The Rant's first annual Mixed Martial Arts Award Winners Announced
2019 was a great year for MMA fans; we saw tons of high-level matchups, incredible wars inside the Octagon (and other cages/rings), a wide array of vicious knockouts and slick submissions, and some truly star-making performances.
These awards break down some of the best (and worst) performances and achievements from this past year of MMA. Of course as the sport's dominant organization the UFC will primarily feature in these awards, though other major organizations (Bellator, RIZIN, PFL, One) and their fighters are also considered. For non-UFC fights/fighters, their organization will be added next to their names.
Also: all of the links (red text) below lead to GIFs so be sure to check those out.
Fighter of the Year
Jorge Masvidal (3-0 3 knockouts)
The race for Fighter of the Year in 2019 was a tight one, but ultimately it's hard not to concede that honour to Jorge Masvidal.
A veteran who made a name for himself amongst hardcore fans as an exciting and well-rounded scrapper, Masvidal turned over a new leaf this year, becoming one of the most devastating knockout artists in the stacked welterweight division. Masvidal has always possessed a ton of skill and athletic ability, but he had been known to sport an almost lackadaisical attitude in the cage at times, often sitting back on a perceived lead and content to pick up finishes only when they were presented to him; that passive attitude led to him losing more than a few razor-thin split decisions over the years, regularly halting any momentum he had built up during his career.
In 2019 however, Masvidal underwent a "resurrection" (as he puts it) and put all of his skills together to work towards his efforts to smite everyone in his path.
An underdog against the highly-hyped Darren Till, Masvidal laughed off getting dropped early with a straight left and got to work, landing nasty body and leg kicks and utilizing his superior boxing to begin shifting the momentum in his favour. In the second round, a charging left hook sent the brash Englishman to another dimension.
That was just the first fight of the night for Jorge though; afterward Leon Edwards, a fellow welterweight who had also won earlier on the card, crashed Jorge's backstage interview and made the fatal mistake of raising his hands in Masvidal's presence. Jorge hit him with the infamous "three piece combo with a soda" and opened up a deep cut on Edwards' cheek before security and others broke thing apart. T-shirts were made sporting Masvidal's now famous quote and a legend was born.
His next bout would catapult him into mainstream stardom as he took on Ben Askren, the undefeated 19-0 wrestling standout with a penchant for trash talk. Masvidal made Askren eat his words at UFC 239 with one of the most brutal knockouts in UFC history.
The fight lasted a brief five seconds from start to finish (Askren was unconscious on the mat within three). After lulling Askren into a false sense of security with a relaxed approach right before the bout started, Masvidal came sprinting forward like Usain Bolt off the starting blocks and launched himself skyward. Askren's wrestling instincts caused him to change levels and look to take down his rapidly approaching target, and the rest is history.
The incredible UFC-record knockout went viral and made Masvidal into a household name. It earned him a date with Nate Diaz for the inaugural BMF (Baddest Mother Fucker) title at Madison Square Garden, pitting two OG's of the sport against each other for a made-up title simply because Diaz willed it into existence. President Trump was in attendance and The Rock was there to present the shiny new belt to the winner at UFC 244.
With the world watching, Jorge decimated the tough Stocktonian with his superior speed, power, and technique. Nasty elbows in the clinch led a retreating Diaz to duck right into a head kick and nearly ended Nate's night early as he barely managed to hang on in the opening round. The second round was similarly dominant, with Masvidal skewering Diaz everywhere the fight took place - at range, in the clinch, and on the mat with ferocious ground and pound. By the end of the third Nate sported multiple deep cuts and was a mess, leading the doctor to controversially call a stop to the bout and declare Masvidal the winner by TKO. While the ending was anticlimactic, the fight was a one-sided drubbing and Diaz showed no signs of mounting a comeback regardless of how much his fans claim otherwise.
Masvidal asserted himself as the next contender in the stacked welterweight division and as one of the biggest draws in the sport with his incredible 2019 run, finishing all three of his top-10 opponents in dominant fashion and earning a record-setting KO to boot. That's enough to make "Gamebred" the undisputed Fighter of the Year in my book.
Runner-Up: Israel Adesanya (3-0 1 knockout)
A worthy winner were it any other year, Adesanya continued his rise to power and claimed the middleweight throne in 2019, extending his MMA record to a sublime 18-0 in the process. After a fun decision win against Anderson Silva, he earned the interim UFC middleweight title by defeating Kelvin Gastelum in a back-and-forth war that earned the two the Fight of the Year honours. He followed that up by knocking out Robbert Whittaker in Australia in the second round to capture the undisputed title in emphatic fashion.
