Looking back on an entire year can make a person realize how quickly time really does fly. We broke ground on this little site in 2013 and in doing so were able to bring the fans of Virginia MMA what had been previously missing…..consistent coverage of the greatest sport on the planet, from a Virginian’s perspective.
What we couldn’t have expected, however, was the rate at which the sport would grow and the rate at which our site and fan following would grow with it. As more promotions had more shows, we knew we needed to grow, to keep bringing you the fight coverage you wanted. In May, we brought on Felix Falcon, to be our man behind the camera at Draka 15. Felix’s pictures don’t just capture moments, but they tell stories. What we discovered was that Felix’s words were equally as effective at telling tales, as he debuted as our newest writer in June. We also added Monica Hunsaker, near the end of the year. A formally trained writer, she helped us cover Spartyka 17.
With all those extra eyes and ears paying attention to what occurred during the year, we are back with our sophomore set of awards. These are our perspectives on what we saw and how we saw MMA play out in our great State, in 2014.
GYM OF THE YEAR: MMA INSTITUTE
MMA Institute defended its title as Gym of the Year, after winning it in 2013. A hugely successful amateur fight team carried MMAI, in 2014. With undefeated records put up by the likes of Shaun Spath, Mike Lawrence, Chelsea McCoy and Tevin Cooke, among others, as well as several Championship victories along the way, MMAI’s future pros helped cement the four-location gym at the top of our list. The overall pro fight team was down, a bit, compared to its huge success in 2013. However, D’Juan Owens carried the flag for the pros, sporting a 3-1 record on the year and defeating successful cage veterans on big stages. Even though it could be viewed as a down year for the overall pro team, MMAI pros still ended the 2014 campaign with 4 fighters ranked in the world, including Terrell Hobbs, Mike Wade, D’Juan Owens and George Sheppard.
COACH OF THE YEAR: RICK McCOY
Coach McCoy is also repeating as Coach of the Year. There were many bright spots for Coach McCoy, in 2014, however, none shone his handy work more than the job he did with D’Juan Owens. Owens relocated to Richmond, training full-time at MMAI, in preparation for his Draka 15 bout. Owens had been a fighter with a lot of experience and talent but his resume showed that there was perhaps something missing that was keeping him from tying it all together. We think McCoy was that missing link, as Owens won his Draka bout and then proceeded on one of the best runs, we have seen in some time, defeating Dustin Pague at The Victorium and then Mike Bruno at Titan Fights, before losing a tough decision, on foreign soil at Siberian Fighter, in November. In addition to the success of Owens, was the success of his amateur fighters, as discussed above. Those factors, plus the matter of ending the year with 4 World ranked fighters was enough to push Coach McCoy to the top of our coaching list in 2014.
AMATEUR FIGHT PROMOTION OF THE YEAR: OO FIGHTS
In one of the toughest decisions of 2014, we selected OO Fights as our top ammy promotion. OO Fights has maintained itself as a mainstay in VA mixed martial arts over the years. We believe 2014 was the most competitive year in amateur MMA in VA and tested OO Fights more than in any prior year. They put on 5 events in 2014 and brought in sizable crowds for each. They expanded their footprint by expanding their event locations to various cities in the Commonwealth, as well as Washington, D.C. OO Fights had some of the largest fight cards in 2014 and in turn, were rewarded with large crowds in the seats, for the majority of their events. They also maintained the largest set of fans and followers on social media sites, such as Facebook. With other amateur promotions growing in 2014, the pressure will be on OO Fights to maintain and grow it’s product in 2015.
PRO FIGHT PROMOTION OF THE YEAR: STRIKE OFF
In an exciting development for MMA in the State, there were additional players to consider, for this award, which is a great sign about the growth of the sport. We had Draka make their U.S. debut, Strike Off (formerly Glory Fights) debuted and The Victorium returned for the third show in their young career. All three shows were different and all had notable attributes. Draka boasted an International flair and treated fans to the best venue and best production, giving the fans a “show”. The Victorium had the most memorable matches, with scraps such as Owens-Pague, Ramos-Strickland and Stephenson-Gaudreau, highlighting the fight card. Strike Off, however, stood above both, due to bringing in World ranked fighters, as the other promotions did, but also bringing one thing that has not been seen, consistently in our State and that is continuity. Continuity has been something that has been missing in the VA MMA landscape. Pro promotions have come and gone, but none have ever really been able to crack that code that makes a promotion successful and gives it staying power in what can often be described as a very fickle state for sports. Strike Off brought that continuity by putting on two pro shows and an amateur show and already having another pro show set for early ’15. As Strike Off continues to grow, their venue should grow, which will allow for more fans to enjoy their events. As they become the “go-to” pro show in VA, more top fighters will be involved in the cards, making for great events. We know that is the goal of the Strike Off brass. So, we’ll stay tuned and see if it can become that Pro Promotion with staying power.
