UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor's historic 2016 earned him the mantle of MMA "Fighter of the Year."
Leading into UFC 196 in March 2016, Conor McGregor was slated to fight Rafael dos Anjos for the lightweight title and he boldly declared that “2015 was my year, 2016 is also my [expletive] year. Every year is my [expletive] year.”
McGregor’s 2015 was a dream year. He defeated Chad Mendes to win the interim title at UFC 189. In December he knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds to unify the belt, the only featherweight champion in the promotion’s history.
Entering 2016, McGregor was established as the brightest star in the sport, and by the end of the year he was the sport as he transcended into the mainstream and earned S.comI's MMA fighter of the year award. His pursuit of two titles was a storyline that played out over nearly the whole calendar year and transfixed fans. He headlined the biggest event in the sport’s history with one of its most iconic moments. Even though he was temporarily sidetracked from his ultimate goal by Nate Diaz, he smashed pay-per-view records in every one of his fights.
McGregor’s three pay-per-view fights reportedly all crossed the fabled 1.6 million buys record set by UFC 100 back in 2009, making McGregor the king of pay-per-views in UFC history. To put into perspective how significant that is, McGregor’s three pay-per-views in 2016 pulled in more buys than all UFC pay-per-views in 2014 combined (reportedly 3.0 million-3.2 million). As noted by Bloody Elbow, during a 12-month stretch dating to UFC 194 in December 2015, McGregor drew nearly six million buys, which would double that 2014 calendar year. McGregor has established himself as the biggest draw in UFC history, averaging more buys per event than legends like Brock Lesnar, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre and even Ronda Rousey.
The UFC’s best year for pay-per-view buys was 2010, and as Iain Kidd notes, McGregor’s 2016 was better than Brock Lesnar's and Georges St-Pierre’s 2010 numbers combined, which was the height of their popularities to boot.
McGregor’s year began with the pursuit of history as he was slated to fight dos Anjos for the lightweight title. With a win McGregor, would become the first fighter to hold two belts in the UFC simultaneously and just the third fighter to win belts in different weight classes in a career. An injury forced dos Anjos off the card and Nate Diaz waltzed in on 11 days notice for a fight at 170 pounds, two weight classes above McGregor’s division. Diaz derailed McGregor’s hype train when he submitted McGregor to a rear-naked choke in the second round.
Pundits immediately speculated over whether McGregor’s star had burnt out just as it began to shine. Would fans still appreciate the brash and outspoken Irishman now that he was no longer undefeated in the UFC?
If anything, the flaw in his record helped catapult McGregor to transcendent star. He took his loss on the chin and rode out the bumps in the wake, sitting at a press conference and answering questions as best he could. Behind closed doors, McGregor was refocused and reportedly obsessed with getting another shot at Diaz, temporarily moving the dream of holding two belts to the back burner.
McGregor’s rematch was slated to headline the historic UFC 200 anniversary card during July, a typical tent pole event for the UFC capping off International Fight Week. The fight was ultimately postponed because McGregor squabbled with the UFC over media and promotional obligations as he tried to refocus and rededicate himself to what made him successful in the first place—martial arts training. At UFC 202, McGregor was able to defeat Diaz in a back-and-forth five-round war to avenge the loss and get his career back on track.
McGregor was granted a shot at the lightweight title he coveted at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden in New York City, an iconic venue in combat sports history. The universe provided an even bigger stage for McGregor's historic moment.
McGregor dominated lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, dropping him multiple times en route to a TKO win in the first round. He celebrated while perched atop the UFC cage, holding two belts up triumphantly, reveling in a feat no other fighter in UFC history had accomplished.
McGregor’s historic moment at UFC 205 alone had all the makings for Fighter of the Year as he achieved something no other person has come close to doing. Along the way, fighters in just about every weight class were asked about McGregor. Fighters eagerly call him out. In a single event alone in December 2015, McGregor was challenged to a fight three times in the same night.
