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.
Honourable Mentions: Henry Cejudo (2-0 2 knockouts), Douglas Lima (2-0 1 knockout in Bellator), Charles Oliveira (3-0 2 knockouts 1 submission)
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.
Honourable Mentions: Amanda Nunes (2-0 1 knockout), Valentina Shevchenko (2-0 1 knockout)
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,
Henry Corrales' KO of Aaron Pico in their hectic firefight (Bellator), Josh Emmett's vicious one-punch KO of Michael Johnson, Jairzinho Rozenstruik's buzzer-beating KO of Alistair Overeem
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
Thiago Santos was a wild bomb thrower in the middleweight division, known for his blood-curdling power and reckless aggression which made for wild fights and brutal knockouts. When he moved up to light heavyweight in 2018, he became the wild bomb thrower of the 205-pound division, bringing a healthy dose of middleweight insanity to the upper weight class. In 2019 as he faced off against top-5 competition, a much more reserved, patient Santos came to light.
Against Jan Blachowicz, Santos was shockingly patient against the powerful Polish striker, picking his opportunities to explode and showing a technical side we had rarely seen out of the wild Brazilian. It led to a no-less-exciting knockout as this time it was Blachowicz who became wild and reckless in the third round, charging at Santos and leaving his chin exposed for a vicious mid-step counter which put him down for the count.
It was a beautiful and surprisingly subdued performance from the typically aggressive brawler, and earned him a meeting with Jon Jones.
Not many liked Santos' chances against Jones, but he implemented his incredible gameplan to a tee - at range, Santos used lateral movement to nullify Jones' linear kicks and chopped Jon's base out from under him with thudding leg kicks; whenever Jones tried to close the distance or get into clinching range, Santos would flurry and force Jones to back off to avoid risking getting cracked by a power shot.
In the second round Santos tore his ACL, MCL, PCL and meniscus (literally everything in your knee) when attempting to throw a kick. Despite this, the incredibly tough Brazilian managed to gut it out for the entire 5 rounds and continued implementing his gameplan, only really taking damage when his knee would give out and force him into a stationary position against the cage.
Despite the injury, many scored the close bout for Santos, with two judges ultimately awarding Jones the split decision victory. It was an incredible performance where Santos implemented a great gameplan and showed incredible toughness and heart, and not only took rounds off of but in the eyes of many beat Jon Jones entirely, a far cry from what anyone had imagined Santos capable of even just a year ago.
Runner-Up: Justin Gaethje
There are so many great picks for technical turnaround of the year, but one that has to be mentioned is Justin Gaethje.
After his relentless and frankly insane style proved to have difficulty against more athletic and technical fighters at the top end of the division, Gaethje made a series of small adjustments to temper his aggression and reduce the damage he would receive while keeping his entertaining style intact.
Those adjustments paid dividends as he knocked out Edson Barboza with a leaping right hook in a firefight where he took surprisingly almost no damage, instead taking the old "make him miss, make him pay" boxing adage to heart.
Against Cowboy Cerrone, Gaethje baited Cerrone into leading before slickly avoiding Cerrone's shots and returning with his beloved right cross, dropping Cowboy before a series of right hands finished him off. Rather than being a war and Fight of the Year contender, Gaethje turned it into a one sided drubbing. It was a great year for Gaethje and showed off the smart improvements the wild slugger made to his game in order to cement his claim as a top contender.
Honourable Mentions: Aljamain Sterling, Mark Diakese, Li Jingliang, Jared Cannonier, Irene Aldana
Upset of the Year
Henry Cejudo knocking out TJ Dillashaw
The biggest upset of the year isn't necessarily about betting odds; if so, a bunch of obscure fighters would be named each year. Instead, just how an underdog manages to achieve victory is a much more important criteria, and who they managed to beat in impressive fashion.
In this case, Henry Cejudo was only a slight underdog when he defended his flyweight title against bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw. Dillashaw was the first champ to attempt to claim a second title by dropping down a weight class instead of moving up, and his drastic weight cut was a cause of concern for many - most felt that TJ wouldn't have much issue beating Cejudo at 135, but with the extra cut down to 125, many fans and bettors were concerned his cardio and explosiveness would be affected.
