Toe-to-Toe: The Thanksgiving Edition

Thanksgiving. There’s no other time of year when everyone can gorge themselves on turkey and stuffing, all while saying what they’re most thankful for in life.

Well, here at Combat Press, we’ve gathered our troops to give our thanks.

Before we begin, our managing staff would like to say that we’re thankful for each and every one of our staff members, from the writers who join us here, to those who are away at the moment, and to our photographers and contributors. And we’re also thankful for you, the readers.


However, the central focus of this gathering is to look at what we’re thankful for in the year 2016 in the world of combat sports. It could be anything — a particular event, fight, fighter, promotion or even an announcement. Whatever it may be, it’s time for us to share.

So, as we say Happy Thanksgiving to all, let’s make our way around the table…

Bryan Henderson, Editor-in-Chief: This year has been incredible when it comes to the changing of the guard at the top of each division. In the UFC, we’ve only experienced total dominance in the flyweight and women’s strawweight divisions, where respective champions Demetrious Johnson and Joanna Jędrzejczyk reign supreme. Meanwhile, this year has been full of title changes.

The UFC’s heavyweight division crowned a new champion when Stipe Miocic defeated Fabricio Werdum. Jon Jones returned and captured interim gold in the light heavyweight division, only to be stripped of the belt after a positive drug test, thereby leaving Daniel Cormier in sole possession of the division’s championship. Michael Bisping ended a decade-long title drought by unseating Luke Rockhold in the UFC’s middleweight division. Tyron Woodley shocked the MMA world when he dropped Robbie Lawler to claim the welterweight strap. Conor McGregor became the first-ever fighter to simultaneously hold two UFC championships when he finished Eddie Alvarez to add the lightweight crown to a trophy case that already contained the featherweight title he captured at the tail end of 2015. Meanwhile, with McGregor’s pursuit of fights in the welterweight and lightweight divisions, José Aldo snagged the interim featherweight title, only to suggest that he won’t fight again in the UFC. Dominick Cruz made his long-awaited return to the top of the bantamweight mountain. The women’s bantamweight title also changed hands twice, with Miesha Tate grabbing the belt from Holly Holm and then Amanda Nunes defeating Tate. Whew! What a list!

Things can get stale when the same fighters hold the belts for years and years. Luckily for fight fans, 2016 was anything but stale. For that, I’m thankful.

Rob Tatum, Assistant Editor: It wouldn’t be hard for me to dive into any number of topics during this piece — our hardworking staff, the continued growth of women’s MMA, the state of New York finally exiting the dark ages — but I’m going to turn my attention to something that genuinely makes me excited for 2017: the global expansion of kickboxing.

Sure, kickboxing is far from a new sport and has had its fair share of popularity through the last three decades, but there’s something different about the current state of the sport. Instead of being confined to one region of the globe, the sport is growing on multiple continents. From GLORY’s continued expansion in the United States and Europe, K-1’s continued success in Japan, and the explosion of the Chinese market, now is the time for kickboxing fans to get excited about the sport’s future.

Yes, I may be looking through rose-colored glasses a bit, yet I can’t remember a year like 2016 where every weekend there are world-class kickboxers in action somewhere on the planet. I’m thankful to be able to watch the world’s best strikers compete against each other on a regular basis, even if it means staying up until 3 a.m. to watch a stream being broadcast in another language. And although there are times when I still have to scour the bowels of the internet for results, it’s a far cry from when I wasn’t even aware fights were taking place. Thanks to technology and dedicated fight fans/promotions, kickboxing’s future is bright.

Dan Kuhl, Interview Manager: There is so much for us here at Combat Press to be thankful for this year. I’m particularly thankful for Rob and Bryan, who put in countless hours making sure that we can voice our opinions, commentary, event coverage, interviews, etc. It can be a much-needed oasis from the grind of daily life. I’m also very thankful for our staff. The passion and dedication to providing quality material, as opposed to clickbait, is what makes Combat Press such a unique outlet that fighters, coaches, family members and fans really appreciate.

