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UFC 'Fighter of the Year' 2016 - Top 5 List

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Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

This mess of a year is almost over.

With Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) taking a rare break for the holidays, it’s time to take a look back at what could charitably be described as a tumultuous 12 months. Titles bounced around, mixed martial arts (MMA) legends hung up the gloves, the entire ZUFFA enterprise changed hands, and United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) ran roughshod over the world’s largest MMA organization.

In our annual "Five Top Fives" for 2016, we look at the greatest "Fighters of the Year." Let's begin!

5. Stephen Thompson

It feels like just yesterday that Thompson -- fresh off a career-first loss to Matt Brown -- spent 15 toothless minutes point-fighting against Nah-Shon Burrell.

It's incredible how things change.

Thompson went undefeated (2-0-1) this year against some of the best the 170-pound division had to offer. In February, he did in three minutes what Robbie Lawler couldn't do in 50, obliterating the teak-tough Johny Hendricks in his first main event appearance. Say what you will about Hendricks's recent decline, knocking out the guy who survived this is all kinds of impressive.

Though "Wonderboy" couldn't recreate the violent feat against Rory MacDonald, he cruised past the former title contender without issue, showcasing excellent takedown defense and amazing range control. He looked poised to do the same to reigning champion Tyron Woodley at UFC 205, only to eat a monster right hand and kick off one of the year's best moments.

Woodley punches so hard that, if I were NASA, I'd hire him to simulate meteor impacts on satellites. He hit Thompson with every conceivable form of punishment and, when Thompson's brain refused to take the hint, cranked the kind of guillotine that looked liable to tear his head clean off.

Incredibly, Thompson not only survived, but went on to win the next round and secure a draw. Can't wait for the rematch.

4. Stipe Miocic

Three fights, three first-round knockouts.

Though Miocic’s 54-second drubbing of the resurgent Andrei Arlovski was somewhat predictable, his one-punch sparking of Fabricio Werdum at UFC 198 earlier this year was everything but. "Vai Cavalo," riding high on his upset of Cain Velasquez, had only ever been stopped by Junior dos Santos’s thermonuclear uppercut in 2008 and had trounced big hitters like Roy Nelson, Travis Browne and Mark Hunt during his rise.

Miocic saw the opportunity Werdum’s aggression gave him and ran with it, plugging the former champ with a perfect counter right for both the UFC Heavyweight Championship and a Knockout of the Year candidate.

His first title defense pitted him against Alistair Overeem at UFC 203, whose four-fight streak included a stunning knockout of Junior dos Santos. For all the Dutchman’s travails, he remains one of the most dangerous men in the division’s history and proved it with a first-round knockdown on a straight left. Showing championship grit, Miocic survived both the punch and Overeem’s legendary guillotine to eventually wrangle him to the mat and pound him out from guard.

I’m a little sad that he’s taking time off, but I’d say he’s earned it.

3. Donald Cerrone

Cerrone went undefeated (4-0) in a new weight class this year, Welterweight, winning all four fights by stoppage. Admittedly, he didn’t face some of the division’s true monsters, but that wasn’t for lack of trying -- he was originally set to fight Robbie Lawler in a surefire "Fight of the Year" candidate that unfortunately fell through.

The way he beat those four men, though, deserved recognition. Cerrone destroyed people who, categorically speaking, do not get destroyed.

His opening submission of Alex Oliveira was solid if unspectacular, as he grounded his hard-punching foe and locked up a quick rear-naked choke. He didn’t really start turning heads until June, when he clobbered Patrick Cote in three. For reference, the only time Cote had ever been stopped by strikes was when his knee gave out against Anderson Silva. Alessio Sakara had to do his best Neil Peart impression on the back of his head to accomplish what Cerrone did.

If knocking out Cote was ridiculous, then knocking out Rick Story was absurd. The first time I ever saw Story fight live, Thiago Alves hit him with a knee so hard it left an imprint of Story’s lower teeth in his mouthguard. Cerrone annihilated him with one of the most gorgeous combinations the sport has ever seen. Starting with a stiff jab, he slammed Story’s open body with a straight right, intercepted him with a shovel hook when he bent over, and intercepted his attempt to turn away with a flush head kick.

Poetry in motion.

