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2012 STL MMA Awards - Fighter of the Year

By Brett Auten | Knuckle Junkies

The crème de le crème. The top dogs. The past 12 months has showcased plenty of talent in mixed martial arts in the St. Louis area, and these five fighters we deemed to have had the best year of them all.

There is no common ground or path. Each has gotten to this point through their own fruition. With their futures still a wide-open book, here are some quick snap shots at the candidates for Fighter of the Year for 2012

Zach Freeman

The Altar Boys ran roughshod threw his competition this year. For his career, Freeman is a perfect 6-0 with half of his wins coming in 2012. The lightweight started the year with a vicious and violent choke out of Bryant Whitaker in front of a huge crowd at the Family Arena. He followed that with another first-round submission win, this time over Strikeforce vet Charon Spain. But the feather in his cap came when he answered critics in October against Aaron Derrow (11-4) at the Ameristar Casino. Freeman had never made it out of the first round prior to that night, but against the gritty K.C. fighter, Freeman displayed resolve not shown before, winning a decisive unanimous decision.

Physically, Freeman is a force of nature. His combination of quality wrestling and jiu-jitsu has led to four submission victories as a pro.

Notable wins: Aaron Derrow, Charon Spain

Josh Sampo

Sampo has now teamed his top-shelf wrestling with an ever-evolving Muay Thai game. An intense competitor with steely drive, Sampo is 8-2 for his career. The Gremlin' burst onto the national landscape with some head-turning performances this year.

Sampo went 3-1 in 2012 and solidified himself as one of the top flyweights in the world. Sampo started off the year with a decision win over Czar Sklavos. He then lost to Will Campuzano (11-4) in an epic bout in which Sampo dominated before getting caught with a powerful knee thrown by Campuzano in the third round. Sampo got back on track with a submission of Carson Gainey before picking up the biggest win of his career in Sept. for Legacy Fighting Championship 14 with a convincing unanimous decision over Antonio Banuelos. Sampo has vaulted near the top of the world rankings.

According to, a site that tabulates world-wide rankings for all professional fighters, slots Sampo at third in the world at his weight class. Sampo has another huge bout on the horizon when he faces Alexis Vila in a five-round title bout for Championship Fighting Alliance next month in January.

Notable wins: Antonio Banuelos, Czar Sklavos

Jake Collier

The Prototype' is a raw combination of strength, speed and ferocity. This middleweight is 6-1, with half of those wins coming in 2012. He started off the year with his only loss to date at Fight Hard MMA to Kelvin Tiller. But Collier got back on track with dominating wins over James Wade and Sean Huffman, which set up his biggest win to date.

In October, Collier took Cully Butterfield (12-3) the distance to win an epic fight. Though Collier didn't get the finish, he threw Butterfield, a decorated wrestler, around the cage like a rag doll. In 2013, there are rumors of a bout with Dustin Jacoby. The pair was originally slated to fight on the Titan Card that got cancelled.

Notable wins: Cully Butterfield, Sean Huffman.

Rob Washington

With an outstanding wrestling base and mule-kick-like punch, Washington is a two-ton powerhouse for any lightweight. A bully in the cage, "The Beast" went 4-1 over the calendar year. Washington (15-6) won over Sean Huffman before losing to former UFC vet Rich Clementi at Rogue Warrior Championships. Washington then rattled off three wins over four months (Bailey Trent-Kettlecamp and Scott Thometz were both knock out victims), culminating in a main event victory over Lucas Gwaltney at Fight Hard MMA. The Gwaltney fight was epic as Washington showed not only his toughness, but his maturity.

Notable wins: Lucas Gwaltney, Scott Thometz

Adam Cella

This Finney H.I.T. squad product has used his accurate and dynamic striking to stay undefeated at 4-0. Three of those wins came this year, two of which came under the Shamrock Fighting Championships banner. Cella started the year with a knockout of David Colter before submitting Chance Moore at MUCF-Missouri Rumble. His biggest win to date came over wily veteran Dominic Brown in June. Cella won via first round TKO.

There is plenty of scuttlebutt about this middleweight's participation in the upcoming The Ultimate Fighter, which would/could be the perfect bow atop a tremendous year. A decorated striker, Cella has logged in over 60 fights on his way to becoming 2006 IKF World Classic Tournament Champion and 2008 Golden Gloves Champion in both novice and open. By 2008, he was a National Golden Gloves qualifier.

Notable wins: Dominic Brown, Chance Moore


Nemesis Fighting Alliance | Sat, June 22nd
Casa Loma Ballroom, St. Louis, MO

Shamrock FC 320 | Sat, July 13th
Ameristar Casino, St. Louis, MO

KCFA: Fight for the Troops | Sat, July 27th
Truman Memorial Building, Independence, MO

Ultimate Blue Corner | Fri, August 2nd
Harrah's Casino, Kansas City, MO