Mixed martial arts (MMA) is — by its very nature — an extremely volatile sport, but nobody could have predicted how much the landscape would shift in 2017. Champions rose, legends fell, and both the old and new generations set the stage for a brilliantly tumultuous future. Nobody stood out quite like these five, though.
Honorable Mentions: Rafael dos Anjos, Francis Ngannou, Brian Ortega, Martin Nguyen, Darren Till
Number Five: Volkan Oezdemir
Whether or not Oezdemir topples Daniel Cormier next month, he came out of nowhere to have an incredible 2017.
He started off by stepping up on two weeks’ notice to defeat Ovince Saint Preux by unanimous decision. The decision was admittedly iffy, with 14 of 16 media members scoring it for “OSP,” and the bookies accordingly listed him as a 3:1 underdog against Misha Cirkunov.
Cirkunov — who had stopped four consecutive UFC opponents — was expected to overpower the Swiss striker with his Greco-Roman skills. Instead, Oezdemir lamped him in 28 seconds with a boop to the ear. Jimi Manuwa fared exactly six seconds worse, providing Oezdemir a new nom de guerre: “No Time.” Three wins over top Light Heavyweight fighters in the span of six months, two of which lasted a combined 0:58. I think that’s enough to earn a place on this list.
Number Four: Rose Namajunas
Rose Namajunas had built a career out of incredible moments, but her lack of consistency and champion Joanna Jerdzejczyk’s overwhelming dominance left “Thug Rose” one of the larger underdogs on UFC 217. Sure, she’d dropped and choked out Michelle Waterson in April, but she was just two fights removed from a rough loss to Karolina Kowalkiewicz and her prior victory over Tecia Torres could have easily gone “The Tiny Tornado’s” way.
Namajunas’ only avenue of victory, it appeared, lay in her venomous submission game, but she’d have to take Jedrzejczyk down and keep here there. Neither Cláuda Gadelha nor Jéssica Andrade had been able to do so and they looked like far stronger wrestlers than Namajunas.
So Rose just knocked Jedrzejczyk flat with a left hook instead. Props for lateral thinking!
She’s got another row with Jedrzejczyk ahead of her before she can move on, but Namajunas made an incredible impression in 2017, one that deserves recognition
Number Three: Demetrious Johnson
Demetrious Johnson happily grappled with two Brazilian jiu-jitsu aces this year and submitted them both. That is how freakishly good this man is.
I’m sure you’ve had your fill of superlatives about “Mighty Mouse,” but he absolutely deserves them. Wilson Reis is a former Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion (at brown belt) who had never been submitted as a professional and Ray Borg is a scrambling prodigy who’s huge for the division. Johnson gave them every opportunity to show their skills, then easily dominated them anyway.
And Dana White’s claiming he can’t market this guy?
Number Two: Robert Whittaker
Going into 2017, the Middleweight division had two boogeymen: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Yoel Romero, who had run roughshod over all comers save each other and struggled to get the top match ups they deserved. Whittaker, who got to UFC through a filler season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) and had two losses at Welterweight in the organization, fought them both in succession.
Against “Jacare,” Whittaker managed to dislodge the jiu-jitsu legend from his back and systematically dismantle him before putting him away with a vicious head kick. Souza had won 10 of his previous eleven dating back to 2011, throttling the likes of Gegard Mousasi and giving Yoel Romero his toughest UFC out, but had zero answers for “Bobby Knuckles.”
Then came Romero.
“Soldier of God” has the sort of athletic prowess you expect out of a fighting game boss the players aren’t supposed to be able to use without hacking. He’s so fast that it looks like the laws of physics are struggling to keep up with him when he explodes. If the man could get any traction on the cage floor he’d be unstoppable.
Whittaker, after a rough couple rounds, beat him on one leg.
“The Reaper” is entertaining, powerful, young and has another potential “Fight of the Year” lined up against Luke Rockhold. Mad, mad props.
Number One: Max Holloway
Ordinarily, spending your year fighting the same guy twice isn’t enough to get the top spot. When that guy is Jose Aldo and you make him look pedestrian, though, that’s another story.
Of all the fighters to earn a belt this year, Holloway has my highest hopes for establishing a dynasty. Jose Aldo is a technician of the highest caliber and Holloway took him apart twice in a row.
And he’s a measly 26 years old. His potential is so far off the charts that a five-man belay team couldn’t climb high enough to see the top. Nobody did more in 2017 to stake their claim as the future of the sport.
My expectation? He’ll be back in this top spot more than once.
UFC has fewer dynasties than ever right now, and that means some quality drama in store for 2018 when this new crop of champions gets to show their mettle. Can’t wait!