UFC awards: Best fights, finishes of 2014 so far

We look back at the best moments in the career of recently retired Chael Sonnen and recap all the action from UFC 174.

Don’t ask me how we’re already near the end of June because I don’t have an answer. While there are still two first half events on the calendar — next weekend’s doubleheader from New Zealand and Texas — there is also not a lot of breathing room between those shows and the middle of July.

Rather than get caught playing catch-up, we thought it was smarter to roll out our UFC 2014 First Half Awards now, before anyone else has handed out hardware for the best performances from the first six months of the year.

Consider these your clubhouse leaders as the second half kicks off and the chase for year-end honours really heats up.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Fighter of the Year: T.J. Dillashaw
Upset of the Year: T.J. Dillashaw stops Renan Barao at UFC 173

Dillashaw is unquestionably the standout of the first half, having turned in the best individual performance when he dominated and stopped Barao to claim the bantamweight title at UFC 173 in May.

The Team Alpha Male standout is already 2-0 this year, having scored a unanimous decision win over Mike Easton in January prior to his coming out party on Memorial Day weekend. In all honesty, Dillashaw could have taken home “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year” honours as well, since he has clearly taken his game to the next level even since besting Easton, but I thought we’d spread the awards around a little.

Now sporting a 10-2 record and the bantamweight strap around his waist, Dillashaw will get a chance to cement his position as the Fighter of the Year in the second half when he puts his belt on the line for the first time, likely in a rematch with Barao.

Fight of the Year: Johny Hendricks vs Robbie Lawler, UFC 171

With all due respect to Matt Brown and Erick Silva, the stakes were much higher and the contest was much closer in this one, giving it the edge at the halfway point. Not only was the welterweight title up for grabs, but each man had heightened ambitions and drive heading into this one as well.

Hendricks thought he did enough to win the title from Georges St-Pierre a couple months earlier and wasn’t looking to miss out two times in a row, while Lawler was eager to make good on the championship pedigree he displayed in his early years inside the Octagon.

And they got after it, battling back-and-forth until the final round when Hendricks took control and worked his way to a decision win. It was a phenomenal fight that highlighted how intriguing the 170-pound ranks are now that GSP is on sabbatical and depending on how things play out in July, we could see the sequel before the year is out.

Knockout of the Year: Dong Hyun Kim drops John Hathaway, TUF China Finale

Shout out to Donald Cerrone, Abel Trujillo, Godofredo Pepey and Chris Beal — four cats that put opponents out cold in impressive fashion over the first six months of 2014. Under different circumstances, any one of those knockouts could have taken home top spot.

But for me, the spinning back elbow that “Stun Gun” planted on Hathaway’s chin in the main event of the March 1 TUF China Finale fight card is the hands down best of the first half of the year.

Kim has transformed himself from a suffocating top control player to a must-see bundle of excitement, even though the gas tank gets to empty a little more quickly now. He swings for the fences from Jump Street and as of late he’s been landing some nasty shots that make you jump out of your seat.

This elbow was particularly spectacular because Hathaway was starting to get the better of things between the two and literally walked right into this fight-ender. And he fell like a sack of bricks too, which only adds to the impact of the finish.

Submission of the Year: Luke Rockhold doubles up on Tim Boetsch, UFC 172

Here’s the weird thing: this one didn’t even earn a bonus, as Joseph Benavidez’ mounted guillotine of Tim Elliott got the Team Alpha Male member some extra bank in Baltimore.

Regardless of what the UFC brass thought that night, I personally liked Rockhold’s inverted triangle-kimura combination platter the best so far this year. Additionally, it’s crazy to me that there have only been 29 submission finishes through the first 20 events of the year.

The technical acumen of this double up is what stands out for me. First, locking up the inverted triangle is tricky enough, but then to have the instincts to attack the arm and finish with the kimura takes it to the next level. Rockhold gets a lot of love for his striking (rightfully so) but his ground game is on point too.

Prospect of the Year: Gunnar Nelson

This was probably the hardest award to hand out because how do you define a prospect? Personally, I consider things like age, amount of experience and what point a fighter is at in their careers. Using those metrics, Nelson is the selection for me, ahead of other up-and-comers like Justin Scoggins, Pedro Munhoz and Sean Strickland.

At 25 years old, Nelson already has three UFC wins under his belt, including a first-round submission finish of Omari Akhmedov in March, a world-class ground game, developing striking and the quiet, calm presence of that dude you just know you shouldn’t mess with because the quiet ones are always the most dangerous.

He’s like a silent version of his friend and training partner Conor McGregor, except with more advanced skills and a better track record to date. Just as I think McGregor has the potential to do big things in the UFC, Nelson is capable of doing the same and could be facing Top-10 competition by the time the year is out.

Event of the Year: UFC 172

From top to bottom, this was the best card so far this year. Every fight delivered in one way or another.

There were a couple nasty knockouts from Chris Beal and Danny Castillo, four submission finishes (including three of the year’s best to date), a fun back-and-forth from Takanori Gomi and Ike Vallie-Flagg, Bethe Correia stoking the fires of her rivalry with the Four Horsewomen, the return of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and Jon Jones putting on another master class in mixed martial arts against Glover Teixeira.

While there have been a couple Fight Night cards that stood out and one or two other pay-per-views that definitely provided a solid ROI, UFC 172 has been the only card this year that didn’t feature a “refill your drinks and refresh the snacks” fight. It was fun from the start and continued the whole way through.

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