At the beginning of 2015, Conor McGregor was on the fast track to a shot at the UFC's featherweight championship.
View gallery . Conor McGregor (AP) But at the same time, plenty of skeptics argued that the outspoken Irishman had not beaten anyone of consequence, and had moved to the head of the line above other worthy contenders because of preferential treatment given by UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and president Dana White.
Conor McGregor (AP)
Twelve months later, McGregor is a UFC champion, holds the fastest finish in a UFC title fight and is one of the company's top draws and earners. He's also talking about making a run at the lightweight title and then defending both belts.
It remains to be seen whether the UFC brass will allow him to do it and, if it does, whether he'll be able to handle that daunting task.
That, though, is for the future.
But his work in the past 12 months, which includes stoppage victories over Denis Siver, Chad Mendes and the great Jose Aldo, have earned him the easy choice as the Yahoo Sports 2015 Fighter of the Year in MMA.
There were a number of other good candidates – middleweight champion Luke Rockhold, flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and women's bantamweight champion Holly Holm are at the top of the list – but no one quite had the year that McGregor did.
McGregor joined the UFC in 2013 and was extremely impressive in defeating Marcus Brimage. But he gained more notoriety for his story – he'd been receiving public assistance shortly before his first bout with the UFC – than he did for his ability.
White immediately saw a star in the making and pushed McGregor hard, and that led to plenty of resentment against him among the media and part of the fan base.
He defeated Max Holloway in his second UFC bout in August 2013, in a bout in which he seriously injured a knee in the first round. That was impressive enough, but what wasn't known at the time was how good Holloway really was. Holloway hasn't lost since that fight with McGregor, reeling off eight consecutive victories and placing himself right near the top of the featherweight rankings.
View gallery . Conor McGregor (L) lands a blow against Jose Aldo at UFC 194. (AP) As 2013 came to a close, though, he didn't have that kind of respect and so McGregor didn't get much of a bounce from that win.
Conor McGregor (L) lands a blow against Jose Aldo at UFC 194. (AP)
McGregor returned from his injury in July 2014 to face Diego Brandao in the main event of a fight in his native Dublin, Ireland. And Brandao, who is physically much smaller than McGregor, isn't regarded as a legitimate contender, so McGregor again didn't receive much credit for his first-round TKO.
But the big run began in September 2014, when he stopped Dustin Poirier on strikes after hurting him with a kick. Poirier moved up to lightweight after the bout and promptly won three consecutive fights, one more impressive than the next, culminating with a good victory on Saturday over Joe Duffy at UFC 195.
McGregor, though, still faced questions about his competition level and title worthiness as 2015 dawned. And those questions really didn't end when he stopped Siver early in the second round.
That put him on a collision course with Aldo, the long-reigning featherweight king who was regarded by many as the top fighter in the world. Aldo hadn't lost since 2005 and wasn't amused by McGregor's antics.
Just a few weeks before they were supposed to fight in July, however, Aldo injured a rib and had to pull out. What was largely unknown at the time, though, was that McGregor had suffered a fairly serious knee injury while training with Rory MacDonald while on a media tour to promote UFC 189.
But because so much was invested in the card, set for July 11, the UFC wanted to keep McGregor on the card, if possible. And he agreed to face Chad Mendes, the kind of powerful wrestler his critics said he'd been avoiding.
And for the first round-and-a-half, it seemed as if the critics had a point. Mendes took McGregor down and was controlling the fight from the top position.
But when McGregor got up, he capitalized on it quickly and took Mendes out. That set up the showdown with Aldo in December.
Eerily, McGregor predicted almost word-for-word how the fight would end. He said Aldo would overextend with a right hand and that he'd catch him with a counter left hook.
As the bell sounded to begin UFC 194 on Dec. 12 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Aldo burst out of his corner and threw a right hand at McGregor. The Irishman avoided it and crashed a left hook onto Aldo's chin.
Aldo went down, and quickly out, and in just 13 seconds, McGregor had the win and the featherweight title.
He overcame tough competition. Rockhold won the middleweight title by dominating Chris Weidman at UFC 194 and beating ex-light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida on a Fox-televised card.
View gallery . Holly Holm upset Ronda Rousey to become the women's bantamweight champion. (AFP) Holm debuted in the UFC on Feb. 28 and went 3-0, culminating her year with a crushing knockout of the previously unbeaten Ronda Rousey to win the women's bantamweight championship.
Holly Holm upset Ronda Rousey to become the women's bantamweight champion. (AFP)
And Johnson continued his run of excellence, submitting Kyoji Horiguchi at 4:59 of the fifth round of their title fight at UFC 186 in April, before routing rival John Dodson at UFC 191 in September.
None of them could match McGregor, though, and for that, he is the 2015 Yahoo Sports MMA Fighter of the Year.