
3. Cub Swanson vs. Doo Ho Choi — UFC 206
The truly great fights often transport the viewer to a curious sort of out-of-body experience, as if all adult functioning has left one’s brain and all one can do is stand and scream and throw hands to their head and giggle with disbelieving glee at the insanity taking place in front of them.
Some great fights can take you to that place for a few seconds, or perhaps for a few fleeting exchanges. Cub Swanson and Doo Ho Choi took us there for the full 15 minutes.
In one of the ridiculous scenes in recent memory, the Slighted Veteran and the Next Big Thing stood toe-to-toe for three rounds of all-offense brawling that even left noted zen-master Greg Jackson fired up about the bloodlust that unleashed itself in Toronto. Swanson ultimately took the win, bringing an end to Choi’s undefeated UFC run, but truly no losers left the cage on that night.
4. Miesha Tate vs. Holly Holm — UFC 196
One Hail Mary dive with time running low to reshape a legacy. For Miesha Tate, it worked to perfection.
There could be no circumstance more apt to be Tate’s crowning moment — down on the scorecards against a heavily-favored foe, beaten and bloodied but far from out. With two minutes left before her last chance at UFC gold slipped through her fingers, Tate attacked Holly Holm like there was nothing more important in the world, closing the distance and exploding to the champ’s back before choking her to sleep in one of the greatest and most implausible comebacks in UFC title history.
Tate retired from the game eight months later, but because of her dogged perseverance in the face of long odds, she was and always will be a UFC champion.
5. Dominick Cruz vs. T.J. Dillashaw — UFC Fight Night 81
If the first UFC headliner of 2016 gave us one of the year’s best fights, the second main event of the year gave us one hell of a follow-up act.
It was in many ways a surreal sight to see Dominick Cruz, the greatest to ever do it at bantamweight, finally back home where he belonged after an unrelenting string of knee and hamstring injuries nearly derailed his career. But with his first significant cage time in nearly five years, Cruz proved that he hadn’t lost a step, outpacing the class of the division and putting on another masterwork of defensive fighting to re-capture the title that he never truly lost inside the Octagon.
Cruz is back to being on the outside looking in after UFC 207. But the bantamweight division has never been better, and interesting times are no doubt ahead now that the one and only Dominator is back in the fray.
Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2016 Fight of the Year played out:
- Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson — UFC 205
- Michael Bisping vs. Anderson Silva — UFC Fight Night 84
- Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Claudia Gadelha 2 — TUF 23 Finale
- Angela Lee vs. Mei Yamaguchi — ONE Championship 42
- Neil Magny vs. Hector Lombard — UFC Fight Night 85
- Jake Matthews vs. Johnny Case — UFC Fight Night 85
- Michael Bisping vs. Dan Henderson 2 — UFC 204
- Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor 1 — UFC 196
- Marco Polo Reyes vs. Dong Hyun Kim — UFC 199