In some years, Fighter of the Year makes for a lively debate. Like last year, when Max Holloway, Demetrious Johnson, Robert Whittaker, and Rose Namajunas all had valid claims, before Holloway edged out the rest for MMA Fighting’s FOTY honors.
Then there are years like 2016, where Conor McGregor’s transcendent accomplishments -- becoming the first simultaneous two-weight class champion in UFC history while bringing the business to dizzying heights -- were so obvious that people who voted for someone else should forever have their voting privileges revoked.
After UFC 230, it’s clear the 2018 is a lot closer to 2016 than 2017. By doing exactly what he was supposed to do against a live underdog who had won nine of his past 10 fights in Derrick Lewis during Saturday night’s main event at Madison Square Garden in New York, Cormier put a cap on a year that we’ve never seen in mixed martial arts.
Cormier started his year with a successful defense of the light heavyweight championship in a second-round TKO of Volkan Oezdemir at UFC 220 in Boston. He then went up and defeated the greatest heavyweight champion in UFC history, Stipe Miocic, via what at the time was a stunning first-round knockout at UFC 226. And he followed up on Saturday night by making it look easy against a fighter with a lethal right hand and an otherworldly ability to absorb punishment.
DC became the second person to hold two simultaneous weight-class titles in UFC history; became the first ever to successfully defend UFC titles in two weight classes; and along the way, as he nears age 40, became a fan favorite after years of inexplicable hate. It’s the sort of year his biggest rival, Jon Jones, for all his skill, has never accomplished and likely never will.
Oh, and by the way, Cormier is now 15-0 at heavyweight, which puts him square in the conversation of greatest heavyweights of all-time. If it wasn’t for his deference to Cain Velasquez out of friendship, it’s entirely possible he’d own the title of heavyweight GOAT already.
In another year, Israel Adesanya’s rise, going 4-0 in nine months against a steadily increasing level of competition, would have merited consideration for FOTY. But there are levels to this, and Cormier put together a historic year in 2018, so Adesnya will have to settle for a distant silver medal.
Shut the voting down now. Fighter of the Year is a settled matter.
UFC 230 quotes
“Sometimes I go into the octagon, and I hear in the build-up, ‘When is this guy going to get old? It could happen overnight. I thought it happened this morning when I sneezed, and I slipped my back out. Seriously. We got some pictures that we may release later in the week. I sneezed, and because I sneezed, my back slipped out. I tried to do my morning run and it wasn’t happening.” -- The near-40-year-old Daniel Cormier details how a sneeze almost knocked him out of UFC 230.
“I almost pulled out of this fight. Like literally three days, maybe two days away from pulling out of this fight. I was limping. You can ask Dan Hooker and people at my gym. I had the baddest — I’ll post the video so it makes sense. My knee was so inflamed.” — Israel Adesanya also had to nearly pull out of UFC 230.
“Israel has been a guy who has been on the rise here for a minute, but I really felt like tonight was his first big test. His opponent hits like a truck and wrestles really well, and Madison Square Garden, opening the show, man, did he deliver. Many people — including me — think this kid is the future, and he went out and put a stamp on it tonight.” -- UFC president Dana White is all-in on Adesanya’s future.
Up: Israel Adesanya. There are few more satisfying situations in following mixed martial arts than watching The Next One rise. Sometimes, the fighters have to take the long route to get there, like Max Holloway or Tony Ferguson, who put together double digit win streaks to rise to the top. Sometimes, they also have the undeniable “it” factor that commands the spotlight. Part of the intrigue of Conor McGregor’s rise (or for longtime fans, Georges St-Pierre’s run to his first title reign, or for medium-term fans, Jon Jones) was the sense that each step along the way was as much an opportunity to prove him a hype — the next Houston Alexander or Ricco Rodriguez — rather than the next superstar. And when someone aces each of those tests when people are waiting for you to fail, that’s the real proving ground.
That’s exactly what Adesanya accomplished last night. Adesanya is now 4-0 in the UFC since February, a Fight of the Year resume if this wasn’t a year that included DC’s run. After answering doubters of his stamina with his five-round win over Brad Tavares in his first UFC main event, “The Last Style Bender” then went out and shut down the questions of how he’d handle a wrestler. Adesanya flustered one of the middleweight division’s best wrestlers in Derek Brunson, then went for the kill when Brunson got frustrated and got the job done with an absolutely scary efficiency. If Adesanya does become champ, we may look at UFC 230 as the equivalent of McGregor beating Chad Mendes; Jones beating Ryan Bader; or GSP defeating Frank Trigg on their rises to the top.
