Like any other year-end award, “Comeback Fighter of the Year” is subjective. The distinction usually goes to a fighter that overcame the odds to resurrect a spiraling career, or an athlete that returned from a debilitating injury in impressive fashion. It could go to a veteran putting together their last run at a title shot.
For the first time, MMAWeekly.com is recognizing two fighters in 2014 for fighting through adversity to achieve what many said they couldn’t accomplish.
Former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz returned to action for the first time in three years at UFC 178 in September against top-five ranked Takeya Mizugaki. The former titleholder was in top form as he scored a first-round knockout that earned him a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus and half of the MMAWeekly.com 2014 Comeback Fighter of the Year honors.
Cruz (20-1) became the UFC 135-pound champion when the WEC fight promotion was merged into the UFC in December 2010. He defended his UFC belt twice, against Urijah Faber and Demetrious Johnson, before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament while preparing to rematch Faber in May 2012. He underwent a cadaver replacement surgery, but his body rejected the foreign ligament. He underwent a second procedure in December 2012.
After more than two years of surgeries, rehabilitation and recovery, Cruz was set to come back in February at UFC 169 in a unification bout with interim champion Renan Barao. Cruz tore his groin while training for the title fight and was sidelined for another seven months, resulting in the organization stripping him of his title.
Finally, after two surgeries and years of recovery through hard work, Cruz stepped back into the cage at UFC 178 against a highly ranked and dangerous opponent. The 29-year-old sent a message to the division with the quick finish. He didn’t lose the title to an opponent. Injuries and the inability to defend his crown caused the title to change hands.
The win over Mizugaki earned Cruz an opportunity to reclaim his title. UFC president Dana White said during the UFC 178 post-fight press conference that Cruz would face champion T.J. Dillashaw in his next outing. Unfortunately, Cruz recently suffered a torn ACL to the knee that hasn’t given him problems in the past. He’s expected to be out of action for much of 2015.
While Cruz returned as if he had never left, there’s another comeback story of a fighter that took place outside the cage in 2014 that deserves recognition.
While preparing for a match-up against Jeremy Larsen for UFC 166 in October 2013, the life of UFC featherweight Matt Grice took a dramatic turn. In addition to his mixed martial arts career, Grice was also an Oklahoma City police officer. While the off duty officer and mixed martial artist sat idle at a traffic light in Shawnee, Okla., on Sept. 8, 2013, his vehicle was struck from behind at 65 miles per hour by a distracted driver causing life-threatening head injuries.
Doctors were not initially optimistic Grice would survive the brain trauma, but the fighter fought his way back from death’s door. He was rushed to the Oklahoma University Medical Center where he underwent brain surgery that night and surgeons removed a large piece of Grice’s skull. He underwent a second surgery in December 2013 to reconstruct his cranium.
Almost a year to the day of the accident, the 33-year-old took a significant step in reclaiming the life that was nearly taken from him. He returned to work at the Oklahoma City Police Department on Oct. 2 after a year of piecing his shattered life back together, becoming a more than well-deserving recipient of MMAWeekly.com’s honors for Comeback Fighter of the Year.
UFC heavyweight Andrei Arlovski gets an honorable mention nod. The former UFC champion returned to the Octagon for the first time since 2008 when he faced Brendan Schaub at UFC 174 in June. He left the organization on good terms following a second-round win over Jake O’Brien at UFC 82 in March 2008.
The Belarusian competed in several organizations after leaving the UFC with mixed results. From 2009 to 2011, Arlovski lost four consecutive fights. He’s gone 8-1-1 in his last ten fights, including knocking out Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in his last outing in September. Once a champion, Arlovski has gone from being written off to a contender in the UFC’s heavyweight division fourteen years after making his promotional debut in 2000.
Another fighter who deserves recognition for turning the tide in 2014 is Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, who also returned to the UFC. Having battled issues with his weight – both at welterweight and middleweight – during his prior run in the Octagon, Johnson returned as a light heavyweight. He has since racked up wins over Mike Kyle, Phil Davis, and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, putting him in a bout with Alexander Gustafsson to earn a shot at the UFC light heavyweight title currently in Jon Jones‘ possession.
Be sure to weigh in with your top comeback fighters of 2014 in the comments below!