End-of-year highlights inevitably and rightfully focus on the UFC, period. That being said almost all the fighters come from climbing the independent shows’ rungs, only a small percentage cross over from other sports directly into the UFC or debut in TUF. The problem being there were so many significant fighters in independent events in 2014 one has to break them down into categories, thus the 2014 DOI awards.
First a word on definitions. “Best fighter” would inevitably be not only subjective but likely insulting to some left out for lack of opportunities or attention. “Independent” refers to any promotion not owned by Zuffa LLC but for the sake of this article will be limited to the events broadcast on TV. There are plenty of significant fighters on webcast shows such as Sean Santella in CFFC and ROC while there is a lot going on in Europe, Japan, and Brazil that aren’t even webcast but those fighters and events will have to wait for the 2015 scouting report.
Best MMA debut: Rafael Lovato Jr.
What better way to start then best debut. Grappling fans are almost certainly already familiar with Rafael Lovato Jr. the ADCC Worlds vet is unknown to mainstream MMA fans although “so far” should probably be tacked on to the end. Rafael is the second American to win the Brazilian Nations Jiu-Jitsu Championship as a black belt, took gold once at the 2007 World Jiu-Jitsu Championship, three times at the World No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu Championship, twice at the Pan Ams, once in the European Championship…one is tempted to write “etc” when running through his resume in BJJ. In MMA however Rafael made his debut at LFC 35 in September where he submitted Canaan Grigsby with an arm-triangle choke. That itself wasn’t too surprising, it was the way Rafael opened the fight with a head kick that surprised the fans almost as much as Grigsby. Considering both former ADCC Worlds Absolute Division champion Robert Drysdale and 2008 Olympics Men’s Freestyle Wrestling Gold Medalist Henry Cejudo both got their MMA experience primarily in LFC and are now in the UFC it seems it could be just a matter of time before Rafael joins them, the question being does he want to.
Breakout of the Year: Marlon Moraes
Both Marlon Moraes and Justin Gaethje earned WSOF gold this year but Gaethje first made his mark last year when he defeated Gesias Cavalcante and Dan Lauzon. Moraes entered 2014 with a win former WEC champion/UFC vet Miguel Torres but that win was followed by not-very-hyped bouts against Tyson Nam, Brandon Hempleman, and Carson Beebe. It was in March’s WSOF 9 event that Moraes took the inaugural WSOF title with a unanimous decision over Josh Rettinghouse while the rear-naked choke of Cody Bollinger was a catchweight non-title fight in September. Moraes is finally getting the respect he deserves as WSOF 18 sees him in the main event against undefeated Josh Hill in what will surely be an all-out war.
Most improved: Desmond Green
In 2013 Desmond Green entered Bellator’s Season 9 featherweight tournament but lost in the quarterfinals to Fabricio Guerreiro then returned to defeat Angelo Sanchez bringing his record at the start of 2014 to 9-2. What seemed to be holding Green back was the fact he was basically just a wrestler with a bit of standup and average submission skills. That changed when he joined Tristar Gym about a year ago. First Green made it to the finals of the Season 10 tournament where he lost to Daniel Weichel. After moving on to Titan FC Green picked up a KO of UFC vet and former WEC champion Miguel Torres then won the vacant TFC title with a unanimous decision over UFC vet Steven Siler. In those TFC fights in particular Green’s standup looked much crisper and powerful, a welcome addition to his strong wrestling base. That five-round title fight against Siler also showed 14-3 Green has good cardio for a first 5-round battle.
Most innovative: Marcin Held
What part of “do NOT go to the ground with Marcin Held” is so hard to understand? At 22 years-old (23 on January 18th) Held is at the beginning of his career and is already 20-3. Held earned his BJJ black belt in early 2013 and has been focusing on MMA since with a Bellator record of 9-1, his sole loss in that promotion to Dave Jansen in the Season 7 lightweight tournament finals when Jansen wisely used his wrestling to stuff Held. Held returned to win the Season 10 lightweight tournament, defeating Patricky Freire in the finals by unanimous decision. What makes Held really stand out is his penchant for leg submissions with event UFC vet Rich Clementi knowing what is coming but still submitting to a toe hold. Held has improving standup to go with his submissions which he showed with a KO of Ryan Healy but that first KO/TKO win was followed by a toe hold, triangle choke, and armbar before the decision against Freire. Keep in mind Held is only 22 years old. Also keep in mind no matter what do NOT go to the ground against him!
“Marathon Man” award: Emanuel Newton
Both Emanuel Newton and Justin Gaethje had three title fights in 2014 but Bellator light heavyweight champion Newton edges out WSOF lightweight champion Gaethje for most significant fights because Newton’s were three title defenses…sort of. Newton won the interim Bellator belt in November 2013 with a unanimous decision over Muhammed Lawal then to start 2014 defeated Attila Vegh for the unified World title, defending the belt against Joey Beltran and Linton Vassell. Not exactly three defenses but four 5-round fights in 11 months. What was surprising is the Beltran fight ended with a spinning back fist KO almost exactly like the Lawal interim title fight. Newton is known for his wrestling but can whip out a submission with nine wins ending by such compared to four KO/TKOs in his 25-7-1 career. With Bellator now moving more towards marquee fights it will be interesting to see how they use Newton who so far hasn’t had much trouble against UFC vets.