RINGCARD GIRL OF THE YEAR: SHANTI HILL (DRAKA)
Shanti Hill made her ring card girl debut on the same night that Draka made their U.S. debut. The Richmond native made it look like she had been doing the job for years, as her grace and beauty kept the fans in tune with what round they were watching, if they were able to take their eyes off the professional model, turned Draka girl, that is. Shanti went on to have great success in the modeling world throughout the remainder of 2014. Her biggest accolade came as she was named Female Model of the Year at Atlantic City Fashion Week, in September.
AMATEUR SUBMISSION OF THE YEAR: PABLO GARCIA
Rematches of great fights often times don’t live up to the greatness of the first fight. The first Garcia-Chris Rollins fight was a three-round back and forth war that the judges saw for Garcia, via split decision. Garcia was out, in the rematch, to prove that the victory was not a fluke and did so in comeback fashion. Round 1 saw Rollins connect with everything but the kitchen sink, against Garcia. Garcia, appearing close to being finished in the first, came out in round 2 and went to his bread and butter, his wrestling, to gain back advantage in the match. He was able to get Rollins to the ground and control him, prior to getting Rollins’ back and sinking in a rear-naked choke. Rollins did not tap, but appeared to go briefly unconscious, forcing the referee to call a technical submission, in favor of Garcia. Thus, the defeat of the Fight Night Challenge Featherweight Champ, Rollins, who was almost impossible to submit, on his “home field” and in his last amateur fight, was enough for us to give this distinction to Pablo Garcia.
PRO SUBMISSION OF THE YEAR: D’JUAN OWENS
Very few fights that happened within the borders of this State had as much on the line as the bout between Dustin Pague, just coming off a long stint in the UFC, and D’Juan Owens, a journeyman trying to stake a claim that he belongs in the upper echelon of fighters knocking on the door of the big show.
In this fight, Owens endured challenging positions early on from Pague, such as knee on belly, full mount, and back control, all with poise and grace. He managed to weather a storm, keep his composure, and capitalize on a moment to counter a takedown attempt, land on Pague’s back and implement a short choke that catapulted him to be a force in not only the Regional, but the National MMA scene. No submission this year had the weight behind it that this one did.
AMATEUR KO OF THE YEAR: MIKE LAWRENCE
What a way to end your amateur career, in fashion. Mike Lawrence did just that, at Spartyka 17. Lawrence, in defense of his SFL Featherweight Title, was set to battle Team ROC’s Anthony Wright. The first round was more of a grappling match between the two fighters. However, as both fighters answered the second round bell, visibly fatigued, Lawrence dropped Wright and pounced on top. After a few moments on top, the fight was brought back up to its’ feet and immediately following the separation, Lawrence landed a head kick on his opponent that shut out the lights. This knockout could very well have been the best knockout, in the State, not only in the amateur scene, but the pro scene as well.
PRO KO OF THE YEAR: AHMET KAYRETLI
As far as pure knock outs are concerned, 2014 was fairly light in that department. Of the four shows that featured pro fights in Virginia for the year, only two fights were ended due to a KO finish, both being relatively controversial calls. Brett Glass’ KO of Jon Hughes was hard to determine if the blow that stopped the fight was a legitimate left hand to Hughes’ chin or a final blow to the back of his head. Our pick, based on the pureness of the technique was the only other option, Ahmet Kayretli’s spinning back fist finish of our number one ranked bantamweight, at the time, Ginseng Du Jour. For all intents and purposes, it could have been feasible for Du Jour to weather the last five seconds remaining in that fight to take it to a decision, but we ultimately don’t fault the ref for making a split second decision and calling off the fight after a blow like the one he received.
