2017 was not the best year in combat sports history. It started out all fun and games, but after twelve months of "super fight" and "money fight" and "the next Conor McGregor" talk, most fans of the fight game are desperately hoping for something of a return to normality in 2018. But the unpredictable nature of fighting has served as a fail-safe through 2017: no matter how bad a job you do at putting on a night of fights—something interesting will happen.
Even though 2017 might have been the year of the gaudiest, silliest fight in the history of combat sports—Mayweather vs. McGregor—it was also the year that three UFC champions lost their titles in stellar fights on one night, that Demetrious Johnson matched the record for most title defenses, and that the truly elite talent continued to rise to the top even if they didn’t always have the short cut of captivating charisma and trash talk.
So ignoring all the politicking and dramatics that aid it along, let us appreciate the actual fighting of the fight game through 2017.
Gameplan of the Year: Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk
2014: Jon Jones vs. Glover Teixeira
2015: Rafael dos Anjos vs. Anthony Pettis
2016: Cody Garbrandt vs. Dominick Cruz
It has become a tradition in mixed martial arts that many of the greatest performances of the year take place in the last couple of weeks. Recency bias is tough to contend with and makes it tough to recall the better showings earlier in the year, especially with performances as commanding and thoughtful as dos Anjos vs. Lawler and Cyborg vs. Holm taking place in the final fortnight of 2017.
Of course, Robert Whittaker’s masterclass against Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza is worthy of praise most high. His scientific building up of his base along the fence, hindering the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu savant at every step, would have been worth the price of admission alone. The fact that he drove a pace on Jacare, jabbed him up, shoulder-rolled off Jacare’s swings, and knocked him out with a pair of head kicks was just icing on the cake.
The world’s most unlucky supplement consumer and sometimes light heavyweight great, Jon Jones brought a great gameplan to his second bout with Daniel Cormier, but in many respects Cormier had added to his successes from the first fight and built some better looks onto his aggressive style. Cormier dealt with the kicks considerably better, added some kicks of his own, and doubled up with his jab and lead hook to have Jones looking considerably more troubled than in their first fight before the surprising high kick finish.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk put on a wonderful showing against Jessica Andrade—demonstrating perfectly how to circle out in the face of aggression. Jedrzejczyk rarely left the black interior octagon on the canvas.
On the rare occasion she found herself nearing the fence she would withdraw the lead leg and perform a classical switch side step in the space available. Her jab was textbook and lanced Andrade up throughout to add another defense to Jedrzejczyk’s impressive title run.
But when picking Gameplan of the Year, this writer believes that more value should be placed on fighters who performed outside of their normal method. Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s best performances have always come against aggressive swarmers. Rafael dos Anjos has always been best as a low kicking, body punching, uppercut-and-drop-on-their-hips kind of pressure fighter. Rose Namajunas’s performance against Joanna Jedrzejczyk wins the Slacky for Gameplan of the Year in 2017 by merit of it being a remarkable performance that seemed tailor made for the opponent.
Namajunas burst into the UFC as an excitable ball of all-out aggression. She sharpened up her hands and got a little more cautious, while still getting after opponents on her own terms and in 2015 we awarded her the Slacky for Technical Turn-Around. She’s far from perfect but when she stood in front of the champion, Namajunas was perfect for Jedrzejczyk. Namajunas’s feints threw off Jedrzejczyk’s timing and her footwork allowed her to glide in and out of exchanging range on her own terms. Jedrzejczyk—incredibly accurate and elusive against opponents who came after her—threw almost fifty strikes and landed just five against Namajunas.
And Namajunas wasn’t prancing around being elusive and getting little done, she stepped in and hammered Jedrzejczyk hard multiple times in the few minutes that the fight was going, before doing the unthinkable and knocking the champion out. She might have trouble defending the title against the likes of Andrade, Cláudia Gadelha, and Karolina Kowalkiewicz, but Namajunas clearly had the long time champ’s number.
