What’s better than winning a Nobel Prize? Well, it probably isn’t winning a 4th Annual FIGHT! Award. After all, the Nobel Prize comes with $1.4 million in prize money. A FIGHT! Award comes with a small trophy, a pat on the back, and immortality in the archives of FIGHT! Magazine. Ok, maybe “immortality” is a bit dramatic. Nonetheless, since there is no Nobel Prize for Fighting, we think this is the next best thing. Without further ado, the winners are…
FIGHTER OF THE YEAR
If Cain Velasquez has a glaring weakness, he is stingy about showing it. In the space of this past year, you’d be hard-pressed to find even a small flaw in his overall game. That’s part of the reason why 2010 belongs to the UFC Heavyweight Champion. What may well turn into an era, this was The Year of Cain.
But that’s not the only reason. Want to talk economy and efficiency? Velasquez fought a total of six point five minutes in 2010, and—when getting down to the nitty-gritty of determining Fighter of the Year—that’s really the point. It was just enough cage time for Velasquez to rise up as a number-one heavyweight contender, as he manhandled Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira then pried the biggest strap in MMA off Brock Lesnar’s tree trunk-of-waist. That made two “Knockout of the Night” awards, executed with mean, invulnerable focus, in the time it takes to make couscous, from a guy who was accused of having light hands. Call it a year.
“It’s really a great honor to be named Fighter of the Year by FIGHT! Magazine,” says Velasquez. “When you look at all the fighters who had such strong years—Anderson Silva, Edgar, and the rest of those tough fighters—it really means a lot.”
The true measure of how far Velasquez had come in 2010 could be found in the aftermath of his two fights—he made both Big Nog and Lesnar seem fundamentally overrated and entirely over matched. He became a thief of mojo, beating both men soundly enough so that each was forced to reassess their careers afterward. Crazier still is how fast the 28-year-old worked on pundit and fan perception alike. In just six and a half minutes, Velasquez converted the promise of potential into rampant speculation as to who could possibly challenge him.
It can’t be easy to make it look that easy.
Everybody knew that the Mexican/American Arizona State wrestler and two timeNCAA All-American was a threat to the heavyweight throne as he headed into his fight with former Heavyweight Champion Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira in Australia in early 2010. He had been honing his skills at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, surrounded by a who’s who of fellow contenders and renowned coaches, including Javier Mendez and “Crazy” Bob Cook. However, by most standards, Velasquez was still a little green in the fight game, with only seven professional bouts on his resume going in (all wins, six finishes). He had Octagon control and could take guys down, but what people still questioned was his overall power. People, as a rule, will always find a reason to bitch.
He took apart Ben Rothwell their entire fight at UFC 104 in October 2009, but the power behind his strikes—which were thrown in volume with equal precision—were put into question as Rothwell hung on. In his previous fight at UFC 99 in Germany, Cheick Kongo had taken him the distance, though Cain’s “Brown Pride” dictated the bout from bell to bell—even after having his own bell rung—and he used his wrestling to take the fight to the mat and his ground-and-pound to secure the decision. It also took Velasquez a while to get things going against Denis Stojnic in February 2009, a guy he was supposed to annex with relative ease. Ultimately, all these fights were fine showings and further generated bandwagon buzz for Cain being the “Next Big Thing.”
Still, to earn legitimacy, he needed to do it against the upper-echelon heavies, beginning with Big Nog.
Going into his fight against the PRIDE legend, Velasquez was listed as an underdog. Promoted as his first big test, there were plenty of people who expected him to fail against a tough, seasoned fighter like Nogueira, who’d been through six times the number of battles.
“I have a lot of respect for Big Nog, he’s a legend and a true champion of the sport, but I knew what was on the line in this fight,” says Velasquez. “I came in fully prepared and had a great game plan.I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip through my hands.”
It was clear from the opening bell that doubts about Velasquez were unfounded. The time spent with AKA boxing coach Huitsi Mata showed, as he addled Big Nog with speed at first, beating him to the punch early and often. Then, for all those hating on him, power. Midway through the first round, he caught Minotauro with a big right hook, following it up with a left hook at the temple to close the curtains. He was the first man to properly knock out Big Nog in 40 career fights. The win—reinforced by the method in which he won—put Velasquez in a holding pattern for the Shane Carwin/Brock Lesnar winner.