Female Fighter of the Year
Irene Aldana (3-1 1 knockout 1 submission)
This choice may surprise some, but Irene Aldana is a truly deserving winner with the year she had.
Her four-fight run started off with a surprisingly fun scrap opposite Bethe Correira (who missed weight), with Aldana taking over late thanks to her relentless output which culminated in a slick armbar finish. She would soon return against former title challenger Raquel Pennington in another fun scrap where her slick boxing and sharp fundamentals looked like they would be enough to earn her another victory; unfortunately two judges disagreed, handing Aldana a controversial split decision loss.
Rather than complain about the outcome, Aldana got back in the Octagon just two months later and put on a boxing clinic on Vanessa Melo (who also missed weight). Aldana's footwork and impressive hands really came together in a breakout performance that saw her put a beating on her outmatched (though very tough) opponent.
It was her final bout of 2019 that was her most impressive however. At UFC 245 in December, Aldana returned to the Octagon for the fourth time in the calendar year to face the #2 bantamweight contender, Ketlen Vieira. Vieira sported a spotless 10-0 record and had impressed in each of her four prior Octagon outings thanks to her well-rounded skillset, her raw power and athleticism, and her impressive grappling. As such, Vieira was a sizeable favourite heading into their contendership clash.
The two ladies threw down in the centre of the Octagon, Vieira landing solid hooks and looping shots while Aldana stuck to the outside with straight punches and smart body work. The two traded blows throughout the opening frame, with Vieira holding her own but Aldana's superior defense and slicker combinations seemingly giving her the edge. Irene's committment to body work however, through calculated straight rights to the solar plexus and left hook liver shots, is what set up the shocking finish late in the first round.
As Aldana stepped in to deliver what Vieira thought was another body shot, Ketlen looked to counter with a left hook of her own, her right hand dropping down and leaving her chin completely exposed. Rather than going to the liver, Aldana caught Vieira with a clean left hook upstairs that put her down and out. It was a gorgeous knockout set up beautifully by Aldana's fluid boxing and solidified her claim as the top contender to Amanda Nunes' title.
Although the records show she suffered a loss to Raquel Pennington, Aldana should arguably have four wins in 2019 including a brilliant knockout over a fighter that was ranked second in her division, making her my Female Fighter of the Year.
Runner-Up: Weili Zhang (2-0 1 knockout)
Weili Zhang is easily the best fighter to ever compete in MMA from China, and became the first Asian-born UFC champion in the promotion's history. Zhang picked up her 19th straight win (her only loss came in her pro debut) against Tecia Torres by decision to earn herself a shot at the UFC strawweight title. Taking on newly-crowned champion Jessica Andrade, Zhang wasted no time in capturing gold as Andrade charged forward and ran directly into a counter right hand from the challenger. Zhang then skewered Andrade with a series of knees and elbows in the clinch that sent Andrade down for the count in just 42 seconds.
Fight of the Year
Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum
Israel Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum put on a war for the ages when they met for the interim UFC middleweight championship at UFC 236. Both men were hurt, staggered, and dropped throughout the 25-minute affair, slick combinations and thudding counters landing on both sides as both men had picked up two rounds on virtually everyone's scorecards going into the fifth and final stanza.
With everything on the line, Adesanya poured on the pressure late and took it to Gastelum, nearly finishing him at multiple points including right before the final bell - Kelvin somehow managed to survive to see the scorecards read, which ultimately awarded Israel the hard-earned title thanks to his fifth round onslaught.
If you somehow haven't seen the thrilling middleweight clash, do yourself a favour and check it out on Fight Pass, or watch the highlights here.
Runner-Up: Vicente Luque vs. Bryan Barbarena
We truly were spoiled by great fights this year and the first ever UFC event broadcast on ESPN's main network saw an incredible back-and-forth brawl take place. Bryan Barbarena and Vicente Luque beat the piss out of each other for almost an entire 15-minutes, battering each other with hellacious elbows, nasty combinations, vicious kicks, and even submission attempts.
With seconds left in the final round, it looked like Barbarena would pick up a close decision win, but Luque relentlessly attacked and rocked Barbarena with a right hand against the fence with mere seconds left to go - two brutal knees as Barbarena stumbled forward sent him to the canvas and Luque picked up the epic finish with just 6 seconds remaining in the fight. If you haven't seen it, or just want to relive the chaos, check out the highlights here.
