2017 UFC Fighter of the Year: Max Holloway reigns supreme as champion

If 2017 was a year for UFC in which consistent star power was a recurring issue, the only plus in that equation was how much the absence of marquee names opened up room for the next in line to make their mark. 

That was largely the case in this year's fighter of the year voting as a panel of CBS Sports mixed martial arts experts compiled their votes to decide who took top honors.

Let's take a closer look at this year's winner, along with the top honorable mentions. 

1. Max Holloway, featherweight champion. The UFC's 145-pound champion, who turned 26 just two days after his second victory of 2017 in December, made the loudest statement this calendar year as he emphatically made the leap from contender to champion to consideration among the sport's pound-for-pound best. 

Along the way, Holloway (19-3) extended his impressive win streak to 12, dating back to his 2013 decision loss to Conor McGregor when the Hawaiian was virtually still a teenager. And after taking a very circuitous path to a title shot in recent years as McGregor hijacked the division throughout 2016, Holloway put the entire company on notice once he was given a shot. 

Forced to fight in the backyard of legendary champion Jose Aldo in Brazil, Holloway rebounded well from heavy damage accrued at the end of Round 1 to simply bulldoze Aldo at UFC 212 in June and claim the 145-pound title via third-round TKO. He was expected to make his first title defense in December against veteran Frankie Edgar until an injury pulled the former lightweight champion from the card. In stepped Aldo for a last-minute rematch. 

In a headlining role at UFC 218 in Detroit, Holloway's first title defense not only provided him the opportunity to show that his first victory wasn't a fluke, but he faced off against a healthy and refocused Aldo who had no excuses to lean on this time around. The rematch very much mirrored their first fight with a pair of competitive opening rounds. But once Holloway lured Aldo into a high-paced brawl in Round 3, the end became near for the future Hall of Famer. 

Holloway's brutal third-round stoppage of Aldo showed his poise, smarts and toughness. It also cemented his status among the very best in the sport and announced to his employers that "Blessed" may just be the star in waiting the company needs most. 

2. Demetrious Johnson, flyweight champion. Short of moving big numbers as a pay-per-view draw, "Mighty Mouse" has just about been perfect as the only 125-pound champion in UFC history. His 2017 campaign was among the very best in his career as the 31-year-old broke Anderson Silva's UFC record with his 11th title defense. 

Johnson (27-2-1), almost universally regarded as the sport's P4P king, also made inroads toward the thought of him being considered among the greatest fighters in history. Watching his two victories this year made it hard to argue against. Johnson dominated Wilson Reis in April by beating him at his own game of wrestling and submitting him in Round 3 via armbar. But he saved his best for last in October when he forced Ray Borg to tap at UFC 216. 

After showcasing the full arsenal of his well-rounded skills throughout the first four rounds, Johnson produced a highlight-reel finish in Round 5 when he suplexed Borg into an armbar. Johnson wasn't just dominant in 2017, he was also entertaining, proving there's very little he can't do.

Johnson continues to cement his legacy as one of the best ever. USATSI

3. Rose Namajunas, women's strawweight champion. Talent had never been an issue for Namajunas. Finding a way to translate that into consistent, big victories had been, which explained her 5-3 professional record entering 2017. But this proved to be the year that the submission specialist fully evolved into a dangerous and complete fighter. 

Finally putting her 2014 loss in the inaugural UFC women's stawweight championship bout behind her, Namajunas began the year by dismantling Michelle Waterson in April via second-round submission. The victory was so savage it earned Namajunas a shot at Joanna Jedrezjczyk at UFC 217 in November.

Most expected the 115-pound champion to equal Ronda Rousey's record for title defenses by a female. Instead, Namajunas (7-3) shocked the MMA world by relying on her evolved boxing skills under coach Trevor Wittman to score a first-round TKO. While Namajunas' physical advancements were impressive, it was her increased mental strength that made the difference as Jedrzejczyk was unable to gain an advantage with mind games. That could mean danger for the rest of the division in 2018 as Namajunas, just 25, could be poised for a serious run. 

Namajunas' destruction of Joanna Jedrzejczyk easily landed her on this list. USATSI

4. Robert Whittaker, middleweight champion. Talk about a star turn. With a deep and dangerous middleweight division stuck in a bottleneck due to Michael Bisping's injury and avoidance of top contenders in 2017, Whittaker patiently bided his time and picked off any name willing to share the cage with him. HIs prize, following a pair of exciting victories, was the UFC's interim 185-pound championship and a shot at the unified title in February thanks to Georges St-Pierre vacating the belt he won from Bisping.

At 27, Whittaker (19-4) appears to have all the tools he needs for success and he showed them off beginning in April when he violently stopped Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza via second-round TKO. But the moment of truth for Whittaker came just three months later in a surprise main event slot opposite the red-hot Yoel Romero for the interim belt. In one of 2017's best fights, Whittaker overcame a knee injury to his left leg to outlast Romero via decision. 

Whittaker battled through a leg injury to earn interim gold this year. Getty Images

5. Tyron Woodley, welterweight champion. Don't let his constant battles with Dana White and UFC brass rob from how impressive Woodley's 2017 campaign truly was, even if his employers spent too much time pointing out how boring they felt his two victories were.

For whatever Woodley (18-3-1) lost commercially, the 35-year-old gained from a critical and P4P standpoint with victories over two of the most awkward and difficult fighters in the sport. With his focus simply on exiting both fights with the belt in hand, Woodley ground out decision wins over Stephen Thompson in their March rematch at UFC 209 and Demian Maia in July at UFC 214. The latter victory snapped an eight-fight streak in which Woodley entered as the betting underdog, a stretch in which he finished 6-1-1.

Honorable mention: Francis Ngannou, heavyweight; Cynthia Calvillo, strawweight; T.J. Dillashaw, bantamweight; Georges St-Pierre, middleweight; Brian Ortega, featherweight; Rafael dos Anjos, welterweight; Volkan Ozedemir, light heavyweight.

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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