2020 has been a tumultuous year to say the least but somehow there has still managed to be a lot of great MMA. Despite losing more than a month from March 14th to May 9th due to the Coronavirus pandemic the UFC has been able to put on a bunch of shows to make up for it due to strong health and safety protocols. If the second half of the year is as good as the first (strictly speaking about the sport inside the cage…) then we are in for a treat. Here is a quick reminder of all the best things we’ve witnessed inside one of the craziest years we’ve ever witnessed.
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Male Fighter of the Year – Justin Gaethje
Going into the year it was hard to invision a scenario where Gaethje would be in contention for the lightweight title let alone fighter of the year. The year started with Conor McGregor firmly re-establishing himself in the division with a quick knock out win over Donald Cerrone. At the onset of the pandemic champion Khabib Nurmagomedov was scheduled to finally fight Tony Ferguson after numerous attempts in the past but he got stuck in his home country amidst the confusion of where a new event would take place. In stepped Gaethje who emphatically rose to the occasion, putting a beating on the former interim champ Ferguson before finally knocking him out to win a different interim belt. The reason he is ahead of other champions who have one fight win streaks in 2020 is because of how impressive and entertaining he was in the process. He has also set himself up to give Khabib the first loss on his professional record if/when they consolidate their belts later this year.
Honorable Mentions: Henry Cejudo, Kamaru Usman, Petr Yan, Israel Adesanya
Female Fighter of the Year – Amanda Nunes
Strawweight champion Zhang Weili was a close runner up after her incredible win over former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk but I had to give the edge to Amanda Nunes making history. She had already cemented her legacy as the greatest female mixed martial artist of all time but she went ahead and added more distance to her future competition for that claim. By defending her featherweight belt against Felicia Spencer, in a completely one sided dominant performance, she became the first UFC champion to simultaneously defend two belts at the same time. There have been other champions to hold two belts at the same time and Daniel Cormier has defended both the heavyweight and light heavyweight championships but not while he held both of them. There isn’t much more Nunes can do to add to her resume at this point and there is barely any competition left to face her. She might lose her spot here by the time December rolls around strictly because of someone else having multiple impressive victories while she takes some time off.
Honorable Mentions: Zhang Weili, Valentina Shevchenko, Rose Namajunas
Fight of the Year – Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UFC 248)
As noted above this was an incredible performance and win for champion Zhang Weili but it was also an incredible performance by former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. It was an incredibly close fight that could’ve gone either way. It was also an absolute war where both women landed strikes against each other at will, Jedrzejczyk looked completely deformed when the final bell rang. It reminded me of one of the best fights I’ve ever seen, Robbie Lawler vs. Carlos Condit at UFC 195, and it may have even surpassed it. Its hard for me to imagine any fight being able to overtake it for best of the year. The more I think about it the higher it rises up my list of favorite fights of all time.
Honorable Mentions: Dustin Poirier vs. Dan Hooker (UFC on ESPN 12), Justin Gaethje vs. Tony Ferguson (UFC 249), Vicente Luque vs. Niko Price (UFC 249)
Event of the Year – UFC 249
Not only was UFC 249 the first event after the Coronavirus pandemic rocked the sports world, and thus loaded up with great fights after multiple weeks of no competition, but it also delivered on every level. Fight fans were starved for action and they were served a smorgasbord of violence. Two great title fights sat atop the card, the previously mentioned Justin Gaethje/Tony Ferguson interim lightweight belt and what turned out to be Henry Cejudo’s final bantamweight defense. He surprised everyone by announcing his retirement following a TKO over former long time champion Dominick Cruz. You had three great knockouts that night with Francis Ngannou obliterating Jairzinho Rozenstruik in 20 seconds, Calvin Kattar butchering Jeremy Stephens, and Vicente Luque putting the nail in the coffin of a rematch against Niko Price. The preliminary card on ESPN rounded things out with fun close fights between Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis, Aleksei Oleinik and Fabricio Werdum, and Michelle Waterson and Carla Esparza. The only blight on the night was a terrible fight involving Greg Hardy to open up the pay-per-view main card.
Honorable Mentions: UFC 250, UFC 251
Breakout Fighter of the Year – Gilbert Burns
My first thought for this category was Petr Yan but I feel like he was a contender for this spot last year and him knocking out Jose Aldo at UFC 251 was just him fulfilling that potential. On the other hand Gilbert Burns became the poster boy for the COVID era of MMA. His first fight in 2020 was the card in Brazil that coincided with all sports shutting down and the UFC went ahead with their event sans fans. There he knocked out hometown hero (and former title contender) Demian Maia and then turned around two months later to headline an event against former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley where he completely dominated him over five rounds. That win, which gave him six in a row, earned him a title shot against champion and teammate Kamaru Usman. The only problem was that he tested positive for COVID-19 before leaving for ‘Fight Island’ and now him being the poster boy for this era has come full circle. Hopefully he can make a complete recovery and get the next shot against Usman after he was able to stifle the offense of late replacement Jorge Masvidal this past weekend.