A close second is Max Holloway, whose two performances against Jose Aldo were among the best uses of a scientific jab you will ever see in MMA. Through subtle manipulation of timing and Aldo’s expectations, Holloway had the featherweight great swinging at shadows and was able to needle him with repeated jabs to the eye. Finishing Aldo twice in a calendar year is impressive, but it was only last year that we awarded Holloway the Slacky for Technical Turn-Around—remarking that he was finally getting away from the recklessness and reliance on natural ability that had hindered his early UFC career.
Other terrific performances where a fighter adapted perfectly to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses this year included Jorge Masvidal’s beating of Donald Cerrone, and Stipe Miocic’s title defense against Junior dos Santos. Masvidal—usually a little too conservative for his own good—got up in Cerrone’s grill and exploited Cerrone’s difficulty with opponents coming down the center of his guard. Wedging his way in behind his guard and a raised knee, Masvidal jabbed Cerrone up. When Cerrone’s kicks came around the outside, Masvidal stuffed them, parried them across Cerrone’s body, and used the chance to jump in with counter punches on Cerrone as he stood on one leg.
Miocic, meanwhile, built on his successes in the first fight and exploited dos Santos’s painfully poor ringcraft. He has the best hands in the heavyweight division but the kind of jumpy feet and ring awareness that sees him run backwards onto the fence under the slightest pressure. Miocic kept dos Santos to the fence, hit him with hard right hands, and caught him with stepped right hooks as dos Santos circled out into them.
Event of the Year: UFC 217
2014: Glory – Last Man Standing
2015: UFC 189
2016: UFC 206
UFC 217 was supposed to be a simple cash grab. Georges St-Pierre challenged Michael Bisping for the middleweight title that wasn’t really the middleweight title by that point and the casual fans were supposed to eat it up for its 2013 name value. But as more names were added to the card it started to shape up pretty well. Come fight night, not only did St-Pierre and Bisping exceed all expectations in their bout—the two other title fights on the card produced astonishing upsets in explosive fashion. T.J. Dillashaw knocked out Cody Garbrandt in an exchange that could have seen either man starched were one a little slower, and Rose Namajunas won that Gameplan of the Year award.
There was also the emotional roller coaster of Johny Hendricks preparing his excuses for missing weight, then finally making weight for the first time in years only to be brutally beaten by gigantic Brazilian, Paulo Costa a couple of hours later. Drama was not in short supply either as there was a weird heavyweight disqualification, and a heavyweight almost-disqualification which instead became a weird heavyweight TKO. Stephen Thompson also put on a rousing performance as he karate’d up Jorge Masvidal.
Nothing quite sums up chaos of the fight game as well as coach Firas Zahabi’s experience that night. UFC 217 opened with Zahabi watching his brother, Aiemann suffer a horrifying spinning elbow knockout—the first loss of Aiemann’s career and an unusually brutal one. Zahabi then had to clear his head and corner Joe Duffy. Duffy worked through a great performance before suffering a surprising TKO loss. Without time to linger on that, Zahabi was in St-Pierre’s corner for the main event, wherein St-Pierre won a third world title, in a second weight class after four years out of the game. No matter how UFC 217 made you feel, it’s hard to imagine going through all of that.
This writer would also like to add an honorable mention for RIZIN’s recent two day spectacular. There is a lot of living in the past in Japanese MMA, and much of that is summed up by the two fifty year old fighters booked into the losing side of squash matches on the cards, but when RIZIN did real MMA with PRIDE showmanship, it was some of the best fun to be had all year.
Technical Turn-Around of the Year – Robert Whittaker
2014: T.J. Dillashaw
2015: Rose Namajunas
2016: Max Holloway
The criteria we look for when awarding our Technical Turn-Around title are that the fighter not simply be a technical wizard, but that he or she show an obvious improvement in the technical and tactical aspects of his or her game. These improvements are the things that can make a good fighter into a great fighter and can give any fighter staying power. It is something of a good reflection on this award that all three of the previous winners won UFC titles this year.