AMATEUR FIGHT OF THE YEAR: REGGIE BARNETT, JR. V. THOMAS BLAIR
Spartyka 17 boasted another award winner, with ammy fight of the year. This fight pitted Barnett, a local veteran and idol of his opponent Blair, against each other for Blair’s SFL Bantamweight strap. The first round was back and forth, with Blair getting a takedown, but not being able to do much with it and Barnett also gaining and losing dominant position during the round. After a very even 1st, round 2 began to see Blair pull away, slightly, ahead of the fatigued Barnett. Blair began to favor his kicks, more, in the 2nd. That favor turned to triumph, instantly, as Blair connected with a head kick to Barnett that ended the night for the veteran, shortly after the 3rd round bell sounded, and kept the gold around the waist of the Champion, Blair.
PRO FIGHT OF THE YEAR: KENNY GAUDREAU V. ALAN STEPHENSON
Going into this match-up at The Victorium III, the 4-1 Kenny Gaudreau had just come off a spectacular 32 second arm triangle finish (from the bottom) of Matt Ott at the inaugural Strike Off event, while Alan Stephenson came in fresh from his pro debut win at Draka 15, a three round striking match with Joseph Bayer. The key questions surrounding this bout were whether Stephenson could hold his own on the ground with Gaudreau and whether Gaudreau would try to stand and trade with Stephenson.
Surprisingly, the answer to all the questions was yes. Much of the first round action took place on the feet. Gaudreau managed to use his reach pretty well, keeping Stephenson mostly at bay with jabs and hooks, while Stephenson mostly maintained the forward pressure and effectively used leg kicks to his advantage. Late in the round, Gaudreau managed to take the fight to the ground, clearly the aggressor, eventually took Stephenson’s back and attempted various submissions. Stephenson was able to defend and stave off Gaudreau’s attacks, getting back to his feet before the bell rung.
During the second round, Stephenson managed to find a way to get inside Gaudreau’s range and started landing more significant strikes. The truly remarkable sequence of events happened with about 2:30 left in the round. Stephenson started landing some decent uppercuts from the clinch, which prompted Gaudreau to find an opening and attempt to take Stephenson down. Stephenson sprawled and continued landing strikes; Gaudreau then used a modified kimura to sweep Stephenson to his back. From there, Stephenson attacked with a triangle attempt. Gaudreau stepped over to defend it and Stephenson got up. At this time Stephenson landed a huge straight right to Gaudreau’s body that visibly knocked the wind out of him. Stephenson wasted no time after that and kept the pressure on until referee Mike King stopped the fight.
There were many good and significant pro fights this year, but none had an ending as back and forth, fast paced, and unpredictable as the last couple of minutes of that fight.
AMATEUR FEMALE FIGHTER OF THE YEAR: CHELSEA McCOY
There used to be a saying about Cris Carter, former wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings, that all he did was catch touchdowns. We are going to tweak that a little bit and say that, in VA, the name McCoy only wins year-end awards, as Chelsea McCoy is our pick for ammy female fighter of the year. Chelsea, the daughter of MMA Institute Head Coach Rick McCoy is a relatively new face on the fight scene. Chelsea was eased into the sport, a bit, as she was given a Muay Thai fight, for her first fight, back in January. She won that match by decision over Lashonda Hinton and Coaches Kazeka Muniz and Rick McCoy knew she was ready for MMA, thereafter. Once given the stage, she showed a grit and ferocity that will be tough to defeat, in coming years. Her first MMA fight was no gimme, as she took on the very tough, Sydney Smith. Chelsea earned a Unanimous Decision victory over Smith, in March, and was on a roll. Unfortunately, from that point on, there seemed to be a couple forces working against her. One, the fact that there still aren't a lot of female fights or female fighters, in VA. Two, her name and reputation seemed to get out in the market quickly and it appeared that she had a tough time getting opponents. Regardless, neither of those two factors kept her from winning our award as the best amateur female in the State.
