The last 12 months have provided bloodthirsty fight fans plenty on which to feast. The Ultimate Fighting Championship alone put on a fight card nearly every week in 2017. When coupled with Bellator MMA, Invicta Fighting Championships, One Championship and UFC satellite properties like Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, there was a lot of content to consume. It made the task of crowning one event above all others as the best of the year uniquely difficult.
UFC 214 on July 29 saw Cristiane Justino ascend to champion status in the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion, along with the return to glory -- and later another fall from grace -- of light heavyweight Jon Jones. Unfortunately Tyron Woodley’s successful welterweight title defense against Demian Maia became one of the most universally despised fights of all-time. KSW 39 on May 27 made history, as 58,000 fans packed PGE Narodowy Stadium in Warsaw, Poland. However, it lacked relevance for most of the MMA universe. Bellator 180 on June 24 featured a star-studded lineup at Madison Square Garden in New York, including two title-fight upsets and the return of the great Fedor Emelianenko. Nevertheless, it was built on the spectacle of aging fighters while more legitimate matchups were pushed to the background. UFC 218 on Dec. 2 was action-packed and served as a hardcore fans’ dream for the kind of meritocratic matchmaking that has slowly been leaving the sport. The only downside was that the established star power necessary to elevate an event was nowhere to be found.
Unlike anything else on the calendar, UFC 217 “Bisping vs. St. Pierre” on Nov. 4 offered everything we love, hate and find eminently perplexing about MMA. The Sherdog.com “Event of the Year” for 2017 took place at Madison Square Garden in New York -- site of the first two Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier bouts, the birthplace of “Hulkamania” and the venue at which Conor McGregor became the first fighter in UFC history to own championships in two divisions simultaneously.
It started with a dramatic spinning back elbow knockout for Ricardo Lucas Ramos, as he removed Aiemann Zahabi from the ranks of the unbeaten; heavyweight prospect Curtis Blaydes bludgeoned Alexey Oleynik to a doctor stoppage featuring a bizarre scene of a regulatory mess that has become all-too common under the so-called unified ruleset; Randy Brown picked up a unanimous decision over Mickey Gall in a bloody war of attrition at 170 pounds; Ovince St. Preux thrilled the crowd with a stunning head kick finish of Corey Anderson; Walt Harris was disqualified following a cheap-shot head kick on Mark Godbeer; and James Vick earned a crucial win in the lightweight division with his buzzer-beater knockout of Joseph Duffy at the end of the second round.
As the prelims concluded, the main card sought to match their excitement level. Looking grossly outsized, former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks found himself on the receiving end of a crushing defeat at the hands and feet of Brazilian prospect Paulo Henrique Costa. Meanwhile, Stephen Thompson outpointed the notoriously tough Jorge Masvidal with slick counter boxing and well-timed kicks. As a trio of title fights was set to begin, the audience had already seen plenty of drama. No one, especially oddsmakers, could have known it was only an appetizer.
Written off by virtually everyone in the weeks ahead of UFC 217, Rose Namajunas took on women’s strawweight titleholder Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Much of the pre-fight talk centered on the 115-pound champion’s place in history, but Namajunas had other plans against the pound-for-pound queen. She used feints to set up the knockout blow in the first round, authoring one of the year’s biggest upsets. The juxtaposition of Namajunas’ quiet and humble demeanor with Jedrzejczyk’s broken hubris was nothing short of startling; and who could forget Daniel Cormier screaming “Thug Rose!” over and over again in the broadcast booth?
In the co-headliner, T.J. Dillashaw challenged former teammate turned archrival Cody Garbrandt for the UFC bantamweight championship. A fantastic style matchup was only enhanced by the tension in the air, as their feud spilled into the cage. Dillashaw returned to the top of the 135-pound mountain and stopped his onetime friend with punches midway through the second round.
With that, the stage was set for the return of Georges St. Pierre. Pitted against middleweight champion Michael Bisping in the main event, it marked the first time in four years that he competed inside the Octagon. Bisping was aiming to defend his title for a second time and cement his legacy by becoming the only man to defeat both St. Pierre and Anderson Silva. While seeing the Canadian legend fight for a belt in a weight class where he had never before competed was not exactly the proper approach, St. Pierre’s return gave the UFC something of a pass on the booking front.
The fight did not disappoint. The first round saw St. Pierre pressure the champion, with Bisping struggling to find his rhythm and the challenger picking and choosing his punches, all while throwing a variety of kicks and landing a takedown. At the start of the second, the extra bulk on the longtime welterweight’s frame appeared to take a toll, as his pace slowed and the notoriously well-conditioned Bisping began to press the action.
GSP executed an early takedown in the third round, only to find “The Count” firing cutting elbows from the bottom. St. Pierre seemed to have a better grasp on the Brit’s timing once the fighters moved back to their feet, and he connected with a short left hand that sent Bisping crashing to the floor with roughly a minute to go in the the round. Vicious ground-and-pound led to a sloppy scramble that saw St. Pierre easily take the champion’s back and cinch the rear-naked choke. Bisping refused to tap and elected to go out on his proverbial shield, losing consciousness 4:23 into Round 3. A bloodied St. Pierre rose to his feet as the new UFC middleweight champion.
Nine of the 11 bouts at UFC 217 resulted in finishes, with head kicks, punches, elbows and submission providing a veritable cornucopia of violence and technique. The first chapter in a heated rivalry was written; premature talk of all-time greatness was quieted by a committed and composed challenger; and an icon returned to claim a championship, becoming just the fourth fighter in history to do so in multiple weight classes. Yes, UFC 217 had something for everyone.
Sherdog’s year-end awards were voted upon by a panel of Sherdog.com staff members and contributors: Jordan Breen, Tristen Critchfield, Chris Nelson, Mike Fridley, Brian Knapp, Eric Stinton, Todd Martin, Jordan Colbert, Josh Stillman, Jesse Denis, Edward Carbajal and Anthony Walker.