This year’s winner of Technical Turn Around is the great Aussie karate-boxer, Robert Whittaker. We don’t award a Fighter of the Year, but if we did Robert Whittaker would win that too. No one in 2017 fought a level of competition that could challenge Whittaker’s back-to-back victories over Jacare and Yoel Romero.
Whittaker was a decent welterweight, going 2-3 in the weightclass in the UFC, but suffering a TKO loss when Stephen Thompson caught him reaching and blasted him with counter punches. Whittaker went up to middleweight in November of 2014 and has continued to rise to the level of his competition. Always great with a left hook, Whittaker used to hang his lead hand low to have a free underhook when fighters shot on him. But since moving to middleweight Bobby Knuckles has developed into a slicker outfighter—feinting beautifully and stabbing in with rapier jabs in that style we often refer to only part-jokingly as "karate-boxing."
Whittaker has worked tirelessly in bringing his wrestling up to the mark and made it onto the Australian wrestling team for the 2018 Commonwealth Games despite first competing in the sport in 2015. But while rounding out a fighter’s game is important, he will not always be able to best his opponent in a given area. Whittaker and his team have done a wonderful job of getting Whittaker into positions where he can shut down the majority of offense from even much better pure grapplers and wrestlers. You need only look at his use of the fence to scrape off Jacare Souza, and his turning into Yoel Romero from the same position. Using his near knee and the fence to deny both men the opportunity to get him down, or to take his back, Whittaker could begin working to regain his feet.
Whittaker could have been given Gameplan of the Year for the Jacare fight, but his bout with Romero cemented him as the greatest middleweight in the game today. Through the lead up to that bout we discussed Whittaker’s excellent jab, feints, and ability to close and create distance quickly. Feints and jabs were what we expected to carry the day. Then Whittaker took a low line side kick in the first minute and his knee was out of action for the rest of the fight. Whittaker, on one leg and without many of his weapons, still got the better of Romero. In against the most frightening middleweight on the planet, the blown up welterweight with no wrestling pedigree, shucked off and scrambled out of takedowns, and made the on-the-fly decision to replace his jab with a right front kick.
A hundred or so front kicks later, Romero was knackered and Whittaker was the middleweight champion. The UFC said "interim," but everyone who knew the game knew that now Whittaker was the man at 185 pounds.
The '…But Why?' Award for Low Fight IQ – Anthony "Rumble" Johnson vs. Daniel Cormier
2014: Ali Bagautinov vs. Demetrious Johnson
2015: Tim Boetsch vs. Dan Henderson
2016: Ryan Bader vs Anthony Johnson
When you get to the highest levels of the fight game, decision making can be the difference between good and great. If you jump guard on a guillotine, then hold onto it until your arms tire and the other guy spends the rest of the round on top of you, you have just given away a round on a poor decision. That used to happen a great deal, and it happened again this year as Wanderlei Silva took on Chael Sonnen. Silva’s takedown defense in PRIDE was often helped along by the yellow card—if he held his man in guard long enough the referee would stand both men up, fine either Silva or his opponent 10 percent of their purse, and then as the referee stepped away Silva would begin windmilling once again. Bellator doesn’t have yellow cards and as such, Silva’s decision to jump guard on the guillotine against Chael Sonnen only served to pull Sonnen on top of him. Bear in mind that Silva has finished one choke in his MMA career and zero guillotines.
Alistair Overeem is a regular nominee for the But Why award. After a Gameplan of the Year contender against Mark Hunt—wherein Overeem was either all the way in or fighting from the outside, avoiding Hunt’s counter punches entirely—Overeem took on Francis Ngannou and simply swung clumsy, flappy overhands and hung around in exchanging range. It didn’t take Ngannou long to catch Overeem and almost take his head off. This is a theme with Overeem, he will put on a blinder against someone like Junior dos Santos and then lose confidence and clumsily run chin first onto blows against Ben Rothwell. He has all the talent in the world but his mind seems very quickly clouded by his emotions and what he thinks the opponent is capable of doing to him, rather than what they are showing him at that moment in the cage.