No one however expected Cejudo to dust TJ in just 29 seconds on the feet, where TJ was thought to have the advantage. But that's exactly what happened, leaving the MMA world in shock and the bantamweight division in upheaval as the sitting champion just got embarassed by a lighter fighter but didn't lose his belt. That would change just weeks later however, as TJ would pop for EPO and thus was forced to vacate his title, making Cejudo's victory even more impressive in hindsight.
Runner-Up: Anthony Pettis knocking out Stephen Thompson
Anthony Pettis' move up to welterweight was seen by many as a mistake - with his struggles against stronger wrestlers and 170 featuring tons of strong wrestlers, his future in the division looked bleak. A fight with Wonderboy was a fun proposition however, as it was a purely striking matchup - the problem of course was that Thompson's size and speed would still give Pettis all kinds of problems on the feet.
The fight was competitive early as Pettis played the part of a Muay Thai striker to Thompson's karate style, chopping away at his legs while Wonderboy landed straight shots and linear kicks. In the second round however Wonderboy's attacks began to really add up, Anthony's face wearing the damage as Thompson cracked him repeatedly with combinations and began to pull away with it.
That all changed in an instant - as a side kick pushed Pettis into the fence, Pettis pounced, lunging forward with a Superman-right hook that caught Wonderboy trying to retreat. Thompson was knocked out cold and just like that Pettis was thrust into the upper echelon of the welterweight division.
Honourable Mentions: Pedro Munhoz's knockout of Cody Garbrandt, Irene Aldana's knockout of Ketlen Vieira, Tristan Connelly's defeat of Michel Pereira, Henry Cejudo's comeback win over Marlon Moraes, Khama Worthy's knockout of Devonte Smith, Kai Asakura's knockout of Kyoji Horiguchi (RIZIN), John Howard's knockout of Ray Cooper III (PFL)
Event of the Year
RIZIN really swooped in in the final hour to steal this award for their New Year's Eve (in Japan at least) event. Unlike virtually all of the other events this year, RIZIN 20 really delivered ridiculous action from the very first fight on the card to the main event, without any bad fights in between (although their two long intermissions are pretty brutal for international viewers staying up late to watch the event, but I'm only judging the fights themselves for this award).
The RIZIN Lightweight Grand Prix semi-finals started off with fireworks as both Patricky Freire and Tofiq Musayev made quick work of their opponents, then turned in an absolute brawl later that night in the Grand Prix Finals with Musayev taking home the tournament championship. Tons of finishes and thrilling fights filled the card's 13 MMA fights and 2 kickboxing matches, including a savage KO over UFC vet CB Dolloway, an atomweight war for a title between "Hamderlei" Seo Hee Ham and Ayaka Hamasaki, a ridiculously violent performance from kickboxing sensation Tenshin Nasukawa, Kai Asakura getting upset in violent fashion by Manel Kape, and a Fight of the Year contender between Hiromasa Ogikubo and Shintaro Ishiwatari.
If you missed it, make sure to check out the action online as it was an insane event filled with action and violence, and the surprise Event of the Year.
Runner-Up: UFC 236
In what was the Event of the Year until RIZIN stole the show in the final hour, UFC 236 delivered a ridiculous night of action. Although its early prelims were forgettable, the main prelims saw Khalid Taha blast Boston Salmon in just 25 seconds and Alexandre Pantoja finish Wilson Reis in similarly quick fashion.
The main card saw OSP choke out Nikita Krylov before a surprisingly dismal fight sapped some energy from the card, but it was back to action when Khalil Rountree utterly dominated the incredibly tough Eryk Anders. The main two fights were what brought the event into legendary status - a war for the ages between Israel Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum (which won the Fight of the Year) and a FOTY contender in Dustin Poirier versus Max Holloway. While it did have some slow segments, the action more than made up for it and made the event one to remember.
