As we say goodbye to another year in this sicko sport we love, it’s good time to consider that in 2018, much of the mixed martial arts landscape will be dictated by competition between talent behemoth WME-IMG’s cagefighting league and Viacom’s fighting outfit broadcasting on the Paramount network. How very showbiz.
Don't despair, though. No matter how vain the design of this sport becomes, how absent its stars, how many USADA tests are failed, people are still going to fight for money with their hands and feet. Some of them are going to have an extra little something, maybe technical, maybe intangible, that makes watching them seem just slightly supernatural, otherworldly. They can make you feel, at least for a few rounds at a time, the way you felt when you first fell in love with fighting. This is a list about those folks.
This is the eighth annual edition of the Sherdog All-Violence Team.
If you are confused, you can get caught up in exhaustive detail here. Now, repeat with me the team fight song, courtesy of poet and pugilist Ezra Pound: “The modern artist must live by craft and violence. His gods are violent gods. Those artists, so called, whose work does not show this strife, are uninteresting.”
From heavyweight on down to strawweight, these are the 27 fighters -- artists, visionaries, reactionaries -- who made MMA electrifying in 2017 while the sport’s biggest draw was living out his insane -- and insanely lucrative -- Floyd Mayweather fantasy.
Just over half of this year's team is first-time inductees, with 14 rookies. With his fourth first-team All-Violence berth in five years, Demetrious Johnson has now tied the perpetually disgraced Jon Jones for most all-time; “Jonny Bones” hasn’t made a single team appearance since 2013 after appearing on the first four squads. UFC featherweight kingpin Max Holloway also takes first-team honors for the second consecutive year, giving him four straight All-V team appearances overall. He’s made the team every year since Jones started down his sociopathic spiral.
See? Violence just keeps moving along.
2017 All-Violence First TeamHeavyweight: Francis Ngannou
Light Heavyweight: Volkan Oezdemir
Middleweight: Robert Whittaker
Welterweight: Santiago Ponzinibbio
Lightweight: Justin Gaethje
Featherweight: Max Holloway
Bantamweight: T.J. Dillashaw
Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson
Strawweight: Jessica Andrade
HEAVYWEIGHT: Francis Ngannou makes his second consecutive All-Violence squad, this time on the first team. “The Predator” was already one of the best heavyweight prospects in a long while headed into 2017 and his two knockout victims on the year were veterans Andrei Arlovski and Alistair Overeem, two men known for fragile chins historically. The Cameroonian’s combination of natural power and athleticism is positively horrific, though; there’s a reason he’s opened as a favorite for his UFC 220 title shot against Stipe Miocic. Ngannou obliterated Arlovski and Overeem in a combined 3:14, while throwing a total of 27 significant strikes. Arlovski was wasted from a single counter right hook, while Overeem, a former K-1 World Grand Prix champ, got stiffened up by a stance-shifting, flowing left uppercut that left him dead as a doornail. Ngannou is now the most popular answer for other MMA fighters when asked who they would least want to be hit by.
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT: Perhaps the most shocking success story of 2017, no one would’ve pegged Volkan Oezdemir for an imminent UFC title contender. The Swiss native made his Octagon debut on short notice in February, subbing in for an injured Jan Blachowicz against Ovince St. Preux. Admittedly, Oezdemir should’ve lost the split decision. However, since gritting out the OSP win, the Henri Hooft understudy has looked increasingly lethal, destroying top-10 contenders Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa in 28 and 42 seconds respectively. Cirkunov got blasted with a sneaky counter right hook while he was charging at a backpedalling Oezdemir, while Manuwa ended up stiff and supine courtesy of a massive left hand in a salvo of lunging punches from “No Time.” Of course, I think we can all safely agree that Oezdemir should try to be on better behavior when out and about in the Florida bar scene; violence is best left in the cage.
MIDDLEWEIGHT: Robert Whittaker didn’t get the crowning moment he truly deserved in 2017, but his wins over legendary grappler “Jacare” Ronaldo Souza and Olympic silver medal wrestler Yoel Romero were breathtaking and engrossing in their technical and violent splendor. Against Souza, a freak athlete with a natural boxing knack, “Bobby Knuckles” frustrated him with jabs and kicks from distance and managed to protect himself from takedowns while landing short punches in the clinch when “Jacare” swarmed. Result? Second-round knockout. Against Romero, Whittaker had to adjust on the fly when the Cuban, another mutant athletic specimen, destroyed the knee of his lead leg almost instantly in Round 1. Whittaker then flipped into a bevy of front kicks, altering his pressure style entirely. The Kiwi lands 4.94 significant strikes per minute, the fourth-best rate in UFC middleweight history. His 84.4 percent takedown defence is the third best all-time in the company’s 185-pound history. His sprawl-and-brawl ability, taken together with his unique blend of boxing and karate techniques, make Whittaker one of the most enjoyable -- and dangerous -- pressure fighters in the sport.
