#5 Rafael dos Anjos
Rafael dos Anjos started off his year with not so great results, losing a one-sided decision to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC on Fox: Werdum vs. Browne in April. It was appearing as though the then 29 year old Brazilian was destined to be a serviceable gatekeeper to the up and coming stars of the lightweight division. Then an impressive if not predictable TKO win over Jason High at UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs. Khabilov showed what we all knew to be true, a dangerous and competitive fighter who will never be able to break the glass ceiling, but will always be in the mix hovering around the top ten. Then former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson came knocking. In what many viewed as a get back fight for Bendo in hopes of regaining championship form and dos Anjos as his warm meal. Some viewed their headlining matchup in August as a forgone conclusion. Then a funny thing happened, the fight started. It was a nice back and forth fight, then a flying knee, then a straight left to the chin, the fight was over and we had a new “made man” in the 155lb. division. Then to add to dos Anjos’s impressive 2014 campaign, a dominant and at times hard to watch beating inflicted on former title challenger and fan favorite Nate Diaz in early December.
#4 Donald Cerrone
It was looking like “Cowboy” was on the downside of his career. His many hard fought battles appeared to be taking their toll on the multi-time post fight award winner. With him alternating between wins and losses to close out 2013 in many eyes were signaling the end of his run as a potential top contender in the UFC lightweight division. He no doubt would have been viewed as a top guy and a must see fighter, but would he get a run at the title? Then 2014 kicked off, and Cerrone nearly kicked off Adriano Martins head in January. Then the first round destruction of Edson Barboza and the second round stoppage of Jim Miller further advanced the notion Cerrone wasn’t done. He finished his 2014 run ended in bout facing off against Eddie Alvarez in his much anticipated UFC debut. The first round saw Cerrone staggered in the clinch, which turned out to be Alvarez’s best moments in the fight, as the rest of the contest saw him battered by Cerrone’s brutal kicks. That’s 4 fights in the UFC’s most stacked division and 4 impressive wins, “Cowboy” isn’t wasting any time getting back to work as he faces upstart Myles Jury on January 3, 2015.
#3 Neil Magny
Yeah, I know when you think of the top 5 fighters of 2014, the name Neil Magny doesn’t jump out at you, and neither do any of his opponents. Gasan Umalatov, Tim Means, Rodrigo de Lima, Alex Garcia, and William Macario aren’t household names unless you are sitting at their kitchen table. But, those are 5 men Magny faced and 5 wins, tying him for the record for most UFC wins in a calendar year. I don’t care who your opponents are, you enter the Octagon 5 times in one year and walk out the winner 5 times, that is an achievement, and good enough to be my number 3 fighter of 2014.
#2 T.J. Dillashaw
His 2013 ended with a loss to Raphael Assuncao, which caused some to question where Dillashaw would go from there. Where he went from there is the stuff of a fairy tale. First was a decision win over Mike Easton in January at UFC Fight Night: Rockhold vs. Philippou. The win over Easton was solid, and was viewed by many as him righting his ship after the loss to Assuncao. But no one could see the year TJ had in front of him; no one could see him getting a shot at the UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao. Which wasn’t originally the plan, he was set to fight on May 24, 2014, but his opponent was meant to be Takeya Mizugaki, and the original main event for UFC 173 was meant to be Chris Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort for the UFC middleweight championship, but TRT became banned in Nevada and Belfort was forced to pull out. Lyoto Machida agreed to step in to face middleweight champion Chris Weidman, but Weidman injured his knee and that fight was moved to July. The man who beat Dillashaw in October, 2013, Raphael Assuncao was to get a title shot at Renan Barao, but a rib injury wouldn’t allow him to take the fight, Dillashaw got the title shot in his place. So an event saving title bout that most people didn’t care about, to the point many people had complaints of Dillashaw’s involvement, calling T.J. the lamb led to the slaughter. What happened then was perhaps the biggest upset in UFC history. Dillashaw picked apart the champion Barao, using brilliant footwork and perfect timing to out strike the dominant reigning champion. Many believed for T.J. to win he would have to have the fight of his life, he would have to be perfect to beat the killer we all knew Barao to be, and Dillashaw was exactly that…perfect. His next fight was meant to be a rematch with the man who he beat for the title Renan Barao but weight cutting issues forced Barao out of his title rematch and replaced last minute, literally, by UFC newcomer Joe Soto. Dillashaw won with ease with a TKO in the fifth round.
#1 Robbie Lawler
Not many fighters in MMA history had begun and ended their year quite like Robbie Lawler has. His 2014 began with him fighting Johny Hendricks for the UFC welterweight title that was vacated after Georges St. Pierre decided to take time away from the sport. What we got was viewed by many as the fight of the year, which was won by Johny Hendricks by unanimous decision. Many including myself felt if Lawler hadn’t been as passive as he was in the first two rounds of this fight, he may have won by decision if not a stoppage.
That setback didn’t detour Lawler from achieving his goal of being recognized as the best welterweight in the world. He wasted little time in returning to the Octagon replacing an injured Tarec Saffiedine to face Jake Ellenberger in March at UFC 173: Barao vs. Dillashaw. It was obvious early that Lawler was too much for Ellenberger as he beat him up for 3 rounds and got the TKO win.
His next bout was a title eliminator on Fox against Matt Brown in July, which he won by unanimous decision.
Now to the second title opportunity of 2014 for Robbie Lawler against the same man who beat him for the vacated title in March, Johny Hendricks at UFC 181 on December 6th. Lawler was candid leading into this title shot about the mistake he made in the first fight with Hendricks not being as aggressive as he could have been. He was more aggressive, as he said he would be, pressuring Hendricks early in the first round. The 2nd and 3rd round Hendricks won easily and looked like the better striker, changing levels and putting together crisp combinations. This is where things get tricky, that fourth round. Who won that fourth round? I had it for Hendricks, making it appear as if Lawler needed a finish to go home as champion. The fifth round was a clear round for Lawler as he battered Hendricks, fighting as if he knew he needed that finish, or at least wanting to leave a stamp on things.
When the judges’ scorecards were read, 2 of the 3 judges gave the 4th round to Lawler, along with it the UFC welterweight title. Despite the questionable decision, that shouldn’t take away from Robbie Lawler’s year. The ups and downs his career has faced all led him to where he is now, the UFC welterweight title.
BY: TIM MUTOHFAN