Honourable Mentions: UFC 239, UFC 244, UFC on ESPN+ 1, UFC on ESPN 1
Worst UFC Fighter of the Year
Greg Hardy (2-2-1)
Now Greg Hardy isn't the least skilled or talented fighter on the UFC roster (he did beat two, basically three fighters just this year in the UFC after all) but unlike most other fighters on this list, he received a massive push by the UFC.
Thanks to his superb athleticism for a heavyweight (he was an NFL all-star team player after all) and power, not to mention his high profile (controversial or not), he had the makings of a star for the UFC. With the majority of heavyweights being about as athletic as a Sunday afternoon couch quarterback and Hardy's ability to pick things up quickly, Hardy could beat a ton of heavyweight fighters with little training.
At least that was the hope.
He took on Allen Crowder in his UFC debut, and after drubbing the unimpressive heavyweight early, Hardy quickly found himself gassing out and the momentum of the fight turning against him. Quick thinking on Hardy's part sorted that out - when Crowder was on his knees, Hardy threw a blatantly illegal knee to Crowder's head which garnered a stoppage, saving him from further exhaustion. The only problem of course was that the foul caused the ref to disqualify Hardy and leave the Octagon with his first pro loss.
Two quick KOs later and Hardy was back to his winning ways, drawing him a matchup with the extremely (un)athletic Ben Sosoli. Hardy looked to be improving his skills and cardio at least, and was clearly listening to his coaches, even if the win wasn't thrilling. But a Hardy fight without controversy isn't much fun, and between the second and third rounds, Hardy used his asthma inhaler (without getting it checked or approved beforehand), prompting the commission to overturn his victory and declare it a no-contest.
Returning for another quick turnaround, Hardy stepped in as an injury replacement to face top-10 fighter Alexander Volkov. On the wrong side of a vast skill and experience gap, Hardy had little for Volkov, who was content to simply pick apart Hardy at range, though he was wary of getting caught by a lucky shot (like in his last outing against Derrick Lewis) which made for a bit of a tedious affair.
Hardy does have a great athletic base and is clearly improving, but the push he's getting from the UFC is ridiculous and that combined with his controversial and often dismal performances is enough to earn him this prestigious award, not to mention his appalling domestic violence conviction that was overturned when he paid off his victim to get her to not testify during the appeal.
Runner Up: Priscila Cachoeira (0-2)
Cachoeira must have built up a lot of good will for her toughness against Valentina Shevchenko when she fought the flyweight Queen on short notice in 2018, especially after referee Mario Yamasaki nearly let her die in there just for shits and giggles, because how she is still under contract after her last two outings defies explanation otherwise.
She is simply not very talented. She's tough and aggressive, but her technique is incredibly sloppy and doesn't seem to be getting any better. She has basically served as a punching bag for her three UFC fights to date, and yet was scheduled for a fourth before receiving a reduced 4-month USADA ban for using a diuretic. She's somehow still employed by the UFC and is expected to return in 2020 - bet the house on her opponent, whoever they happen to be.
Honourable Mentions: Marc-Andre Barriault (0-3), James Vick (0-3), BJ Penn (0-1), Sergio Moraes (0-3), Matt Wiman (0-2), Sarah Frota (0-2 + USADA failure)
Worst Fight of the Year
Michael Venom Page vs. Paul Daley (Bellator)
This fight between two cocky British knockout artists had fireworks written all over it. The two had been linked together for a fight for years that never came to fruition and continued to bash each other in interviews left and right. For MVP, Daley was by far the biggest test of his padded career, and for Daley it was a chance to show that he still belonged at the top of the division as one of the most feared knockout artists.
Instead, we saw Daley expose MVP's unwillingness to lead on his own (something we had already seen in the Gonzalez fight) and then turn into a full-on wrestler, repeatedly taking Page down and then doing absolutely nothing with said takedowns. Page displayed piss-poor takedown defense while Daley looked completely afraid to engage on the feet, and the two put on a truly dreadful performance across 25-minutes in their Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix quarter-final.
MVP got the judges nod much to the chagrin of Daley, but with such a horrid performance from both, nobody cared. There were other snoozers this year as is inevitable with so many fights taking place, but this one felt particularly dreadful given the high violence potential the fight had on paper.
