In 2015, seven UFC championship belts changed hands. Jon Jones pleaded guilty to a felony and fell from grace. Ronda Rousey got knocked into oblivion by Holly Holm. Deadspin reported that Vitor Belfort was allowed to compete despite suspicious testosterone levels. Reebok ruined everything. And yet, it’s been a damn good year of fights.
Where 2014 went down in UFC history as a year spoiled by injuries, fight cancellations, drugs, and a black hole implosion of star power, 2015 will likely be remembered for rampant chaos at the championship level, questionable-ass decisions on the UFC’s part, and—somehow, despite all that—some incredible goddamn fights. Also drugs. I mean, seriously, here’s a very incomplete list of the bonkers shit that happened in the UFC in 2015:
- Then-light-heavyweight-champion Jon Jones got busted for cocaine and beat his maybe-it-was, maybe-it-wasn’t addiction in 24 hours.
- Anderson Silva and Nick Diaz—a past-his-prime legend and a legendary shit-stirrer, respectively—actually fought. It wasn’t the best fight ever, but it was weird as all get-out.
- Anderson Silva and Nick Diaz both tested positive for drugs. Silva’s legacy may never recover. Diaz’s legacy will stay the same because he tested positive for weed, and he always does that.
- Brock Lesnar said “nah bruh, fuck that noise” to the prospect of a much-anticipated UFC return and then probably bit the head off a moose or something.
- Tiny Polish murder machine Joanna “Champion” Jedrzejczyk destroyed then-strawweight champ Carla Esparza after handing her a cookie at the weigh-ins. Despite two solid title defenses since and a great personality, she’s not a star yet. This is a tremendous shame.
- Jon Jones got into a car wreck with a pregnant woman. He fled the scene. He later turned himself into the police. He was stripped of his belt and suspended from UFC competition.
- Well-rounded but stoic Brazilian Rafael dos Anjos positively slew then-lightweight champion and owner of one of the most legendary kicks in MMA history, Anthony Pettis. The UFC pretty much based their entire first quarter ad campaign around Pettis, so I doubt they were pleased.
- The UFC struck a company-wide sponsorship deal with Reebok that forced fighters to (among other things) wear only Reebok-branded apparel in the octagon, replacing lucrative third-party sponsorship deals—a staple of the MMA world—with paltry Reebok payouts.
- Beloved longtime cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran was let go due to not-entirely-positive (but not particularly inflammatory) comments about the Reebok deal. It began to feel like the UFC sold its soul.
- The UFC continued to officially regard all fighters as contractors—denying them benefits afforded to full-time employees—despite requiring more of them than ever before. Shit’s fucked up.
- Some fighters threatened to leave the UFC and fight for competitors like Bellator. Only a few—for instance, light-heavyweight contender Phil Davis—actually did it.
- In the first half of the year, the UFC put on way too many watered-down events.
- Cain Velasquez—the man the UFC pinned their Mexican expansion hopes on despite his shitty Spanish and lack of, you know, a personality—lost the heavyweight title to Fabricio Werdum, a resurgent 38-year-old Brazilian... who probably speaks much better Spanish than Velasquez. Velasquez, usually a terrifying cardio monster, looked flabby and listless.
- UFC champions hung out with an accused Russian war criminal, like ya do.
- A lot of fights got stopped too late, and fighters took some frightening beatings as a result. There were also egregious early stoppages and some mind-bogglingly abysmal judging decisions. And yet, not a whole lot about MMA officiating changed.
- The UFC continued to employ a bunch of fighters accused of domestic abuse. One of them made the ill-advised decision to post a rant about an altercation he got into with a woman while at the gym.
- A collective of high-profile fighters continued pursuing their antitrust lawsuit against the UFC.
- Nick Diaz got banned from competition for five years because he tested positive for weed—a drug that does not enhance athletic performance—effectively ending his career. His opponent, Anderson Silva, tested positive for steroids. His ban will be up in January.
