Yes, it may be mid-July, but when it’s the Highly Unofficial awards list, rules may be made and broken at any time. So, after a wild International Fight Week and an equally exciting card in Sioux Falls on Wednesday, here are the best of the best of the first half (and 16 days) of 2016.
1. Cris Cyborg
It’s almost not fair to include the Invicta FC featherweight champion because she’s been so dominant for so many years, but hey, rules are rules, and perhaps the best female fighter on the planet did make her UFC debut in 2016, blasting through Leslie Smith at UFC 198 in May.
2. Will Brooks
Another fighter who built a name and reputation outside the Octagon, former Bellator champion Will Brooks was a coveted free agent who made his way to the UFC earlier this month and he immediately got into the win column with a hard-fought and impressive victory over Ross Pearson.
3. Tatiana Suarez
The first pick of Team Claudia on season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter, Tatiana Suarez lived up to all expectations and may have even surpassed them, as she tore through the field on the show and capped things off on July 8 with a first-round submission over Amanda Cooper that earned her the season title.
4. Luke Sanders
Coming in on short notice to face Maximo Blanco (who was riding a three-fight winning streak) in January, Luke Sanders put to rest any thoughts of the first-time UFC jitters by submitting the Venezuelan standout in less than four minutes.
5. Katlyn Chookagian
Working with the same team that is home to the likes of Eddie Alvarez, Frankie Edgar and Edson Barboza, it was clear that Katlyn Chookagian had the right stuff to compete in the Octagon, and she proved it in her UFC debut against Lauren Murphy, as she used a crisp and busy striking attack to win a decision and join an interesting UFC women’s bantamweight division.
1. Michael Bisping-Luke Rockhold
Getting submitted by Luke Rockhold in 2014 was bad enough. Now Michael Bisping was going to fight Rockhold in a championship rematch on less than three weeks’ notice? This one was expected to turn ugly, but Bisping showed up and gave the performance of his life when it mattered, knocking Rockhold out in the first round to become the UFC middleweight champion.
2. Miesha Tate-Holly Holm
After Holly Holm knocked out Ronda Rousey last November to win the UFC women’s bantamweight title, most expected her to reign for as long as she chose to. And in her first title defense against Miesha Tate in March, she was on her way to a comfortable decision victory before Tate got the takedown and the rear naked choke, ending Holm’s reign with 90 seconds left on the clock.
3. Nate Diaz-Conor McGregor
Nate Diaz is no slouch. But when he took a welterweight fight against a surging Conor McGregor on eight days’ notice, many expected the legend of “The Notorious” one to keep growing. Diaz had other ideas, weathering an early storm from the Irishman before submitting him in the second round. And he wasn’t surprised either.
4. Bryan Barberena-Sage Northcutt
Sage Northcutt wasn’t a world champion or top contender when Arizona’s Bryan Barberena submitted him in January, but he was unbeaten and the hottest thing since pizza, making the victory by “Bam Bam” on national network television quite the shocker.
5. Bryan Caraway-Aljamain Sterling
Considering that Bryan Caraway is a veteran bantamweight contender, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but when he pinned a loss on Aljamain Sterling’s perfect record, he did so to a New York phenom about to take that leap into the title picture. A disciplined effort from “Kid Lightning” put a momentary stop to that rise, though.
1. Ben Rothwell-Josh Barnett
It may look like a guillotine choke to the rest of us, but Ben Rothwell describes his go-to submission as a gogo choke, and he secured it to perfection against Josh Barnett in January, finishing a former UFC heavyweight champion whose only previous submission losses were due to strikes and injury against Mirko Cro Cop.
2. Teemu Packalen-Thibault Gouti
Call it as close as you can get in mixed martial arts to a flawless victory. Finland’s Teemu Packalen landed a couple strikes on Thibault Gouti, dropped him, took his back and choked him out. All in 24 seconds that gave Packalen his first UFC victory. And as many wins as he secures from here on out, he’ll never forget that one.
3. Miesha Tate-Holly Holm
As you can tell by this list, 2016 may end up being the “Year of the Rear Naked Choke” and for a good example, look no further than UFC 196, when Miesha Tate salvaged what was going to be a lopsided points loss to Holly Holm with a RNC finish that earned her the UFC women’s bantamweight title.
4. Keita Nakamura-Kyle Noke
Entering his July bout with Kyle Noke, Keita Nakamura had ended 14 of his 15 submission wins via rear naked choke. At 4:59 of the second round in Sioux Falls, “K-Taro” made it 15 of 16. It’s not the flashiest maneuver, but it’s effective and Nakamura has taken it has his signature move, making it clear that if he gets your back, more often than not, it’s lights out.
5. Demian Maia-Matt Brown
Demian Maia’s rear naked choke of Matt Brown at UFC 198 wasn’t the Brazilian contender’s most impressive submission, and it didn’t come against a fellow jiu-jitsu black belt, but there’s something to be said for watching a master at work, and when it comes to the ground game, Maia is a modern-day submission wizard.
