Tonight, the decade comes to a close, and so does this recap of the best of the last ten years. So who were the defining fighters? Read on for one scribe’s opinion, as the Highly Unofficial Decade Awards concludes…
As 2010 dawned, Jose Aldo was getting ready for what was then the defining fight of his career, a WEC featherweight title fight with Urijah Faber. When he beat Faber, he suddenly became the face of the 145-pound weight class, the one to introduce the division to the masses when it was brought into the UFC later that year. And for the next five years, no one touched the King of Rio, as he turned back all challengers to his crown. Even after he lost the belt, Aldo beat the likes of Frankie Edgar, Jeremy Stephens and Renato Moicano while regaining the crown in the process. Today, he’s in the midst of a new start as a bantamweight.
A two-time U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling team member, Daniel Cormier was 30 years old and 1-0 in MMA when the decade began. In other words, he had no right becoming as good as he did over the next 10 years. But oh, what the power of determination and hard work can do when mixed with talent, and Cormier put it all together to win titles at heavyweight and light heavyweight, with Jon Jones the only one over 25 pro fights to truly have his number. On the plus side, Cormier has defeated the best of two divisions, including Stipe Miocic, Josh Barnett, Frank Mir, Roy Nelson, Dan Henderson, Anthony Johnson, Alexander Gustafsson, Volkan Oezdemir and Derrick Lewis. He also beat a pretty solid middleweight named Anderson Silva. Add in Cormier’s mentorship of the next generation of fighters and his stellar broadcast work, and the impact of “DC” over the last decade is clear and undeniable.
When putting together a list like this, there will always be those fighters who get left off, and you wonder if you made the right call. Others you assume won’t make the cut for whatever reason, and then you look at the record and say, “No, they’ve got to be there.” That’s where Dominick Cruz lands, and it has nothing to do with his fighting skill or resume, but because in the last decade, he only competed in four of the ten years due to a series of injuries. Yet he remains on this list. Why? Look at who he beat. Before the UFC brought the WEC into the fold, he beat Brian Bowles and Joseph Benavidez. Then on the last WEC card, in a bout that would crown the first UFC bantamweight champion, he beat Scott Jorgensen. Move on into the Octagon and Cruz has gone 5-1 in the Octagon, with two wins over UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber and victories over Demetrious Johnson and TJ Dillashaw. That’s a body of work you can’t scoff at. And like Cormier, Cruz’ commentary work on UFC broadcasts is top notch, and many would say that his stick and move striking style influenced an entire generation of fighters. Put it all together, and how do you leave Cruz off the list?
Some things stick with you over the years, and when it comes to Max Holloway, I’ll never forget him having serious doubts about his job security heading into his January 2014 bout with Will Chope. The Hawaiian had turned pro in September 2010, made his Octagon debut at 4-0, and had grown up in public en route to a 3-3 start in the UFC heading into the Chope fight. For him, it was the must win of must wins. He beat Chope and wouldn’t lose again until April 2019. Along the way, he became a dominant force at 145 pounds, with his list of victories including the names Jose Aldo (twice), Anthony Pettis, Cub Swanson, Charles Oliveira, Jeremy Stephens, Ricardo Lamas and Brian Ortega. “Blessed” has also been an ambassador of the sport and an example of everything good in this sport. And considering that he’s still just 28 years old, we may be talking about him in the next decade recap.
The fighter who forced us all to learn how to pronounce and spell her last name, Joanna Jedrzejczyk was the second woman to captivate the UFC fan base following Ronda Rousey’s arrival, and the Poland native ruled the strawweight division with an iron fist (and knees, and elbows) for over two and a half years. How tough was that feat? Since she lost her 115-pound title to Rose Namajunas in November 2017, three fighters (Namajunas, Jessica Andrade, Zhang Weili) have held the belt. So 2.5 years one champ, 2.1 years three champs. So what was the appeal of Jedrzejczyk beyond the raw win / loss numbers? It was likely the fact that as cool and quick with a smile as she was outside the Octagon, once weigh-in day arrived, she was all business and all mean. And she fought like she was trying to hurt somebody. That’s Mike Tyson intensity in a 115-pound frame, and to this day, when Joanna is fighting, you need to watch.
Demetrious Johnson hadn’t found his groove yet. When 2010 began, Johnson was preparing for two fights in Alaska before he got the call to the WEC in April. Then he lost his debut to Brad Pickett. By the time the midway point of 2011 came around, though, he finished off his run in the WEC with two wins and then kicked off his UFC career with wins over Kid Yamamoto and Miguel Angel Torres. And while a title fight loss to Dominick Cruz followed, it was clear that for “Mighty Mouse” to find that groove, he needed to fight in a division that suited his frame. Enter the flyweight division, and from 2012 to 2017, no one touched Johnson. You know the numbers – most successful title defenses in UFC history (11) while basically cleaning out the 125-pound weight class. Even the loss of his title in a rematch with Henry Cejudo in 2018 wasn’t a clear-cut defeat, but a split decision many felt he won. Simply put, in a sport titled mixed martial arts, few have ever put it all together as well as Johnson did.