Cerrone ended the year by knocking Matt Brown unconscious (highlights). Brown does not go unconscious. In 35 previous fights, many of them knockdown, drag-out wars, Brown had only ever been knocked down via head strike once: An overhand right from Jake Ellenberger, a man with slabs of depleted uranium for fists.

Cerrone put him to sleep with a head kick.

Believe it or not, he’ll be back in the cage in just a few weeks to battle Jorge Masvidal at UFC on FOX 23 in Denver, Colorado. Godspeed, you magnificent bastard.

2. Conor McGregor

McGregor’s accomplishments are incredible, his skill is phenomenal, and his braggadocio has brought countless eyes to the sport. He misses the top spot, however, because he is also the poster child for many of UFC’s persistent ills. His 2016 campaign was solid enough; after avenging his derailing defeat to Nate Diaz, he put on a virtuoso performance against Eddie Alvarez to earn the lightweight title and become the first simultaneous two-division champion.

Fans had to wade through a lot of bullshit for that to happen. The first two fights against Nate Diaz were acceptable; a planned fight with Rafael dos Anjos fell through and the rematch was common sense despite him blowing off a planned media obligation and scuttling a UFC 200 date. Before that rematch, company president Dana White assured fans that, win or lose, McGregor would finally defend his Featherweight belt afterward.

That was a lie, one of countless that White continues to peddle. McGregor, who once said "If you’re fit to fight and you’re not going to fight, the belt rightfully should be stripped," blew off his championship obligations and got wholly undeserved title shot at Lightweight despite both Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov being willing and able to compete. In fact, UFC used Khabib as a negotiation tool, sending him a contract for an Eddie Alvarez fight it had no intention of fulfilling.

And now, after winning that belt, McGregor wants to take 10 months off (or not ... who the hell knows). Again, "if you’re fit to fight and you’re not going to fight, the belt rightfully should be stripped." Ferguson and Nurmagomedov are still there. Edson Barboza is right behind them. Michael Chiesa, Beneil Dariush and Francisco Trinaldo are all on the verge of contendership.

As badass as "double champ" sounds, McGregor’s rank hypocrisy and the fact that he refused to defend either of those belts in a timely fashion keep him from being my "Fighter of the Year."

1. Michael Bisping

If you came out of that last pick thinking I just gave McGregor the shaft because I don’t personally like him, allow me to retort: I do not like Michael Bisping as a person. What he did in 2016, however, was awesome.

Bisping opened the year by taking a decision over Anderson Silva at UFC Fight Night 84. Had someone predicted this at any point in the last few years, they would have been laughed out of the room. Instead of the one-sided and thoroughly cathartic obliteration everyone expected, however, "The Count" dropped Silva in the first round and survived both a perfect flying knee and a fifth-round blitz to take it on all three "controversial" scorecards.

Bisping’s second win was even more impressive, though, as he knocked Luke Rockhold flat in less than four minutes to finally win UFC's 185-pound title. Rockhold had been more or less unstoppable since his loss to Vitor Belfort, going perfect (5-0) with five stoppages en route to championship gold.

Those five victims included Bisping himself in 2014. He had absolutely nothing for Rockhold in their first match, swinging at air for two rounds before ultimately getting decked by a head kick and choked out for the first time in his career. He entered the rematch on short notice and as a +600 underdog. Against all odds, Bisping earned just his second knockout since 2011 against a man who had looked poised to rule the division with an iron fist.

He capped off the year by avenging the most humiliating defeat of his career. Stepping into the ring against eternal rival Dan Henderson, he survived two knockdowns from the famed "H-Bomb" to take a razor-thin decision

While I’ll admit that the Henderson fight was closer than it needed to be and was a fight that shouldn’t have happened, the Silva and Rockhold wins are massive achievements. More significant, however, is the length of Bisping’s journey -- this is a man who made his Octagon debut in 2006 . He won the title after 10 years and 26 UFC fights at the age of 37.

He was never the fastest, never the strongest, but Michael Bisping persevered through a tumultuous decade of combat to get the title. Well done, old sport.

Honorable mention: Tony Ferguson, Demian Maia, Dominick Cruz and Demetrious Johnson

Next up? The best events of 2016! See you shortly Maniacs.