With Lesnar’s improbable come-from behind victory over Carwin, the hype leading up to UFC 121 was big. Both Lesnar and Velasquez were featured on UFC Primetime, yet, if the pressure ever got to Cain, you never knew it. In fact,while being respectful of the celebrated, often vilified champion Lesnar, he knew exactly what to do with the spotlight come fight night in Anaheim. Velasquez withstood a 285-pound bullrush and a couple of early takedowns before scoring one of his own, and from there, he straight blitzkrieged Lesnar with ground-and-pound. Once back on their feet, Velasquez clipped Lesnar with a left and pursued. After he caught Lesnar with a knee to the body, he began raining down strikes until Herb Dean halted the one-man show.
“Winning the title from Brock was a great feeling—it’s what I’ve been working toward since I started,” Velasquez says. “I plan on holding this belt for years to come. Now, with this shoulder injury, it’s all about having the surgery,doing the rehab, and getting back to the gym as soon as possible so I can defend this belt. I’m excited for what the future holds. My whole team at AKA, my coaches, my fiancé, my friends and family—they’re the ones who helped me win this award.
Velasquez earned his shot and made the most of it in 2010. He was a consummate professional in the process, and he carried an air of mission in his performances. This is a recipe for our Fighter of the Year. As he recovers from rotator cuff surgery in preparation for his first title defense, the challenge for guys like Junior dos Santos, Shane Carwin, and Lesnar is to put together a formula that’ll expose his weaknesses. That is, if anyone can pry them out of him.
FIGHTER OF THE YEAR HONORABLE MENTIONS
2010 Victories: Brian Bowles, Joseph Benavidez, Scott Jorgensen
2010 Victories: Dan Hardy, Josh Koscheck
2010 Victories: BJ Penn (twice)
FIGHT OF THE YEAR
JORGE SANTIAGO DEFEATS KAZUO MISAKI
SENGOKU RAIDEN CHAMPIONSHIP 14, AUG. 22, 2010
There’s a reason why sports writers took to referring to the rounds of a boxing match as stanzas. Great fights are symphonies of violence that swell and
diminish, ebb and flow as each combatant surges and retreats, falls and rises again. On August 22, 2010, Jorge Santiago and Kazuo Misaki made music together for the second time in Tokyo at Sengoku Raiden Championship 14, and, in our opinion, it was the best 24 minutes and 31 seconds of ring time of the entire year.
Scheduled for five rounds, Santiago’s Sengoku Middleweight Championship belt was on the line against Misaki, whom he had finished in the fifth round of another knock-down, drag-out affair in January of 2009. The fight began slowly, with lazy shots and strikes intended more to draw the other man out. The round was dominated by clinch work and positional grappling, betraying none of the excitement to come.
Round two began with more stalking, but Misaki’s strikes and jumping knees started to land. Santiago moved for a takedown and Misaki jumped guard with a guillotine, but Santiago freed his head, flipped his legs over, and looked to attack Misaki’s leg as he slipped out the backdoor. Misaki slid under the ropes and the referee called for a standing restart to end the round.
Misaki returned to the guillotine early in the third frame, but Santiago wasn’t having it. The Brazilian dropped Misaki with ahead kick and attempted to finish him with punches on the ground, but Misaki stayed active and alert, covering up and shrimping around. Santiago attempted a kimura but the fighter’s arms were tangled in the ropes, so he fell back to attack the leg. Misaki kicked him off, and the two traded on their feet briefly, before Santiago scored a takedown. Misaki’s right eyelid spilled blood while the fighters spent the final two minutes of the round on the mat.
Both fighters swung wildly to start the fourth round. Santiago landed a nifty backfist, but it spun him right into a Misaki left hook that crumpled him. Misaki leapt on his downed opponent but failed to finish him as Santiago scrambled and recovered. Misaki attempted submissions from mount and side control, but Santiago escaped by falling through the ropes. The American Top Team fighter was given a red card for the move, which immediately scored the round 10-8 for Misaki. Back on the feet, both fighters swung freely, but Santiago won the exchange, dropping Misaki with a straight right and working ground-and pound to end the round.
