The debate over the “Fighter of the Year” selection usually involves not only wins and losses, but also the impact of the matches and personalities involved. Factoring it all together, there should be no debate at all when it comes to 2012. It was the year of Ronda Rousey.
During the year, she managed to beat the Nos. 1 and 2 bantamweights, forced her name into mainstream public consciousness, and to cap it all off, convinced Dana White of the viability of women fighting in the UFC. By any measure, that’s a powerful resume.
To dissect it further, let’s start with her wins. Rousey began the year 4-0 with four first-round armbar victories, propelling her into a title match with then-champion Miesha Tate. There were still doubts remaining about her though. For example, how would she do against increasingly improved competition? What would happen if she couldn’t take the fight to the ground? And, how would she respond if she couldn’t secure an armbar?
Most of the questions were answered, and quickly. For the first time in her career, Rousey was extended past one minute as Tate mounted a challenge, but in the end, Rousey’s relentlessness won out with another armbar win. Sarah Kaufman, who walked into a match against Rousey with a gaudy 15-1 career record, didn’t fare nearly as well. She was blitzed, suffering a 54-second loss that left her literally shaking her head in disbelief and what had been done to her.
In the combined ring time of 5 minutes and 21 seconds, Rousey had dispatched the women that were ranked first and second in the division to start the year.
Both Tate and Kaufman — two highly trained and well-respected former champions — knew what was coming and they still couldn’t prevent it from happening. That’s the definition of domination, and Rousey embodied it in 2012.
Away from the cage, Rousey exhibited the same unstoppable force. She was the subject of a lengthy Sports Illustrated profile. She co-hosted TMZ. She was on the cover of Oxygen and ESPN The Magazine. She was a guest on Conan.
All of that stuff matters. Mixed martial arts is a sport built in pieces, event by event, and the ability to make headlines is crucial for building interest. Rousey has now become a staple of MMA news sites, and has shown consistent crossover appeal, making her a double-threat star that 99 percent of the UFC’s male fighters can’t match.
Above all else, Strikeforce’s female fighters have Rousey to thank for their entry into the UFC. White has acknowledged that the introduction of the women’s division is “the Ronda Rousey show.” Without her, the women would be facing an uncertain future when Strikeforce closes its doors. So while it may be her “show,” they, too, have been given the platform to shine.
Undefeated year? Check. Mainstream inroads? Check. Changing the landscape of the sport? Check. And for all that, 2012 belonged to Ronda Rousey.
2. Ben Henderson
Henderson was No. 3 on last year’s list, and one-upped himself in 2012 by ascending to the UFC lightweight championship. Though both of his fights with Frankie Edgar generated some controversy, Henderson got the judges’ nods in both cases and then solidified his hold on the top of the division with a spectacular display against Nate Diaz in December before a national television audience. A few years ago, Henderson said his goal was to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. After this calendar-year, he may just get there yet.
3. Anderson Silva
Once upon a time, Anderson Silva said he was going to retire at 35. Now 37 years old, the “Spider” is still going strong and reportedly angling for a 10-fight extension. This year, Silva torched Chael Sonnen in the rematch of their 2010 epic and then moved up to 205 on short notice to Matrix Stephan Bonnar in a jaw-dropping knockout. Silva also gobbled up blue-chip sponsors Budweiser, Nextel and Philips, and has continued to front the wild growth of MMA in his native Brazil.
4. Matt Brown
What a difference a year makes. Brown entered 2012 with a mediocre 12-11 record and losses in four of his last five fights. It was getting to the point where you had to wonder if he was running out of chances. Then, the calendar got flipped and Brown’s fortunes did, too. In a 10-month span from February to December, Brown fought four times and won four times, with three knockouts. His most recent, a second-round finish of Mike Swick, is his most significant so far and nicely sets up his career progression.
5. Stefan Struve
The 24-year-old is starting to establish a reputation as one of the UFC’s most exciting heavyweights, with only one decision in his 30 career fights. In 2012, he went a perfect 3-0 with finishes of Dave Herman, Lavar Johnson and Stipe Miocic. The last of those three fights was the most significant, as Miocic was a highly regarded prospect. After a second-round TKO win, it’s onward and upward, if such a thing is possible for the 7-footer.
Honorable mention: Andrey Koreshkov (5-0), Johny Hendricks (2-0), Demetrious Johnson (2-0-1), Cub Swanson (3-0), Nick Newell (3-0)
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