PRO FEMALE FIGHTER OF THE YEAR: KIRSTIN MURPHEY
The story of Kirstin Murphey, in 2014, was a tale of two very different halves of the year. Murphey was a candidate for not only this award, but our amateur female fighter of the year, as well. Murphey’s performance at Fight Night Challenge, in her amateur finale in March, was nothing short of awe inspiring, as she submitted her opponent, due to strikes, in just over two minutes of the first round. That win was enough for her to decide to take her skill set to the pro ranks. Making her Pro debut at Shogun Fights would be no easy fight, but she did so in victorious fashion with a TKO of Al-Lanna Jones, in June. The second half of the year was not as kind, unfortunately. Murphey had been experiencing headaches, leading up to her pro debut. She went forward with the match, anyway. After taking several shots in the fight, she had difficulty remembering some things and the headaches she had been experiencing, leading up the fight fight, wouldn’t leave her. After seeing a doctor, she began receiving treatment for a concussion. In November, Murphey announced on her Facebook fan page that, due to this condition and the probability of it re-occurring, she made the conscious decision to retire from competitive MMA. A promising career was cut short, but we were fortunate to be able to witness her success, in such dominant fashion and distinguish her with this award.
AMATEUR MALE FIGHTER OF THE YEAR: PABLO GARCIA
What a year for Disciple MMA’s Pablo Garcia! The 21-year old finished ’14 with an undefeated 4-0 record, for the year, and ran his overall amateur record to 9-1, having not suffered a loss since March of 2012. The closest anyone came in 2014 to defeating Garcia was Chris Rollins, in their first match-up in July, where Garcia pulled out a split decision victory over the Fight Night Challenge Champ, in a non-title bout. After starting the year with two decision victories, including the Rollins win, Garcia turned it up a notch and ended the year with two finishes. In September, Garcia moved up to Lightweight for a match against David Simpson at Revolution Fight Series. Garcia was lights out while defeating the much larger Simpson, via TKO, in under a minute in the first, earning him Performance of the Night. Garcia rounded out the year, with what may have been his most satisfying win, his rematch against Fight Night Challenge Featherweight Champ, Chris Rollins. Garcia weathered a huge storm from Rollins in the first round to go on and get a technical submission victory over the Champ and put a stamp on the year. The only knock on Garcia, as he surely eyes a pro debut sooner rather than later, has been his inability to make weight. It cost him a Championship, twice, in 2014 and will need to be addressed before that jump into the shark infested pro ranks. Other than that, it was about as good as year as you can have, as a fighter.
PRO MALE FIGHTER OF THE YEAR: D’JUAN OWENS
Here is a public service announcement from your friends at MMA in VA. If you think you had a good 2014, keep it to yourself, because it wasn’t better than Owens’. However, that great year that Owens experienced was about two days away from ending before even getting started. Owens, who had a record of 1-3-1, over his last five fights, to close out 2013, relocated to Richmond, to train at MMA Institute, ahead of his Draka 15 match-up. Two bouts fell through for Owens, on the Draka card, including one opponent that dropped out the week of the fight. So, in stepped veteran Ran Weathers, who took the fight with Owens on 2 days notice. That fight would start one of the best years for a fighter, that we have seen in quite some time. Owens went on to defeat Weathers, via TKO, and that win would propel him to bigger and better things, very soon. The Victorium had booked UFC veteran, Dustin Pague, in their Main Event, which was set to take place just a little over a month after Draka. Pague’s opponent fell through and D’Juan was inserted into the biggest match of his career. Per our Submission of the Year Award, you can see how well that fight went for Owens. From there, one of the bigger kids on the block came calling. Owens was placed in a preliminary bout on Titan FC 29, who broadcasts their shows on the CBS Sports Network. Owens defeated Mike Bruno, that night, via decision and looked to close out his year by going for a clean sweep of 2014. Owens traveled to Russia to face Draka 15 Co-Main Event winner, Alexander Matmuratov, at Siberian Fighter: Confrontation. Whereas, MMA in VA did not get to see any video of that fight, it was told to us, by numerous sources, that he should have been awarded that decision.
Unfortunately, the Russian judges saw the fight for Matmuratov. So, from a year that almost didn’t happen, to a year that was the best of any VA MMA Pro, Owens did what he needed to do to transform himself from essentially a .500 fighter to a top World ranked contender. Oh, did we forget to mention that? D’Juan Owens finished the year as the 302nd Featherweight, in the World, according to FightMatrix.com.
That’s it folks. This has been our list of the best of the best, in VA, in 2014. We want to thank all the Promotions, gyms, fighters and fans for allowing us to be a part of your MMA lives. We continue to strive for improvement and with your help will be even better in 2015. As always, if you want to stay informed with what is going on in MMA in our great State, all you have to do is go to www.mmainva.com and we’ll have it for you. Happy New Year and we’ll see you at the fights.
Here are some videos from the awards above: