Sit next to a warm fire with a glass of cognac in hand, as FIGHT! takes you on a stroll down memory lane for 2009 and offers up its 3rd Annual FIGHT! Awards. Our picks may not be the most mainstream choices (GSP can’t win ‘em all), but we make a compelling case for each. Feel the need to disagree or think we hit it dead on? We’ll listen. Shoot us an email at feedback@ fightmagazine.com.
FIGHTER OF THE YEAR
Choosing MMA’s Fighter of the Year often entails a healthy dose of internal debate mixed with detailed analysis of the performances of all the usual suspects along with a surprise contender or two. In 2009, champions Georges St.-Pierre, Anderson Silva, BJ Penn, and Fedor Emelianenko enjoyed dominant years in their respective divisions, while Gegard Mousasi and Lyoto Machida both captured belts, along with our collective attention. That MMA dream team went 15–1, finishing their opponents 12 times, half of those in the first round.
Amazing as their performances were, one fighter stood tall above the rest. Well, not literally. He’s actually shorter, lighter, and younger than all of them, but he is the most dominant fighter to step foot in a cage or a ring in 2009. He was an obvious choice, even though most fans couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup just one year ago.
WEC Featherweight Champion, Jose Aldo Jr., is the 2009 Fighter of the Year.
The Brazilian wunderkind is the ultimate rags-to-riches story, coming from such humble beginnings that Nova Uniao teammate Wagney Fabiano would ask him whether he’d eaten in the last day or two to make sure he had food. While Aldo gets plenty to eat these days, his hunger to destroy his opponents and get the belt in 2009 was nothing short of ravenous.
Aldo began his ’09 campaign at WEC 38 in January by flooring a game Rolando Perez with a textbook knee and finishing him with lightening strikes on the ground in just over four minutes, earning his first Knockout of the Night award. Just five weeks later, 44-fight veteran Chris Mickle ate an Aldo knee along with 11 unanswered blows, bringing the fight to an end 1:39 into the first round at WEC 39. Aldo added to his highlight reel at WEC 41 with a double flying knee that left then 13–2 Cub Swanson looking like he’d been hit with an axe. The fight took less time than it will take you to read this sentence, with the referee saving Cub from further damage just eight seconds into the first round. That performance earned Aldo another Knockout of the Night bonus and, more importantly, a title shot against the man universally regarded as the toughest 145-pounder on the planet: division champ Mike Brown.
Fresh off two wins over former champ Urijah Faber and a twominute demolition of top contender Leonard Garcia, Brown came into the Aldo fight on a 10-fight, four-year win streak. Huge for the weight, a powerful right hand, brute force takedowns, and great BJJ courtesy of American Top Team, Brown seemed unstoppable. Apparently Aldo didn’t get the memo, shattering Brown’s perceived invincibility at WEC 44 with a masterful performance that saw Aldo’s lightening-fast striking on display once again. Brown barely laid a glove on Aldo, whose defense matched the impressive offensive onslaught fans had become accustomed to. While Aldo’s prior efforts drew comparisons to top pound-for-pound fighter Anderson Silva, his performance in the championship affair brought visions of another MMA legend, BJ Penn, for his uncanny takedown defense. Brown, perhaps the strongest and most powerful wrestler in the division, simply couldn’t get Aldo to the ground.
“Usually when I get a guy against the cage, I can rip him down. [With Aldo] I just couldn’t,” the former champ said after the fight.
Not being able to take Jose Aldo down in a fight is like playing tennis against a wall—sooner or later, you lose. A scramble early in the second round led to Aldo getting Brown’s back, flattening him out, and delivering two dozen unanswered blows to capture the WEC Featherweight Title, yet another WEC Knockout of the Night, and the awe of MMA fans and media alike. In addition to his ridiculous skill set, Aldo revealed an unflinching confidence and cage maturity that no 23-yearold should possess in the biggest fight of his life.
“Now that I have the belt, I’m going to keep working hard to keep it for a long time,” said Aldo. As if featherweight contenders don’t have enough to worry about, Aldo is a BJJ black belt and world champion, skills he hasn’t even had to display yet in the WEC. To add salt to the wound, he hasn’t fully grown into the 145-pound weight class, repeatedly saying he can make 135 pounds.
Aldo identifies former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Mike Tyson as his inspiration because “he always came to fight and tried to finish his opponent quickly.” Iron Mike would be jealous of the year the WEC’s newly minted titleholder turned in on his way to becoming one of the youngest champions in MMA history. All told, Aldo went 4-0 for the year with his fights lasting a total of 12:22, an average of just under three minutes and six seconds per fight. He also scored three Knockout of the Night bonuses. 2009 marks the first time that anyone following mixed martial arts has seen a headline that reads “Jose Aldo: Fighter of the Year.” With his combination of lethal striking, speed, takedown defense, world-class BJJ, confidence, and youth, don’t be surprised if it’s not the last time Aldo wins the award.