1. Diego Rivas- Noad Lahat
If you’ve followed these lists for any number of years, you’ll know that when picking the best knockouts, sound can often be a deciding factor. And you could most certainly hear the flush Diego Rivas knee that landed on the jaw of Noah Lahat in February. Add in the picture-perfect technique, and there’s no question that in the first half of 2016, this was the clear winner.
2. Yair Rodriguez-Andre Fili
You can’t blame Andre Fili for not seeing the kick that ended his prospect vs. prospect battle against Yair Rodriguez. It was so sudden that it took some deft DVR maneuvering to get the full scope of the knockout that looked like it was coming from Rodriguez’ right leg, only to see him switch in midair to his left for the finishing blow. A thing of beauty, indeed.
3. Dan Henderson-Hector Lombard
Most expected June’s Dan Henderson-Hector Lombard bout to be the swan song for “Hendo,” and the veteran great even hinted at retirement in the days leading up to UFC 199. But oh, what an emphatic knockout can do for one’s career prospects, and Henderson delivered one of his best against the Cuban standout, clearing room for another chapter in his MMA story.
4. Anthony Johnson-Ryan Bader
For my money, Anthony Johnson is the hardest puncher in MMA, pound for pound. He may be the hardest puncher ever to set foot in the Octagon, and “Rumble” probably won’t get any arguments from Ryan Bader on that notion, after taking just 86 seconds to end Bader’s five-fight winning streak in January.
5. Glover Teixeira-Rashad Evans
Like his August opponent “Rumble” Johnson, Glover Teixeira has thudding, fight-altering power. That he was able to stop former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans in less than two minutes proves it.
1. Robbie Lawler-Carlos Condit
If we ever decide to start naming these awards, The Robbies may be an appropriate start, as it seems that Mr. Robbie Lawler is a fixture in the Best Fight category. His January win over Carlos Condit is the latest example of his action-packed brilliance, and the fact that we’re still talking about it in July shows you just how good this five-round war was.
2. Steve Bosse-Sean O’Connell
Steve Bosse and Sean O’Connell may not be champions or top contenders at the moment, but there will always be a place for fighters like this in the Octagon, simply because when the cage door closes, they leave nothing up to chance. Their fists and feet – primarily their fists – are how they do their job, and if throwing them for 15 minutes at an opponent is the way to get that job done, they’re going to do it. This was classic brawling won by Bosse, but there were no losers here.
3. Joanna Jedrzejczyk-Claudia Gadelha
For world-class fighting at its highest level, look no further than last week’s five-rounder between strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha. An intense fight from start to finish, Jedrzejczyk proved her championship mettle in the toughest fight of her career, and Gadelha showed that she has the talent and determination to make another run at the crown.
4. Polo Reyes-“Maestro” Dong Hyun Kim
Like Bosse vs. O’Connell, Polo Reyes and “Maestro” Dong Hyun Kim paid no attention to their own safety in their UFC 199 opener, and for 11 minutes and 52 seconds, the crowd already in their seats at The Forum was captivated. For those who waited until the main card to show up, sorry, you missed one of the best fights of the year.
5. Tony Ferguson-Lando Vannata
In the most recent addition to the list, late notice newcomer Lando Vannata nearly shook up the lightweight division, putting No. 3-ranked contender Tony Ferguson on the verge of a knockout loss before “El Cucuy” rebounded, roared back and submitted “Groovy Lando” in the second round of a co-main event that delivered main event action.
1. Michael Bisping
British veteran Michael Bisping beat the greatest fighter of all-time - Anderson Silva – to begin the year. Then he took a short-notice fight against a champion who had submitted him already – Luke Rockhold - and knocked him out in the first round to win the middleweight title. Yeah, Fighter of the Half-Year is a no-brainer this time.
2. Stipe Miocic
Long on the verge of challenging for a world title, Stipe Miocic cashed in his ticket in 2016, knocking out Andrei Arlovski in 54 seconds in January, and then going to Brazil to knock out Fabricio Werdum for the UFC heavyweight championship in May. Add in that he brought a world championship home to Cleveland, and that’s a pretty impressive job for the first-half of 2016.
3. Eddie Alvarez
The Underground King can drop the “Underground” from his name, as Eddie Alvarez lived up to all the expectations put on his shoulders when he came to the UFC in 2014. First, the Philadelphia beat former lightweight champ Anthony Pettis in January, and then on July 8, he won the 155-pound world title with a first-round knockout of Rafael Dos Anjos.
4. Dominick Cruz
Owner of the greatest comeback story in UFC history, Dominick Cruz completed that story in January when he defeated TJ Dillashaw and regained the bantamweight title he only lost due to a series of injuries that forced the belt to be taken from him. But Cruz didn’t rest on his laurels, as he closed out his trilogy with Urijah Faber in June by winning a clear-cut decision.
5. Stephen Thompson
The only non-champion on this half-year awards list, Stephen Thompson showed with 2016 victories over Johny Hendricks and Rory MacDonald that the next time we check in, he may very well have some gold hardware of his own to show off.