Honorable Mentions: Petr Yan, Dan Ige, Jiri Prochazka
Comeback Fighter of the Year – Rose Namajunas
A little over a year ago Namajunas suffered a scary knockout loss to lose her strawweight championship to Jessica Andrade. The powerful challenger had ‘Thug Rose’ on the top of her back and slammed her on her head rendering her unconscious and luckily nothing more than that. As you might expect Namajunas took some time off following that incident and was actually scheduled to rematch Andrade at UFC 249 before pulling out to a couple COVID related deaths in her family. She finally made her return to the Octagon at UFC 251 in Abu Dhabi and looked like she hadn’t missed a beat. It wasn’t easy but she took an early lead in the bout and then survived as Andrade found a lot of success in the third round to win a split decision. It was the kind of gutsy, impressive performance that should give her a chance to win back her title in her next fight. Rose Namajunas vs. Zhang Weili gives me goosebumps just thinking about it as it could be the one match-up to potentially match the current front runner for fight of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Conor McGregor, Cody Garbrandt
Knockout of the Year – Cody Garbrandt (Punch) over Raphael Assuncao (UFC 250)
UFC 250 was where both of the top two contenders for knockout of the year took place. Both happened within a couple fights of each other and were remarkably similar, and in the same weight class to boot. Sean O’Malley’s clean walkoff knockout of Eddie Wineland on a straight right punch was sensational but the timing and brutality of Cody Garbrandt’s KO of Raphael Assuncao gives it the edge for me. For starters Assuncao is a guy renowned for his great defense and toughness and ‘No Love’ was able to one shot him dead at the buzzer of the second round. The optics were crazy as Garbrandt slipped a punch by ducking down and in one motion came over the top at full speed to land a punch right on the button. It was a much needed victory for the still young former champion who is coming off a tough losing skid. If he can learn to keep his composure when he gets hit hard he can find himself fighting for that belt again soon.
Honorable Mentions: Sean O’Malley (Punch) over Eddie Wineland (UFC 250), Conor McGregor (Shoulder Strikes into Head Kick) over Donald Cerrone (UFC 246)
Submission of the Year – Aljamain Sterling (Rear Naked Choke) over Cory Sandhagen (UFC 250)
Sterling gets this award not necessarily because of the technique of his rear naked choke on Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250 but because of how fast he was able to accomplish it (one minute and 28 seconds into the first round) and with the authority he announced his worthiness of being the next one to fight for the bantamweight championship. Of course he wasn’t, Jose Aldo was awarded the honor of losing to now champion Petr Yan at UFC 251, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is without a shadow of a doubt the top contender in the division. Yan vs. Sterling might not move the needle when it comes to pay-per-view sales but it certainly moves the needle when it comes to hardcore fans interest, including me.
Honorable Mentions: Aleksei Oleinik (Armbar) over Maurice Greene (UFC 246), Charles Oliveira (Guillotine) over Kevin Lee (UFC on ESPN+ 28)
Upset of the Year – Justin Gaethje over Tony Ferguson (UFC 249)
This is not a big upset in the usual sense. The betting line was close and even I thought it would be a close, competitive affair. But I did give Ferguson the advantage seeing as he was on an incredible 12 fight win streak against good competition and had what I thought at the time was the best arsenal to pose a threat to champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. Ferguson tends to start a little slow and then build momentum throughout the fight, never getting tired. We’ve seen Gaethje get beat up and tired as fights go on as evidenced in his losses to Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez. Instead Gaethje took an early knockdown at the end of the first round and then never looked back, crushing ‘El Cucuy’ with power punch after power punch. Ferguson’s chin was incredible but only served to have him take more damage than was necessary with the referee mercifully calling a stop to the fight in the fifth round. Now Gaethje is in line to really shock the world when he goes up against Khabib. I’m doubting him less in that match-up now after seeing what he was able to do against what I perceived as the champs stiffest competition.
Honorable Mention: Roxanne Modafferi over Maycee Barber (UFC 246)
Robbery of the Year – Alexander Volkanovski over Max Holloway (UFC 251)
This isn’t a “robbery” in the strictest sense of the word but that just happens to be what the category is called. In a 10 point must scoring system there is an argument that Volkanovski won the last three rounds in the featherweight title fight at UFC 251 on July 11th. I just didn’t happen to see it that way. Holloway came out in the first two rounds looking much improved since his first fight against Volkanovski where the new champ slightly edged him out leaning on leg kicks to limit his movement. ‘Blessed’ knocked him down in each round and clearly took them both on the scorecard. Rounds three and four were very close but I gave them both to Holloway based on more significant strikes. Volkanovski had a couple takedowns but wasn’t able to do anything with them as Max immediately got back up. Alex clearly won the fifth round but I assumed the judges had to at least give Holloway one of the two rounds that were up in the air. Never assume… The unfortunate thing is this result puts Max in a tough position at 145 pounds. Hard to see him getting a third shot against Volkanovski considering he has now lost the first two bouts. His options are either move up to lightweight and make a run in a new weight class or keep taking out contenders at featherweight and hope that someone beats Volkanovski or he wins enough to get that third shot.
Honorable Mentions: Jon Jones over Dominick Reyes (UFC 247), Claudia Gadelha over Angela Hill (UFC on ESPN 8)
Bob is a co-host of the ‘On the Verge’ an Orioles podcast focused on the O’s farm system here on BSL. He used to run the baseball blog ‘The Oriole Report’ before transitioning to podcasting about movies, TV, Video Games, and MMA. ‘The Redbox Report’ movie podcast was started in 2013 followed by ‘The Redbelt Report’ MMA podcast in 2016. Bob has also written for Konsume.com and BaltimoreSportsReport.com and delivers mail for a living in Baltimore County. Follow him on Twitter @TheOrioleReport.