Jose Aldo at a Glance
Born: September 9, 1986 Nationality: Brazilian Division: Featherweight Team: Nova Uniao Record: 16–1 Wins: 11 KO/TKO, 2 Submissions, 3 Decisions LossES : Luciano Azevedo via rear naked choke, November 26, 2005 2009 Victories: Mike Brown, Cub Swanson, Chris Mickle, Rolando Perez Fighter of the Year Honorable Mentions Gegard Mousasi 2009 Victories: Gary Goodridge, Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, Renato Sobral, Mark Hunt Georges St.-Pierre 2009 Victories: BJ Penn, Thiago Alves Gilbert Melendez 2009 Victories: Josh Thomson, Mitsuhiro Ishida, Rodrigo Damm Jake Shields 2009 Victories: Jason Miller, Robbie Lawler Anderson Silva 2009 Victories: Forrest Griffin, Thales Leites Fedor Emelianenko 2009 Victories: Brett Rogers, Andrei Arlovski
FIGHT OF THE YEAR
Diego Sanchez defeats Clay Guida
The Ultimate Fighter 9 Finale, June 20, 2009
A bloody war was inevitable when Diego “Nightmare” Sanchez was pitted against Clay “The Carpenter” Guida—two lightweights who have won more than their fair share of Fight of the Night honors.
Seconds into the fight, Sanchez rocked Guida with a powerful combination of uppercuts and knees that left the crazyhaired fighter dazed. Sanchez went for the killshot with a devastating high kick that bloodied The Carpenter. However, the resilient Guida survived the onslaught for the five minute duration that turned him into a bloody mess of sweat and hair. Round two saw Guida give Sanchez a taste of his own medicine, as he unleashed his trademark takedown and groundnpound. Sanchez took the opportunity to deliver a series of elbows from his back. Round three brought out the best in both fighters, with a mix of choke attempts from Sanchez and persistent top attack from Guida. In the end, all three judges scored the fight differently (2829 for Guida, 2927 and 2928 for Sanchez)—a real tribute to the difficulty of scoring such a barnburner. The splitdecision victory earned Sanchez a title shot against BJ Penn.
Guys like Sanchez and Guida lay it on the line like it’s their last fight every single time. They never disappoint, and this fight was no exception. It was another no blink melee. And as much as we dislike split decision wins, we love rematches even more. Here’
s hoping SanchezGuida II is in the works for 2010.
FIGHT OF THE YEAR
HONORABLE MENTIONS Miguel Torres defeats Takeya Mizugaki WEC 40, April 5, 2009 Torres and Mizugaki stood toetotoe for the better part of five rounds for the WEC Bantamweight Championship, with Torres delivering a unanimous decision victory that brought his winning streak to 17. Ben Henderson defeats Donald Cerrone WEC 43, October 10, 2009 Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone was a favorite going into the fight, but Henderson showed incredible heart and submission elusiveness to bring home the win with a 4847 scorecard tally. Gilbert Melendez defeats Josh Thomson Strikeforce: Evolution, December 19, 2009 Melendez won a five round unanimous decision, tying the series at one win apiece and paving the way for a good oldfashioned rubber match. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira defeats Randy Couture UFC 102, August 29, 2009 Nog bested The Natural in a threeround unanimous decision victory that showcased two iconic warriors.
UPSET OF THE YEAR
Joe Warren defeats Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto via split decision
DREAM 9 Featherweight Grand Prix, May 26, 2009
Little-known newcomer Joe Warren came to DREAM 7 Featherweight Grand Prix 2009 Round 2 with just one professional fight under his belt, a TKO due to doctor stoppage against former WEC Bantamweight Champion Chase Beebe. Warren, a world-class Greco-Roman wrestler, began his mixed martial arts training in 2008 with former PRIDE Fighting Championship title holder Dan Henderson at Team Quest and was about to face one of the most feared competitors in the sport—Japanese sensation Kid Yamamoto.
Kid, a fighting and kickboxing legend known for his dynamic and aggressive fighting style, was just coming off of a 17-month hiatus due to injuries. He had long been considered a perfect matchup for former WEC Featherweight Champion Urijah Faber due to their similar records and styles. Interestingly, Warren trained with Faber’s Team Alpha Male in preparation for the fight. The preparation turned into perfection as Warren was able to neutralize Kid in his Greco clinch and chip away with body shots and uppercuts at the Japanese favorite. In the end, Warren came away with a split decision that ended Kid’s 14-fight win streak. Warren, at a 6–1 underdog, proved again that anything can and will happen in mixed martial arts.
