Each week, ESPN.com MMA writer Brett Okamoto, ESPN Insider senior editor Mike Huang and a guest panelist tackle hot topics that are buzzing in the world of mixed martial arts.
This week, welterweight standout/One FC fighter Ben Askren joins the panel.
1. Who is the front-runner for fighter of the year so far?
Ben Askren: First thing that comes to my head is Robbie Lawler, but he lost a fight, so it can't be him. Give it to (UFC bantamweight champion) TJ Dillashaw. I wouldn't say anyone was picking Dillashaw (to beat Renan Barao) going into that fight -- myself included. He beat Barao every way you can beat someone. It was domination.
Brett Okamoto: My finalists would be Dillashaw, Ronda Rousey and Donald Cerrone. You really can't go wrong with Dillashaw. His title win over Barao in May really was one of the best nights the UFC has seen this year. Rousey, of course, has finished two fights in just 82 seconds. And neither by armbar! But I'm going with Cerrone. Three highlight finishes to get back into title contention.
Mike Huang: Rousey. Although, in my opinion, Dillashaw can make a case for that after wrenching the bantamweight title away from the long-standing champion Barao in dominating fashion. But If you want to talk about dominating, it's ESPN's female athlete of the year who put up three title defenses in a year and whipped all of her opponents with great ease.
2. Who is set up to have the best second half of 2014?
Askren: My buddy Anthony Pettis is going to come off his injury hiatus and beat up Gilbert Melendez, but I'm going to go with my other friend, Daniel Cormier. DC is going to shock the world and beat up Jon Jones. I've always liked Cormier over Jones. I think he makes Jones nervous. You can't always say exactly why, but he definitely does. I think Jones has a few holes in his skill set. Hell, [Alexander] Gustafsson took him down twice, and Gustafsson has never wrestled in his life.
Okamoto: Cormier is set up to dethrone the king, so you have to say him. Whether or not he can beat Jones, I'm not completely sure -- but if he does, he won't just be the "fighter of the second half," he'll be fighter of the year, period. Call me sentimental, but if Dominick Cruz looks outstanding in his comeback, considering everything he's been through, it might be tough to find a better second-half story than that, too.
Huang: Lawler. He is on such a roll right now. His skills, conditioning and focus are at a career high, and it's truly a marvel to have watched his transformation from careless brawler to complete mixed martial artist. All at the age of 32. He has a chance punctuate his year by avenging his loss to Johny Hendricks. He's already enjoyed some new fruits of his labor by signing a big endorsement deal with Adidas.
3. What has been the biggest story of 2014?
Askren: Unfortunately, I would say the steroid use. There have been so many ridiculous stories from Wanderlei Silva running away from a test, to Vitor Belfort failing one and (the Nevada State Athletic Commission) gives him a license anyway. I made a comment three years ago and [UFC president] Dana White got mad at me. He said it was impossible to test all his guys. It's not impossible. If they take the bull by the horns and get this thing under control, they're not going to have all these issues.
Okamoto: Failed drug tests. Nothing else is even close. One of the most popular fighters in the sport, Chael Sonnen, retired off back-to-back failed tests. A UFC title contender, Ali Bagautinov, fought for the flyweight belt on banned substances that weren't revealed until after the fight. Testosterone-replacement therapy was finally, mercifully, banned in February. The UFC is dropping thousands of dollars in testing fees, as commissions are requesting funds for random testing. It's been a massive story to follow and one that seems to evolve almost daily.
Huang: Injuries. After the cancellation of UFC 176 (which was supposed to be Saturday) due to featherweight champ Jose Aldo having to pull out due to injury, the UFC has had to contend with a M.A.S.H. unit of champions who can't defend their belts. Then add in top contenders such as Gustafsson pulling out of his much-anticipated light heavyweight title rematch with Jones, and you can see why UFC fans are frustrated and cynical.
4. Who is the best fighter currently competing outside of the UFC?
Askren: Myself. If it's not me, then I think you've got a handful of fighters. I think Bibiano Fernandes is awesome. Shinya Aoki is another great fighter. On the Bellator roster you have Michael Chandler, Eddie Alvarez. Douglas Lima is a high-level guy. Andrey Koreshkov looked great last week. I thought Alexander Shlemenko was better, but the way he got choked out by Tito (Ortiz), I'm not so sure anymore.
Okamoto: When you consider dominance within his or her division, probably Cris Justino. She hasn't fought yet this year (except for a Muay Thai bout, which she lost) but her reign at 145 pounds is pretty indisputable. Askren for sure has a claim to this as well. Alvarez would rank No. 3 on my list.
Huang: Until yesterday I might have said Alvarez, the Bellator lightweight champ. However, considering the rumors surrounding him and his joining the UFC, I would say our panelist this week, Askren, the One FC welterweight. I don't buy the criticisms of Askren's wrestling-heavy style being boring or "lay and pray." It's effective and he wins. The funky one needs to come to the UFC and test his mettle in what has become one of the UFC's deepest divisions.
5. Does Nick Diaz's contract renegotiation indicate a shift in power from the promotion to the fighters?
Askren: None of us are really sure exactly what the new terms of the contract were. Maybe he got sick of sitting and they gave him a very average deal. You need a handful of guys who are ready and willing to sacrifice something, because Dana White is going to say, "Kiss my a--." They're definitely going to have to sacrifice something for the greater good of the sport, to get those better contracts.
Okamoto: No. It indicates a successful holdout by Nick Diaz, individually, but it does not represent a major shift in the industry. True, details of Diaz' new UFC deal have not been made public, but earlier this week he admitted, "I can't complain." It was a gamble on his behalf, to sit out during a prime year of his career, but he saw it through and cashed in on his value while he had it. Good for him, but don't expect the UFC to invite the rest of its roster back to the negotiation table midcontract.
Huang: No. The UFC dictates and will continue to dictate fighters paths and promotions. This is not the NBA. Diaz is not LeBron James holding the entire league hostage. Did the UFC want Diaz back? Sure. Does it lack some star power right now? Sure. But the UFC still holds the power, because if fighters want the highest profiles and the ancillary benefits that go along with that, they'll play nice with the UFC. Or they can follow Askren's path, but you'd better be exceptional and be completely OK with forging your own way, like Askren.