In a year filled with memorable mixed martial arts events -- UFC 199, UFC 202, UFC 196 and UFC 205 all come to mind -- from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Bellator MMA, One Championship, Invicta Fighting Championships, the World Series of Fighting and various other organizations, one stood out above the rest in the Sherdog.com “Event of the Year” race.
UFC 206 on Dec. 10 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto had a little bit of everything, from legitimate “Knockout of the Year,” “Fight of the Year” and “Round of the Year” contenders to a co-main event clash between two of the sport’s most violent welterweights and a coming-of-age performance by a man many had long viewed as a future champion in the headliner.
It all started on the undercard, where Dustin Ortiz’s narrow victory against Zach Makovsky and Rustam Khabilov’s win over Jason Saggo got the blood pumping. That set the stage for Lando Vannata, a promising Jackson-Wink MMA export who had pushed Tony Ferguson to the brink five months earlier. Move over, Edson Barboza.
Vannata knocked out John Makdessi with a sensational wheel kick in the first round of their preliminary lightweight tilt. Vannata brought it to a close 1:40 into Round 1, putting his name in the running for “Knockout of the Year.” Makdessi engaged the 24-year-old on the feet, working behind a sneaky jab. However, Vannata closed the distance with two sidekicks to the thigh, forced the Canadian to move to his right and clipped him on the chin with his heel. Makdessi hit the canvas unconscious. No follow-up shots were necessary.
The knockout was just the appetizer. A main card encounter between Cub Swanson and Doo Ho Choi had fireworks written all over it, and the two featherweights did not disappoint. Swanson won a firefight for the ages, as he outlasted Choi to a unanimous decision in a magnificent three-round battle. All three cageside judges scored it for Swanson: 30-27, 30-27 and 29-28.
Choi found success in the first round with standing knee strikes from the front headlock position, precision jabs and stabbing straight right hands to the body. A brawl developed in the middle frame, giving way to perhaps the most memorable five minutes of 2016. Both men were hurt during wild exchanges. Swanson executed a takedown and mounted briefly before returning to his feet, where he landed everything from a spinning backfist and a cartwheel kick to sweeping hooks with both hands. Still, Choi refused to go away.
Swanson was in trouble early in Round 3 but regained momentum with a head-and-arm throw. They spent the final minute firing power punches at one another. His 13-fight winning streak nearing its end, Choi collapsed in the waning seconds and absorbed heavy ground-and-pound until the horn sounded, the crowd of 18,057 roaring its approval.
The theatrics from Swanson and Choi largely overshadowed what followed, as Donald Cerrone knocked out Elevation Fight Team rep Matt Brown with a third-round head kick in their welterweight co-headliner. Brown met his end 34 seconds into Round 3, as he suffered his third straight defeat.
Cerrone overcame some adversity to get his hand raised: He escaped a triangle choke in the first round and ate a crushing overhand right in the second that briefly sat him down. However, he hammered away at Brown with a steady diet of kicks to the legs, body and head, leaving him with cuts near both eyes. The two rivals embraced in a show of respect at the start of Round 3. Moments later, Cerrone drilled “The Ultimate Fighter 7” alum with a counter right hook and caught him ducking. The sickening thud of shin meeting jaw came next, as Brown came to rest on the canvas.
From there, Max Holloway seized the spotlight, as the Hawaiian buried Anthony Pettis with a volley of third-round punches and captured the interim UFC featherweight title in the headliner. Pettis wilted 4:50 into Round 3, as he was stopped for the first time in his 25-fight career.
Not much went right for “Showtime.” Holloway started piecing together punches in the first round and left him with significant damage to his right eye. More of the same followed in Round 2, where the he sat down Pettis with a right hand, countered beautifully and worked over his body with punches. Making matters worse for the Milwaukee native, he retreated to his corner having suffered an apparent hand injury.
Holloway took down the Roufusport star twice in the third before authoring the stoppage. The 25-year-old lit up Pettis with a body kick, backed him to the fence and unleashed with punches to the head and body that doubled over the former lightweight champion and forced referee Yves Lavigne to step in.
Lost in the buzz of Holloway’s mastery, Cerrone’s shin-to-skull violence, the Swanson-Choi epic and Vannata’s highlight-reel kick, the rest of UFC 206 gave rise to outstanding efforts from Kelvin Gastelum, Misha Cirkunov and Olivier Aubin-Mercier. Gastelum disposed of Tim Kennedy with third-round punches, Aubin-Mercier brought down Drew Dober with a rear-naked choke and Cirkunov cemented his place as a top 10 light heavyweight by taking out Nikita Krylov with a guillotine choke.
UFC 206 was that rare instance in which the stars aligned in the MMA sky, much like UFC on Fox 5, UFC 166, UFC 178 and UFC 194 before it.