It’s a new year, so Combat Press is taking a look back at the best of MMA in 2016. Throughout the next few weeks, Combat Press will announce its award winners in multiple categories, covering everything from the action in the cage to the biggest stories surrounding the sport.
Epic. The word originally referred to a type of poem, the type of poem that recounts a hero’s journey, battle or even lifetime. The hero overcomes insurmountable odds to vanquish foes, slay dragons, trick gods to save their loved ones or avenge their deaths. The word evolved to describe other grandiose works of art as well, such as novels, murals, etc.
And the word has continued to evolve – some might say cheapen it – but if you happen to hear the word epic used to describe a party or a vacation, I’m going to ask you to remember these three truly epic battles. The best of the best, the top MMA fights of 2016.
In a year of upsets, crazy knockouts, sick submissions and fantastic fights, these three bouts stand head and shoulders above the rest. While only one took home the honors as the Combat Press “Fight of the Year,” all three bouts are worth reliving.
One of the most anticipated fights of the year was a rematch. After McGregor’s meteoric rise in the 145-pound division, culminating with his devastating knockout of Jose Aldo for the title, he set his sights on the lightweight title at UFC 196. Injuries led to a last-minute bout with Nate Diaz at welterweight. Diaz took everything McGregor could throw at him and then tossed it back in his face in the first meeting, securing a rear-naked-choke in the second round to hand McGregor his first UFC loss.
The rematch became McGregor’s obsession. He was convinced that the last-minute change in weight gave him a false sense of security and that his training regimen that week and his diet, or lack thereof, led to his lack of stamina and strength.
Diaz was convinced he had seen the best McGregor, that he had his number, and that the second bout would have the same result.
The fight started as expected, with no love lost, no touch of gloves, just a cold ferocity from both corners. McGregor started with leg kicks until Diaz checked one. McGregor knocked Diaz down with his left but didn’t follow – wisely motioning for Diaz, the submission specialist, to stand back up. McGregor continued hammering the legs and picking Diaz apart. At the end of the first round, Diaz began walking forward, jawing, and taunting, even after the round had ended.
The second round began with kicks and that left from McGregor, putting Diaz on the mat again. He stood up to get knocked down again and the round continued with Diaz looking flummoxed while McGregor controlled the distance, the pace and the fight. But with 90 seconds left, Diaz’s wild punches started finding a home and McGregor found himself backing up. Diaz changed the momentum and took charge for the last minute, ending the round with McGregor’s back against the cage and Diaz landing shots at will.
In the third, both fighters exchanged but Diaz felt in control. He initiated a clinch and looked to take McGregor down, but the Irishman was able to separate and land a hard elbow on the way out. More taunting came from Diaz as they both took a breather until Diaz trapped McGregor against the fence and the third round ended in the same fashion as the second – with McGregor holding defensively until the bell.
The fourth round started with both fighters looking the worse for wear. Diaz was bloodied from the earlier rounds and seemed bothered by the flow on his face. McGregor seemed more energized than Diaz, landing jabs and kicks again. They traded and Diaz tried to corner Conor again, but couldn’t quite trap him. McGregor landed combos and outpointed Diaz in the fourth.
The fifth and final round opened with a flying knee from McGregor, catching Diaz. He threw McGregor to the cage but McGregor quickly reversed out of it and made Diaz pay. Diaz looked battered and bloodied and McGregor did his own taunting, turning his back as he walked away from Nate. Diaz started with a clinch, went for the takedown, then slapped McGregor. McGregor walked away with his hands on his hips. The crowd was beside itself. The violence, the energy, the animosity all came to a head in this round – it was clear Diaz wanted to keep McGregor close in a clinch or take him down. McGregor actually landed a takedown but Diaz quickly scrambled. With about 30 seconds left, Diaz finally took McGregor down and ended the bout with ground and pound – but it wasn’t enough as McGregor took the decision 48-47, 48-47, and 47-47.
In almost any other year, this might have been “Fight of the Year.” But 2016 was a great year for MMA fans.
Lawler earned the 2015 Combat Press “Fight of the Year” award for his truly epic comeback against Rory MacDonald. Condit has been a perennial fan favorite for his habit of never being in a boring fight. So it wasn’t really a surprise when those two started off 2016 with a giant bang.
The first minute of the first round was a bit of sizing each other up, the champ Lawler in the middle with Condit circling for the opening. They traded and Condit landed a strong right hand, buckling Lawler who dropped to his knees. After he stood, he gave Condit a big smile. Condit took that as his cue to land with combos and kicks, picking the champ apart for the remainder of the round.
The second round started with a more aggressive, if not yet accurate Lawler. Condit seemed to be happy countering Lawler’s aggression and was successful until… he wasn’t. Lawler nailed Condit with an upper cut and Condit hit the mat, with Lawler diving in after him. Condit pulled guard and was able to recover enough so that Lawler stood up, Condit behind him. With two minutes to go, Condit was active but unable to steal the round back.
The third round was almost all Condit’s kicks keeping Lawler on the outside. They both landed hard shots but Condit’s kicks, even when they were blocked, seemed to frustrate Lawler’s attempts to clinch or go for the takedown. Not much damage was done, but both fighters paid the toll. Lawler was landing with power and Condit was landing with volume. At the end of the round, a teep kick from Condit found Lawler’s chest – who knows what might have happened if he’d been able to land it with a minute or two left.
