Josh Gross
Monday December 22nd, 2008

It was the kind of year that would make a cynic think the cliff is coming. Yes, mixed martial arts took its place alongside well-established sports in 2008. Fighters enjoyed opportunity and recognition. "Make it or break it" became the mantra for promoters. And more people than ever enjoyed a seemingly endless stream of classic MMA fights and action on what felt like a televised loop.

But for all the positives, there were plenty of growing pains. Out-of-action incidents, such as the arrest of Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, drew the attention of an interested media. Increasing political and monetary tiffs between fighters and promoters and managers delivered headlines. And the sport's behind-the-scenes powerbrokers played a mad dash to establish a foothold at a time when MMA's growth could be remembered as much for its expansion as its uncertainty.

There were also the moments when the importance of perspective outweighed anything else. Evan Tanner's sorrowful departure brought the MMA community -- still very much insular and protective after years of castigation by ill-informed politicians and media -- to an introspective place.

When it comes down to it, though, the important thing, the reason why people cared about the sport to begin with, continues to be fighters like Tanner and the wars they waged. Without these men and women, fragile as you or I, repeatedly laying it on the line, without the type of action these bouts permit, nothing else about the sport would mean very much.

From pillar to post, January through December, the endless fight season never let off the gas -- even in the midst of summer's crunch at the pumps. Fans doled out hundreds of hard-earned dollars for pay-per-view events, and were privy to more free fights than ever. All in all, it was a great year to be an MMA fan.

In determining what constitutes the best of the best this year it became immediately clear how deep the pool was. Nearly every award winner could be argued, and that's not a bad thing. A level of parity, that twinge of uncertainty, has revealed MMA to be dynamic experience, for you, for me and for anyone caring to take a look.

Fighter of the year: Anderson Silva

Regarded as the top mixed martial artist, and likely the sport's best striker, Silva (23-4) enjoyed what was yet another stellar campaign as UFC middleweight champion. Among a handful of candidates for fighter of the year honors, Silva is deserving on several fronts (though, admittedly, there is competition yet to be had from Forrest Griffin, who fights Rashad Evans on Dec. 27, and Eddie Alvarez, the young Philadelphian set to meet Shinya Aoki on New Year's Eve in Japan).

Above all else, "The Spider" was dominant. He showed that even against the best, he was better. That notice was delivered in March with his most important win of the year: a stunning submission over Dan Henderson. Many predicted Silva's reign would end against Henderson -- the Pride champion at 205 and 185 pounds -- but the 33-year-old Brazilian brilliantly choked those thoughts away.

Two more wins -- a 61-second knockout of James Irvin at light heavyweight, and an underwhelming middleweight title defense against Patrick Cote (only because Silva didn't destroy a man most felt he should) -- closed out his year.

Silva's 2008 run is not the strongest we've seen, especially in light of potential year-end performances from Griffin or Alvarez. But there's no denying his ability to hunt and hurt. And for that, the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in MMA gets his due.

Female fighter of the year: Gina Carano

Still young into her MMA career, Carano (7-0) was handed an opportunity to be the face of women's fighting, and she didn't miss a step. Made famous thanks to CBS showcasing the sport three times in primetime -- twice with her as a star attraction -- Carano elevated the female side more than anyone could have managed.

She had her share of mishaps, including an unfortunate penchant for struggling to make weight, but the 26-year-old, otherwise known as "Crush" on NBC's American Gladiators, will be remembered for a year that saw her go 2-0 against quality fighters, helping raise the prospect for MMA's first female super-fight against Christiane "Cyborg" Santos.

As Carano goes, so will other women in the sport.

Best fight: Miguel Torres TKO Yoshiro Maeda

There are hundreds of fights each year capable of propelling fans to their feet. But to be fight of the year, there must be something more.

In 2008, that honor belongs to Torres and Maeda.

Their scrap on a World Extreme Cagefighting card in June was billed as the co-main event to a featherweight championship fight between Urijah Faber and Jens Pulver. But Torres, the organization's champion at 135 pounds, and Maeda made for the more compelling brawl inside Arco Arena.

Following a rousing opening round when Maeda informed Torres with his fists that he'd traveled from Japan to fight and had no intention of being easily put away, the pair delivered an amazing five-minute stretch.

Round 2, a finalist for "round of the year," brought forth a ton of action -- both standing and on the canvas. Torres, now 35-1, pushed the pace, landing from the outside in part to a significant reach advantage, and threatening with submissions. The highlight came when both men battled on the canvas in an exchange of leglocks.

By the third, Torres' output had worn on Maeda (23-6-2), who could barely see because of terrible swelling around his right eye. And in the end, doctors were forced to save Maeda, giving Torres his first WEC bantamweight title defense, while also cementing his place among the 10 best fighters in the world regardless of weight.

Heart. Skill. Anger. Passion. This one had it all, making it worthy of recognition in a year featuring numerous consequential wars.

Best KO: Rashad Evans against Chuck Liddell

Live by the knockout, die by the knockout. Having enjoyed years putting opponents to sleep, former UFC light heavyweight champion Liddell (21-6) took a perfect overhand right from Evans (12-0-1) that relieved him of his senses.

There were many tremendous knockouts in 2008, but Evans' punch stands alone for its form and brutality.