Likely down on the cards, Santiago started the final frame by staggering the “Grabaka Hitman” with two hooks and followed them up with a knee as Misaki chased him and fell face first into the ropes. Santiago threw punches from the feet and then mounted his opponent, looking for an armbar. Santiago then tried a head-and-arm choke, but Misaki reversed him and escaped. The two continued to scramble until Misaki was face down on the canvas with Santiago on his back, delivering blows to the head. With 30 seconds left in the fight—a fight Misaki probably would have won with the help of the red card—his corner waved it off, and Santiago retained the belt.
FIGHT OF THE YEAR HONORABLE MENTIONS
CARLOS CONDIT DEFRORY MACDONALD
UFC 115, JUNE 12, 2010
MacDonald was leading on the judges’ cards thanks to superior stand up, takedowns,and an impressive push-kick knockdown to end the second round, but Condit came back in the third with nasty ground-and-pound, breaking MacDonald’s right eye socket and forcing a referee stoppage with seven seconds left in the bout.
MARK HOMINICK DEFYVES JABOUIN
WEC 49, JUNE 20, 2010
Jabouin launched an impressive array of strikes at an even more impressive clip. However, Hominick stalked continuously, crouched in a boxer’s stance, looking for a clean shot at Jabouin’s liver. He finally found it, but Jabouin recovered well enough to drop Hominick with a punch of his own before getting reversed and pounded out at 3:21 of round two.
ANTHONY PETTIS DEFBEN HENDERSON
WEC 53, DEC. 16, 2010
It was only fitting that the WEC’s final bout was hotly contested, with both men displaying well-rounded standing and ground attacks. However, Pettis secured claim to the WEC Lightweight Title in the fifth round with a cage kick that floored “Bendo” and earned “Showtime” a unanimous decision victory.
KNOCKOUT OF THE YEAR
PAUL DALEYKOs SCOTT SMITH
STRIKEFORCE, DEC. 4, 2010
Paul Daley likes to say that when he hits people, they stay hit. “Semtex” hit Scott Smith so hard on Dec. 4, that “Hands of Steel” is probably still feeling it.
Strikeforce: Henderson vs. Babalu was rife with KO and TKO finishes, but the best of the bunch was Daley’s starching of Smith. The fight started slow with both fighters flirting with the gap and feeling each other out with jabs. They started making contact about 90 seconds in, and just after the two-minute mark, Smith charged forward. His punches were straight, but rather than returning his hands to protect his chin, his fists came back to a point somewhere south of his shoulders. It was the only opening that Daley needed, and he unleashed a devastating left hook that caught Smith squarely on the chin. Smith was knocked out on his feet before his forward momentum carried him face first into the mat, where he lay motionless for several seconds. John McCarthy ceremoniously called the fight off at 2:09 of the first round. And just like that, Daley laid claim to FIGHT!’s KO of the Year.
KNOCKOUT OF THE YEAR HONORABLE MENTIONS
ROBBIE LAWLER KOs MELVIN MANHOEF
STRIKEFORCE: JAN. 10, 2010
Manhoef delivered multiple debilitating leg kicks in the opening minutes, and it didn’t appear that Lawler had an answer for them. However, as Manhoef backed Lawler up against the fence and laid into him with an inside leg kick, “Ruthless” threw a blind overhand right that landed flush. Manhoef staggered and fell, and the fight was called at 3:33 of the first.
CAIN VELASQUEZ KOs ANTONIO RODRIGONOGUEIRA
UFC 110: FEB. 21, 2010
Having absorbed some of the greatest beatings in MMA history, Big Nog is known more for his resiliency than his superlative BJJ. In Feb. 2010, Cain Velasquez was known more for his wrestling than his striking. But Cain put on a show at UFC 110, knocking Nog into the land of wind and ghosts with the second punch of a lightning-fast, three-punch combo.
HECTOR LOMBARDKOs JAY SILVA
BELLATOR 18: MAY 13, 2010
Right, left, right, and seven seconds later, Jay Silva was face-first on the canvas. Game, set, match.
MIKE RUSSOW KOs TODD DUFFEE
UFC 114: MAY 29, 2010
Let’s be honest, Mike Russow was supposed to make Todd Duffee look good. And Duffee looked good for two and a half rounds as he put a solid ass-beating on Russow. But the Chicago cop demonstrated why, no matter how good you are or how far ahead on the cards you might be, you simply can’t box with your hands down, knocking Duffee out at 2:35 of round three.