Runner-Up: Valentina Shevchenko vs. Liz Carmouche
For worst fight of the year, it's not about the skill or technique on display, but instead about how exciting the fight was compared to their stakes and expectations. In the case of Valentina Shevchenko's rematch against Liz Carmouche, expectations were mixed; Carmouche is typically as exciting as watching paint dry, but Shevchenko was coming off of a spectacular head kick knock out and should have made easy work of Carmouche, who had beat her early in her career.
The worry came in that Shevchenko is a counter fighter who is reluctant to lead should her opponent not engage, and Carmouche has a habit of not engaging on the feet. Those worries turned out to be even more apt than realized as Carmouche set a record for the least strikes landed across a 25-minute fight and refused to engage at all, while Shevchenko was mostly content to just pick up points here and there and occasionally show off her superiority.
While many expected it wouldn't be an overly exciting fight, few expected it to be quite that boring. Thankfully, there won't be a third bout between the two (at least not anytime soon) as Carmouche was released by the UFC.
Honourable Mentions: Jan Blachowicz vs. Jacare Souza, Kevin Holland (all three of his fights thanks to his horrid fight IQ), Alexander Hernandez vs. Francisco Trinaldo, Kelvin Gastelum vs. Darren Till
Cheater of the Year
Arguably the worst award to "win" in any given year, it goes to only the most blatant and prolific cheaters. I'm not sure any other publication hands this one out, but here at The Rant we aren't afraid to call out cheaters for their misdeeds.
TJ Dillashaw earned this award courtesy of a failed drug test for EPO, an injectable-only drug infamously used by Lance Armstrong for years. It essentially allows more oxygen to be carried in your blood to your muscles, drastically improving cardio and stamina. Considering TJ's extremely active footwork and astounding pace, how much doping contributed to his success is up for debate, but it definitely adds an asterisk to his entire career.
The test failure came after TJ Dillashaw dropped down to flyweight to challenge Henry Cejudo for a second title. Dillashaw looked absolutely shredded and successfully made the weight, but got knocked out in just 32 seconds, with many thinking the drastic weight cut affected his ability to take a shot. Dillashaw claimed that his choice to cheat came as a result of his body shutting down during his dieting process leading up to his drop to flyweight, and he hadn't used the substance before.
Problem is, Cody Garbrandt, a former teammate and heated rival, had accused TJ of doping for years, and when asked for what substance TJ was using back in 2018, he specifically named one drug - EPO.
EPO is notoriously difficult to test for even with the latest testing technology (Lance Armstrong never failed a single one of his 700+ tests) and can only be detected for a few hours after injection, making it the designer drug of choice for PED users. The fact that TJ and his nutritionist Sam Calavitta had been regularly posting videos about their team's state-of-the-art nutritional and performance technology while he was doping just makes it worse - especially when Calavitta threw Dillashaw under the bus (despite there being next to no chance he didn't know anything was up) and then blamed the pressure fans put on athletes for why Dillashaw might have done it.
TJ recently opened up an organic juice bar called "Clean Juice". No, that isn't a joke, though it sure reads as one. Not the best year for the former champ.
Runner-Up: Alex Nicholson (PFL)
It's hard not to like Nicholson for this award thanks to his past instances of racism and his more recent drug test failure. Despite fighting in the PFL which only uses the state athletic commissions for testing rather than issuing random tests, Nicholson managed to fail for not one, not two, but three anabolic steroids. He then stated he never took anything and it wouldn't make sense for him to, and that was the extent of his defense. He didn't even bother showing up to his hearing in front of the commission, resulting in him being fined and banned from competition for four years. Not too smart.
Honourable Mentions: Greg Hardy (DQ via an illegal knee, inhaler-gate), Ivan Shtyrkov (clearly roided Russian suspended for 2 years by USADA before even making his UFC debut, leading to him being cut), Ruslan Magomedov (lifetime USADA ban for his 2nd & 3rd drug test failures)
Worst Matchmaking of the Year
As a disclaimer, I'm not including RIZIN in this category simply because they have so many squash matches and freakshow fights it'd be unfair to the rest of the organizations (though to be fair, they also do put on some great fights as well). These are fights that, on paper, are bad matchups for a variety of reasons even before the fighters step into the cage - whether it be a vast experience or skill gap, feeding an aging fighter to a young killer, or otherwise a silly matchup.
