By: David Salmon
Over the past decade, the sport of mixed martial arts has become a cultural phenomenon, growing in popularity and recognition with the UFC leading the way. The rise of the UFC has seen the birth of many great talents and recognizable stars along with a steady increase in fans both casual and die-hard alike. 2016 has proved to be the company’s most successful year in all aspects including Pay-Per View buys, attendance, and gate numbers (the dollar amount of ticket sales) along with a plethora of talented fighters across all weight divisions.
Year in Review: 2016
2016 was the most successful financial year to date for the UFC. With huge pay-per view draws like Conor McGregor, the return of Brock Lesnar, and heavily stacked cards, the UFC saw for the second time in its history, multiple cards with over 1 million pay-per view buys (previous year was 2015 with Rousey-Holm and Aldo-McGregor) and the first time in company history with three Pay-Per View events with over 1 million buys. The number of buys over a million could increase to four or five once the official numbers from UFC 205 (Alvarez and McGregor) and UFC 207 (the return of Ronda Rousey) are announced. The UFC owes this increase to a couple of important factors. First, the sport has become increasingly more popular to casual fans especially in the United States and has become part of the main stream sports culture with the increase of coverage by networks like FOX and ESPN. Secondly, superstars like Conor McGregor, Brock Lesnar, and Ronda Rousey have elevated the brand by creating more recognizable faces and personalities with the casual fan drawing more and more people to the sport. All of the potential five cards over a million buys have included these three fighters and while they are not the only superstars in the sport, they have helped the UFC work its way into the mainstream.
Another reason for the growth the UFC has seen in 2016 can be attributed to the numerous outstanding performances put on by fighters on the big stage. With a talent rich roster boasting talent and depth in all weight divisions along with numerous “fight of the year” candidates, UFC President Dana White along with Vice President for Talent Relations Joe Silva have consistently shown in 2016 that they know how to put together entertaining cards that will sell along with great matchups between great fighters.
Fight of the Year Candidates (Pay-Per View Events Only):
Lawler vs Condit UFC 195: in the year’s first PPV event back in January, welterweights Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit engaged in a brutal fight that went the distance. Both fighters scored knockdowns in the fight and each showed their durability. Condit showed beautiful technical striking along with a strong chin withstanding bomb after bomb from the hard-hitting Lawler. The champion Lawler also displayed his striking skill along with his toughness, ability to bounce back after a big shot, and an aggressive style constantly putting pressure on Condit and pushing the pace. Robbie Lawler retained his belt in a split decision that could have gone either way.
Tate vs. Holm UFC 196: women’s Bantamweight champ Holly Holm faced Miesha Tate following her historic upset of previously unbeaten juggernaut, Ronda Rousey. Holm is a polished kickboxer who came in as a heavy favorite. As the fight entered the fifth round it was Holm who was ahead on the scorecards controlling most of the fight. About halfway through the fifth the fight went to the ground and Tate took the back of the champion securing a rear-naked choke putting her to sleep and completing one of the most improbable title wins of the year.
McGregor vs Diaz II UFC 202: one of the most anticipated rematches in UFC history, Featherweight champion Conor McGregor sought to avenge his defeat at UFC 196 to Nate Diaz. The two were never originally supposed to fight but when McGregor’s quest to become the first two-weight champ in company history was put on hold in late February when the Lightweight champion, Rafael Dos Anjos, pulled out due to injury. Diaz stepped up on very short notice and the Welterweight bout was ended when McGregor ran out of gas in the second round and Diaz ultimately won by submission via rear naked choke. At UFC 202, once again fighting at 170 pounds, McGregor approached the bigger and extremely durable Diaz with more patience and precision dominating the first two rounds. However, it appeared to be a repeat of the first fight as the Irish-born McGregor appeared to gas again at the end of the second round and the Stockton, California based Diaz smelled blood in the water taking control and punishing McGregor in the third round. McGregor dug deep came back out and showed his grit winning the fourth and surviving in a Diaz controlled fifth round to win a majority decision in an epic five round battle for the ages.
Woodley vs. Thompson UFC 205: one of the most anticipated fights in the Welterweight division, the powerful champion Tyron Woodley was coming off of a dominating performance making quick work of previous champion Robbie Lawler. Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson had been running his way through the division using a flurry of technical striking and highlight reel karate based kicks. The fight was quickly taken to the ground by Woodley who dominated the first round. Thompson began to hit his stride in rounds two and three managing his distance well and landing a lot of strikes keeping Woodley off balance. The fourth round of this fight set it into legendary status with Woodley uncorking a combination of beautiful bombs flooring Thompson leaving the challenger reeling. Woodley quickly swooped in looking for the finish with a deep guillotine choke. Just when it looked like the champion may retain by choking out the challenger, Thompson survived showing his toughness that had previously been in question by surviving the choke for close to a minute before finishing the round on top. Wonderboy controlled most of the fifth round as a fatigued Woodley survived. The fight was ruled a majority draw with Woodley retaining his belt but Thompson not suffering a loss setting up a potentially epic rematch in 2017.