WELTERWEIGHT: Argentina’s finest cagefighter didn’t have the outright brawl-a-thons that welterweights like Jingliang Li or Yancy Medeiros had this year, but Santiago Ponzinibbio showed well-roundedness to his high-output pressure game. He jab-for-leg kick against Nordine Taleb and turned the Frenchman’s face bloody. He took an awkward, defensive fighter like Gunnar Nelson, put a perfect left hand on him and pounded him out in 82 seconds. Most importantly, to cap the year, Ponzinibbio landed 78 of 200 significant strikes against fellow 170-pound hard man Mike Perry, winning a thrilling unanimous decision in a multi-phase brawl. “Genta Boa’s” 4.23 significant strikes landed per minute reflect the level of successful pressure fighter is, but doesn’t even account for the strength of his jab, which is the straw that stirs the drink for his stance-fluid, ambidextrous boxing game.
LIGHTWEIGHT: In July, Justin Gaethje authored one of the most thrilling debuts in UFC history, going hammer and tong with Michael Johnson for 10 minutes, producing a second-round knockout victory, as well as Sherdog’s “Fight of the Year” and “Round of the Year.” Gaethje landed 104 of 174 significant strikes, while Johnson was 91 of 200; those numbers mirror the total strike numbers, meaning that neither Gaethje or Johnson threw a damn jab the entire time. As if things couldn’t get any better, Gaethje coached “The Ultimate Fighter 26” alongside fellow action fighter Eddie Alvarez to set up their Dec. 2 showdown, which at worst was the second-best fight of 2017. While this time it was Gaethje who fell due to a salvo of knees, he and Alvarez combined for 277 significant strikes in their 14-minute war. This year gave Gaethje the chance to put his somersault kicks, Mortal Kombat uppercuts and savage clinch fighting on the big stage and he produced two classics, solidifying himself as the most reputably exciting fighter in the sport.
FEATHERWEIGHT: It’s four straight years on the All-V team now for Hawaii’s (current) favorite fighting son, tying him with Demetrious Johnson and Jon Jones for most all time. It’s only fitting, as the 26-year-old may be the most offensively gifted fighter in the entire sport at this point in time. Part of Holloway’s 2017 campaign may seem hollow, as he wound up rematching Brazilian legend Jose Aldo at UFC 218 just six months after stopping him in the third round, instead of a much more anticipated showdown with Frankie Edgar. Nonetheless, Aldo remains the greatest featherweight ever and Holloway positively took him apart twice, breaking him down over three rounds with ceaseless pressure and incredibly crafty boxing. Holloway may use flying knees and spinning kicks, but his bread and butter is rangy counter boxing and once “Blessed” hurts his targets, his ability to pick individual punches to the head and body is exceptional. In both fights, especially their UFC 212 encounter, Holloway’s pressure was so overwhelming it led to him stopping Aldo on the floor, which is par for the course. In less than 30 minutes in the cage with Aldo, a historically great defensive fighter, Holloway pulverized him twice, landing a horrific 309 of 640 total strikes.
BANTAMWEIGHT: I mean, what is there to say? You saw UFC 217, right? Nevermind all the ex-Team Alpha Male training partner drama and “Ultimate Fighter” coaching, T.J. Dillashaw’s second UFC title win at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 4 is what this team is about. Dillashaw was nearly finished off by then-undefeated power puncher Cody Garbrandt in the first round, but never backed down and continued to work his trademark everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style. The fight-ending sequence “Killashaw” sucked Garbrandt into had feints, hand distractions, a single-leg attempt, a wild head kick and a beautiful right hand. Dillashaw only fought once this year, but his third All-Violence berth is not a function of him regaining the UFC title, it’s the precarious, daring and thrilling nature of how he reclaimed it, relying on the same unique, flailing style that brought him to the dance.
FLYWEIGHT: Wild to think people used to think this guy was boring, huh? The closest thing we have to the modern MMA blueprint, Demetrious Johnson is so ahead of his contemporaries that at this point in time, his All-Violence candidacy is based largely not on his ability to surpass his foes, but to surpass the lofty technical and competitive expectations set forth for him. In April, he was a -1100 favourite against jiu-jitsu ace Wilson Reis, so “Mighty Mouse” systematically outwrestled Reis, passed his guard repeatedly and locked up a mercy-kill armbar in the third round; Reis looked like a complete white belt on the floor with Johnson. Of course, that wasn’t good enough, so for his UFC record-setting 11th consecutive title defence at UFC 216 in October, he made Ray Borg into a highlight for the ages, turning a rear-waistlock slam into an armbar in mid-air, one of the dozen or so best submissions in MMA history. That’s how you take first-team All-V status four out of the last five years, even when everyone expects you to dominate.
STRAWWEIGHT: Jessica Andrade had a rollercoaster year, but’s just fine: rollercoasters are damn fun, after all. Yes, in her May title shot against Joanna Jedrejczyk, she absorbed 225 significant strikes and didn’t win a single round, though the Brazilian never bowed down and still tagged the Polish fighter 94 times in total. However, the performances that bookended her UFC straw weight title shot, Andrade was an unrelenting hunter. Her one-sided February decision win over Angela Hill was one of the most entertaining fights of the first half of the year, largely because it was astonishing how easily “Bata Estaca” batted Hill around, smacking the spit out of her mouth and slamming “Angie Overkill” on her face. The Parana Vale Tudo product got the biggest win of her career in September, though: after eating serious leather from fellow Brazilian Claudia Gadelha, Andrade roared to life over the last 12 minutes, scoring four takedowns, passing the jiu-jitsu black belt’s guard five times and pulverizing her on the floor. In her one-sided whooping of Gadelha, Andrade threw 355 total strikes, landing a whopping 242 of them in just three rounds.
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