Here are the Top 5 2016 breakthrough ufc fighters of the year, starting with the number 1 pick. Made a list? How does it compare?
Before his UFC debut in January 2015, Cody Garbrandt’s Team Alpha Male training partners had been talking about this kid from Ohio. After getting rid of a few jitters and settling into his fight with Marcus Brimage, we saw more of what could do. His range and style, the speed and striking accuracy, his excellent boxing ability which his teammates had bragged about, and the charismatic way in which he handled himself.
Garbrandt finished Brimage in the third round at UFC 182. He dedicated his win to Maddux Maple, a young Leukemia survivor who inspired him to such heights. His performance was both quiet/loud and he showed as big as his hype. He had arrived.
A little less than two years later, Garbrandt is the UFC’s Bantamweight champion. During 2016, Garbrandt quickly accelerated to the top, faster than we could gather all the pieces. Who was this kid, who shoved Conor McGregor, starting up a mini-brawl during TUF 22? The one who harshly criticized T.J. Dillashaw as a traitor when Dillashaw followed former TAM coach Duane Ludwig out of Sacramento? The one who bewitched Dominick Cruz, the game’s most confounding body linguist, for most of five rounds?
Garbrandt is a champion. His 2016 compiled of four wins, three finishes and with one of the best performances of the year at UFC 207. It’s one thing to knock off a champion and it’s another to take out a champion who hasn’t lost in almost a decade and drop him on several occasions. He left Cruz swinging at the vapor trails, and broke into “The Robot” like it was nothing.
This 25-year old’s fight-game stories are full of crossroads and redemptions and great moments, like when he put the belt around Maple’s waist. He avenged his teammates, mainly his mentor and friend, by taking out the TAM killer. Garbrandt not only showed himself to be more than just the power-puncher with a youthful sense of invincibility, he rose up as a star in 2016.
2. AMANDA NUNES
We should have seen Amanda Nunes coming. In 2015 she took out Shayna Baszler and Sara McMann with first-round finishes. She looked ready to have a big 2016. Heading into the year it was all about when Rousey would come back for the rematch with Holm. While that was the big money fight captivating the masses, Nunes was creeping along the wall.
As the women’s bantamweight belt was jumping around like a hot potato, Nunes made her move. She took out Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 196 in March, which was enough to bump her into a title fight with Miesha Tate. She destroyed Tate in the main event at UFC 200 in a little over three minutes.
Marching on, she welcomed the showdown with Rousey at UFC 207. While Rousey received the lion’s share of the marketing going in, Nunes appeared at the weigh in wearing a lion’s mask. Then she pummeled Rousey for 48 seconds until Herb Dean put a an end to it. Nunes, who rose from the middle ranks to the top, is now the scariest woman not named “Cyborg.” She took out Shevchenko, Tate and Rousey in 2016. The last two possibly having their careers significantly hastened. That’s one heck of a year.
3. NATE DIAZ
Nate Diaz has been in the UFC for many years, and he’s had some great runs in his career. Beginning his run in the UFC with a 5-0 record between 2007-08 was one of them. But he hasn’t had a year like 2016. He’s never had the opponent who would bring the spotlight on him. He never had a platform for which to seek broader change in the sport, and to win the hearts of so many.
After a year away from fighting, Diaz called out McGregor in late 2015 after upsetting Michael Johnson on FOX. Later, after Rafael dos Anjos went down with an injury before his March fight with McGregor, Diaz’s name was the first to come up. Diaz clashed with McGregor in a war of words, and choked out McGregor at UFC 196. Then came the rematch. Diaz and McGregor became one of the greatest storylines in UFC history during this time.
Diaz lost the rematch which was very close. Will there be a third in the not-so-distant future? Regardless if that happens or not, Diaz fully realized every inch of his star power in 2016. It took him nearly a decade to truly break through, but he did.
4. LANDO VANNATA
It’s easy to dismiss Lando Vannata as a fighter overall in the UFC. But who else had a more jaw-dropping, completely unexpected, and completely insane debut than Vannata did when he stepped in to fight Tony Ferguson on short notice in Sioux Falls?
Vannata, who trains Albuquerque, showed up like a man with no tomorrow to consider. He fought back and forth with Ferguson, got blasted, then came forward anyway. He didn’t win. Vannata got subbed in the second round via a D’Arce choke. His now-or-never attitude set up a fun fight with John Makdessi at UFC 206.
Vannata scored one of the great knockouts of 2016 when he obliterated Makdessi with a wheel kick. The crowd was silent for a split second, then went crazy at the beautifully vicious thing they’d just witnessed. Where the hell did he come from? It’s hard to make better first impressions.
5. Mickey Gall
Mickey Gall was discovered in his first professional fight by UFC president Dana White, and is aware enough to enter his name into the CM Punk sweepstakes after getting his arm raised. Gall was perfect for Punk. He was signed to the UFC. Then navigated his way through Mike Jackson during the Super Bowl weekend. This was one of the strangest set-ups for a fight in a long time. Barely experienced Gall and the 0-0 Jackson, for the conditional right to face Punk. Conditional because Gall was promised the shot with Punk, although nobody knew for sure what would happen if Jackson won.
Gall beat Jackson and got his fight with CM Punk, chocking him out in a very anticlimactic fight. Gall’s response was “somebody had to do it.” What made Gall stand out was he continued to be smart with the microphone. After choking out Punk, he threw out the idea of fighting Sage Northcutt, another fighter in “Dana’s Looking for a Fight.” This made a lot of sense. Gall was a fighter with one of the most interesting trajectories for a beginner and pretty much his own matchmaker.
Gall choked out Northcutt in December, making it a 3-0 year. He made the most of each fight and is head into 2017 as a name in this sport.
His latest request to fight with Dan Hardy probably will not be granted, but Gall finished 2016 as man who knew his way around the microphone, and who showed the sport that it’s not just OK but also encouraged to call your own shots.
These are the 5 Breakthrough fighters of 2016. Have a list? Do you agree? Which other breakthrough fighters do you believe could be on the top 5?