Heading into his UFC debut in January 2015, Cody Garbrandt had a certain gleam to him. His Team Alpha Male training partners had been chatting up this kid from Ohio, and there was much enthusiasm around Vegas to wheel his name in parlays. When he got rid of a few jitters and settled into his fight with Marcus Brimage, we caught more than a glimpse of his range and style, the speed and striking accuracy, the sublime boxing ability that his teammates boasted of, and the charismatic way in which he handled himself.
Garbrandt finished Brimage in the third round that night at UFC 182, and dedicated his win to young Maddux Maple, a Leukemia survivor who inspired him to such heights. His performance was as quiet/loud as any Pixies album, but he showed as big as his hype. He had arrived.
Cut forward a little less than two years, and Garbrandt is the UFC’s bantamweight champion. Talk about an elegant, no-nonsense death march. Garbrandt’s 2016 was a steep acceleration to the top, Mighty Mouse screaming up the side of a building. We’ve had to gather the pieces on the fly. Who is this kid, the one who shoved Conor McGregor, kicking up a mini-brawl during TUF 22? The one who publicly lambasted T.J. Dillashaw as a traitor when Dillashaw followed former TAM coach Duane Ludwig out of Sacramento?
The one who bewitched Dominick Cruz, the game’s most confounding body linguist, for the bulk of five rounds?
What Garbrandt is is a champion. His 2016 — four wins, three finishes, a quiet confidence that let us in on his secret ever-so-gradually — was punctuated with one of the great virtuoso performances of the year at UFC 207. It’s one thing to knock off a champion and declare it a new day. It’s another to take out a champion who hasn’t lost in nearly a decade, to drop him on several occasions, turn into Remo Williams during sequences and leave Cruz swinging at the vapor trails, riddle him with vibration, and break into “The Robot” like it ain’t no thang. Garbrandt even did a push-up in the championship rounds, just because — hey, who doesn’t want to sneak in a quick workout between pocket sequences?
No, the 25-year old with the tattoos vining up his neck is this year’s “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year.” And his is one of those good fight-game stories, full of crossroads and redemptions and fuzzy full-circle moments, like when he put the belt around Maple’s waist. He avenged his teammates — namely his mentor and friend, Urijah Faber — by taking out the TAM killer. And Garbrandt not only showcased himself as more than just a power-puncher with a youthful sense of invincibility, he emerged as a star in 2016.
Yet, Garbrandt also became a blueprint. He had a goal of becoming the UFC’s bantamweight champion by 2017, which was a lofty thing to concoct as he got started, given the strength of the division. Nevertheless, he found his way to a title shot, in large part by poking the bear and positioning himself as the most obvious next challenge for Cruz. He was plotting for Cruz since well before he knocked out Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 202. He was thinking one step ahead at all times on his journey, much like McGregor.
While most fighters trot out the old “one fight at a time” cliché, Garbrandt has shown he’s able to see things from a bit more elevation. It is one fight at a time. Yet it’s also one fight in the big picture.
Heading into 2017, Garbrandt positioned himself dead center in that big picture.
2. Amanda Nunes
In retrospect, we should have seen Amanda Nunes coming. In 2015 she took out Shayna Baszler and Sara McMann with first-round finishes, and looked primed to have a big 2016. Yet those were some long shadows being cast by the sport-lifter, Ronda Rousey, and the soul-snatcher, Holly Holm. Heading into the year it was all about when the recently fallen Rousey would come back for the rematch with Holm. That was the money fight that captivated the legions.
The whole time, Nunes was creeping along the wall.
And just as the women’s bantamweight belt was being turned into a hot potato, Nunes made her move. She took out Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 196 in March, which was drowned out by Conor McGregor’s first fight with Nate Diaz. That win was enough to bump her, very quietly, into a title fight with Miesha Tate, who took the belt from Holm. There were many protests about Nunes-Tate, as all the big fights that could be made in the public way of thinking didn’t involve Nunes. It was Holm-Rousey II, Tate-Rousey III, Tate-Holm II, etc. There was an air of disappointment involved.
Those outcries turned Nunes into a narrative-wrecker in 2016, and she silenced a lot of the day’s loudest Monday Morning Matchmakers by penning her own version of events. She destroyed Tate in the main event at UFC 200, needing just a little over three minutes to do it. How vicious was it? Tate returned in November and appeared emptied of vitality in her bout with Rocky Pennington. Nunes had left a lasting mark.
Meanwhile, she herself marched on. She welcomed the showdown with Rousey at UFC 207. While Rousey received the lion’s share of the marketing heading in, Nunes appeared on the scale in a lion’s mask straight from Kubrick’s mind.
Then she just laid waste to Rousey, pummeling her for 48 seconds until Herb Dean put a mercy end to the beating. Nunes, the openly gay champion who has been nothing but a delight throughout her rise from the untalked-about-middle-ranks to the top, is now the scariest woman not named “Cyborg.” She took out Shevchenko, Tate and Rousey in 2016. The latter two she may have significantly hastened the end of their careers.