Honourable Mentions: Paulo Costa vs. Yoel Romero, Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway II, Lorenz Larkin vs. Andrey Koreshkov (Bellator), Hiromasa Ogikubo vs. Shintaro Ishiwatari (RIZIN)
Round of the Year
Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum (Round 5)
After twenty minutes of war, Israel Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum bared their souls for the world to see for the final round of their interim title tilt. Both men had claimed two rounds with the winner of the fifth determining who would be crowned the interim champion. And both gave everything they had to try and secure victory, no matter the cost.
Adesanya ultimately proved the victor as he battered Gastelum for much of the round, and had him almost out at the end - Kelvin however refused to give up and managed to somehow survive a hellacious beating in order to see the round through, showing true championship toughness and resolve. Both warriors left it all inside the Octagon and even though there could be only one victor, both men won in the hearts of MMA fans everywhere.
Runner Up: Paulo Costa vs. Yoel Romero (Round 1)
Paulo "Borrachinha" Costa and Yoel Romero brought an almost comical amount of violent explosive power into their epic clash at UFC 241. Although it did inevitably slow down in the latter stages, the beginning rounds were absolute mayhem, with both men dropping the other and landing bombs that would have killed most normal human beings.
The two physical specimens put on a show for the ages and the first round was particularly insane; at one point, after Costa had dropped Romero with a left hook and had him backed against the cage, Romero pointed away in an attempt to get Costa to look elsewhere before dropping Costa with a right hand of his own.
The opening five minutes were sheer insanity and the clash of intimidating middleweight powerhouses more than lived up to the hype - though Costa walked away with the controversial decision, who doesn't want to see those men get back in there for a rematch?
Honourable Mentions: Robbie Lawler vs. Ben Askren, Vicente Luque vs. Bryan Barbarena (Round 2), Pedro Munhoz vs. Cody Garbrandt, Hiromasa Ogikubo vs. Shintaro Ishiwatari (Round 3, RIZIN)
Knockout of the Year
Jorge Masvidal's record-setting flying knee on Ben Askren
As the world waited on the edge of their seats for the massive welterweight clash between Jorge Masvidal and Ben Askren at UFC 239, Masvidal leaned back against the cage, hands clasped behind his back, a smirk plastered on his face as if he knew something we didn't.
The ref signalled the start of the bout and Masvidal took a few deliberate steps around the outside of the cage...and then charged like a bat of hell, launching himself skyward, his knee colliding with the side of Askren's skull before most people understood what was happening. The brash wrestler never knew what hit him, his brain switched off on impact as his stiffened body toppled helplessly to the canvas.
Two nasty (but super necessary) right hands landed before the ref saved Askren from any more brain trauma as his corpse was then counted out by Masvidal as if it were a wrestling match. It took Masvidal a total of five seconds to forever humble Ben Askren and to become the first man to ever beat him in his 21-fight career.
The knockout was one of the most brutal and violent finishes you will ever see, and you've likely seen it a lot already. Thanks to its incredibly short runtime, the fight has been shown millions of times on social media as has Masvidal's hilarious (and super necessary) post-fight celebrations. It's one of the greatest knockouts in UFC history and in a year filled with highlight-reel knockouts, it stands above the rest.
Runner-Up: Valentina Shevchenko's brutal head kick on Jessica Eye
Valentina Shevchenko is one bad woman. The flyweight queen rules over her division with an iron fist and many argue that she won her rematch with bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes back in 2017 despite her size disadvantage. At her natural weight, there's no question as to who the best fighter in the world is, and against Jessica Eye, she instilled fear in the rest of the division courtesy of one of the most brutal head kick knockouts you will ever see.
Shevchenko landed several nasty body kicks on her overmatched prey in the first round, the sound of each like the crack of a baseball bat hitting a home run. Early in the second, that sound could be heard a final time, but instead of Valentina's shin connecting with Jessica's torso, her shin met the side of Eye's head. It was nasty and oh-so-beautiful at the same time.