Michael Venom Page's last 3 fights
Tune-up fights are a thing in boxing for a reason, and I'll be the first to admit they should be used more often in the UFC for fighters returning off a bad loss. Padding records is a separate beast however, and it's one that Scott Coker, the former StrikeForce boss and now the CEO of Bellator, is famous for. He'll throw the worst cans he can find in with a promising or flashy athlete in order to build their name, only letting them step up in competition when they're good and ready. This is commonplace in boxing and can be an effective tool, but if used too much, it gets ridiculous and can even be dangerous.
When it was finally time for the flashy kickboxer Michael Venom Page to get a step up in competition in 2019 as he entered the Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix, Page was pitted against his fellow Englishman and longtime rival Paul Daley. A former contender (emphasis on former) but still dangerous knockout artist, he was seen as a solid test for just how good MVP really is - MVP managed to squeak out a decision win in an absolutely horrible five round decision that showed Page's can crushing was likely hindering him at that point, as he couldn't even stave off takedowns from Paul Daley of all people, whose biggest problem has always been his wrestling ability compared to other top fighters.
Advancing in the tournament to face Douglas Lima, Page made a solid accounting of himself early and held his own for the most part. In the second he even caught Lima with a solid shot, but then disaster struck - Lima kicked out MVP's base as he lunged for a straight right, then nailed him with a brutal right hook as MVP was on his knees. MVP's perfect record went out the window and the cocky striker was finally humbled.
Rather than dropping down the rankings for a normal tune-up fight to put Page back on the right track, Bellator scraped the bottom of the barrel, finding the 3-1 Richard Kiely (who was also 0-2 as an amateur) who was in way over his head and had extremely little experience. In a slightly better matchup, Bellator found Giovanni Melillo, an Italian with a 13-4 record (all four of his losses were by KO, with two being in his last three outings...you can see where this is going).
MVP was back to his flashy winning ways, knocking people out in style and then parading around as if he was the hottest shit around. His latest fight was another slight improvement, as Shinsho Anzai had a 11-3 record and was previously 2-2 in the UFC, though most of his competition was rather weak (all but two of his wins don't even have Wikipedia entries, a solid sign that they aren't top competition). He is however vastly undersized at just 5'8 and isn't a great wrestler, making him a terrible matchup against the rangy Page.
The worst aspect of Coker's star padding is that people actually buy into it when a fighter delivers highlight reel knockouts regularly, even if their competition is laughably weak.
Big John McCarthy of all people claimed that Michael Page's record was more impressive and against stiffer competition than Anderson Silva's was at that stage in his career. Page is 16-1 now with the biggest name (by far) on his record being Paul Daley, who he barely managed to beat by decision. Anderson at 32 years old (Page's age) had already captured UFC gold and had scalps which included Rich Franklin, Carlos Newton, Roan Carneiro, Jeremy Horn, Lee Murray, Jorge Rivera, Chris Leben, and (although he was DQ'd by an illegal upkick, he did knock him out) Yushin Okami. Not even remotely comparable.
Runner-Up: Sage Northcutt
Sage Northcutt was touted as a pretty big addition to One FC's stable when he was signed late last year, as the Singapore organization continued their attempt at expanding into the North American market. You'd think that they would want their new investment to look good in his debut, especially if they are trying to continue to raise Sage Northcutt's already high profile.
Of course, Sage Northcutt, while being a very nice kid, isn't the best fighter. He certainly possesses a lot of athletic ability, but his skills (although improving) aren't anywhere near world-class and the UFC actively had to find low-tier competition in order for Sage to pick up wins. He simply wasn't improving at a rate suitable for long-term success and considering he was getting a hefty paycheck, it wasn't surprising for the UFC to