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FN's Top 5 MMA Fighters, Breakout Fighters & Gyms of 2012

Ariel Shnerer / January 2, 2013 - 5:24pm

TOP 5 FIGHTERS

1. Cain Velasquez (11-1)

Entering 2012 after suffering the first loss of his career, Velasquez rebounded from a knee injury and re-established himself as the best heavyweight on the planet. Velasquez bloodied and battered Antonio Silva en route to a first-round stoppage in May to earn a rematch with his only conqueror. At UFC 155, Velasquez came out like a freight train, completely dominating Junior dos Santos for five rounds to reclaim his spot atop the heavyweight ladder. The aggressive 30-year-old Mexican-American couldn't ask for a better way to cap off 2012.

2. Anderson Silva (38-4)

Despite only fighting twice this year, the sport's perennial pound-for-pound king emphatically put an end to his bitter rivalry with Chael Sonnen, ending their highly anticipated rematch via second-round TKO. With no plans to compete again until next year, Silva stepped up as a late headliner at UFC 153 this past October in Brazil, crushing Stephan Bonnar in the first round of their 205-pound special attraction. Bonnar later tested positive for steroids. Silva further boosted his stock by openly challenging UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre to a superfight. With original plans to retire by the age of 35, Silva continues to dazzle audiences at the age of 37. He has two fights left on his UFC contract with a likelihood of more to come in the future.

3. Benson Henderson (18-2)

It was a sensational year for the 29-year-old former WEC champion. Henderson competed three times this year, dethroning Frankie Edgar to win the lightweight championship, beating him again in a hotly contested decision this past August before rounding out a successful year against Nate Diaz in December, dominating the Cesar Gracie pupil for five one-sided rounds. With Edgar leaving the division, Henderson, who spent 75 minutes inside the Octagon in 2012, has solidied his standing as the premier lightweight in the game.

4. Ronda Rousey (6-0)

The 25-year-old female phenom continues to deliver the goods, putting away highly regarded opponents by first-round armbar. Rousey vanquished Miesha Tate in March, then Sarah Kaufman in August, to claim and retain the Strikeforce 135-pound title. With the organization on the verge of shutting its doors for good, Rousey made history by joining the UFC as the first-ever female champion. Rousey has transcended the sport in the mainstream and she continues to attract new audiences. All that aside, the 4th dan black belt judoka, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, has made short work of every challenger thus far. The first female UFC fight in history has been tapped as the headliner of UFC 157 in February as Rousey defends her belt against Liz Carmouche. With UFC president Dana White refusing to commit to the division's long-term future, the outcome could determine the fate of female mixed martial arts on the big stage, which puts a lot of pressure on Rousey's shoulders.

5. Demetrious Johnson (16-2-1)

The smallest and quite possibly the quickest fighter on the UFC roster made history this year by becoming the inaugural flyweight champion. At 125 pounds, "Mighty Mouse" battled Ian McCall to a close majority draw this past March. Johnson came out strong in their June rematch, winning a unanimous decision. Finally, Johnson upset flyweight tournament favorite Joseph Benavidez at UFC 152 this past September, earning a split decision to become the flyweight torchbearer. At 26, the Matt Hume-trained Johnson can further cement his status as the division's best fighter when he tangles with John Dodson in January.

Honorable Mention:

Jon Jones (17-1)

The 25-year-old light heavyweight champion continues to reign supreme after notching a pair of impressive victories this year. At UFC 145 in April, Jones controlled his long-awaited grudge match with former teammate Rashad Evans. Despite receiving mostly criticism for all the events surrounding the cancellation of UFC 151 and Jones' subsequent refusal to fight Chael Sonnen, the Greg Jackson-trained New Yorker took on Vitor Belfort on just several weeks' notice at UFC 152 this past September, submitting the former champion after overcoming some early adversity in the form of an armbar. Jones is becoming a polarizing figure as he was also charged with a DWI this year, but his dominance in the Octagon is indisputable.

