Best of 2015: MMA half-year awards

Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 70 put the wrap on the first half of MMA’s 2015 schedule. And while Fourth of July weekend is a rare breather, things pick up later that month, with Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor at UFC 189 leading the pack in a crowded field.

Since we have a moment or two to catch up, let’s take a look at the year’s best in the sport through six months:

Fighter of the Half-Year: Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Due to injuries and just the way the schedule has panned out, only two of the UFC’s current 10 champions have competed twice thus far in 2015. One, Daniel Cormier, lost to Jon Jones on Jan. 3, then came back to defeat Anthony Johnson to win the vacant light heavyweight title on Memorial Day weekend at UFC 187.

Jedrzejczyk, meanwhile, is the only champ with a 2-0 record in 2015. The native of Poland destroyed Carla Esparza to win the strawweight title at UFC 185 on March 14 via second-round TKO. On June 20, she became the first fighter to successfully defend the 115-pound crown with an equally one-sided win over Jessica Penne -- this time, a third-round finish.

Jedrzejczyk (10-0) has said she’d like to become strawweight’s Ronda Rousey. While she’s not likely to reach Rousey’s level of fame, the fighter known as Joanna Champion is well on her way to a similar level of divisional dominance.

Donald Cerrone gestures after defeating John Makdessi at UFC 187. (AP)
Donald Cerrone gestures after defeating John Makdessi at UFC 187. (AP)

Runner up: Donald Cerrone. The popular Cerrone is 3-0 in 2015. He scored a one-sided win against Myles Jury at UFC 182; stepped in as a replacement 15 days later and decisioned friendly nemesis Benson Henderson in their trilogy fight; then broke John Makdessi’s jaw in a second-round TKO at UFC 187.

On an eight-fight win streak, “Cowboy” is expected to meet lightweight champ Raphael dos Anjos when the latter returns from knee surgery.

Fight of the Half-Year (tie): LC Davis def. Hideo Tokoro, split decision, Bellator 135, March 27, Thackerville, Okla.; Justin Gaethje def. Luis Palomino, round three TKO, WSOF 19, Phoenix, March 28.

On paper, the last weekend of March looked to be a ho-hum affair, with no UFC event and a pair of what seemed to be filler cards from the sport’s Nos. 2 and 3 companies. Instead, it turned into a reminder that great fights can happen at any event. Davis and Tokoro, a pair of veteran bantamweights, put on a wild Bellator battle full of twists and turns before Davis, who had his jaw broken by a Tokoro upkick, gutted his way to a decision. The next night, Gaethje, the WSOF lightweight champ, and challenger Palomino put on the most memorable fight in WSOF history. The opening round was a pier-six brawl with both men delivering big blows. Gaethje, fighting in his hometown, began to pull away, and finally finished off Palomino, who went down swinging, late in the third.

Runner up: Andrei Arlovski def. Travis Browne, round one KO, UFC 187, May 23, Las Vegas: Can a one-round brawl earn FOTY consideration? It can when it’s the heavyweight throwdown like the one engaged between these two friends and former training partners. Arlovski, a former UFC heavyweight champ, capped off his memorable comeback run by shaking off a near knockout and delivering his own a few moments later to finish four of the wildest minutes you’ll ever see in the cage.

Finish of the Half-Year: Thiago Santos’ head-kick knockout of Steve Bosse, UFC Fight Night 70, Hollywood, Fla., June 27. Bosse was a minor-league hockey enforcer of some repute, but skilled jersey-grabbing techniques won’t defend you from a head kick. Santos noticed Bosse’s tendency to drop his hands from the outset, and wasted little time capitalizing. Santos drilled Bosse with a shin flush to the jaw. Bosse hit the mat, out cold, head twisted in an odd angle, in a manner reminiscent of Mirko Cro Cop’s head-kick loss to Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 70. And just like that, Santos had both a win in 29 seconds and stole Finish of the Half-Year just under the wire.

Runner up: Demetrious Johnson’s armbar finish of Kyoji Horiguchi, UFC 186, Montreal, April 25. Never let it be said the UFC flyweight champion is willing to cruise to his victories. “Mighty Mouse” topped his own record for latest submission win in UFC history when he polished off Horiguchi at 4:59 of the fifth round. They’ll have to time stopwatches down to the 10th of a second if DJ’s record is ever to be beaten.

Daniel Cormier celebrates after defeating Anthony Johnson at UFC 187. (AP)
Daniel Cormier celebrates after defeating Anthony Johnson at UFC 187. (AP)

Event of the Half-Year: UFC 187, Las Vegas, May 23. With two title fights and consequential fights up and down the main card, the annual Memorial Day weekend event in Las Vegas delivered. Daniel Cormier shook off Anthony Johnson’s power, then finished him in the third round of their fight for the vacant UFC light heavyweight title. Chris Weidman withstood a frenetic start from Vitor Belfort, then rallied for a first-round TKO to retain his middleweight title. Donald Cerrone made it eight in a row and earned a lightweight title shot when he finished John Makdessi. And Arlovski and Browne, as detailed above, threw down in a memorable brawl.

Runner up: Bellator 138, June 19, St. Louis. Was Kimbo Slice vs. Ken Shamrock a technical classic? No. But Slice’s first-round TKO win was watched by a Bellator-record two million viewers, viewers who also turned in an eventful fight card. That included the comeback of the year, when Bellator featherweight champ Patricio Freire was saved by the bell at the end of the first round of his title defense against Daniel Weichel, then scored a KO win early in the second. It also included impressive bounce-back wins for former champions Michael Chandler and Daniel Straus. That’s how you grow a brand.

Story of the Half-Year: UFC ramps up drug testing procedures. After UFC 182, it was reported then-UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones tested positive for cocaine metabolites in and out-of-competition drug test. After UFC 183, Anderson Silva tested positive for steroids, while his opponent, Nick Diaz, failed a marijuana test for the third time in his career. With the perception the company was out of control, the UFC made significant changes to its drug policy. Beginning July 1, all fighters on the roster will be subjected to random, year-round, out-of-competition testing; while first-time offenders will face two-year suspensions, with penalties increasing sharply for repeat offenders. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency will oversee the testing program.

Runner up: Jon Jones’ woes. It appeared 2015 was going to be the former UFC light heavyweight champion’s year, as he finished Daniel Cormier in a major grudge match at UFC 182 in early January. That led to talk about whether Jones had become the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time. Since then, it’s been all downhill. Jones went through a farcical one-day rehab stint in response to his failed cocaine test. Then, in April, he was allegedly involved in a hit-and-run accident in New Mexico which injured a pregnant woman. He was stripped of his title and suspended as he faces felony charges due to the incident.

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