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Chris Leben
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8 MMA Things to be Thankful For in 2014

Happy Thanksgiving! The year 2014 has been a somewhat down year for the UFC with the recent rash of injuries to main events being drastically altered to PPV cancellations and an overall 40% loss in profit. Not revenue, PROFIT. In average joe terms, the UFC LOST MONEY. But all things considered, 2014 so far has been very fun for the MMA world.

Below, we count down the top eight best things that have happened so far in the MMA world and why we should be thankful for them!

8. The PED Saga makes some progress

The controversial issue regarding “Performance Enhancement Drugs” (steroids, TRT, “juicing” etc) makes the bottom of the list. The PED issue has run rampant across the MMA world and notable fighters such as GSP and Tim Kennedy have voiced their concern over the issue. The cynic will point to the nigh impossibility to catch everyone and the NSAC giving notorious TRT-user Vitor Belfort a slap on the wrist while the optimist will point to the NSAC throwing the book at Wanderlei Silva (for missing his hearing) and Chael Sonnen (for being caught multiple times). Whatever viewpoint, it’s at least notable the issue is being constantly aired out and the UFC and NSAC are responding in some fashion. It’s a small step but a step in the right direction.

7. The Women’s Strawweights and TUF20

The first female TUF cast wowed a lot of viewers on TUF18 last year but it seemed only like a teaser as half the cast still featured the men. Finally, an all-female cast debuted on FOX Sports One under the tutelages of UFC Lightweight Champion, Anthony Pettis and number one contender, Gilbert Melendez. What’s even better is the show culminates in crowning the first UFC Women’s Strawweight champion, an historical event for the UFC and women’s MMA.

6. T.J. Dillashaw’s Rise and Dominick Cruz’s Return

For the longest time, the UFC’s bantamweight division seemed like that division nobody cared about. As good as then-champion Renan Barao was, he didn’t draw and the division’s top fighters were constantly buried in the prelims. Enter T.J. Dillashaw, an 8-1 underdog who shocked the MMA world by beating the tar out of Barao, claiming one of sports’ greatest upsets. It was the UFC’s biggest upset since Matt Serra knocked out GSP over eight years ago.

The golden moment marked only the beginning for the bantamweight division’s rise to prominence as long-time injured former champion, Dominick Cruz finally returned after a three-year absence in emphatic fashion, knocking out Takeya Mizugaki in one minute. Then right after, Cruz called out Team Alpha “Fails” starting what could arguably turn out to be the most exciting MMA rivalry for 2015.

5. Scott Coker Revamps Bellator

While the UFC staggered with injuries and disappointing PPV numbers, Bellator 131 would go on to set a record two million viewers—the highest ever for the promotion and for any free MMA event on cable TV for the year. And it’s largely due to the renaissance of Scott Coker. The former Strikeforce kingpin took over Bellator’s reigns from the much-maligned Bjorn Rebney and flipped the show on its head cutting a huge size of its roster and signing big-name talent, the likes of Stephan Bonnar, Melvin Manhoef and Paul Daley. The addition of all kinds of theatrics—titantron entrances, flashy promotional videos and squash fight bookings—has drastically benefited the promotion. The weekly tournament format has been wiped and a monthly show will be pushed forward and if their record-setting show was any indication, MMA fans could be in for a roller coaster ride for the long while.

4. The Unstoppable Force that is Conor McGregor

Is Conor McGregor in this article just for the sake of getting more hits? You can hardly blame any MMA news media as the brash Irishman stirs the MMA crowd wherever he goes. McGregor returned to competition after a year-long absence from ACL surgery and made quick work of Diego Brandao and Dustin Poirier, the former in front of a sold-out arena in the UFC’s first foray in Ireland! McGregor breaks headlines no matter where he decides to shave a kitten or get in a drunken brawl in an undiscovered island in the Pacific. And as fellow featherweight contender, Frankie Edgar put it, at least everyone is finally talking about their division!

3. Nick Diaz and Anderson Silva return!

The prodigal son returns: Nick Diaz ended his one-year hiatus by signing a new two-fight deal with the UFC with his first coming against the great Anderson Silva himself! The company has been without a marketable superstar for all of 2014 and the loss in profit made it obvious they needed their superstars back. They not only get one but two back just in time for Superbowl weekend. Any bets UFC 183 will sell as much as half the PPVs 2014 has already done?

2. Mark Hunt’s Underdog Story

Five years ago, when you put “Mark Hunt” and “UFC champion” in the same sentence, your sanity and sobriety would be questioned. Hunt lost his UFC debut and was on a six-fight losing streak all in the first-round. He was so bad the UFC wanted to buy him out! Hunt said otherwise and followed it with an astonishing turnaround as he would win four fights in a row—five of seven—with his only loss coming to former UFC Heavyweight Champion, Junior Dos Santos. He’d become the first man to knock out Roy Nelson in the UFC and would take Antonio “Big Foot” Silva to one of the all-time greatest slugfests in MMA history.

Hunt would finally get his title shot when he stepped in for Cain Velasquez to face Fabricio Werdum on UFC 180 for the Interim Heavyweight title. He would succumb to Werdum in the second round though he was the fan favorite in the fight despite Werdum’s strong ties with Mexico. Hunt is temporarily out of the title picture but he’ll continue to build his legacy—one of the most inspiring stories that appeals to anyone even those outside the sport.

1. Title Fight Trilogy: Hendricks vs Lawler, Weidman vs Machida and Aldo vs Mendes

It’s torture to pick between these three amazing title fights. A case can be made for the superiority of any of the fights but they were all too damn good.

Johny Hendricks was still salty from his decision loss to GSP, a fight many (including he) felt he won. Robbie Lawler was on the other end of spectrum, a fighter who had rejuvenated his middling career to become a title threat. Both warriors met at UFC 171 to claim the vacated title and in a nonstop back-and-forth contest that saw both fighters staggered repeatedly, Johny Hendricks would edge out Robbie Lawler to secure a decision win. The rematch was inevitable as both fighters would again lock horns for UFC 181 in December.

Even after defending Middleweight champion Chris Weidman beat Anderson Silva not once, but twice, his critics never gave him a break. Lyoto Machida had revitalized his UFC career with a move down to middleweight and was running towards a title shot with full force. This would prove to be another true test for Weidman as both men went the distance of five-rounds. Weidman would handily win the first three though a spirited comeback from Machida saw the champion in deep waters for the first time in his career. In the end, it would secure Weidman as a legitimate champion and reestablish Machida as a potential future champion.

Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes were more than just rivals. The two fighters met previously in UFC 142 where Aldo knocked out Mendes with a high knee just as the first round ended and immediately ran to the Brazilian crowd in iconic fashion. In the build-up to the rematch, both exchanged heated words with Aldo taking a shot at Mendes’s spoiled upbringing while Mendes accused Aldo of PEDs. This would fire up both men as they spent 25 minutes of the rematch in a highly technical, violent and entertaining striking affair that saw Aldo eventually prevail. It was the best fight in the division’s history and one that elevated the stock of both fighters.

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