I had been leaning towards Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as Fighter of the Year, and I now see that I wouldn’t have been alone in choosing the 205-lb. king for this distinction. He beat down Marvin Eastman (as expected) before knocking out Chuck Liddell in the first round of their May 26 light heavyweight championship fight. A few months later, Rampage outfought Pride 185 and 205-lb. champion Dan Henderson and picked up the decision win in his first title defense. Not a bad looking 3-0.
Of all the UFC’s big-name acquisitions in ‘07, it was Rampage – not Cro Cop, Shogun, or Nogueira – who wound up wearing championship gold. Furthermore, he climbed his way to the top of the sport's deepest, most talented division and is without question the UFC’s most entertaining, magnetic champion.
But Fighter of the Year? Let's look at a few things...
WEC Is Ready for Its Close-up
2007 was the year that many fans finally realized that there is, in fact, some great MMA outside the UFC. The IFL team championships and inaugural Grand Prix Finals delivered some great fights, and EliteXC has proven to be no joke. Trumping them both, however, was the rejuvenated WEC.
In 2007, WEC put together 7 shows, all of which featured at least one championship fight. What I loved most about WEC over the past year was how it consistently delivered exciting championship action, thanks in large part to its belt holders: the tough-as-nails bantamweight Chase Beebe, lightweight knockout artist “Razor” Rob McCullough, the exceptionally well-rounded welterweight Carlos Condit, world-renowned middleweight Paulo Filho, and the heavy-handed light heavyweight Doug “Rhino” Marshall.
But the WEC's crowned jewel is their fair-haired poster boy and a star of the MSNBC Warrior Nation series, featherweight champion Urijah Faber.
Innovation and Domination
Without a heavyweight class, the WEC has managed to make a real name for itself in ’07 with its bantamweight and featherweight divisions, and Faber is without a doubt the “little guy” who’s been drawing the big attention.
Faber, who’s actually small for a featherweight, defended his belt four times last year and submitted all four opponents; three of his four wins didn’t didn't take him past the first round. Most impressive (for me, at least) was how Faber managed to completely overwhelm and outclass the opposition with skill, athleticism, and aggression. He outwrestled the wrestlers, outstruck the strikers, and seemed at times to have barely broken a sweat.
In January, Faber faced Miletich Fighting Systems product Joe Pearson and battered him into submission. Two months later, Faber crushed the previously undefeated power puncher Dominick Cruz with a vicious guillotine from the mount. It was business as usual for the "California Kid."
In June, Faber took on the also previously undefeated Chance Farrar, an NAIA National Wrestling Champion and a fighter whom many thought had the striking and wrestling tools to dethrone the seemingly invincible Faber. Wrong. Early on, Faber landed a big right, worked his way out of a subsequent Farrar takedown, slammed Farrar, took his back, and sunk in the rear naked choke. Their match was a treat for fans of technical grappling, but in the end, Urijah was just too much.
Last month at WEC 31, Faber took on his toughest WEC opponent to date: Jeff “The Big Frog” Curran. Curran worked furiously for an early submission, but to no avail. Instead, Faber passed Curran’s guard with ease and punished him with devastating elbows. In the second round, Faber landed a jumping knee (the likes of which I’ve never seen) to a bloodied and battered Curran and choked out the Gracie blackbelt. Curran, a UFC and Pride veteran, never really had a chance.
To recap Faber’s 2007: four title fights, four dominant submission wins. He attacked with knees and slams from positions and angles never before seen, and he obeyed the number one rule of showmanship: he left us wanting more.
The dark cloud over MMA in 2007 was the issue of banned substances. In reality, it's been a problem for years, but 2007 was a banner year for positive drug tests. Sean Sherk, Hermes Franca, Phil Baroni, and the legendary Royce Gracie are some of the high-profile stars who submitted soiled samples. It was ugly. I remember reading a Sherdog forum thread after Gracie's steroid disaster in which fight fans were weighing in on how to know if any fighters were actually clean.
Well I know of one guy who's definitely clean: Urijah Faber. Like just about all fighters, Faber follows a healthy diet and is devoted to keeping his body in peak physical condition. What sets him apart, however, is that he embraces holistic living and natural cures. That means no immunization shots, no conventional medicines, and no work-out supplements of any form. Faber told Fight! magazine that instead of protein pills or dietary supplements, he prefers "wheat grass, juice, bee pollen, (and) raw apple cider with vinegar."
In 2007, Urijah Faber's work in side the cage upheld everything good about MMA, and his efforts outside of the cage defied the sport's ugliest reality.
The Total Package
Yeah, guys like Rampage and Anderson Silva may have beaten tougher (or at least better-known) competition than Faber did in '07, but neither single-handedly thrust his division into the spotlight, and neither was as valuable to the UFC as Faber has been to the WEC.
Plus, the Fighter of the Year honor (which is slowly becoming MMA's MVP Award) takes into consideration more than just what goes down in the cage. After all, what else could possibly explain Chuck Liddell being named Fighter of the Year in 2006 over Cro Cop?
Looking back on 2007, no champion had been as active and as dominant as Faber, and no fighter consistently brought to the cage the combination of skill, conditioning, and furious aggression that Urijah Faber did. The pressure was on Faber to deliver as the face of WEC, and he delivered every time. It was due in large part to Faber's mesmerising fighting style and immediate likability that the WEC has become one of MMA's most promising, electrifying promotions.