Best submission: Dustin Hazelett, armbar of Josh Burkman

Improvisation is the mother's milk of great submission fighters. And few were as open to improvisation in 2008 as welterweight Hazelett. Against Burkman on June 21, the 22-year-old Hazelett (12-4) turned a whizzer into an indefensible jumping armbar. It was the kind of move that made Kazushi Sakuraba a cult hero, and the type of sequence that distinguishes MMA from other combat sports.

Round: Eddie Alvarez vs. Tatsuya Kawajiri, R1

With the understanding that some fights in Japan feature a 10-minute opening round, Alvarez and Kawajiri's effort in July not only qualifies as round of the year, it ranks as the best fight outside of North America in 2008.

From the outset, the semifinal Dream lightweight tournament bout brought a frantic pace. Three knockdowns in about eight minutes. Furious flurries. Several "how-did-he-escape-that?" exclamations. It had everything you could want, including a vicious finishing sequence punctuated by a textbook right-straight-right-uppercut combination from Alvarez (17-1) that sent Kawajiri (22-5-2) to the canvas for the final time.

Because he endured so much damage, including having his eye so badly damaged and swollen that not even Rocky Balboa would have continued, Alvarez was forced from of the tournament finals later that evening.

A terrific fight from bell to bell.

Top newcomer: Brock Lesnar

In 2008, Lesnar might be the most significant name among those on this list. The mammoth heavyweight swarmed veteran Heath Herring for his first UFC win, and made for 90 of the most exciting seconds we might've seen this year in a loss to Frank Mir and defeated Randy Couture to take a portion of the UFC title (he'll fight to unify his belt with the "interim" portion in 2009).

Quite the introduction for Lesnar (3-1), who immediately became a top pay-per-view draw for the UFC.

Biggest upset: Mike Thomas Brown over Urijah Faber

Faber (21-2) was a heavy favorite in his November WEC featherweight title defense against Brown. And for good reason. Faber was the American face of MMA's featherweights, had been dominant in five previous title defenses and seemed perfectly equipped to handle Brown, a stout wrestler and puncher. But a clip of the chin changed everything, as Brown (20-4) scored a stunning first-round knockout.

Biggest comeback: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira

Add another to the surreal list of comebacks in Nogueira's excellent career.

The best Brazilian heavyweight in MMA history was a star in Japan, failing only to best Russian, Fedor Emelianenko, before coming to the U.S., where he established himself in the UFC. In February, against then-UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia, Nogueira (31-4-1, 1 NC) endured face-swelling punishment before managing a fast submission in Round 3.

He needed it. "Minotauro" was dropped midway through the opening round, and absorbed heavy punches from the outside against the 6-foot-8 Sylvia (24-5). When he eventually got his wish, using jiu-jitsu to fight on his terms, Nogueira sunk in a quick guillotine for the tap.

Like he'd done in Japan to Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic and Bob Sapp, Nogueira found the reserves to survive and, eventually, conquer.

Best trainer: Greg Jackson

Georges St. Pierre. Rashad Evans. Keith Jardine. Nate Marquardt. Leonard Garcia. There are more, but you get the idea. Few trainers have been as busy or successful as Jackson and his network of coaches in what was a watershed year for the crew from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Cut from the cloth of coaches and trainers who weren't great at their craft but excelled in teaching and explaining, Jackson is best at centering and focusing fighters' minds on the task in front of them. Nowhere has this skill been more prominent than in his time spent with UFC welterweight champion St. Pierre.

A testament to the plug-and-play training methods Jackson employs with associated coaches from Denver to Montreal to New York, he never lets ego get in the way of farming out fighters to specialists. But when it's time to game plan, and work the corner, and support a fighter, few are better than Jackson.

Most improved: Thiago Alves

There's a case to be made for Kenny Florian, but Alves, a murderous striker out of Florida's American Top Team camp, gets the nod with wins over three top-10 welterweight opponents.

The potential was always there and, at 25, Alves has moved beyond mere possibility. Stoppages over Karo Parisyan and Matt Hughes provided excellent counter-grappling skills, enabling the stalking "Pitbull" to move forward with ill-intentioned strikes. Again in October, against Josh Koscheck, Alves (16-3) showed why some believe he's the next legitimate challenger to St. Pierre.

With a step up in competition and the alarming effectiveness of his heavy-striking style, Alves displayed marked improvement, signaling coming years for the young Brazilian could be very bright indeed.

Top promoter: Zuffa

The gap between Zuffa and its competitors is wider now than it was at 2007's end -- that's saying something since we're talking Grand Canyon proportions 12 months ago.

With an ability to market and create new stars, particularly the kind that sell pay-per-views, Zuffa promoted 21 Ultimate Fighting Championship cards (including Dec. 27's blowout event) and six World Extreme Cagefighting events, each featuring the underexposed 145- and 135-pound divisions. In short, Zuffa has given mixed martial arts prominence in the U.S.

Heading into 2009, Zuffa bosses Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White are eyeing international expansion, increased regulation for MMA throughout North America and monster fights starting with Jan. 31's B.J. Penn- St. Pierre clash. The organization seems determined to own MMA, and it will take an equally skilled promoter to present any sort of challenge to the sport's top dog.

More MMA and 2008:

FOWLKES: A memorable year is yet to come

GROSS: Anderson Silva is my Sportsman

CNN VIDEO: UFC explodes

GALLERY: UFC 91: Couture vs. Lesnar

GROSS: Best of the best ... so far

GALLERY: Up-and-coming fighters of 2008

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