Honourable mentions: Kevin Lee's head kick KO of Gregor Gillespie, Anthony Pettis' superman punch KO of Stephen Thompson, Henry Corrales show-stopping KO of Aaron Pico (Bellator), Douglas Lima's soul-snatching KO of Michael Venom Page (Bellator), Jessica Andrade's slam KO of Rose Namajunas, Jorge Masvidal's vicious left hook KO of Darren Till, Niko Price's upkick KO of James Vick, Raymond Daniels' spinning shit-to-punch KO of Wilker Barros (Bellator)
Submission of the Year
Bryce Mitchell's twister on Matt Sayles
As MMA fighters have progressed over the years, we're seeing fewer submissions at the highest level of the sport - 2019 saw the fewest submissions (as a percentage of total fights) in the UFC's history. Fighters are much better at avoiding and escaping submissions than the used to be, and as such, only the slickest or most unexpected attempts are succeeding against good competition.
Despite the downturn of submissions overall, we're seeing some of the nicest subs in MMA history when we do happen to see them, and none are quite as difficult to pull off nor as painful for the recipient as the twister.
Bryce "Thugnasty" Mitchell pulled off this extremely brutal submission against Matt Sayles in December, contorting Sayles poor body in a grotesque manner that put a sickening amount of torque on his neck and spine, leaving Sayles no choice but to tap out. The skill required to pull off the scary submission can't be overstated, and just one other twister has ever been seen in the UFC (by the Korean Zombie, who also won many Submission of the Year awards when he pulled it off).
He topped off his impressive performance by giving a shout out to President Trump (the fight took place in Washington, D.C.) and once again demanding that Reebok comes out with camo shorts for him to wear. Seriously Reebok, give him his damn camo shorts already.
Runner-Up: Charles Oliveira's anaconda choke on David Teymur
Charles Oliveira is the king of submissions in the UFC; after all, he already holds the UFC record with 13 submission victories despite being just 30 years old. The scariest thing about the Brazilian grappler is that his striking is becoming just as devastating to his opponents as his submission game.
Against a great striker in David Teymur, Charles rocked his prey with a slick upward elbow and a flurry of shots that made Teymur look for a desperation takedown. Oliveira wasted absolutely no time in snatching up Teymur's exposed neck, applying a tight anaconda choke out of nowhere and forcing the tap in mere seconds. It was a beautiful submission started off by some excellent striking and was one of Oliveira's most impressive and complete victories to date.
Honourable Mentions: Marlon Moraes' guillotine choke on Raphael Assuncao, Brent Primus' gogoplata vs Tim Wilde (Bellator), Jack Hermansson's guillotine choke on David Branch, AJ McKee's armbar on Derek Campos (Bellator), Misha Cirkunov's peruvian neck tie on Jimmy Crute
Comeback of the Year
Stipe Miocic's fourth round KO of Daniel Cormier
In the highly anticipated rematch between Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic, Cormier was proving the outcome of their first meeting was far from a fluke. Cormier dominated the former champion in the opening frame, landing powerful combinations and kicks on the feet, taking Stipe down and landing devastating ground and pound en route to a clear 10-8 round.
Miocic had his work cut out for him and rather than thinking about whether Stipe could win, most fans were wondering if he could survive much longer. But in the second round, Cormier went to his more typical striking gameplan - constant handfighting, plodding forward with a constant pace and pressure looking to grind his opponent out in a battle of striking attrition. While the change in tactics (especially the abandonment of his wrestling that had worked so well early on) was peculiar, Cormier was still clearly winning the fight, piecing Stipe up on the feet. Though Stipe landed shots of his own, the pace and incredible accuracy Cormier was landing with (he had an over 70% connection rate) had him steadily beating the former champ.
The third round saw a more even battle, with Stipe starting to land with an increasing frequency, yet Cormier seemed unfazed even when Miocic landed his powerful right hand. A frustrated Miocic returned to his corner after the third, his team urging him to go to the body and believe in his hands.
Miocic finally started mixing in shots to the body and quickly found a home for a slick left uppercut to Cormier's midsection. The body shots were starting to bother DC and getting him to reach for them, and the momentum shifted firmly in Stipe's favour. Late in the fourth, a nasty body shot hurt DC and a swift one-two from Stipe put him on wobbly legs. Stipe took out all of his frustrations on Cormier with a vicious barrage of punches that left DC slumped unconscious against the cage.
It was an incredible comeback and showed the resolve of a true champion in Stipe reclaiming his title.
Runner-Up: Jessica Andrade's power slam KO of Rose Namajunas
There have been a lot of epic comebacks in 2019, but none were quite as sudden and shocking as Jessica Andrade's power slam of Rose Namajunas. There's no two ways about it - Andrade was getting pieced up by the champ. Rose looked superb, her sharp kickboxing and excellent defense making Andrade look completely outmatched on the feet as Jessica hopelessly charged forward and continued to get cracked by the champion.
