When Daniel Cormier lost to Jon Jones in his last fight of 2017, it was all over. He had squandered his second crack at Jones and lost his title, leaving himself no visible path back to his arch nemesis for a third encounter. How devastating was it? When Cormier wept in the Octagon afterwards, it was with abandon — the gravity of everything he’d worked for gone with a well-timed head kick. It was one of the most humanizing moments in UFC history, and a reminder of how cruelly fate can treat its temptors.
Or, you know, how deceivingly…because what happened after that?
Crazy things. Serendipitous things. Improbable things. Things that make you scratch your head and make harrumphing noises before blurting out the most common refrain known to fans: “Only in MMA!”
It was learned shortly after UFC 214 that Jones tested positive for a banned substance, thus confirming Cormier’s suspicions that Jones was cheating heading in. That meant Jones was stripped of the title, and Cormier — left for dead and now suddenly reanimating in real-time — defaulted back to the throne. His loss was converted into a “no contest,” and — just as suddenly — he found himself preparing for his third title defense. That came in the first big pay-per-view of 2018, at UFC 220 in Boston. Cormier beat Volkan Oezdemir that night via a second-round TKO, humbly gave thanks to his family, and hasn’t looked back since.
In some ways it felt like Cormier was playing with house money all throughout this past year, just throwing a few chips around as he makes his way to the exits. The Oezdemir victory doubled as a poke at Jones (look what happens when you’re competent!), but his next fight delivered him into a different stratosphere. Cormier went back up to heavyweight — his original division — to challenge Stipe Miocic at UFC 226. The fight carried massive intrigue on a number of levels, not the least of which was that Miocic could solidify himself as the heavyweight GOAT.
Yet Cormier had other plans. Late in the first round, after piecing the big Clevelander up with a couple of shots, he clinched for a brief second in the middle of the Octagon. Then he let loose a savage short right hand that sent Miocic to the ground in a crashing, limp heap. Cormier made history by becoming a champion in two different weight classes, joining Conor McGregor as the only other fighter to hold that distinction. It was a legacy-defining fight, an accomplishment that had nothing to do with Jon Jones.
Of course, it was also another sly subtweet to Jones, who had flirted with moving up to heavyweight for a long time but was never around consistently enough to do it. Cormier carried this information with a very ornery smile.
To cap off the year, Cormier did the UFC a solid by stepping on short notice to fight the surging Derrick Lewis at UFC 230 in November. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but Cormier — a reasonable fighter who can assess the pros/cons with the best of them — had headlining Madison Square Garden left as a bucket list item. He couldn’t say no. It was a masterful performance, so masterful that he made it look easy. Cormier put Lewis away in the second round of the fight with a rear-naked choke, and distinguished himself beyond McGregor’s accomplishments — he became the first fighter in UFC history to defend both his titles.
It was one hell of a year for DC, made all the more incredible given where he was to close out 2017. In a year where several fighters did extraordinary things, Cormier outshined them all. He is our 2018 Fighter of the Year.
2. AMANDA NUNES
Speaking of extraordinary things, Amanda Nunes pulled off one of the all-time upsets at UFC 232 to close out the year against Cris Cyborg. Even though Nunes has been a veritable world-beater since winning the title back at UFC 200, the feat can’t be understated. Cyborg hadn’t lost in an MMA bout in over a decade. She dominated the featherweight ranks in every promotion she’s been in. She has held all the belts, the way pirates hold up skulls. She has rag-dolled people, torn them asunder, given them night sweats for fear she will show up in the dark…coming for them from under the bed…in the closet…through the headboards.
In other words, she’s been a nightmare.
Yet you know who didn’t seem to be all that scared? Nunes. The thing that stood out about Nunes’ pre-fight demeanor was that she didn’t give a damn. She was smiling and speaking in giddy tones about the chance to take out yet one more of MMA’s great women icons. She talked about her legacy, and just let all the doubt around her bounce around unacknowledged. Even as she walked into the Octagon, she looked loose and confident, as if she damn well knew that the public had the predator/prey dynamic mixed up for this one.
It took her 51 seconds to finish Cyborg. Fifty-one seconds. She knew Cyborg would come in fast and hot, and she coolly pulled the rug out. A counter began the tide the other way. Then it was vintage Nunes, blasting a target with beautiful, brutal punches. That showing along was good enough to give her Fighter of the Year consideration, but she also had a dominant fight against Rocky Pennington back in May. Just like Cormier, Nunes now holds a special distinction in the UFC — she’s the first female fighter to hold concurrent titles in two different weight classes.