My Pick: In my opinion, while McGregor vs. Diaz was the most high profile matchup on this list that delivered in a big way, the fight of the year was Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson. While this may not make many lists due to the nature of the result, the fight was an entertaining back and forth battle with each fighter controlling parts of the fight. Tyron Woodley was taken into deep water by Thompson in the second and third round as Wonderboy’s hands began to find a home on Woodley’s chin after it appeared Woodley may dominate the fight in the first round. The difference in this fight and all the others came in the fourth round when Woodley connected with a bomb flush on Thompsons chin, wobbled him and pounced smothering him on the ground and looking for the submission. Thompson survived a deep guillotine for around a full minute only to come back and regain control in the fifth round taking it to the champion, pushing the pace and landing precise technical strikes. Another element making this the fight of the year for me is the implications it bring leading into 2017 as it sets up a highly anticipated rematch between Woodley and Thompson for the belt in a fight that will have a lot to live up to from the previous matchup.
Notable Candidates: Swanson vs Choi UFC 206, Jedrzejczyk vs Gadelha II TUF 23 Finale, Silva vs. Bisping UFN 84, Dillashaw v Cruz UFN 81, Holloway vs Lamas UFC 199, Bisping vs Henderson UFC 204
Conor McGregor: after starting the year with a loss, “The Notorious One” regained his edge defeating Nate Diaz and making quick work of Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 to become the sports first simultaneous two-weight champion (Featherweight/Lightweight) and the biggest star in the company. McGregor has ultimately had to vacate the Featherweight title as he has not fought in that division since December of 2015 but he still considers himself two-weight champion and regardless of the status of the belt, he accomplished something no other fighter in UFC history accomplished in 2016 and has taken the company to new heights in the realm of mainstream sports media.
Michael Bisping: compiled a list of impressive victories including an outstanding performance against one of the greatest of all time Anderson Silva, a surprising knockout against Luke Rockhold on short notice to win the Middleweight title and defended his belt with a win over legend Dan Henderson at UFC 204.
Stipe Miocic: a gritty heavyweight, Miocic beat one of the best Heavyweights in UFC history, Fabricio Werdum, by knockout in Brazil to become the champion and defended his title against former K1 kickboxing champion Alistair Overeem in convincing fashion.
Dominick Cruz: the longtime Bantamweight champion came back from injury earlier this year to regain his belt against TJ Dillashaw before defending it in a great performance against UFC legend and rival Urijah Faber. Cruz faces Cody Garbrandt on Decemeber 30th which could solidfy his position in the top 3 on the best fighter pound for pound list.
Max Holloway: since his last loss to Conor McGregor in 2013, the Hawaiian has reeled off a strand of impressive wins finally earning him an interim title shot. He remained true to form after multiple impressive wins defeating Anthony Pettis and aligning him the opportunity to unify the Featherweight belt with a fight against Jose Aldo in 2017.
Donald Cerrone: following his move to Welterweight, Cerrone has reeled off a series of brutal knockouts against Rick Story and Matt Brown showing he is still one of the best strikers in the sport and a potential title contender leading into 2017.
Stephen Thompson: the South Carolina based striker has put together some impressive performances finishing Johnny Hendricks, beating Rory MacDonald, and putting on a show against Tyron Woodley.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk: the women’s Strawweight champion has shown consistency maintaining her undefeated mixed martial arts record and putting together a series of impressive title defenses in 2016 against Claudia Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
My Pick: At the end of the day, nobody had a bigger year than Conor McGregor. The brash Irishman has shown he can talk the talk and walk the walk. His legacy and image were put in jeopardy in March following the Diaz loss but McGregor responded as only he could, continuing to sell fights in the press conferences and dazzle in the octagon with his brilliant striking technique and ability to overcome adversity as well as stepping up to the plate and delivering in the most high pressure situations. McGregor’s finest performance of his career came in November when he absolutely dismantled then-Lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez who had previously never been knocked out and was on an impressive win streak beating stars like Anthony Pettis and Rafael Dos Anjos. McGregor showed his MMA striking is world class and the power in his left hand is unmatched at the 145 and 155 pound weight divisions. Look for another big year both in the octagon and in the bank account of “The Notorious” Conor McGregor.