Most anticipated UFC debut: Holly Holm
This is a “shade of grey” category as it is about the UFC but the winner still has a record solely in independent events. She may be the best bet to unseat UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey or she may be the most over-hyped fighter in a decade, either way Holly Holm takes this award gloves-down. Holm is an 18-time boxing champion in three separate weight classes in WBF and WBAN sanctioned events. In MMA Holm is undefeated at 7-0 however her highest-profile fight to date was a TKO win over relatively unknown Katie Merrill in Holm’s sole Bellator fight, her other fights have been in event either promoted or co-promoted by her manager Lenny Fresquez. Holm signed with the UFC in July with a debut scheduled for UFC 181 however a neck injury sidelined Holm with no word available on when she will make her debut.
“Bounceback” award: Jake Shields
UFC vets are getting to be a dime a dozen at independent events but hardly any have fought for UFC gold. Of those that have there is only one who also competes in grappling, Jake Shields. Former Strikeforce middleweight champion Shields returned to welterweight when he signed with the UFC in October 2010 where his second fight was an unsuccessful bid for the belt against Georges St. Pierre. After going 4-3 (and one “no contest”) in the UFC Shields was released following a unanimous decision loss to former Bellator champion Hector Lombard in March. Since then Shields submitted former MFC champion and Bellator vet Ryan Ford by rear-naked choke in Shields’ WSOF debut in October, next he faces fellow UFC vet Brian Foster in the main event of WSOF 17 later this month. As if that wasn’t enough only six weeks after his defeat of Ford Shields competed in the “secret match” at grappling event Metamoris V, going the distance with Roberrto Satoshi for a draw after 20 minutes. No confirmation is available but it is widely believed the winner of this upcoming WSOF fight will face welterweight champion Rousimar Palhares sometime this summer.
The fighters come first but some of the independent promotions stand ahead of the pack.
Best promotion: Bellator MMA
No surprise here. Despite or more accurately because of the change in CEOs Bellator continued to grow in 2013 holding their first and likely only pay-per-view while the season finale beat some UFC Fight Night cards’ ratings. On the other hand Bellator are moving away from building the next generation through tournaments in favor of “marquee fights” which puts them in conflict with WSOF and arguably TFC in 2015 while the loss of former UFC champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson to the UFC is a black eye to start the year. The loss of the tournaments is a good thing for the fighters but in 2014 anyway Bellator successfully built more fighters than any other promotion including WSOF. Now it’s a question on if Bellator as they switch to more of a “Strikeforce format” will find balance or end up “WEC Jr.” existing just to build fighters for the UFC. For 2014 anyway they win this award hands-down.
Biggest disappointment: MFC
AXS TV-broadcast events exist to build fighters for the UFC, there is nothing wrong with that. Problem is when so many of a promotion’s fighters have moved on that there aren’t enough to put on shows there is a hole in the business model. Canada’s MFC have the added plight of losing potential fighters to WSOF’s Canadian branch such as former MFC champion Ryan Ford who recently fought Jake Shields in that promotion. In 2014 MFC held roughly one-third of the amount of events as other AXS TV-broadcast promotions such as LFC with three events in 12 months. MFC 398 took place January 17th, MFC 40 on May 9th, and then it was MFC 41 to end the year October 3rd. Yes, end the year October 3rd. At this time there are no further scheduled events leading many to believe what used to be Canada’s most significant event has gone the way of XFC, for now they at least get one final award.
Most Underrated/Most Deserving: LFC
Olympic Gold Medalist Henry Cejudo. ADCC Worlds Absolute Division Champion Robert Drysdale. “Please don’t make me list all his accomplishments” BJJ legend Rafael Lovato, Jr. 18-time boxing champion Holly Holm. Of all the independent promotions LFC have the ability to not only pass quality fighters to the UFC, they build already-great athletes into MMA standouts. For a show based in Texas isolated from most “high quality” gyms this is not an accomplishment so much as a damn miracle. Keep in mind TFC are broadcast on AXS TV which means putting them in perspective would include XFC which have since basically relocated to Brazil, MFC which earned “most disappointing” award, and RFA. RFA do a good job but they don’t sign Olympic gold medalists or boxing champions. Why LFC are on AXS TV while Titan FC and Fight Time are on the CBS Sports Network is one of the biggest mysteries of the universe, arguably proof “dark matter” does exist at least in the heads of TV executives. LFC are expanding into kickboxing shows with the first one this month so their impact in 2015 may be reduced but so far the worst one could say about this promotion is they hold more amateur fights than most AXS TV shows, arguably necessary for the cards to hold the likes of for instance an Olympic gold medalist.