Johny Hendricks (14-1)

Hendricks really jumpstarted his streak in December 2011 with a 12-second knockout of durable top contender Jon Fitch. However, Hendricks has turned in an equally impressive 2012 campaign, earning a competitive split decision over Josh Koscheck in May. Hendricks further made his case for a title shot at UFC 154 in November, starching Martin Kampmann with a knockout punch in just 46 seconds. The 29-year-old standout wrestler is emerging as one of the top dogs in the welterweight division, but he'll need to overcome another stiff test in the form of Jake Ellenberger at UFC 158 in March. With another decisive win, Hendricks should finally earn his shot at Georges St. Pierre's coveted throne.

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TOP 5 BREAKOUT FIGHTERS

1. Renan Barao (29-1, 1NC)

We knew Barao was good. We just didn't know how good. The 25-year-old Nova Uniao product, a teammate of featherweight champion Jose Aldo, kicked off 2012 with a dominant unanimous decision over Scott Jorgensen at UFC 143 in February. With Dominick Cruz suffering a severe knee injury, Barao earned an interim bantamweight title shot against former WEC poster boy Urijah Faber at UFC 149. The well-rounded Brazilian outworked and punished Faber from start to finish. With a more convincing victory over Faber than we saw from the champion Cruz, Barao has made his case for being the man to beat at 135 pounds. Barao is expected to take on Michael McDonald in an interim title bout in February. Win or lose, Barao should be a force in the division for years to come.

2. Alexander Gustafsson (15-1)

Another fighter who was often praised for his potential is the Swedish sensation Gustafsson. At the age of 25, Gustafsson had a career-defining year, earning a pair of decisions over top Brazilian contenders Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Thiago Silva. "The Mauler" is inching his way closer to an eventual shot at light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.

3. Rory MacDonald (14-1)

The Tristar Gym export has been the talk of the welterweight division at the age of 23. MacDonald had little trouble dispatching British slugger Che Mills at UFC 145 in April. However, his one-sided beatdown of the legendary B.J. Penn in December has skyrocketed MacDonald's stock. The Canadian faces his lone conqueror, Carlos Condit, in a rematch at UFC 158 this March in Montreal.

4. Chris Weidman (9-0)

Weidman stepped up on short notice in January, accepting the toughest test of his career against former title challenger Demian Maia. Weidman utilized improved striking to control the fight and win a decision. But Weidman's biggest victory came in July when he utterly decimated highly touted contender Mark Munoz. The undefeated 28-year-old is an obvious threat at 185 pounds and Anderson Silva's camp has already turned down a proposed bout with the surging contender. A few more wins next year should catapult the New Yorker to a crack at the gold.

5. Stefan Struve (25-5)

Despite being a part of the UFC roster since 2009, Struve suffered three knockout losses against Junior dos Santos, Roy Nelson and Travis Browne. This year, however, Struve has finally come into his own. After putting mass on his enormous 7-foot frame, Struve finished Dave Herman, Lavar Johnson and Stipe Miocic to raise his stock in the heavyweight division. The 24-year-old Dutchman needs a victory over a top 10 contender to make the move from prospect to contender. First, Struve battles Mark Hunt in an entertaining pairing this March in Japan.

Honorable Mention:

A few other overlooked fighters broke into the limelight this year and they warrant mention:

Matt Brown (16-11)

Most observers would glance at Brown's record and dismiss him as a mediocre fighter. But Brown's impressive year warrants attention as he earned four victories over Chris Cope, Stephen Thompson, Luis Ramos and Mike Swick. At the age of 31, Brown isn't the most technical striker or the best grappler. His heart and durability are unquestionable, however, and Brown certainly deserves more main card opportunities in 2013.

Cub Swanson (18-5)

Entering 2012 on the heels of a second-round submission loss to Ricardo Lamas in November, Swanson got himself a hat trick this year, knocking out George Roop, Ross Pearson and Charles Oliveira. Most longtime WEC fans probably remember Jose Aldo's devastating eight-second flying knee knockout of Swanson in June 2009. Swanson is eager for an eventual rematch. If he keeps putting top contenders away, he'll earn a crack at the title. In fact, the 29-year-old Greg Jackson student could already earn a title shot with an impressive showing against Dennis Siver in February.

