This is one tough category to pick. Most contending fighters have only one fight for us to judge them by, meaning you’re looking at a virtual crapshoot when it comes to picking between them.
Because of that, I went with a guy who not only has three fights, but two of them came within two weeks of each other. Leben’s victory over Aaron Simpson was surprising. He went into the fight as a significant underdog who should’ve been overwhelmed by Simpson’s wrestling. Instead, Leben used a surprisingly well-rounded skill set to stop Simpson’s takedown and batter him into a second-round TKO.
Two weeks later, he went into the cage against Yoshihiro Akiyama on short notice and, in one of the most thrilling fights of the year, submitted Akiyama in dramatic fashion to score the biggest win of his career. On top of the two biggest wins of his career, he’s got a win over Jay Silva in January, giving him three solid victories in a year where many fighters only have one.
Now considered a contender by the UFC brass, Leben will face a top competitor later in the year. He may not get much of a look when it comes to the year-end awards because guys like Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva will have more fights under their belt, but there’s nobody more deserving at the halfway point than Leben. And if he secures another win before the end of the year, it will be tough to overlook him when voting time comes in January.
Under consideration: Fabricio Werdum, Jose Aldo, Dominick Cruz, Cris Santos
Matt Brown’s Pick (Heavy MMA Editor, not the fighter): Chris Leben