UPSET OF THE YEAR HONORABLE MENTIONS
Brett Rogers defeats Andre Arlovski Strikeforce: Lawler vs. Shields, June 6, 2009 5–1 underdog Rogers floored Arlovski in 22 seconds of round one. Brian Bowles defeats Miguel Torres WEC 42, August 9, 2009 Bowles ended Torres’s 17-fight winning streak with a KO at 3:57 of round one. Paulo Thiago defeats Josh Koscheck UFC 95, February 21, 2009 Submission specialist Thiago surprised everyone, especially Koscheck, with a TKO 3:29 into the first round. Mackens Semerzier defeats Waggney Fabiano WEC 43, October 10, 2009 In Semerzier’s fifth pro fight, he submitted BJJ black belt Fabiano by triangle choke at 2:14 of the first stanza.
KNOCKOUT OF THE YEAR
Dan Henderson defeats Michael Bisping
UFC 100, July 11, 2009
A mixed martial artist can be knocked out any number of ways, but the end result is more or less the same: a combatant laid out on the canvas, limp in living death, convulsing or muttering incoherently. It’s not pretty. It’s beautiful, a moment of titillating, terrifying rapture when everything comes together for one fighter and everything comes apart for his opponent.
But it doesn’t matter whether it’s a strike set up by crafty footwork, deft defense, perfect timing, or a feat of superior athleticism, what makes a KO memorable is the story. While there was plenty of crafty footwork (see: Silva vs. Griffin), perfect timing (see: Marquardt vs. Maia), and feats of superior athleticism (see: Belfort vs. Lindland) on display this year, only one knockout represented the climax of a great story, and that was Bisping vs. Henderson. If sport fighting is a proxy for war, then UFC 100 represented the final battle of the American Revolution. For weeks leading up to the card, middleweights Michael Bisping and Dan Henderson—and their fans—traded barbs that quickly devolved into a cliché British vs. American rivalry. Henderson was cast as the square-jawed American archetype; Bisping as the chippy British import with a BBC sense of humor.
Of course, that was the point of the bout and The Ultimate Fighter season that preceded it. The surprising part was that the fabricated storyline took on real meaning. The fighters came to genuinely dislike each other and fans were wound up to the extent that when Dan Henderson’s right hand crashed into Michael Bisping’s jaw you’d have thought that we defended Bunker Hill all over again. The colonists rejoiced as the Redcoat crashed to the mat, but that punch was simply Henderson doing his job. The follow up, a sort of flying overhand right to his downed opponent’s face—that was personal, and the crowd erupted like a battery of Fourth of July fireworks.
It was the biggest punch on the sport’s biggest night and Henderson won a $100,000 Knockout of the Night bonus for his work. Not known as a controversial guy, but also not one to hold his tongue, Henderson stirred the pot by admitting that the final punch was intended to send a message, adding another storyline to the most talked about card of 2009.
KO OF THE YEAR HONORABLE MENTIONS
Nate Marquardt defeats Demian Maia UFC 102, August 29, 2009 Vitor Belfort defeats Matt Lindland Affliction: Day of Reckoning, January 24, 2009 Fedor Emelianenko defeats Andrei Arlovski Affliction: Day of Reckoning, January 24, 2009 Anderson Silva defeats Forrest Griffin UFC 101, August 8, 2009 Nick Pace defeats Collin Tebo Bellator FC 9, June 12, 2009 Yahir Reyes defeats Esteban Payan Bellator FC 5, May 8, 2009
SUBMISSION OF THE YEAR
Toby Imada defeats Jorge Masvidal
Bellator FC4, May 1, 2009
Sleep on an underdog and the dog bites back in mixed martial arts. Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal was expected to meet tournament favorite Eddie Alvarez in the finals of Bellator’s inaugural lightweight tournament, but Toby Imada had other plans coming into the semifinals. The plans were seemingly thrown out the window as Gamebred battered Imada. However, the tough freestyle fighter didn’t let purple bruises and red cuts on his face deter him.
As the American Top Team representative shot for a takedown to secure the fight, Imada countered the single leg attempt with a move never before seen in mixed martial arts. Masvidal felt Imada’s sprawl and attempted to back drop him and escape out the back door. Instead of taking the ride, Imada locked up a reverse triangle choke as Masvidal stood up and carried his opponent on his back. The quicksand that is an unfamiliar position slowly stole Masvidal’s consciousness. He was put to sleep standing and fell to the mat.
Imada emerged victorious with a move that bears no name. The inverted standing back-mounted triangle is more than a mouthful. The submission was as innovative as it was aesthetically pleasing— the peak of victory in mixed martial arts. It didn’t go unnoticed either.
