SI.com's Josh Gross hands out the year-end hardware.
Three men could justifiably be called Fighter of the Year for 2009. So why did Georges St. Pierre earn SI.com's distinction over Fedor Emelianenko and Jose Aldo? Two reasons: his dominance in the cage combined with an emerging presence outside of it.
The 28-year-old UFC welterweight champion's successful campaign saw him stop pound-for-pound-ranked B.J. Penn in January, and dominate Thiago Alves, a serious threat at 170 pounds, on points at UFC 100. Each trip to the cage for the two-time Canadian athlete of the year was an exercise in preparation, athleticism and will.
Most impressive about St. Pierre was the ability to dominate in spite of his predictability. Both Penn and Alves knew he would wrestle. Both possess tremendous balance, power and tools to avoid takedowns. Both are known for their uncanny ability to stay standing. Just not against St. Pierre in 2009. In essence, the welterweight king illustrated that even when the toughest opponents know what's coming and how to stop it, he's good enough to do what he wants.
Now it's true the UFC champ didn't offer up the most entertaining performances -- both Emelianenko and Aldo have that over him -- yet his preparation and execution was no less fascinating.
As was his growth outside the cage and away from UFC.
There isn't a mixed martial artist this year who contributed more to the sport's long-term expansion than GSP. In March, he became the first mixed-style fighter sponsored by Gatorade. Seven months later, Under Armour signed St. Pierre (19-2) to a multi-year agreement that made him a featured face of the popular sports apparel company.
Emelianenko (2-0 with knockouts against Andrei Arlovski and Brett Rogers) and Aldo (4-0, including a beating of WEC featherweight champion Mike Thomas Brown) may have matched St. Pierre's fight results, but their respective influences outside the cage don't measure up.
MMA's top heavyweight may have received a tremendous amount of attention for negotiations with the UFC in the summer before settling on a contract with Strikeforce that put him on CBS in front of more than 5 million viewers, but it's not the same as the impact mainstream sponsors could have on MMA. Still, Emelianenko (31-1, 1 NC) made enough news to finish a strong second place.
And while Aldo (16-1) isn't the beneficiary of that kind of coverage on Versus' decreasing view universe, the 23-year-old's impressive tally, including a stomping of WEC featherweight champion Mike Thomas Brown in Nov., was more than enough to merit serious consideration.
While Sara Kaufman had a nice year, this was pretty cut-and-dry after August. Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos is a killer. On Aug. 15, "Cyborg" earned the respect of many who doubted her by trouncing Gina Carano (7-1) to capture the Strikeforce belt at 145 pounds in the first women's fight to headline a card on premium television.
The 24-year-old Santos (8-1) expressed little interest in usurping the "face of female MMA" mantle from Carano, but so long as all it requires is the desire and capability to fight dangerously, the title could be hers for quite some time.
Highly competitive? Check. Had a little bit of everything? Check. Extended fighters past what they might have thought were their breaking points? Check.
Fight of the year? Sure feels like it.
Competing for the WEC interim lightweight title while Jamie Varner, the division champion, was stuck on the sidelines because of injuries, the pair of 26-year-old fighters each managed to survive, attack and defend their way through the 25-minute war. Henderson (10-1) had the edge early, save a first-round flirtation with multiple Cerrone submissions. After taking a pounding on the floor, Cerrone (11-2, 1 NC) again attacked Henderson, including with a Kimura in the fifth period that appeared destined to break something. Somehow it did not.
When it was done, the three judges sitting cage-side in San Antonio, Texas, on Oct. 10 scored it 48-47 for Henderson. Though the decision stirred up quite a lot of discussion about its accuracy, all it should have done was speak to the fight's razor-thin margin.
The idea of selecting the best knockout of 2009 is a farce. There were so many tremendous finishes this year it's an impossible category to judge.
Here are seven that, in the moment, were as technically brilliant as Emelianenko's right-hand hammer to the leaping ex-UFC heavyweight champion's chin:
• Marius Zaromskis KO JasonHigh (same-sided kick to the head and punch) - Dream Featherweight grand prix
• Jose Aldo KO Cub Swanson (double-flying knee in eight seconds) - WEC 41
• Anderson Silva KO Forrest Griffin (unreal movement leads to Matrix kill shot) - UFC 101
• Dan Hornbuckle KO Akihiro Gono (high kick -- best pure strike on the list) - Sengoku 9th Battle
• Dan Henderson KO Michael Bisping (perfect overhand right to the wrong-way-circling Brit) UFC 100
• Lyoto Machida KO Rashad Evans (accuracy, explosion and patience) - UFC 98
• Yahir Reyes KO Estevan Payan (unreal timing on a stunning spinning backfist) - Bellator XI
So, why Emelianenko's shot against Arlovski?
The Russian had difficulty establishing the right range from which to strike in the early going. Arlovski was fast and sharp, winging punches near and around Emelianenko's head, but one mistake was all he needed. Boxed into a corner, Emelianenko unleashed an overhand right the instant Arlovski planted on the canvas to push himself into the air for a jumping knee. The punch twisted Arlovski (15-7) 180 degrees before he fell face first on the canvas, immobile. Beyond the stunning execution, the finish reminded the world how dangerous Emelianenko has been and still is.
Requiring the least debate of any category, Toby Imada's conscious-sapping triangle choke while clinging upside down to Masvidal's back is an all-time submission. Imada (22-12) needed a miracle by the time the third round approached in their semifinal lightweight tournament fight at Bellator 5. Unsure how to defend, Masvidal (19-4) froze before he passed out and his legs gave way. The move represented the kind of improvisation that makes submissions so important to MMA.
Twenty strong minutes of fighting brought Josh Thomson (16-4) and Gilbert Melendez (17-2) to the final round of their Strikeforce lightweight championship fight on Dec. 19. Though the action was compelling in earlier periods, it couldn't match what happened in the fifth. Each fighter eagerly went after victory. Each landed damaging blows. Each was forced to recover. From start to finish, it was the most competitive round of the year.