If you were to say that the best fighter of the last ten years was Jon Jones, few would argue. And maybe the few that did would be holding out of the Octagon issues against the New York native. And while that’s part of his story, it’s not the whole story. What should be focused on for purposes of lists like this is what Jones did on fight night, and that record is impeccable. From 2010 to the present, Jones’ record is 16-0, with 1 NC. And while the names on that record represent a Who’s Who of the light heavyweight division (Bader, Rua, Jackson, Machida, Evans, Belfort, Sonnen, Gustafsson, Teixeira, Cormier, etc), what impresses me the most is that there were maybe two times when it looked like Jones was in trouble – in the first fight with Alexander Gustafsson and when he was nearly submitted by Vitor Belfort. Twice in 17 fights, many of them going five rounds, against the best in his division. That’s dominance.
Where to begin with “The Notorious” one? Just 3-1 as the decade began, Conor McGregor ended it as the biggest star in the sport, and maybe the biggest star across the sporting landscape. That’s an impact that goes beyond wins and losses, but if we’re strictly talking about fights, the resume is undeniably good. First fighter to hold two divisional UFC titles simultaneously; wins over Max Holloway, Dustin Poirier, Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes, Nate Diaz and Eddie Alvarez. Oh yeah, and he did go into the tenth round with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in his first professional boxing match as well. Like Jones, don’t let the out of the Octagon stuff cloud what happened inside it.
The UFC heavyweight title has not been kind to those who have held it over the years, so the fact alone that Stipe Miocic has won it twice and successfully defended it consecutively more than anyone earns him a spot on this list. Beating Roy Nelson, Gabriel Gonzaga, Mark Hunt, Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem, Junior Dos Santos, Francis Ngannou and Daniel Cormier doesn’t hurt either. You can also note that he’s avenged two of his three pro losses, while his story of being a firefighter along with the heavyweight champ has captivated fans beyond the fight world. Yeah, Cleveland’s finest has done some great work over the last ten years.
Ten years may not seem like a long time in the great scheme of things, but in professional fighting, it could be described as a lifetime. So to take that small window and end up being described at the greatest of all-time in your particular field is quite the feat. And that’s what Amanda Nunes has done to earn the title as the G.O.A.T. in women’s combat sports. There really is no argument otherwise when you look at her resume. Forget holding two divisional titles simultaneously; that alone would put her on this list. It’s who she’s beaten to get here: six current, former or future world champions. And she’s beaten two of them (Germaine de Randamie and Valentina Shevchenko) twice. And if we’re playing MMA math, the three fighters in the running with Nunes for best ever in women’s combat sports (Cris Cyborg, Holly Holm, Ronda Rousey) all suffered first-round knockout losses against “The Lioness.” Yeah, the G.O.A.T. argument begins and ends with Amanda Nunes.
Before we get into the resume of Khabib Nurmagomedov, let the record sink in for a second. 28-0. Think about that. There is no sport where it’s easier to take a loss than in MMA. With four-ounce gloves and seemingly endless ways to get knocked out or submitted, let alone outpointed, to make it to 10-0 is a remarkable accomplishment. But for Dagestan’s Nurmagomedov to nearly hit 30 wins without a defeat or even a serious test of his chin or ability to come back from adversity puts him in all-time great territory as he approaches what may be his toughest test to date in Tony Ferguson this spring. Yet before we look forward, let’s look over the last decade of Nurmagomedov’s career, one in which he’s been better and more dominant in those fights (Edson Barboza, Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier) where he was expected to be pushed to the limit. That’s a special fighter, and one whose impact as champion is truly felt on the international scene. That’s only going to increase in 2020 and beyond, but “The Eagle” appears to be well equipped to handle it.
We can’t tell the future, so who knows if women would be fighting in the UFC today if not for Ronda Rousey. But we do know that if not for Ronda Rousey, the ladies would not be gracing the Octagon back in 2013, when the Olympic medalist was brought in by UFC President Dana White to be the champion of the promotion’s first women’s division and usher in a new era in UFC history. And what an era it’s been, so if Rousey lost her title to Liz Carmouche in that first women’s bout at UFC 157 and walked off into the sunset, her pioneering work would likely earn her a spot on this list. But “Rowdy” Ronda beat Carmouche that night and went on to successfully defend her title five more times. And she didn’t just win fights; she tore through people with a Tyson-esque finishing attitude that arguably made her the face of the sport. And while some point to the last two losses of her career to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes as a sign that she may not have been as good as we thought she was, that’s not an accurate statement. When she was on top, Rousey beat top-level fighters like Carmouche, Miesha Tate, Sara McMann, Alexis Davis and Cat Zingano in dominant fashion. Rousey was not a mirage, she was the real deal.