The winner of this year’s But Why award was on the other side of last year’s one. Anthony "Rumble" Johnson is a terrifying banger and when Ryan Bader came out against him in 2016 and slowly pursued the world’s most obvious single leg takedown attempt we all groaned and wondered how long it would take Johnson to put him away. As it turned out: just under ninety seconds.
This year Johnson got a rematch with light heavyweight champion, Daniel Cormier. Johnson had hurt Cormier in their first match but quickly faded—a trademark of his career. With renewed vigor and a focus on his cardio, it was assumed Rumble would be an even tougher fight for Cormier this time around. Instead, Johnson came out and attempted to wrestle with the Olympian as his corner shouted desperately for him to break from the clinch and throw some strikes. Things were made even more bizarre when Johnson declared after the fight that it was always his intention to retire after the bout. It was a strange end to an exciting but often bizarre career, though Johnson has already teased a return and with the state of the UFC light heavyweight division another title shot might be no more than a contract signing away.
It would be nice to include Drakkar Klose’s standing stationary and complaining that David Teymur wasn’t engaging him even while getting outstruck at UFC 218, but for some peculiar reason that actually worked and Teymur was warned for inactivity. You can’t argue with results, but thankfully Teymur got the decision.
Breakout Technique of the Year – The Anaconda Choke and Front Headlock Fluidity
2014: Electric Chair Sweep
2015: Snap Kicks
2016: Imanari Roll
This award is normally a means of evaluating the trends in the martial arts meta and to serve as a “watch out for this next year… maybe.” The truth is that it takes things time to catch on and they are picked up at different rates. For instance, in 2015 we awarded the Breakout Technique award to snap kicks with the ball of the foot. For years in these articles we had been discussing the benefits of snap kicks and in 2015 it finally seemed like they were making some progress. Now, you can’t watch a fight card without seeing a few. Just the other night Cowboy Oliveira and Yancy Medeiros were taking turns smashing each other in the gut with the front snap kick. But other techniques will have a decent year and then return to obscurity—there was certainly no influx of upside down shots in MMA this year (though they are now a constant feature of the grappling circuit).
This year’s breakout technique is a bit of a cop out in that sense. It is not really a single technique but a series of them, and it is a series in ongoing development. One thing that you will have noticed if you follow the grappling game is that the anaconda choke has come back into vogue, and just the other night in the UFC Brian Ortega showed why.
The anaconda choke became famous when Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira choked two opponents in back-to-back fights with it in PRIDE FC. When Nogueira debuted it, Chuck Liddell, providing guest commentary, announced that he had never seen it before and the commentary team were at a loss for a name. Big Nog learned it from his teammate, Milton Vieira and it set the world on fire for a little while.
The problem was that it came off the front headlock and relied on you having the opponent’s elbow to catch them. This was, of course, helped along greatly by knees to the head from the sprawl. At first the anaconda choke was performed with a roll towards the trapped arm, rolling all the way through to bring the opponent onto their other side before walking into them to finish the choke. In fact the anaconda choke was sometimes even named the "gator roll" due to this movement. More recently fighters have been trying to knock their opponent down straight onto the free arm side instead of going through the entire roll. Zabit Magomedshapirov finished his most recent bout in this manner.
Then Rafa Mendes came along and started anaconda choking people from the top of half guard. Performing a rolling front headlock—now a favorite of Josh Hinger and Justin Rader—Mendes would end up in a north south like position where both men were looking up at the ceiling. Having caught the grip on the way over, he would begin rolling back and using his thigh to push the opponent’s elbow inward, making it possible to force their shoulder into their neck and complete the choke. Unofficially named the Rafaconda, Mendes has been doing this for years. He spent a whole match against Leo Vieira at ADCC 2009 looking to roll for it. If you watched any submission only events this year, the chances are you saw someone diving over the top of their opponent after this.