RICH FRANKLIN KOs CHUCK LIDDELL
UFC 115: JUNE 12, 2010
Liddell put up a valiant effort, hurting Franklin with clean combos and a powerful kick that broke his left arm. However, as “The Iceman” smelled blood and charged forward toward the closing seconds of round one, “Ace” landed a hard right hand that knocked Liddell unconscious and into retirement.
TAKANORI GOMI KOs TYSON GRIFFIN
UFC LIVE: AUG. 1, 2010
Griffin stayed in the pocket just a little too long, and Gomi unloaded a powerful right hook, sending Griffi n face first
into the canvas at 1:04 of round one. And just like that, it appeared “The Fireball Kid” found his former PRIDE Lightweight Champion mojo.
SUBMISSION OF THE YEAR
SHUICHIRO KATSUMURA SUBMITS MASAKATSU UEDA
SENGOKU RAIDEN CHAMPIONSHIP 14, AUG. 22, 2010
Shooto has long-standing traditions in its ring dating back to 1986. But in 2010, it was innovation that stood out in the Japanese organization. A Bantamweight World Title bout between defending champion Masakatsu Ueda and submission wizard Shuichiro Katsumura featured a definitive, memorable end on March 22 at The Way of Shooto 2: Like a Tiger, Like a Dragon from Korakuen Hall in Tokyo.
After Ueda took round one with effective striking, Katsumura pulled guard and dragged Ueda to the mat midway through round two. Katsumura broke down Ueda’s wrestling base with an active rubber guard. From mission control, the 34-year-old released, baiting Ueda to sit up. Katsumura sat up along with the champion, preventing Ueda from gaining his posture with a slick modified-guillotine grip. Ueda immediately recognized he was in trouble, but like a true submission artist, Katsumura was already too many steps ahead—in too much control—and rolled Ueda, taking top in a fully-mounted position. Extending his hips, Katsumura coaxed the tapout, prompting typically subdued Japanese spectators to erupt with excitement as a new champion was crowned.
The masterful brabo choke from rubber guard kept Ueda from his fourth title defense. Katsumura snagged the belt six days shy of a two year reign for Ueda. A Reversal Gym Yokohama Ground Slam representative, Katsumura earned the greatest victory of his decade-plus career after a hard-fought two rounds. He named his artful submission the “ninja choke.” 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu founder and rubber guard connoisseur Eddie Bravo reacted to the unbelievable new choke from rubber guard with a simple yet effective thought: “I’m going to start drilling this one immediately!”
Katsumura landed a technique in a title fight never seen in such a high level fight, if ever. Bravo’s assertion proved that the Japanese fighter shaped the evolutionary curve of submissions in mixed martial arts through example. Not to be greedy, Katsumura shared his technique with the immediate release of the Mastering the Ninja Choke DVD, cashing in on the momentum of his victory over a world-ranked opponent. In the proud tradition of Rumina Sato, Kazushi Sakuraba, and Shinya Aoki, Katsumura solidified his place among can’t miss submissions from the Land of the Rising Sun.
SUBMISSIONOF THE YEAR HONORABLE MENTIONS
DEF ROSARY CALIFANO
VIA FLYING ARMBARE
XTREME BEATDOWN: FEB. 13, 2010
VIA MODIFIED KIMURA
BELLATOR 19: MAY 20, 2010
UFC 116: JULY 3, 2010
UFC 123: NOV. 20, 2010
UPSET OF THE YEAR
FABRICIO WERDUM SUBMITS FEDOR EMELIANENKO
STRIKEFORCE, JUNE 26, 2010
It’s still up for debate what was more surreal that night in June—the slow-motion sight of the world’s consensus best pound-for pound heavyweight tapping or the strange cathedral hush that came over the crowd after the initial eruption, just as it dawned on everyone what they’d just witnessed.
Perhaps we should remember the context here, which is everything: not only was Fedor supposed to beat Fabricio Werdum, but this was also thought to be one of those “why bother” fights for the Russian enigma. The criticism was that Strikeforce was feeding him a steady diet of gimmes. The counter was that at least you got to see Fedor vanquish another opponent, like a modern day Spartacus. It was noteworthy that Werdum barely appeared on any of the promotional material leading up. He was an afterthought. In darker rituals, he would have been called a “sacrifice.” Never mind that his BJJ black belt was several degrees darker than others, these were trinkets next to the solemn power of Fedor.