To be more specific to the realm of sports, I’m absolutely loving the rise of the “other” sports, which exploded in 2016. Lion Fight is not only blowing up Muay Thai in the United States, but the company is also creating cross-promotional sponsorships across the globe with other regional organizations, giving a lot of exposure and attraction to a sport that used to be more of a niche. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has already been one of the most rapidly rising sports in the world at the amateur level, but now we have promotions in the United States like Fight to Win and EBI, as well as broadcasting outlets like Flo Grappling and UFC Fight Pass to broaden the accessibility to these events.

2016 has been full of change, and I’m very thankful that things have gotten much more interesting on a global scale, and also, that we have a great group of people to help tell the stories.

Zach Aittama, Staff Writer: I am truly thankful for the sport of MMA. Martial arts and combat sports have been a part of my life for a very long time.

Ever since the first time I put on my karate white belt as a child, my love for all things martial arts has continued to grow as I’ve grown. Martial arts was introduced to me at an early age, and in many ways, it has molded me into the person I am today. The influence of pop culture through Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and even pro wrestling, led me to find the sport of mixed martial arts. It took just one fight to hook me.

I joined a Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym and dedicated my time to learning as much as I possibly could about my newfound passion. I’m thankful that I am still able to develop and grow as a fighter, and a person, through the sport of MMA. I am grateful for everyone who has dedicated themselves and sacrificed their time to contribute to the rise of mixed martial arts, especially the fighters.

Chris Huntemann, Staff Writer: I’m thankful for the variety of mixed martial arts that fans can enjoy.

On any given night of the week, there’s a good chance you can watch a live MMA card somewhere. The UFC is the biggest game in town, clearly. But you also have organizations like Bellator MMA and World Series of Fighting to enjoy. There are also more regional and developmental organizations like the Resurrection Fighting Alliance, Titan FC and Legacy FC, as well as international organizations like ONE FC and BAMMA.

As MMA continues to grow in popularity, you can probably also catch a local card where you live. Female fighters also have a platform and opportunities to showcase their skills, which is great. And it’s not just in companies like the UFC or Bellator, but also in Invicta FC, which has become a terrific home for female fighters.

Sal DeRose, Staff Writer: As a New York area resident, I’m thankful for MMA finally being legalized and coming back to New York. It has been such a long time coming for MMA to make its way back after so many battles to get it legalized. The legalization of MMA in New York was actually the first topic I ever wrote about MMA, and I’ve been able to write many more since then. This was something close to me and having the battle finally put to rest was something amazing.

Then, UFC 205 rolls around and I’m as hyped as ever for a card. It didn’t matter to me if the fights ended up being awful or anything like that. Just to hear the words “Madison Square Garden” and “UFC” in the same sentence was enough to send chills down my spine. The card was covered in great fighters from start to finish, and it is probably my favorite moment in the history of the sport. I’ve seen the fight to get MMA in New York, and to have it finally culminate in something so great was truly special.

Kyle Symes, Staff Writer: OK, you can call this a sellout or corporate pick, but I’m honestly thankful for Conor McGregor. And it goes well beyond his antics that always seem to get reactions from everyone.

As a writer, it can get kind of stale writing your straightforward stories. You know Fighter A thinks he’s going to beat Fighter B but says it in the most cliche way. That’s not the case with McGregor. He’s guaranteed for at least a few good sound bites every time he’s in front of a mic, something that can’t be said of the majority of MMA fighters.

McGregor has also done an incredible job of making every one of his fights into an event. MMA fans love to recall “the golden years” of when UFC pay-per-views felt special and were can’t-miss events. That’s what McGregor has done with marketing himself as a superstar that whether fans tune in to see him win or lose, they’re all tuning in. With the UFC and other MMA promotions running so many cards, it’s nice to have that card that truly feels like a special event that you cannot afford to miss out on.

