This is it – the Highly Unofficial 2010 awards season is just about done, and all that’s left is to determine the top fighters of the year. Will your favorite be here? Read on to find out.
10 (tie) – Rick Story
All right, I know, I’m being indecisive, but when it came to the tail end of the list, I just couldn’t pick two fighters out of the trio of Chris Leben, Evan Dunham, and Rick Story to leave out. One (Story) went 4-0 this year, which is an amazing feat. The second (Dunham) lost a fight, but that one fight he lost he probably should have won on the scorecards. And the third (Leben) won three big fights, but the first was over a fighter (Jay Silva) who can’t be considered on the level of his other two victims. So…a three way tie, and I’m sticking to it. Anyway, Rick Story has always been a tough kid with a lot of potential. In 2010, he started to break through to the next level with two close wins over Jesse Lennox and Nick Osipczak, a brutal TKO of Dustin Hazelett, and a gut check decision victory over Johny Hendricks. Story is the real deal, and he’s only going to get better.
10 (tie) – Evan Dunham
Unheralded lightweight Evan Dunham quietly made a name for himself in the UFC in 2009 with wins over Per Eklund and Marcus Aurelio, but in 2010 he moved from prospect to contender with an impressive come from behind finish of Efrain Escudero and a clear-cut decision win over Tyson Griffin. Next up for the Las Vegas resident was former UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk at UFC 119, and Dunham not only showed his talent against “The Muscle Shark”, but he showed his heart and grit in battling back from a nasty cut over his eye to arguably win a fight which ultimately went to Sherk via a controversial split decision.
10 (tie) - Chris Leben
Entering 2010, Chris Leben’s UFC career was on the line after back-to-back losses to Michael Bisping and Jake Rosholt, but amazingly, by the time he forced Yoshihiro Akiyama to tap out in the third round of their UFC 116 bout in July, he was back among the ranks of middleweight contenders. This amazing transformation took place thanks to wins this year over Jay Silva, Aaron Simpson, and the aforementioned Akiyama, with the latter two victories occurring within a two week period. Next up for the resurgent “Crippler” is a January 1st date with Brian Stann.
9 – Rashad Evans
Following the loss of his UFC light heavyweight title via knockout to Lyoto Machida in May of 2009, fight fans were wondering how Rashad Evans was going to react in his next bout. Well, in January he decisioned Thiago Silva, going back to his wrestling roots and surviving a late sequence when Silva got him in trouble. And four months later he headlined another major event when he took on – and beat – bitter rival Quinton “Rampage” Jackson with another solid wrestling-based victory at UFC 114 in May. Some would say “Suga” is back, but in reality, he never left, and in 2011 he will be rewarded with a shot at light heavyweight boss Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
8 – Yushin Okami
Long seen as the forgotten man in the middleweight division, Japan’s Yushin Okami always seemed to be one win away from the big one when he would slip back into the shadows after key losses to Rich Franklin and Chael Sonnen. But in 2010, “Thunder” put it all together. First it was an impressive stoppage of Lucio Linhares in March, then a decision win over Mark Munoz in August, and in November, Okami capped things off with a decision victory over Nate Marquardt that earned him a middleweight championship fight. And while he’s not always the most exciting 185-pounder, he’s definitely one of the toughest to beat.
7 – Jim Miller
Speaking of tough to beat, the only fighters to ever pin a loss on New Jersey’s Jim Miller have been a couple of pretty fair lightweights named Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard. In the UFC, Miller is 8-1, including six in a row, and it was in 2010 that the rest of the world got on the bandwagon, as the fierce, yet soft-spoken, competitor went 4-0 with wins over Duane Ludwig, Mark Bocek, Gleison Tibau, and Charles Oliveira. And after beating Oliveira via submission at UFC 124, Miller finally spoke up, asking for his shot in 2011. It’s hard to argue with him.