One hell of a year? Definitely. And one hell of a legacy, too. Nunes not only retired Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey, she beat current flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko twice. Adding Cyborg to her casualty list gives her GOAT status.
3. KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV
Khabib Nurmagomedov falls into third place here for Fighter of the Year, but realistically he made more waves than anyone. Not only did Nurmagomedov give new meaning to simple phrases like “send me location,” he brought an emphatic hammer down on one of the darkest rivalries of all-time. The UFC 223 “Bus Incident” gave the Dagestan fighter all the fuel he needed to want to beat Conor McGregor...but, once the fight was made, McGregor made the mistake of attacking Nurmy’s religious and political beliefs beforehand. He also took some potshots at Khabib’s father, his manager, and anyone else in a 20-mile radius of Nurmagomedov’s inner-circle.
Ever the stoic, Nurmagomedov simply took McGregor’s torments in stride.
He waited until UFC 229 in October.
He downplayed his emotional turmoil through the process.
And when he got the chance, he battered McGregor for the better part of four rounds before ending it with a neck crank submission. It was a declarative showing. We all saw the aftermath. The singing Dillon Danis shouting invective. Nurmagomedov scaling the cage wall and soaring off the ledge, with his legs out like talons, ready to swoop a trout. All hell breaking loose. Et cetera.
But Nurmagomedov, who stood in against Al Iaquinta on essentially a day’s notice in Brooklyn earlier in the year, handled his business. He not only beat McGregor, but he broke into a different pay class while doing so. And he established himself as a fighter not to be trifled with. The casuals who tuned in for Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor are now scared of him, believing him to be a kind of Bond villain. And it’s true, to an extent. You mess with Nurmagomedov — the most dominant fighter the UFC has had over the last few years — you will get beat up.
Even with all of the polarizing events of 2018, Nurmagomedov had a remarkable year.
4. ISRAEL ADESANYA
The game really is just a game to Israel Adesanya, who takes a cat-like approach to his stalk-and-kill style. Against Derek Brunson at UFC 230, everyone knew it was a showcase situation for the brash Nigerian-New Zealander, who fancies himself the next big thing in MMA. Brunson tried to make it a little ugly, tying up Adesanya early and disrupting his range. He was also headhunting on the breaks, as he’s wont to do.
Yet Adesanya was nonplussed, to say the least — and he was biding his time. When he caught Brunson the first time, he let his hands fall to his side like the whole sequence just dropped into slow motion. He stalked in, eyes wide open, deliberately, and finished the job with an almost psychotic calm — his every strike meaningful and true. It was a big-time coming out party at Madison Square Garden for a guy who’d already taken out three other fighters since debut in Feb. 2018. With escalating degrees of challenge, Adesanya beat Rob Wilkinson, Marvin Vettori, and Brad Tavares before Brunson.
It was a march to stardom for “The Last Stylebender” in 2018. Four scalps, and a looming date with Anderson Silva. By next year we could be talking about Adesanya as the middleweight champion. For this past year, we’ll settle for something more destinational: Adesanya, the man calling his shots.
5. GEGARD MOUSASI
The UFC let Gegard Mousasi walk after he defeated Chris Weidman at UFC 210 in 2017, and Bellator picked up the cult-like figure who’d just — after years of endearing indifference and dry humor — come into his own. Mousasi captured the middleweight title by taking out Rafael Carvalho at Bellator 200 in May, and followed that up with a rough handling of Rory MacDonald in September. He has now won eight fights in a row, and is slated to defend his title next against Rafael Lovato Jr. in January.
If anything, Mousasi has made MMA fans think about the malleability of perception — a little trick that Dana White has perfected since claiming the UFC was bigger than soccer. You could choose to say that the UFC was completely foolish to let the 33-year old star get away, or you could say that Bellator was extremely shrewd and smart in signing him away. Both would be true, but the only thing worth celebrating is the latter. Mousasi seems happy in his new home, and hell-bent and beating up half the roster.
It was a great 2018 for the “Moose,” and here’s guessing he’s going to do even bigger things in 2019.
Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2018 Fighter of the Year played out.
- Dustin Poirier
- Anthony Smith
- Kamaru Usman
- Kyoji Horiguchi
- Ilima-Lei Macfarlane
- Henry Cejudo
- Valentina Shevchenko
- Ryan Bader
- Derrick Lewis