CBS Sports 2018 UFC Fighter of the Year: Amanda Nunes edges Daniel Cormier for top honor

Backed by an explosive second half of must-see fights, 2018 turned out to be a fairly memorable year for UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts. 

Along the way, a number of individual performances stood out above the rest in terms of crowning which fighter enjoyed the best and most impressive year overall. In fact, one could make a strong debate that the top three in this category were all equally deserving of top honors thanks to how much of a breakthrough or legacy-defining campaign they produced.

Let's take a closer look at the five best of 2018:

1. Amanda Nunes

Talk about stuffing the ballot box in the eleventh hour. Having already been on a dominant tear as the reigning women's bantamweight champion, Nunes cemented her legacy as the female G.O.A.T. by dismantling featherweight queen and pound-for-pound best Cris "Cyborg" Justino in just 51 seconds at UFC 232 on Saturday. 

The case for Nunes (17-4) as fighter of the year simply couldn't be denied after the violent and efficient manner in which she disposed of such a legendary and dangerous foe, especially during a time when finding capable opponents for Justino wasn't exactly easy. In the process, Nunes became the first female two-division champion in UFC history and the sixth fighter overall, joining an exclusive club with the likes of Randy Couture, BJ Penn, Conor McGregor, Georges St-Pierre and Daniel Cormier. Nunes also joined McGregor and Cormier as the only ones to do so simultaneously. 

Nunes opened the year with a clinical fifth-round TKO of Raquel Pennington in May for the third defense of her 135-pound title. But she proved against "Cyborg," in a return to her natural weight of 145 pounds, that featherweight could be an even better home for her without having to make such a dramatic weight cut. Nunes added Justino to an incredible career resume that includes wins over current or former UFC champions Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, Valentina Shevchenko (twice) and Germaine de Randamie. 

2. Daniel Cormier

Proving he ages like a fine wine, the 39-year-old Cormier vaulted from perennial bridesmaid to nothing short of folk hero status by becoming just the fifth UFC fighter to win titles in two weight classes and the second to do so simultaneously. He also recorded a trio of spectacular stoppage victories. 

Entering the year with what might be best described as a "Jon Jones-sized whole" in his resume, Cormier (22-1, 1 NC) may have done the only thing capable of removing that without actually beating his hated rival by moving back up to heavyweight and knocking out Stipe Miocic at UFC 226 in July. The fact that Miocic, the betting favorite, entered the fight on the verge of securing his own legacy as the most decorated heavyweight champion UFC has ever known only made the victory that much sweeter. 

Sandwiched around the breakthrough Miocic victory was a pair of dominant title defenses in each division he called home in 2018. In January, Cormier needed just three minutes to stop the surging 205-pound contender Volkan Oezdemir before coming back on short notice to finish the equally hot Derrick Lewis at heavyweight in November at UFC 230 in New York. 

Cormier's epic year firmly elevated him into the G.O.A.T. debate in an exclusive club already occupied by Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson and Fedor Emelianenko. It also furthered the debate whether DC, had he chose to never cut down to 205 pounds, could have been the most dominant heavyweight UFC had ever known. 

3. Khabib Nurmagomedov

"The Eagle" solidified himself as the sport's best lightweight and one of the most dominant fighters overall with a pair of high-profile victories, including a dismantling of Conor McGregor in an October blockbuster that shattered pay-per-view records. 

Nurmagomedov (27-0) also crossed over into legitimate stardom in the process, fighting off an infamous bus attack from McGregor outside the cage in April before defeating last-minute replacement Al Iaquinta in a tougher-than-expected decision win at UFC 223. His victory over McGregor at UFC 229 provided an equal amount of fireworks thanks to a post-fight brawl following a spiteful promotion that helped produce 2.4 million PPV buys. 

At 30, Nurmagomedov proved he's the best in class within the sport's most dangerous division and now that he's finally healthy, doesn't appear close to slowing down anytime soon.

4. Henry Cejudo

The 2008 Olympic gold medalist made just one appearance inside the cage in 2018 and shocked the world by ending Demetrious Johnson's legendary flyweight title reign via split decision in a thriller. 

The 31-year-old Cejudo (13-2) repeatedly took down Johnson and controlled him in the second half, and may have helped UFC find the marketable Hispanic champion it has always coveted in the process. While the future of the division remains uncertain following Johnson's exit from UFC and Dana White's threat to fold up shop at 125 pounds, Cejudo could be a key player for many years to come. 

5. Max Holloway

The UFC featherweight champion turned a forgettable if not troubling year into a reminder at just how great he truly is when Holloway (20-3) quieted any whispers of his demise by outlasting Brian Ortega in their December slugfest. At 27, Holloway continues to cement himself among the very best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport in the midst of his physical prime. 

In the process, Holloway may have completely cleaned out the 145-pound division due to his 13-fight win streak, placing him on the short list of the best featherweights in history. The year didn't quite start that way, however, as "Blessed" was twice removed from high-profile fights due to medical and weight complications that, in the case of his canceled bout at UFC 226, remain a mystery as to what happened. 

Honorable mention: Valentina Shevchenko, Jon Jones, Rose Namajunas, TJ Dillashaw, Tyron Woodley

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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