Vince Carey, Staff Writer: On this very American holiday, I’m thankful for the UFC’s first English champion, Michael Bisping.

Those that know me know that I’ve been a Bisping mark pretty much from the moment he appeared on The Ultimate Fighter a decade ago, and it hasn’t always been easy to be one of “The Count’s” supporters. My fellow Combat Press writer Sal DeRose has sent me countless emails, memes and Facebook posts of Bisping getting his clocked cleaned by Dan Henderson or Vitor Belfort. For years, I just had to sit back and take it.

Not anymore! After getting knocked down and still beating Anderson Silva, winning the middleweight crown by knockout as a massive underdog and then getting the ultimate revenge by defeating Dan Henderson in his first title defense in England, this year has been as good as it could possibly get for Bisping and his fans. As one of those fans that had some doubts as to whether a Bisping title reign would ever happen, I’m glad I’ve gotten to see it.

Matt Quiggins, Staff Writer: It’s that time of the year when we all start to really appreciate all that we are thankful for. Besides being extremely grateful and proud of everyone that contributes to this site, I am thankful for the opportunities that MMA has presented in my own life. It’s an incredible experience to be able to educate and inform the masses of the intrigue that is mixed martial arts and to be able to interview and dive deep into the lives of these societally viewed “barbarians” and really get insight into what it means to dedicate their lives to this sport.

2016 has been a tumultuous year for the world of MMA, and it’s almost reached its close with the upcoming UFC 207 rounding out the year. Since it’s Thanksgiving and tradition dictates that we speak about that which we are thankful — something we should be doing year-round anyway — I have decided that I am thankful for local promotions that strive to be of the highest quality. Even though they may not have the flash or wallet that comes with some of the larger promotions, they accomplish incredible feats and produce extremely exciting and competitive match-ups. Local promotions drive hometown crowds to stand behind their respective fighter and the ability to bring in those individuals who would not normally sit and watch an MMA bout, period. It’s the gateway that can turn a first-time viewer into a diehard fan.

Amber Boone, Staff Writer: I am thankful that all these rad fighters continue talking with lil’ ol’ me. And that I get to work with all these amazing writers and editors. And I am really thankful that the promotions that are based in Central Florida and the ones that have come through have granted us access to cover their cards; it’s a lot of work, but it sure doesn’t feel like it!

2016 for combat sports has been HUUUUGE. I mean, the sport is taking off “bigly.” Seriously, I am grateful for all the fighters who continue to put their bodies on the line, the coaches and trainers who help make it possible, the promoters who put on the shows, and the fans who support them all.

I’m especially grateful that Invicta FC continues to put on women’s-only shows and that the UFC, Bellator and other top promotions continue to include women on their cards. Gosh, just 10 years ago the women’s fights were considered by many MMA fans to be the sideshows. Now they are often the most-anticipated bouts of an event.

Billy Rondan, Staff Writer: 2016 has been an incredible year thus far for MMA. Many great fights and some record-setting events highlight a year of many things to be grateful about. But above all, I am grateful for MMA free agency.

These fighters go through some grueling experiences for our entertainment (and money, of course) and it is nice to see some are starting to get paid what they are worth. This is all thanks to the fact they now have more options than in previous years. It is no longer a shoo-in for guys who become free agents to sign with the UFC for just a few thousand dollars. Now, other promotions have made some real plays on fighters. This is only good news for the sport. In a year with many things to be grateful for, there is nothing I appreciate more than the direction MMA free agency is heading.

Mike Pendleton, Staff Writer: Being new to the staff here at Combat Press and really new to the sport, having just watched it for over a year, I’m thankful for the opportunity. I have learned so much about myself and this sport since making MMA a full career pursuit.

That being said, I’m not thankful for just one fighter or one event that opened up my eyes, I’m thankful for the realism: fighters losing it all, fighters climbing back from the bottom to get back to the top, and how the sport’s biggest stars have been able to pick themselves up after a loss.