Imada’s star rose alongside Bellator’s YouTube channel’s hits. The organization circulated a clip of the surprise submission the following day and currently has more 600,000 views. In essence, Imada helped launch Bellator into the universe of viral sensations, setting off a chain reaction for the upstart promotion with Yahir Reyes’s spinning back fist KO over Esteban Payan and Nick Pace’s flying knee over Collin Tebo fueling the Internet fire Imada lit.
In a year packed with world-class submissions: Demian Maia’s topside triangle over Chael Sonnen, Shinya Aoki’s own never-before
-seen submission—a vicious arm snap of Mizuto Hirota, and Jake Shields’s jumping guillotine over a heavier, highly regarded Robbie Lawler, Imada’s Submission of the Year victory is undeniable. What separates Imada’s submission is his originality and the element of surprise.
There are underdog victories and there are dramatic finishes. Imada achieved both in one swift come-from-behind attack. Mixed martial arts is a consistently surprising, evolving sport. Still, no one believes a move like that is possible until it’s seen. Like the gogoplata’s chain reaction in the sport, Imada’s submission may be imitated but never duplicated. Whether he chooses to share it or not, the secret behind the choke is held by the first magician to pull off the trick—Toby Imada.
Toby Imada’s infamous modified triangle is still without a name. While the move made waves in mixed marital arts, it’s nothing new to Imada, 31, who learned it 16 years ago.
The Southern Californian modified it from old judo techniques and showed it to the world in Bellator’s lightweight tournament. It’s a move he attempts during training, prompting his team to jab at the Japanese-Mexican- American with a unique name for the unique submission—the “tortilla choke.”
“Honestly, I have no idea, something to do with Hispanics, and falling flat, and I don’t know,” explains Imada. Despite all the acclaim, Imada is ready to move on in search of more new submissions.
“That happened already. I’m over it,” he says.
“I want to do new stuff now instead of holding on to that one claim to fame, so to speak.”
FIGHT! endorses naming the submission the “prism choke” because it’s a unique, aesthetically pleasing triangle choke. However, Imada likes the playful name he’s already given it. Regardless, we don’t want to get wrapped up in that triangle—tortilla choke it is.
SUBMISSION OF THE YEAR HONORABLE MENTIONS
Demian Maia defeats Chael Sonnen via triangle UFC 95, February 20, 2009 BJ Penn defeats Kenny Florian via rear naked choke UFC 101, August 8, 2009 Masakazu Imanari defeats Justin Cruz via omoplata neck crank DEEP: Cage Impact, December 19, 2009
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR
Jon “Bones” Jones
Newcomer of the year? How about newcomer of the decade, of the entire short history of mixed martial arts? By the time this magazine hits newsstands Jon Jones’s fighting career will be just 22 months old. Sure, the phenom has collegiate-level wrestling skills and comes from an athletically gifted family (brothers Arthur and Chandler are D-lineman at Syracuse University and NFL prospects), but Jones arrived at the UFC’s doorstep in August 2008 with only three months and six fights of professional experience.
With his college wrestling career over and a baby on the way, Jones started fighting to make some quick cash. He trained with a small fight team in Upstate New York, picking up techniques on YouTube and trying them out on his training partners. He ripped through six opponents in three months before getting called up to the UFC. He showed promise in that first victory over Andre Gusmao, so UFC matchmaker Joe Silva threw him into the middle of the light-heavyweight division in 2009. Jones cut through Stephan Bonnar and Jake O’Brien easily en route to a main event fight against Matt Hamill on The Ultimate Fighter Finale.
It was a breakout night for Jones, who so utterly dominated Hamill that all but the most ardent fans of “The Hammer” let out a groan when “Bones” unleashed a series of illegal elbows on his downed opponent. The elbows were deemed intentional but not malicious and earned Jones a disqualification loss in a fight that—at worst— would have resulted in a victory for him by majority decision. Jones’s performance against Hamill illustrated his rare fluidity in the cage, his ability to draw on every technique he’s ever seen or been taught and implement it fearlessly. It’s the intangible quality that allows fighters like Fedor Emelianenko to do precisely what needs to be done precisely when it needs to be done. Like Fedor, Jones doesn’t think. He fights.
Jones’s natural ability, work ethic, and small-town team helped him become a star in 2009. Now that the young fighter has been brought into the fold of Greg Jackson’s extended training family, Jones will have the benefit of top-notch instruction and world-class training partners. May God have mercy on the light heavyweight division in 2010.
Newcomer of the Year Honorable Mentions
Muhammed Lawal 2009 Victories: Mike Whitehead, Mark Kerr, Ryo Kawamura, Yukiya Naito Junior dos Santos 2009 Victories: Gilbert Yvel, Mirko Filipovic, Stefan Struve Cain Velasquez 2009 Victories: Ben Rothwell, Cheick Kongo, Denis Stojnic Joe Warren 2009 Victories: Chase Beebe, Norifumi Yamamoto