6 - Junior dos Santos
Just 26, Brazil’s Junior dos Santos continued his whirlwind ride through the heavyweight division in 2010, knocking out veterans Gilbert Yvel and Gabriel Gonzaga with relative ease before a three round gut check against Roy “Big Country” Nelson in August at UFC 117. It wasn’t a fight where dos Santos was really threatened, but after hitting his foe with everything in his arsenal, he was forced to show the ability to go three fast-paced rounds with a dangerous opponent while growing increasingly fatigued. It wasn’t the same as his previous foray into the third frame against Mirko Cro Cop, yet he still came out of the fight victorious and with practically everyone in agreement that when he gets his shot at the heavyweight crown in 2011, it’s going to be something to remember.
5 – Georges St-Pierre
With back-to-back shutouts of top contenders Dan Hardy and Josh Koscheck, UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre continues to make it look easy at the elite level of the game. Beating these guys is a feat in itself, but to take the drama out of the fights as early as the first round is nothing short of amazing. Next in line for St-Pierre is an interesting style matchup against Jake Shields, but considering that he hasn’t lost a round in over three years, it’s hard – if not impossible – to pick against the champion in any fight at 170 pounds.
4 – George Sotiropoulos
Winner of eight straight (seven in the UFC) dating back to late 2006, Australia native George Sotiropoulos is another fighter who had his coming out party this year, as he dismantled a formidable trio of Joe Stevenson, Kurt Pellegrino, and Joe Lauzon, putting him squarely in the lightweight title picture. And with his improved all-around game, Octagon vision, and quiet intensity, he’s going to be a nightmare matchup for anyone at 155 pounds, including his February 2011 foe, Dennis Siver.
3 – Mauricio Rua
It’s never hard for a fighter to get up for a world title fight. When you lose a controversial decision many think you won, it has to be difficult to go through the physical and mental trials necessary to do it all over again. But Mauricio Rua did it. And not only that, but in his championship rematch against Lyoto Machida in May, he scored the defining win of his career via first round knockout. What made the victory sweeter was the journey it took to get there. From a loss in his UFC debut to Forrest Griffin to two knee surgeries, Rua got to the top in the Octagon the hard way, and even though he has been sidelined since the bout due to injury, he is rehabbed, healthy and ready to go for an early-2011 title defense against Rashad Evans.
2 – Cain Velasquez
It seemed like Cain Velasquez was being groomed for the heavyweight title from the first time he put on the gloves, but in most situations like that, the reality falls far short of expectations. Not here, and in 2010, after working his way up the ranks, Velasquez fulfilled all his promise, first with a knockout of heavyweight legend “Minotauro” Nogueira in February, and then with a TKO of Brock Lesnar in October that earned him the title “World Champion.” What’s scary about Velasquez is that he probably hasn’t reached his peak yet and that he won’t stop working until he gets there. Of course, in this sport all it takes is one punch to derail anyone, but it’s looking like Velasquez may stay on top for a while should he get past Junior dos Santos in 2011.
1 – Frankie Edgar
Rightfully deserving of a lightweight title shot, Frankie Edgar still wasn’t considered likely to be the one to defeat the seemingly unstoppable 155-pound king, BJ Penn. Edgar and his team just ignored the odds, put together an intense training camp and fight plan, and walked into Abu Dhabi in April with one goal in mind – to win the belt. And after five close rounds, it was Edgar who shocked the world and took the title from “The Prodigy” behind a disciplined 25 minute attack.
It was the ‘feel good’ story of the year, but it didn’t keep Edgar from the underdog position once again for the August rematch with Penn. But again, the pride of Toms River ignored the talk, and again, he beat Penn via five round decision at UFC 118. Only this time, there were no questions and no close rounds. And when Penn bounced back from the two defeats to knock out Matt Hughes in 21 seconds at UFC 123, it not only showed that Penn still had plenty left in his gas tank, but that Frankie Edgar didn’t beat a shell of a fighter twice – he beat a prime BJ Penn. Will he be an underdog again in the future? Probably. But given his 2010 performance, you get the idea that he doesn’t really care.
Honorable Mention: Anderson Silva, Carlos Condit, Nate Diaz, Chris Lytle, Jon Jones, Gray Maynard, Melvin Guillard, Brendan Schaub, Matt Hamill, Ryan Bader, Randy Couture, Chael Sonnen, CB Dollaway, Kyle Noke, Court McGee, Jake Ellenberger