Pep Talk: Fighter of the Year

The Fighter of the Year is a mythical award that media members and fans alike love to argue about as we get ready to celebrate the beginning of a new year. Much like the Pound for Pound rankings, the award is subjective with fighting “beauty” being in the eye of the beholder. Too many get caught up in who they like personally or forget that this award is neither for a career nor one night. It rewards one year of a fighter’s body of work and this year’s champ made it easy for me.

And the winner is…

WEC Featherweight Champion, Jose Aldo.

Aldo had a tremendous year in 2009, going 4-0 and capturing the WEC Featherweight title. But it wasn’t just that he won, but how he won. In those four fights, Aldo’s opponents lasted a grand total of twelve minutes and twenty-two seconds…combined, with an average Aldo fight ending in just three minutes and six seconds. He captured “Knockout of the Night” honors in three of those four fights, including an eight-second knockout of Cub Swanson with a flying knee that left his opponent looking like someone hit him in the head with a pick axe. He’s the scariest striker in the division, drawing comparisons to Anderson Silva, so good in fact that he never had to use his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt in the cage this year.

The only fighter to make it out of the first round with Aldo in ‘09 was the division’s former champion Mike Brown. Brown was widely considered the best 145 pound fighter in the world coming into the fight and looked invincible with two victories over former champ Uriah Faber and a first round demolition of number one contender Leonard Garcia. Brown was the clear favorite at every casino in Las Vegas.

They all got it wrong.

Aldo showed flashes of brilliance throughout the fight, displaying his signature speed and pinpoint striking. Perhaps most impressive was his BJ Penn-like takedown defense against the man widely regarded as the most powerful wrestler in the division. When Aldo finished Brown in the second round to take the title he became the only fighter under consideration for Fighter of the Year to win a fight in which he was not favored. The icing on the cake to Aldo’s excellence is that he can fight at 135 pounds, so virtually every time we see him step in the cage he is giving up size to his opponent and fighting up one weight class. Given their styles and fight speed, a Urijah Faber vs. Aldo tilt could be the fight of 2010, assuming Urijah gets by Rafael Assuncao in January at WEC 46. If that fight happens and Aldo beats the California Kid, don’t be surprised to see a long reign for the ridiculously talented 23 year-old Brazilian.

The Contenders

Let’s take a look at some of the other fighters who distinguished themselves in 2009 and why they couldn’t dethrone Jose for Fighter of the Year.

BJ Penn
UFC Lightweight Champion
2009 Fight Record (2-1)

Lost to Georges St. Pierre at UFC 94, Beat Kenny Florian at UFC 101 and Diego Sanchez at UFC 107

If Aldo didn’t have such an incredible, breakout year, Penn would have gotten my vote. He may be the only fighter on this list who lost a fight in 2009, but that was against GSP when BJ challenged himself to fight at 170 pounds, a weight class above where he belongs. Add in the controversy of GSP’s cornermen applying Vaseline to his upper body after the first and second rounds and whatever advantage that gave GSP and the loss should have been ruled a no-contest. But that’s a story for another day. Most importantly, when BJ defended his lightweight title against Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez, he was nothing short of masterful. He dominated Florian before submitting him in the fourth round and put one of the most lopsided beatings I’ve ever seen on Sanchez before it was mercifully stopped in the fifth round. The post-Marinovich BJ dispelled any questions about his cardiovascular conditioning in those two fights and was in total control of the two top contenders in his division for every second of every round before ending their nights early.

Anderson Silva
UFC Middleweight Champion
2009 Fight Record (2-0)

Beat Thales Leites at UFC 97 and Forrest Griffin at UFC 101

Silva may have had the most impressive performance of 2009 when he moved up a weight class and completely toyed with former Light Heavyweight champ Forrest Griffin for the 3:23 it took to physically and mentally finish him at UFC 101, but one performance does not a Fighter of the Year make. Unfortunately for Anderson, his only other fight in ’09 was against Thales Leites who chose not to engage and lay on his back every chance he got. While I don’t hold that against the champ, the one impressive performance against Griffin, a 4-1 underdog, doesn’t come close to matching the body of work Aldo amassed this year.

Georges St-Pierre
UFC Welterweight Champion
2009 Fight Record (2-0)

Beat BJ Penn at UFC 94 and Thiago Alves at UFC 100

How GSP tops a lot of Fighter of the Year lists for 2009 is beyond me, and I’m a GSP fan! When the best 170 pound fighter in the world takes on the best 155 pound fighter in the world, he’s supposed to win that fight. And let’s not even talk about Greasegate. In Georges’ only other fight this year, he scored a lopsided unanimous decision win over Thiago Alves where he used his superior wrestling to take Alves down at will and maintain dominant position. What makes his performance more impressive was that he injured his groin somewhere in the third or fourth round. What makes GSP a bit less impressive, however, is that the last time he finished an opponent in his weight class was in April, 2008 when he beat Matt Serra. I expect him to end that streak against Dan Hardy in March, but I can’t see 2009 as a standout GSP year.

Lyoto Machida
UFC Light Heavyweight Champion
2009 Fight Record (3-0)

Beat Thiago Silva at UFC 94, Rashad Evans at UFC 98 and Mauricio Shogun Run at UFC 104

The air of invincibility that surrounded Lyoto Machida after his two round annihilation of Rashad Evans to capture UFC gold in May certainly made him the “Fighter of the First Half of the Year.” Unfortunately for Lyoto, Shogun kicked a good part of that invincibility away when they met in October and the Dragon escaped with a narrow and controversial decision.

Fedor Emelianenko
WAMMA Heavyweight Champion
2009 Fight Record (2-0)

Beat Andrei Arlovski at Affliction: Day of Reckoning and Brett Rogers at Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Rogers

Put Fedor’s career against any other fighter in mixed martial arts history and he wins, hands down. Put two come-from-behind victories against somewhat questionable competition against Aldo circa 2009 and he loses Fighter of the Year.

Gegard Mousasi
Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion
2009 Fight Record (3-0)

Beat Mark Hunt at Super Hulk Tournament, Renato “Babalu” Sobral at Strikeforce: Carano vs. Cyborg and Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou at Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Rogers

Mousasi is an amazing fighter and one of the best Light Heavies in the world, but the quality of competition he fought this year doesn’t cut it. Unfortunately, the top 205 pounders reside in the UFC and it’s unlikely that we’ll see the Fedor-attached Mousasi fight there, so we may never find out just how good he really is.

Larry Pepe is the host of Pro MMA Radio.

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