At one point, Andrade went for her signature high-crotch slam, but Rose and her team had clearly prepared for it; Rose stopped the slam in its tracks by going for a kimura, nearly submitting the Brazilian challenger in the process. In the second round, Rose was firmly in control when Andrade once again lifted Rose up and the champion once again looked to lock up a kimura grip. Andrade had smartly adjusted her grip compared to her first attempt however, and spiked Namajunas directly on her head as she looked to secure Andrade's arm rather than brace for impact.
Rose was knocked unconscious in an instant and her brilliant performance was thrown out of the window. It was a shocking and vicious comeback out of nowhere that stunned the MMA world and sent Rose into retirement talks.
Honourable Mentions: Anthony Pettis' superman punch KO of Stephen Thompson,
Breakout Fighter of the Year
Jairzinho Rozenstruik (4-0 4 knockouts)
It's pretty much impossible to not name Jairzinho Rozenstruik as the breakout fighter of 2019. The standout kickboxer from Suriname sported a 76-8 record in kickboxing with a whopping 64 knockouts and had started his MMA career a perfect 6-0 overseas.
In his UFC debut back in February, Jairzinho looked a bit uncomfortable and was taken down and controlled by UFC vet Junior Albini. In the second round however Jairzinho shook off the Octagon jitters and made quick work of Albini, rocking him with a combination and head kick to earn him his first of four stoppage victories in the year.
In his next outing, Rozenstruik dropped Allen Crowder with a jab in the opening exchange before knocking him unconscious on the ground in a total of 9 seconds.
Next he took on one of the greatest glass cannons in MMA history, Andrei Arlovski. In this bout, Arlovski was all glass as a short left hook sent him careening to the mat face-first in just 29 seconds.
For his toughest test he took on the greatest glass cannon in MMA history, Alistair Overeem. It looked like the Rozenstruik hype train was ground to a halt as the big kickboxer was repeatedly grounded and beat up on the mat throughout the first three rounds, but even as Overeem landed bombs Jaizinho seemed no worse for the wear.
In the fourth and fifth Overeem had fatigued and spent more time that he would've liked on the feet with Rozenstruik, but as the seconds ticked by it looked like Overeem would secure the decision victory. That is until Rozenstruik charged forward with a corkscrew uppercut followed by a wild right hand which dropped Overeem and split his lip open in disgusting fashion. Overeem woke up when he hit the cage and popped right back up, but as Jairzinho had walked off and combined with the nasty gash, the referee waved off the bout with just four seconds remaining in the fight.
It was a controversial stoppage and many argued that it should've gone to the scorecards, but it was nonetheless another knockout win for Jairzinho and showed that even after 25-minutes of getting beat up he still carried his crippling power and has a granite chin to boot.
While he may look (mostly) good beating chinny heavyweights, his next bout against Francis Ngannou will be a true test of where he fits in the upper echelon of the division, but as it stands Jairzinho went from a UFC newcomer to a hot heavyweight contender in the span of a year, with four knockouts added to his resume. Not too bad for the first Surinamese fighter in UFC history.
Runner-Up: Edmen Shahbazyan (3-0 2 knockouts 1 submission)
While he may train with one of the most hated trainers in the sport, Edmen Shahbazyan is a bonafide phenom. His strong grappling base combined with his rapidly evolving standup skills at just 22 years old have turned him into a contender already, and the potential is truly astounding for the undefeated prospect.
He knocked out Charles Byrd with a series of vicious elbows Travis Browne-style, then battered Jack Marshman and submitted him in a combined fight time of one minute and 50 seconds.
His fight against UFC vet and top-15 opponent Brad Tavares was the real eye opener however.
Tavares had gone a full 25-minutes with new middleweight champ Israel Adesanya in 2018, showing his incredible toughness despite being clearly outmatched. It took Shahbazyan less than half-a-round to drop Tavares then knock him out cold with a beautiful head kick. In three outings Edmen managed to stop his opponents with a combined fight time of less than five minutes.
Despite being just 22 years of age, Edmen Shahbazyan is a force in the middleweight division and may see himself fighting for a title by 2021 if not sooner.
Honourable Mentions: Maycee Barber (2-0 2 knockouts), Geoff Neal (3-0 2 knockouts)
Technical Turnaround of the Year