Remember too that the UFC had tried (and failed) to wrest Emelianenko from such cushy matches and stick him in there with the likes of Brock Lesnar. Just as the cries of unsinkability went with the Titanic, words like invincible and unbeatable were thrown around pretty loosely when discussing the too-terse Fedor, who hadn’t lost since never (the cut that cost him against Tsuyoshi Kohsakahad long since become part of the lore). What had Werdum done? He had just decisioned Antonio Silva, got by Mike Kyle, eh, but hadn’t he dropped three of his last eight? This was a mismatch.
But when inevitability is the case, there’san accompanying sense of unease that too much is being taken for granted. People associate it with jinx concepts. That feeling was there in San Jose that night, too, just as it had been when Fedor fought Brett Rogers and Andrei Arlovski. This time, though, as a 6-to-1 favorite, the unthinkable actually happened.
Whether Werdum got hit, slipped, or was coaxing Fedor into his reclining world on the mat is now immaterial. Fedor went in for a quick kill. We’d seen it a million times, him dropping anvils on people and finishing. That’s what makes the methodical way that Werdum weathered, latched, and squeezed the triangle/armbar so casually Venus Flytrap-like. The fight game’sun knowable best went down.
A rematch between Fedor and Werdum would very likely come out differently. But the fact is, it happened. Werdum was the one to finally beat the great Fedor.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR
There’s epic and then there’s Epic. After checking out of 2009 with a mid-December whimper (a split-decision loss to Bart Palaszewski), Anthony Pettis ended 2010 by posterizing Ben Henderson via a pinball kick off the cage that looked like wirework choreography leftover from the film Iron Monkey. It’s hard to imagine a single kick carrying more importance—not only did it change the punctuation of the WEC’s final chapter from a simple period to an exclamation mark, it capped a four-win 2010 for the Milwaukee-based dynamo while leaving little doubt “Showtime” was the number one contender in the lightweight division. What else? Oh yeah…that single kick carried the whole sport of mixed martial arts into the country’s imagination by placing number eight on ESPN’s “Top Play List” for 2010. For all intents and purposes, Anthony Pettis said hello to the world (and UFC matchmaker Joe Silva) while saying sayonara to the fish-bowl, blue cage he’d long been providing wattage for.
That moment was huge, but Pettis treated all of 2010 as a coming out party.
A pupil of renowned Muay Thai coach Duke Roufus in Wisconsin, Pettis’s legs have become advanced technology in the space of a year. His torrid streak began when he downed Danny “Last Call” Castillo with a head kick at WEC 47 that recalled Gabriel Gonzaga’s long-cherished knockout of Cro Cop, a kick so flashy and sudden that commentator Stephan Bonnar could only scream, “Wow! He was out before he hit theground!” Pettis took home Fight of the Night honors, and returned six weeks later to choke out Alex Karalexis in the second round at WEC 48.
But Pettis’s best performances were yet to come.
He returned in August to fight Shane Roller in what would become a back-and-forthbattle, where Pettis’s creativity with kicks (a mix of freelance and cold calculation) hit new levels. With nine seconds left in an exhaustive bout that he’d to that point dominated, Pettis was able catch Roller in a triangle choke and effectively tear up the judge’s scorecards. This set up his Lightweight WEC Title tilt with Ben Henderson,where Pettis came in as a 2-to-1 underdog. With the announcement of the WEC/UFCmerger, the fight effectively became a contender’s fight for the next crack at the Edgar/Maynard winner in the UFC. What did Pettis do? He not only beat Henderson via unanimous decision and took home Fight of the Night honors, “Showtime” made everyone openly wonder if their eyes could be believed.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEARHONORABLE MENTIONS
2010 Victories: Jesse Lennox, Nick Osipczak, Dustin Hazelett, Johny Hendricks
2010 Victories: Brian Stann, Alexander Gustafsson, Rodney Wallace, Tim Boetsch
2010 Victories: Ryan Thomas (twice), Dan Hornbuckle, Lyman Good