McGregor has also transcended the sport as undefeated and retired boxer Floyd Mayweather is routinely subjected to questions about a potential super fight. McGregor insulted the WWE and what seemed like the entire roster of WWE Superstars responded.
In pop culture, McGregor made appearances on late night television shows like Conan and garnered a role in the forthcoming season of Game of Thrones. He played a character in the latest Call of Duty game. He was tapped for a role in the new xXx movie before pulling out to focus on the Diaz rematch. His trademark strut has become iconic in sports with world-class athletes around the globe mimicking the champion. Cristiano Ronaldo went and trained with McGregor in Las Vegas and McGregor went to Jennifer Lopez’s birthday party.
Over the course of 2016, McGregor entrenched himself as the face of mixed martial arts. He has brought new fans to the sport in droves. MMA and McGregor are becoming synonymous.
2. Cody Garbrandt
Cody Garbrandt has a legitimate stake to the title of Fighter of the Year after his remarkable journey. At UFC Fight Night: Pittsburgh in February 2016, Garbrandt made the trek to the cage as an unranked, yet undefeated, fighter making just his third appearance in the Octagon. Garbrandt was from a nearby town in Ohio and fought several bouts in the Pittsburgh area before his UFC career began, making him a solid local draw on the main card. He knocked out Augusto Mendes just before the end of the first-round, kicking off a historic run. Garbrandt’s next fight was a bigger test in the 21-0 Thomas Almeida, a test Garbrandt dispatched with another first-round knockout.
His place in UFC history was set into motion at UFC 202. Walking into the arena, Garbrandt had a run-in with bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. Later that night, Garbrandt knocked out Takeya Mizugaki in 48 seconds, proceeding to note that he dismissed Mizugaki quicker than the champion as Cruz watched.
At UFC 207, 10-0 Garbrandt was given a title shot in a co-main event with Cruz, a man who had never lost at 135 pounds and was considered by some pundits to be the true pound-for-pound best on the planet. Garbrandt dismantled Cruz with precision over five rounds, taunting the champion throughout, knocking him down four times in a single round en route to winning the strap.
Not many fighters entered that cage four times in a single year, fewer won all their fights, and none went from unranked to world champion over that span.
3. Amanda Nunes
The stars aligned for Nunes in 2016 as she ascended to the throne of the women’s bantamweight division, re-establishing order along the way. Nunes opened the year with a decision win over Valentina Shevchenko. That earned her a title shot at UFC 200 against Miesha Tate, an icon of women’s MMA and the women who famously lost the belt to Ronda Rousey before her historic run. The situation surrounding Jon Jones’ positive drug test thrust this bout into the spotlight of UFC 200, expected to be one of the biggest events in the promotion’s history.
Nunes didn’t falter in the spotlight, standing across the cage from an icon. She submitted the prolific grappler in the first round to win the belt while becoming the first openly gay UFC champion and the first Brazilian women to win a UFC belt.
Nunes capped her year with a stunning and dominant victory over Ronda Rousey at UFC 207, defeating another titan of the sport. She did so decisively en route to becoming the only woman aside from Ronda Rousey to successfully defend the women’s bantamweight title and only the third woman in the UFC to successfully defend a title.
4. Stipe Miocic
The reigning and defending heavyweight champion dominated the division in 2016. Miocic began the year with a bout against a legend and contender in Andrei Arlovski, knocking him out in under a minute. Next, he fought then-champion Fabricio Werdum at UFC 198, which took place in Werdum’s home country of Brazil. Miocic knocked out Werdum in the first round to win the belt. Although it hasn’t gotten much attention, the Cleveland-born Miocic was the one who broke Cleveland, Ohio’s title drought as the Cleveland Cavaliers were still in the midst of their playoff run at this point. At UFC 203, Miocic successfully defended the belt against another MMA legend in Alistair Overeem, not only escaping a choke but also knocking out a prolific striker in the first-round.