In hindsight, 2015 may have been the most unpredictable year in mixed martial arts history.
From punishing upsets to split-second finishes, the sport has seen no shortage of excitement over the past 12 months. Even in the absence of superstars like Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones, promotions like the UFC have fattened its pockets along the way.
With budding superstars, new champions and egregious acts of punishment handed down by power-hungry decision makers, MMA looks completely different than it did just one year ago. So much so, that next year has already peaked massive interest among countless enthusiasts.
When we look back at 2015, we’re often reminded of how cold and calculated this sport can be. But as ruthless as the ongoing uncertainty remains, onlookers are never truly ready to witness the extraordinary. This includes spectacular events inside of the cage and unfathomable acts outside of it.
In accordance with our wildest memories from a year passed, here are the five biggest MMA surprises of 2015:
5. The Hit-and-Strip
It was no secret that former UFC light heavyweight champion and promotional posterboy Jon Jones got into trouble outside of the Octagon.
His fame, fortune and forgetful young soul fueled a rather fast life as the sport’s most transcendent star. One who became a UFC champion at the age of 24.
But when Jones was arrested for a hit-and-run accident back in April, the MMA world was in shock. Did arguably the greatest fighter in the world throw away a legendary career? More importantly, did the immature partying of Jones lead to the permanent injury of an innocent victim (thankfully it didn’t)?
What made things even more hectic and bleak for Jones was the fact that UFC brass stripped the reigning 205-pound king of his title before any official verdict was handed down for his crime (which was 18 months of probation and mandatory public appearances dished out in September).
Jones has since experienced life-changing repent, recently opening up to Ariel Helwani of MMAFighting.com regarding his journey from tragedy to transformation. Yet, despite a new found outlook on his personal and professional life, 2015 is a year the G.O.A.T. will never forget.
4. R(uin) D(estroy) A(nnihilate)
Rafael dos Anjos, aka RDA, has absolutely butchered the very best lightweights in the world in just over nine months.
From obliterating former UFC lightweight champion Anthony “Showtime” Pettis at UFC 185 to earn the title to recently disposing of a hungry Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone at UFC on FOX 17 for his first defense, RDA has ruined, destroyed and annihilated his way into the pound-for-pound rankings.
While the Brazilian’s natural abilities, like his strength and speed, would have led us to believe he was a future top dog at 155 pounds, no one in their right mind would have predicted he’d become the most proficient striker in the division over the course of one year. Dos Anjos’ willingness to pressure opponents from bell to bell has certainly proved to be a catalyst to his success.
His victory over Cerrone not only ended one of the most elusive winning streaks in divisional history (eight), but it snafued a potential matchup between “Cowboy” and Conor McGregor in 2016.
Not to worry. RDA is quickly becoming an unstoppable force inside of the Octagon. On top of his elite finishing ability and evolved technique, he’s a strong minded grappler who just so happens to train alongside UFC heavyweight kingpin Fabricio Werdum.
If 2015 was any indication of the punishment that dos Anjos plans to inflict on the entire roster heading into the new year, the featherweight and welterweight divisions may find their gates flooded with refugees.
3. Five Years on Ice
Fan favorite and true American ninja warrior Nick Diaz is no stranger to marijuana. His distinguished MMA career is riddled with failed drug tests and he has openly discussed a recreational life outside of the cage that would make Cheech and Chong very proud (not that we all condone the act).
So it didn’t come as much of a surprise that the Stockton native tested positive for marijuana yet again after his bout with legendary pound-for-pound great Anderson Silva at UFC 183 this past January. Silva himself tested positive for banned substances drostanolone and androsterone, but his case is so skewed that we’re better off letting the Brazilian believe his negligence stemmed from using Viagra.
But under unbelievable scrutiny by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Diaz’s third offense ultimately sent him directly to the guillotine (not the choke). For the NSAC, suspending the brash striker for five whole years seemed like the proper course of action. They displaced all common sense and immediately snatched a man’s means of living from his more than capable fists.
The commission’s decision was met with much resistance, specifically a 100,000 signature petition in favor of lifting the ban that went directly to the White House. Unfortunately, the White House refused to do much of anything, but it did raise awareness for the harsh injustice that a seemingly power-hungry group of decision makers have invoked on MMA.
Even in a sport occupying a small slice of the American market, compared to the likes of the NFL, MLB and NBA, a fighter is suspended for five years for using a drug that has similar effects to the Budweiser beers Donald “Cowby” Cerrone swigs on his ranch in New Mexico.
Diaz may not be the most likable guy in the eyes of many fans, but everyone should sympathize with such an egregious hailmary attempt by the NSAC.
2. The Ominous Overthrow
The walk to the Octagon at UFC 193 was a long dark tread for former UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.
On the heels of countless media appearances and lofty undefeated expectations she cast upon herself, the transcendent female combat star didn’t look like the same killer entering the cage on Nov. 15. The fact that multi-time world boxing champion Holly Holm stood across from Rousey added doubt to an already ominous situation.
In dramatic and successive fashion, Holm began to beat Rousey about like a washed-up bully who stole the wrong lunch money. She battered, bruised and bewildered the greatest female mixed martial artist the free world has ever seen.
When we take a step back and think about the skills that Holm brought to the cage that night, it’s disappointing to know we doubted her capability of finishing the champ, which she did via second-round head kick. Because as great as Rousey was, and presumably still can be, her striking was never on par with the rest of her world-class game.
Still, to see her mouth leaking with the blood was something out of the Twilight Zone. Humble in defeat and noticeably mulling over her mistakes, Rousey had been dethroned and sent packing. It was easily one of the most surprising championship outcomes in UFC history, let alone combat sports.
But as unexpected as that may have been, the same can be said about the UFC forcing Holm to wait until July to fight Rousey. Due to the former champion’s obligation to finish filming two movies, the promotion is hellbent on once again leapfrogging worthy contenders like Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes in favor of “Rowdy.” It’s an unfortunate reality for a fighter like Holm who loves to stay active, but when the money is right, the money is right.
1. Executing the Exclamation to Excellence
Hate him or love him (how can you not), there’s never been a fighter quite like Conor McGregor.
Through just seven UFC appearances, the confident Irishman has become the promotion’s biggest and most lucrative star. His knockout ability, footwork, movement, versatility and willingness to absorb damage to land damage has made him an absolute beast inside of the Octagon.
But despite all of his accomplishments and brash predictions leading into his ultra-anticipated grudge match at UFC 194 with featherweight champion Jose Aldo, few imagined “The Notorious” cracking the Brazilian with one clean left hook and leaving him to collect his consciousness just 13 seconds into the first round. As a result, McGregor became the unified 145-pound champion and silenced the remaining doubters who believed his TKO win over Chad Mendes at UFC 189 was solely based on a short training camp for “Money.”
Instead, the 27-year-old flattened the only featherweight titleholder in UFC history without even breaking a sweat. Granted, extended fight time would have led to a more intricate exchange between both men, but when the shot is there you have to take it.
Heading into 2016, McGregor has the UFC by the cojones. He’s in charge, he’s calling the shots and he’s ultimately going to control his own fortune moving forward. One that may or may not feature names like lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, No. 1 featherweight contender Frankie Edgar and a rejuvenated Nate Diaz.