Riley Kontek, Staff Writer: As a noted sociopath who is emotionless as a brick wall, I can’t say that I am really thankful for anything in the world of MMA. But since I usually ruin Thanksgiving parties involving my family and friends, I will not ruin this article as well.

That said, I am thankful for Conor McGregor, a legitimate fighter whose personality perfectly fits in 1980s-era professional wrestling. MMA fighters need to learn to sell their fights. McGregor has perfected that art, and although he’s not my favorite fighter, I still refuse to miss his bouts. If some other good fighters were able to do that and get away from the overly respectful, bland personalities, the MMA business would be astronomical.

Kevin Ehsani, Staff Writer: When it comes to what I’m thankful for in the combat-sports world, the top of the list has to be the cracking down on steroid and performance-enhancing drug users, and making sure they get punished for their transgressions. No athlete in any sport should ever have an advantage over another, and it looks like the UFC is doing its best to make sure fighters aren’t allowed to do it. The cleaner the sport is, the better it will get. Unfortunately, while the cracking down of steroids will take really great fighters out of commission (e.g. Jon Jones), it’s necessary so that fighters can be taught a lesson. If an example has to be made out of one of the best fighters in the world, so be it. The main thing is to force everyone to be on a level playing field and not have any extra strengths that can unfairly benefit them in a fight. If there is any sport that should work the most on banning steroids and PEDs, it’s mixed martial arts.

Another thing I’m really thankful for, and find to be an important step forward, is the discussion of potentially implementing a fighters’ union, which should not only represent UFC fighters, but all fighting promotions based in the United States. These are really difficult times for people living in the States, especially with an economy that still hasn’t gained its footing. People of all working stripes are suffering, including professional fighters, so I think it’s long overdue that we need to compensate them for putting their lives on the line. The standard pay they receive is just not enough for what they’re doing. Period. For some fighters, this is their life, and if they don’t get paid, they can’t put food on the table or take care of their families. Some of them even have to get second jobs just to make headway, and others have sacrificed potentially better careers to be fighters. Am I happy the UFC gives out bonuses to fighters who perform great, while paying guys like Conor McGregor handsomely for promoting the sport so well? Sure. While I think McGregor is rich enough, and is definitely in the 1 percent of the UFC fighter pay bracket, he’s done a lot for the sport, as well. The rest of the fighters, however, aren’t being paid fairly. What low-level, unranked fighters receive is not something they can live on. It’s just financially impossible. If we can see the forming of a union, just like there is in every other major sport, it will do a world of good for these men and women who put their bodies on the line to entertain fans.

The third thing I am thankful for is UFC Fight Pass. As many know, this is the UFC’s official digital platform for delivering fight fans all the fight content they want. It is available at the push of a button. As someone who is a fight fanatic and never likes to miss an event, it’s a great tool. I love to analyze each fight and each fighter, bettering my knowledge of the sport as it grows. It’s also nice to know that some of the fighters, who at the time aren’t big yet, could be at the top of the heap in their division in the future, potentially fighting for a title. As I watch them progress with each fight, I’ll remember the first time I saw them on a “Fight Pass Prelim” or an event that was broadcasting on UFC Fight Pass. In fact, I remember all the way back in July 2014 when I watched the aforementioned McGregor on a fight card in Dublin, Ireland, which was aired in full on the UFC digital platform. The now two-division champion was fighting in the main event against The Ultimate Fighter winner Diego Brandao in a highly anticipated match-up. McGregor had won his first two fights prior to that, and he was making his first appearance on the big stage in his home country, where he won by first-round knockout. It was a special thing to watch more than two years ago, and it’s surreal to see where he is now.

Finally, and most importantly, I’m thankful for being a writer at Combat Press. This is a wonderful and growing publication, which I’m very happy to be a part of. The editors and writers work hard to put out great content, so I hope to be here as they continue to grow for many years to come. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!