Hold: Derrick Lewis. Yeah, I know: After losing to Cormier in such a one-sided fashion on Saturday night, how in the world can Derrick Lewis not be listed as “down?” But doing so would lose sight of the big picture perspective. It took a bizarre confluence of events for “The Black Beast” to even be offered a title shot at UFC 230, a combination of fight fallouts and the lack of a perceived “MSG-worthy” main event, all of which came down in the days after Lewis scored a miraculous finish in a UFC 229 bout he was losing to Alexander Volkov.
What we saw from Lewis simply to get himself in position to get offered a lightning-in-a-bottle championship match was one of the greatest runs powered by sheer heart and determination that we’ll ever see in this sport. Lewis won nine of 10 fights on willpower and a big right hand. He’ll be the first to tell you his skill set is limited. But few have ever gotten more out of what they have. So I’m not going to get too down on Lewis for the loss, and if, from here, he’s all about fun fights and brawling for bonus money, that’s absolutely okay with me.
Down: Chris Weidman. Here’s the tough thing about giving this to Weidman: The former UFC middleweight champion has been right in the thick of things in each and every one of his three losses in four fights since dropping the belt to Luke Rockhold, right up until he lost in devastating fashion. But last night’s loss to Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza may have been the cruelest of them all.
Weidman’s striking was crisp, his gas tank was full, and he appeared on his way to the sort of victory which would have led to headlines proclaiming him right back in the title hunt. All that was flushed away in a split second, as Jacare literally beat him to the punch midway through the third round of a phenomenal fight. It sucks to see this happen to a person as good as Chris Weidman, but this is a ruthless sport and at some point you have to wonder how many of these losses are one too many.
Up: Jacare Souza. Then there’s the other side of this coin: The stakes of UFC 230’s co-main event were just as heavy for Souza as they were for Weidman. Souza is 38 and entered the bout a loser in two of his past three contests. A loss suddenly makes him look old, as unfair as that may be. But Souza dished it out as well as he took it, pushed himself through more than one occasion in which he appeared to be on the ropes, and then dug down deep for that something extra when he needed it most. That’s the stuff of champions. And indeed, with one punch, the former Strikeforce champion dismissed any attempts to call him washed up and just might be next in line for the winner of Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum.
Up: Jared Cannonier. I cannot tell a lie, here: I gave Cannonier little chance to defeat David Branch at UFC 230. Cannonier was taking the fight on short notice (albeit already in camp for a different fight); he was fighting a tough and accomplished foe in Branch who was competing in his hometown; and it remained to be seen how a competitor who has fought as high as heavyweight would look after getting down to middleweight for the first time.
Turns out he looked pretty damn good. Cannonier weighed in 1.2 pounds under the limit, then found his power certainly translates at the new weight class, as he dropped Branch with a huge right hand early in the second and wasted little time finishing him from there. Cannonier recently moved out of Alaska and to Arizona to join The MMA Lab, and his results show that a guy who seemed to have all the puzzle pieces in front of him is finally figuring out how to put them together.
Wait a minute ... did we get through a major MMA event without the New York State Athletic Commission making an embarrassing spectacle of themselves? We did. Wow. Maybe they’re finally getting the hang of this MMA thing after all.
But that doesn’t mean we got off entirely scot-free. It was obvious Weidman was through the moment he hit the mat after Souza connected with his right to the temple. A dazed Weidman’s attempt to single-leg Souza afterwards was reminiscent of occasions when fighters have attempted to take down referees when they’re not aware a fight has been waved off and can’t distinguish the ref from their opponent. Souza didn’t want to continue punishing Weidman. But he was left with no choice when ref Dan Miragliotta appeared to be the only man at MSG who didn’t recognize the situation. For a ref name-checked among the best, these things seem to happen just a bit too often when Big Dan is the third man in the cage.
Fight I’d like to see next: Whatever Daniel Cormier wants to do
If it was up to me, I’d have Jones come up to heavyweight, meet Cormier there, and see how the fight between the two plays out without Cormier having to drain himself to get down to 205. That would provide a fresh wrinkle to a trilogy fight that another light heavyweight meeting simply can’t provide.
But neither Jones nor Cormier seems interested in meeting at 265. So if DC is truly planning on living up to his vow to retire before age 40 in March, then, fine. Let him call his shot. He’s earned it. If he wants to go steamroll Brock Lesnar in what will be the easiest fight of his life, and if enough people are still interested in Lesnar’s mystique to make this a big event, go for it. Make that big paycheck. If not, fight Miocic again, or fight Jones at 205 if you must. Cormier has given the sport far more than it will ever give him back, so at this stage, I’m fine with letting him call his shot on his way out.