That’s one hell of a year.
3) Nate Diaz
It’s true that Nate Diaz has been in the UFC since before Garbrandt was old enough to drive, and he’s had some great runs in his career (beginning his run in the UFC with a 5-0 record between 2007-08 among them), but he’s never had a year like 2016. He’s never had the opponent who would redirect the spotlight on him in ways that you would see his every new wrinkle. He never had his pockets filled with cash like he did in 2016, when he and Conor McGregor put on the greatest Segue Series in UFC history. He never had a reason to slap Justin Bieber. He never had a platform for which to seek broader change in the sport, and to win the hearts of so many in his idiosyncratic “could give a shit” ways.
In short, Nate Diaz became NATE DIAZ, the superstar, in 2016.
After a year away from fighting, Diaz had the foresight to call out McGregor in late 2015 after upsetting Michael Johnson on FOX. Absurd, right? So absurd that it began to run in the imaginations of fight fans, to the point that — when Rafael dos Anjos went down with an injury before his March fight with McGregor — Diaz’s name became a sacred ace in the hole. He made the most of it. Not only did Diaz clash with McGregor in a classic war of words, he choked out McGregor at UFC 196. That set up the rematch. And it was during that time that Diaz and McGregor became one of the greatest storylines in UFC history.
Why are they fighting at welterweight? Why is McGregor getting his demands met? Why are they so similar yet so different? It was the second fight that both Diaz and McGregor both fought “The Man” in the lead up, making sure they were paid in the right way, and publicly laying out the logic as to why. It was the first fight that had an air of bigness on that level.
Diaz lost the rematch (though it was damn close), and a trilogy fight now looms in the not-so-distant future. Yet regardless if that happens or not, Diaz fully realized every inch of his star power in 2016. It took him nearly a decade to truly break through, but he did — and it was glorious.
4) Lando Vannata
It’s easy to dismiss Lando Vannata as a 1-1 fighter in 2016, and as a 1-1 fighter overall in the UFC. But let’s just say that nobody had a more jaw-dropping, completely unexpected, totally insane debut than Vannata did when he stepped in to fight Tony Ferguson on short notice in Sioux Falls.
Vannata, who trains with Jackson-Winkeljohn in Albuquerque, showed up like a man with zero sense of self-preservation and no tomorrow to consider. He and Ferguson put on a back-and-forth battle in which he hurt “El Cucuy,” got blasted, came forward anyway and blew off the shudders of courage. He didn’t win. He got subbed in the second round via a D’Arce choke. But Vannata’s now-or-never attitude set up a fun fight with John Makdessi at UFC 206. Well, fun for Vannata, that is.
This time with a full training camp, Vannata scored one of the great knockouts of 2016 when he obliterated Makdessi with a wheel kick. The crowd in Toronto went silent for a split second, then let out a deafening roar at the beautifully vicious thing they’d just beheld. Where the hell did he come from? The Jackson Factory, which has more secrets within its walls than any brothel.
Say what you want about Lando Vannata, but it’s hard to make better first impressions.
5) Mickey Gall
In some ways, Gall’s emergence in 2016 belongs in the head of a scriptwriter at some coffeehouse out in Burbank. He gets discovered in his first professional fight by UFC president Dana White, and is aware enough to enter his name into the CM Punk sweepstakes after getting his arm raised. A light bulb went off with UFC brass, obviously. Gall was perfect for Punk. He was signed to the UFC and had to navigate his way through Mike Jackson during Super Bowl weekend, in what was the strangest set-up for a fight in a long, long time. The barely experienced Gall and the 0-0 Jackson, for the conditional right to face Punk (conditional meaning Gall was promised the shot with Punk, while nobody knew for sure what would happen if Jackson were to win).
Gall made the most of it, beat Jackson, got his fight with CM Punk, and really just knocked the snot out of Punk in an otherwise anticlimactic fight. Gall’s stance was, somebody had to do it. It was endearing. But why Gall stood out was that he continued to be smart with the microphone. After choking out Punk, he threw out the idea of fighting Sage Northcutt, the other prized name in the discovery world of Dana’s Lookin’ For a Fight. This just made too much sense. Gall was not only a fighter with one of the most interesting trajectories for a beginner, but he was also a pretty salient f*cking matchmaker.
Gall choked out Northcutt in December to round out a 3-0 year. He made the most of each fight — like, literally maxed out whatever exposure was possible in all three — and heads into 2017 as a name in this sport.
Will he get his latest request of a fight with Dan Hardy? Probably not, but in 2016 Gall broke through as man who knew his way around a microphone, and who showed the sport — once again — that it’s not only OK but encouraged to call your own shots.
Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2016 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year played out:
- Francis Ngannou
- Max Holloway
- Stipe Miocic
- Derrick Lewis
- Michelle Waterson
- Alexa Grasso
- Michael Page
- Kron Gracie