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TOP 5 GYMS

1. American Kickboxing Academy

The American Kickboxing Academy's success this year was punctuated in December by Cain Velasquez's trouncing of Junior dos Santos to reclaim the UFC heavyweight title. Jon Fitch also made a successful comeback this year, earning a hard-fought decision against Erick Silva in October. Strikeforce middleweight champion Luke Rockhold scored a pair of wins over Keith Jardine and Tim Kennedy. Josh Thomson earned a Strikeforce lightweight title shot by defeating K.J. Noons and many observers thought he did enough to outpoint Gilbert Melendez in their rubber match in May. It was a fantastic year for the former Strikeforce champion Cung Le, who defeated Patrick Cote and Rich Franklin at the age of 40. Mike Swick also made a triumphant Octagon return against DaMarques Johnson this year, but he was knocked out by Matt Brown in December.

2. Team Nogueira/Black House

It was a great year for the Brazilians as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Lyoto Machida made victorious returns from losses to Frank Mir and Jon Jones, respectively. Nogueira submitted Dave Herman in his native Brazil this past October, while Machida crushed Ryan Bader by second-round knockout in August. Pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva continued to build his legacy with a pair of dominant performances against Chael Sonnen and Stephan Bonnar. Despite missing most of 2012, Jose Aldo decimated top contender Chad Mendes to retain his title in Janaury. But it wasn't all perfect this year. Erick Silva took the UFC by storm before suffering a unanimous decision loss to Jon Fitch in October. Antonio Silva was beaten down by Cain Velasquez in May, only to bounce back with a first-round knockout of Travis Browne in October. Heavyweight force Junior dos Santos was also defeated by Velasquez this year, losing his title by one-sided unanimous decision in December.

3. Tristar Gym

Georges St. Pierre and Rory MacDonald scored massive wins this year, as St. Pierre defeated Carlos Condit in November, while MacDonald brutalized B.J. Penn in December. It wasn't pretty, but Francis Carmont remained unbeaten in the UFC middleweight division, while natural lightweight Mike Ricci made it to the finals of "The Ultimate Fighter," losing a decision to welterweight Colton Smith. On the other hand, Patrick Cote barely resurrected his UFC career this year as he was awarded a disqualification win against Alessio Sakara in November, while Miguel Torres continued his decline, suffering a knockout loss against Michael McDonald, which led to his UFC release, before he suffered yet another loss, dropping a decision against Marlon Moraes in November.

4. Jackson's MMA

The Greg Jackson camp has been criticized quite a bit this year, but it continues to deliver positive results. Jon Jones reigned supreme with wins over Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort. Carlos Condit scored a major victory over Nick Diaz in February, only to drop a five-round decision to Georges St. Pierre in November. Donald Cerrone scored a pair of wins over Jeremy Stephens and former teammate Melvin Guillard, while John Dodson emerged as the No. 1 flyweight contender following wins over Tim Elliott and Jussier da Silva. Clay Guida's mystifying performance against Gray Maynard may have been the lowest point for Jackson's MMA in 2012, but the camp led by Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn remains one of the sport's premier academies.

5. Blackzilians

What this group of fighters has been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time is a truly impressive feat. Rashad Evans may have come up short against Jon Jones in April, but he thoroughly outclassed previously undefeated wrestler Phil Davis in January. Anthony Johnson came up short against Vitor Belfort in January and he also came in heavy on the scales, which resulted in his release. Since then, however, he's rattled off four straight wins as he appears to have found a comfort zone at 205 pounds. Eddie Alvarez recorded a pair of memorable first-round stoppages of Shinya Aoki and Patricio Freire, while Jorge Santiago picked up a pair of wins under the Titan Fighting Championship banner. Tyrone Spong was victorious in his mixed martial arts debut in November. We saw mixed results from Melvin Guillard and Michael Johnson, but the gym is constantly expanding its roster, adding the likes of Alistair Overeem, Matt Mitrione, Thiago Silva, Siyar Bahadurzada, Braulio Estima and Daniel Ghita.

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