The fourth round started with more kicks from Condit. Lawler tried to counter and even landed, but one punch at a time was not effective against Condit’s barrage. A leg kick dropped Lawler for a brief second but he retaliated with another solo punch. Condit threw everything: kicks, knees, elbows and hands. Lawler was cut, swollen and forced to turtle up on his feet. Condit sensed a chance to finish, backing Lawler up against the cage. Right then, just as Condit thought he had Lawler on the ropes, Lawler smiled. Condit finished the round strong but was unable to put Lawler away.
Round five began with Condit trying to keep Lawler at bay with kicks again but Lawler would not be stopped. Lawler landed his own kicks and tagged Condit with a huge left. Even though Carlos was rocked, he landed some big shots of his own, including a four-shot combo. But for every punch he landed, it seemed Lawler has a huge right lined up to punctuate the exchange. The late surge with 90 seconds left was all Lawler, rocking Condit by the fence. Lawler was clearly going for the finish by dropping bombs with wild abandon and Condit capitalized by landing a huge right of his own and breaking away from the fence. They moved to the middle of the cage and traded huge punches, no one in the arena could believe that both were still standing.
After 25 minutes of some of the most back-and-forth fighting, Lawler emerged with the split decision. 48-47, 48-47, and 47-48, for the champion.
Lawler and Condit set the bar ridiculously high at the beginning of the year at UFC 195. Heck, not even Diaz and McGregor could top it, although they sure did try. And in December of 2016, it looked like they were going to finish the year on top for this award. But, in true hero fashion, an unlikely winner emerged just at the end of the year to snatch top honors.
At 33, Cub Swanson has navigated the ups and downs of being a top-level MMA fighter. He was a WEC standout before joining UFC in 2011. Ever since then, the only losses he has are to the elite fighters in his division: Ricardo Lamas, Frankie Edgar, and the phenom, Max Holloway. But he has never been able to put the wins together to capture the belt.
Doo Ho Choi was one of the hottest prospects added to the 145-pound division, despite looking like your average math tutor. His looks may scream “innocent schoolboy” but his skills and intense way of fighting eerily whisper “you’re dead.” Choi entered the fight 13-1, and hadn’t lost 2010. He finished Thiago Tavares in the first round and then asked for Swanson. Allow me to try to teach you something, gentle reader, be careful what you wish for.
Featherweights are exciting to watch, they’ve got power, speed, and it’s a very deep division. But UFC 206 was scheduled to be the pay-per-view before Ronda Rousey’s return to the Octagon. Not many mainstream fans were excited to tune in even though Max Holloway was challenging Anthony Pettis for a belt. But the hardcore fans turned out in droves, with names like Donald Cerrone, Matt Brown, Cub Swanson, and the aforementioned title fight. And man, everyone who tuned in was not disappointed with the whole main card delivering on excitement.
Swanson and Choi were the fight before the co-main of Cerrone and Brown. On paper they were a good match-up, Swanson being the toughest test for “The Korean Superboy” and Choi was a chance for Swanson to prove he could make another run at the belt and maybe earn a chance to face the winner of Holloway/Pettis.
The first round opened with Choi making a persuasive statement as to why he deserved to win. Knees, punches, the first 30 seconds were all Choi. Swanson managed to land a couple of strong shots before Choi swarmed in again. Choi out-boxed and out-clinched Swanson in the first round; he was faster, stronger and far more precise. At the end, Swanson was answering and proved to all who were watching that his chin is certainly not fragile.
The second round started quickly with more of the same, Choi landing with surgical precision and power but Swanson quickly rocked Choi. Swanson sensed that the momentum had changed and he looked for the finish, throwing everything he had at the stunned Choi. But then Choi caught the veteran. Choi backed Swanson up to the cage, looking for his finish but came up short. Swanson took Choi down and even worked into full mount but couldn’t capitalize from guard. Choi worked Swanson back into half-guard and then scrambled to his feet. They both returned to trading strikes, throwing bombs at each other. Swanson actually threw a cartwheel kick that grazed Choi’s face but did no damage. Swanson also landed a spinning backfist but was unable to finish Choi at the end of the round.
It’s worth noting that, in the first round, the crowd was duly appreciative of what they were watching. And it’s also worth noting that by the end of the second the spectators all knew they were watching something special. The air in Toronto was crackling and buzzing – the fans there love their MMA and the competition and they showed it.
The third and final round opened with the warriors acknowledging each other with a touch of the gloves. Then, quickly, Swanson started pushing the action. Choi ended up with Swanson’s back but it was brief as Swanson worked for the takedown. Swanson wanted to keep Choi down and strike but Choi was able to keep him at bay while going for the sweep. They stood and Swanson got the best of the exchange. Swanson scored a gorgeous hip toss to brought Choi back to the mat but Choi quickly scrambled to his feet again. Two minutes left and the crowd was upset that they only got three rounds of this. For two minutes the featherweights traded blow-for-blow with Swanson landing huge sweeping hooks. Choi was taking a lot of damage but definitely not the only one. As the end neared, Swanson rocked Choi one last time. Choi dropped and Swanson ended the round and the fight looking for the finish. But Choi refused to be put away.
The fight went to the judges and even though Choi lost, he won a lot of fans that night and earned a whole boatload of respect. Swanson won 30-27, 30-27, and 29-28 and they earned the “Fight of the Night” bonus.
This fight is right up there with many of the sport’s other epic battles. It wasn’t supposed to be the best, but two unlikely heroes made it happen. Those two warriors left every bit of their souls in the cage that night and while there were no dragons slain or armies vanquished, this writer hopes their tale lives on through the ages.
Make sure you check out the rest of the Combat Press 2016 MMA Award winners.