2017 UFC Fight of the Year: Gaethje vs. Johnson blows away the competition

For a year that was short on big events and massive pay-per-view buys for UFC, there was no shortage of consistently outstanding fights when it comes to action. 

From all-out wars with dramatic changes of momentum to highly technical affairs which organically evolved into something more, 2017 produced a number of fights worth remembering. 

Let's take a closer look at the five best from the Octagon over the past 12 months, voted on by a panel of CBS Sports mixed martial arts experts. 

1. Justin Gaethje TKO2 Michael Johnson (TUF: Redemption Finale) -- July 7 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas

It might be difficult, in theory, to award a bout that failed to go even two full rounds as the best of the year. But action star and part caveman Gaethje walked through at least five rounds of damage to rally twice from the brink of defeat to finish Johnson in the former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion's UFC debut. This was savage theater at its finest. 

If Gaethje's second fight of 2017 is any indication -- a fight of the year candidate and third-round knockout defeat against Eddie Alvarez in December -- UFC may have found itself MMA's equivalent to boxing Hall of Famer Arturo Gatti. Gaethje not only showcased a Gatti-like lust for trading heavy blows at close range against Johnson, it was his dramatic recuperative abilities that helped the fight become so memorable. 

Despite quicker hands and more accurate punches, Johnson routinely fell into the trap that Gaethje's constant pressure created. Despite saying before the fight he wasn't going to be lured into a war, Johnson couldn't keep from finding himself in one. The fact that Johnson kept finding success at such a pace and distance wound up becoming his undoing in the long run. 

After getting off to quick start with straight left hands, the southpaw Johnson landed the biggest strike of the fight with less than 30 seconds to go in Round 1 when he wobbled Gaethje with a brutal right uppercut. Johnson finished the round on the verge of creating a stoppage against the fence with clean strikes from his feet. 

But given new life, Gaethje simply wouldn't stop coming forward and the insane pace appeared to be catching up with Johnson to open Round 2. That is, until he wobbled Gaethje once more with a lightning quick straight left hand. Johnson emptied the tank along the cage wall but couldn't finish Gaethje. 

Slowly but surely, the momentum swung back to Gaethje, first by using his chin and second by relying on his sick gas tank to outlast Johnson. A right uppercut late in Round 2 began Johnson's exit by wobbling him. A second (and eventually a third) did huge damage along the cage before Gaethje forced the stoppage in the closing seconds with knees to the face. 

This fight was as brutal as it was exciting, with the kind of drastic momentum changes that breeds new fans. 

2. Darren Elkins KO3 Mirsad Bektic (UFC 209) -- March 4 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas

Mirsad Bektic's stock couldn't have been any higher entering UFC 209. With his unbeaten record and dyed blue hair, the Bosnian featherweight entered the Octagon a -700 betting favorite and was lauded a possible future champion in waiting. He seemed to back up said hype by connecting with clean right hands and taking Elkins down early in Round 1. The round ended with Elkins' face a swollen mess and his blood gratuitously poured all over the canvas. 

After a cageside doctor inspected the nasty cut above Elkins' right eye between rounds, he was surprisingly allowed to continue. The urgency helped create more action in Round 2, even though it was Elkins who began on the wrong end of it once again. Things began to change, however, as Elkins kept scrambling into advantageous positions on the ground. But it was Round 3 where Elkins, nicknamed "The Damage," nearly secured cult hero status with how dramatic his comeback became. 

Forced to eat a steady diet of clean strikes in order to survive, Elkins continued to fight for better position. And with Bektic's stamina fading late in the round, Elkins paired two right hands and a kick to the face along the cage to finish him in stunning fashion. UFC announcer Jon Anik's call of "Do you believe it!?!?!?" properly summed up the feeling of those who watched just how far Elkins came from behind.

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The picture is worth 1,000 words after Elkins rallied to be Bektic. Getty Images

3. TJ Dillashaw TKO2 Cody Garbrandt (UFC 217) -- Nov. 4 at Madison Square Garden in New York

There's nothing in combat sports like a true grudge match and these former teammates spent months exchanging trash talk ahead of their bantamweight title bout, which added a palpable layer of intensity once they entered the Octagon. 

When it comes to pure talent and skills, this may have been the best fight on paper in 2017 for UFC between top five pound-for-pound talents. But while technique was on full display over the two rounds of this co-main event, so were fireworks and drama, which is what went a long way in making this one of 2017's most compelling duels. 

Dillashaw ultimately backed up every word he spoke in the build-up by knocking Garbrandt out to hand him his first pro defeat. But the former champion needed to survive being dropped and badly hurt by a right hand in the closing seconds of Round 1 to get there. Garbrandt, who taunted his opponent by dancing early in Round 2 after Dillashaw missed a head kick, ultimately may have become over confident in how he carried himself. 

With the pro-Garbrandt crowd yelling, "F--- you TJ," Dillashaw responded with a left kick to the head which momentarily dropped Garbrandt. It wasn't long before Dillashaw caught him once more with a short right hook to the chin that floored Garbrandt and set up the finish via hammer strikes. Dillashaw added the moment's exclamation point by jumping into Garbrandt's face and screaming one final burst of disrespect after the stoppage.

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The celebration after Dillashaw's win was tremendous. USATSI

4. Dustin Poirier MD3 Jim Miller (UFC 208) -- Feb. 11 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York

If you listened to the sound bites from each fighter ahead of this lightweight duel, both predicted a toe-to-toe war in which neither would take a step backward. That prediction became an entertaining reality as the pair of southpaws traded heavy punches and even heavier leg strikes throughout in a stand-up brawl. 

The fireworks escalated to another level in the final 10 seconds of Round 1 as each fighter was rocked after trading haymakers at close range. Poirier then wobbled and bloodied Miller in Round 2 with straight left hands until Miller rallied with his back against the cage. 

But the bulk of the drama occurred in the final round as a seemingly fading Miller began to turn the tide with a short right hand that buckled Poirier and a series of leg kicks, which forced him to switch stances. Miller appeared close to a submission late until Poirier, who claimed a close decision, hung on despite a massively swollen right shin. 

5. Robert Whittaker UD5 Yoel Romero (UFC 213) -- July 8 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas

This interim middleweight championship bout was fought at an extremely high level over five tense rounds, and it showcased the evolution of Whittaker into a star in the making. The native of New Zealand was forced to overcome adversity in order to score the biggest victory of his career after suffering a grade two medial ligament injury to his left knee because of a Romero leg strike. 

While Whittaker's toughness and takedown defense proved to be the story in the long run, he endured a huge surge from Romero, who dominated Round 2 with his wrestling. Romero's aggressiveness ultimately stole from his gas tank, however, and cost him late as Whittaker wore him down and floored him in Round 4 with a right hand. 

The final round featured both fighters battling exhaustion, yet still coming forward in exciting fashion. Both landed big shots as the tension and drama only escalated. 

Honorable mentions: Yancy Medeiros TKO3 Alex Oliveira, Eddie Alvarez TKO3 Justin Gaethje (UFC 218), David Teymur UD3 Lando Vannata (UFC 209), Jessica Andrade UD3 Angela Hill (UFC Houston), Jessica Andrade UD3 Claudia Gadelha (UFC Saitama), Derrick Lewis KO2 Travis Browne (UFC Halifax). 

CBS Sports Insider

Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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