- Noted Irish madman Conor McGregor’s rivalry with then-featherweight champion Jose Aldo was born. Then Aldo got injured right before their massive mega-bucks fight, and it died. Then McGregor cleaned perennial number one contender Chad Mendes’ clock so thoroughly that he can’t understand the concept of time anymore, and the Aldo rivalry was reborn. For a few days, though, it looked like all was lost. Heart attacks all around.
- Welterweight champion Robbie Lawler and game-as-fuck contender Rory MacDonald put on one of the best title fights in UFC history. It was also one of the most brutal.
- Kickboxing, Pride, and UFC legend Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic suddenly retired. He said he made the painful decision due to accumulated injuries. Then he got popped for drugs—which he claimed he was using to treat said injuries.
- Ronda Rousey cemented her status as a ceaseless immortal badass (and mainstream media darling) by chopping down Bethe Correia like a slightly friskier than average tree in 34 seconds.
- Holly Holm un-cemented that status by crafting a perfect gameplan and exploiting every weakness in Rousey’s game, ultimately KO-ing her with a perfectly placed head kick. UFC executives likely peed themselves in excitement for the big money rematch—then peed themselves again in fear of what would happen if Rousey lost said rematch.
- Sage Northcutt—the UFC’s squeaky clean star-in-the-making with all the personality of a tube of un-flavored toothpaste—happened, I guess. Hardly anybody’s calling him Sage Haircutt, even though it’s the perfect derogatory nickname. Come on, everybody. Step up your game.
- Paige VanZant—the UFC’s other squeaky clean star-in-the-making with all the personality of a tube of un-flavored toothpaste, got completely shut down by Rose Namajunas—a significantly more interesting young talent—and the one the UFC probably should’ve been hyping to high hell in the first place.
- Deadspin published a damning report about Vitor Belfort’s 2013 fight with Jon Jones, alleging that Belfort was allowed to compete even though the UFC was aware of a super sketchy drug test. The UFC dodged questions and denied allegations, like they do.
- The UFC launched an out-of-competition drug testing program in partnership with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
- Jon Jones returned. He also talked to some kids and generally failed to convince anybody that he’s A Changed Man.
- Chris “The Chris” Weidman—slayer of Anderson Silva—lost the middleweight title to Luke Rockhold. The first round was close. The rest was a blow-out.
- After eons of build-up, Conor McGregor knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds. With that, he won the featherweight title and declared his intention to go up in weight and claim the lightweight belt as well. Also, a bunch of his drunk fans turned a plane around. Now everybody’s challenging him to a fight; the cash cow is birthing cash calves. UFC executives are likely peeing themselves again. They do that a lot, apparently.
There’s some terrible, no-good, awful-ass stuff on that list. Clear signs of organizational corruption, drugs, crime, domestic violence, a dud of a Reebok deal, belts changing hands so quickly that stars don’t have time to rise, let alone fall—it’s chaos.
In 2015, however, the UFC thrived on chaos. Thanks to newborn stars (figuratively speaking; there are no babies in the UFC aside from Sage Northcutt) like Rousey and McGregor, the UFC weathered an early year storm to emerge seemingly much stronger than before. Despite a stunning lack of dominant champions, more mainstream eyes than ever are paying attention, and McGregor’s motor mouth—the pride of Irish engineering—has forced two divisions to take a whiplash-inducing turn for the interesting. On top of that, many of the other new champs are intriguing individuals with action-heavy fighting styles.
To be frank, though, it feels like the UFC succeeded (mostly) despite its own decisions and actions, not because of them. Gambling on McGregor was, in hindsight, the smartest thing they could’ve done, but Reebok, the way they treat fighters, most of their attempts at manufacturing stars, their inconsistent drug policies, and their generally more corrupt elements seem poised to come back and bite them. In many ways, the UFC lucked out in 2015. The organization is now trending upward, but they’ve positioned themselves on a precarious perch. One wrong move—and they’re already making a lot of questionable ones—and they could fall. 2015 was an improbably great year for the world’s biggest MMA organization, the follow-up they needed after a floundering 2014. 2016, on the other hand, could be fantastic, but it could also be an unmitigated disaster. Either way, I suppose it probably won’t be boring.
Image credit: Getty.