In Brian Ortega’s bout with Cub Swanson just a couple of weeks ago, Swanson finished the first round desperately trying to prevent Ortega from knocking that trapped arm across to tighten the choke.
Similarly, coach Neil Melanson has produced some interesting philosophies on the anaconda choke and teaches a method of snapping it up off a loose arm-in guillotine, tipping the opponent onto their side and shooting the arms into the anaconda position inside of the opponent’s elbow. Chas Skelly picked up one of the fastest submissions in UFC history with this combination in September of 2016.
Flash forward to UFC 219 the other week and Tim Elliot, after a round and a half of constantly attacking chokes, hit the same set up and snatched up an anaconda win—complete with thigh knock-over.
Really the theme that we’re getting at is not that the anaconda choke is becoming a very high percentage submission—but that the fluidity of front headlock play seems to be improving and last year was a good one for it. In 2017 there were three D’arce choke finishes and three anaconda choke finishes in the UFC. That might not seem like many but consider that in 3,800 UFC bouts between 1993 and July 2016 there were just 18 D’arce chokes (Tony Ferguson accounting for around 15 percent of them) and 11 anaconda chokes. Then consider that there were just two triangle chokes in the UFC this year (one due to Tony Ferguson, again). The much more common standard arm triangle made just five appearances in the Octagon.
Submission victories generally are becoming less common in high level bouts—with the ubiquitous rear naked choke accounting for most. The thing about the rear naked choke is that the result on the record tells you nothing about the fight because there are a thousand ways to end up there—a fighter could have his back taken on the feet, from the guard, shelling up after being dropped, or even (in an admittedly rare case) swing right past his opponent and end up showing his back as Jan Blachowitz’s opponent did a few months back. You could shoot in on someone and go straight to their back, or slowly pass their guard, move to mount and hit them until they turn. A thousand scenarios to end up in the position, and one finish. But the guard, for instance, is a position where almost no one will catch submissions any more due to its transparent nature and the fact that fighters rarely hurt a man and then end up with him in their guard. The front headlock can be arrived at in many different ways and has a good number of attack options and a good number of troubleshooting methods for finishing or transitioning from each.
It would not be surprising in the year to come to see this trend continue. The only submissions scored with any frequency in the highest levels of MMA being the interrelated front headlock/chancery submissions (guillotine, D’arce, anaconda, the occasional necktie of some nationality), the classic and methodical grinding arm triangle, and the rear naked choke. Unless the UFC lets Ryan Hall back in the cage to leg lock people a couple of times next year, of course.
Sometimes it feels like all we do in this sport is wait for the same three guys to tweet cryptic clues as to what they’re doing next. There are only so many times you can humor the question “who could Mayweather beat in a UFC fight?” There are only so many times you can react with disgust when you hear who Gabi Garcia is fighting next. Looking back on 2017 it warms the cockles of this writer’s heart to see confirmation that all the most memorable fights were some variation of “good fighter vs. good fighter” in order to find out who was slightly better.
Meritocracy built this sport. It may have been the freakish Shamrock vs Ortiz matches and the name power of individuals that brought in the one night interest, but good fighter vs. good fighter in good fight, several times a night is still the bedrock of the business and brings in the regular money that props this game up. Often the promotions seem to forget it in pursuit of the big paydays, but just as often we the fans and journalists can’t see the good through the haze of the ridiculous. There is so much talent in this sport that you cannot watch an hour of a card without hitting on something or someone special by accident. There are talented prospects from every conceivable background and every region of the globe. Getting hung up on one gold belt and the media circus around it is a great way to get too much of this sport without really getting to enjoy it at all.