The Rant's 2020 MMA Awards

The Rant's 2020 Mixed Martial Arts Awards Winners Announced

2020 has been a rather insane year by anyone's standards, but it has been an amazing one when it comes to UFC action.


While the rest of the sporting world took an extended break due to the "lockdowns", the UFC fought hard to return as soon as possible and paved the way for other sports and their leagues to follow suit. Despite heavy criticism early for their "dangerous" plans, the UFC had a wildly successful year and kept their employees and athletes busy and their fanbase thoroughly entertained.


Though some will argue Dana White's support of Trump makes the UFC political, the UFC was one of the only sports leagues smart enough to keep politics out of their sport's coverage and as such gained even more fans in the process. If tuning into a sports broadcast and hearing the commentators talk about "social justice"and seeing woke political slogans brandished across player uniforms made in China isn't your idea of a good time, the UFC had you covered in 2020.


The UFC regularly dominates yearly MMA awards, but with the scarcity of events from other promotions this year (for instance the PFL took the entire year off and Bellator ceased operations for months) it's an especially UFC-centric piece, but with how many great fights the organization put on this year it should come as no surprise. So without further ado, here are this year's MMA award winners.


Fighter of the Year

Deiveson Figueiredo (3-0-1, 2 submissions 1 knockout)


To say that Deiveson Figueiredo has had a whirlwind of a year would be an understatement.


2020 didn't start off very well for the Brazilian slugger as his first title shot, for the vacant flyweight title formerly worn by Henry Cejudo before his move to bantamweight, disappeared thanks to Figueiredo's botched weight cut.


"Deus da Guerra" (or "God of War" in English) missed the flyweight mark by 2.5 pounds back in February, making him ineligible to win the UFC title regardless of the fight's outcome - being the warrior that he is, perennial top contender Joseph Benavidez opted to fight his oversized opponent regardless, and with a win would still have been given the official title despite his opponent not being eligible for the same reward.


The fight started off well for the long time Team Alpha Male standout as his handspeed and agility appeared to be causing the Brazilian issues, but as time passed, Deiveson began finding a home for his powerful punches and started picking up steam.


Early in the second stanza, an inadvertent clash of heads between the two as Benavidez charged in with one of his blitzes ended up wobbling Benavidez and opening up a large gash on his forehead which went unnoticed by the referee. A clearly shaken up Benavidez was knocked dead shortly after, a piston-like right hand sending the fan-favourite to the floor with a few hammer fists adding the finishing touches.


As a result, Figueiredo became just the second man to have ever finished the division staple, but his failure to make weight as well as the clash of heads that had occurred right before the finish shrouded his victory in controversy.


The two would run it back in July on Fight Island to finally crown a new flyweight king. Although still a fan favourite with plenty of supporters hoping he'd be able to capture the title at long last, even the most diehard Benavidez fans didn't like his chances - after all, the tide appeared to be turning even before the headbutt in their first fight, and fighting just five months after being knocked out didn't seem like the smartest move for the 35-year-old.


No one however expected Figueiredo to slaughter him the way he did in Abu Dhabi.


With a strict new diet clearing up his weight issues, Deiveson was an entirely new animal for his first career rematch and proved definitively that he alone belonged on top of the flyweight mountain.


Deus da Guerra managed to drop Benavidez not once, not twice, but three times in the opening stanza. Somehow, the incredibly tough Benavidez managed to survive the brutal onslaught, only for "Figgy" to lock up a rear-naked choke with mere seconds to go in the round. Rather than tap out, Benavidez went to sleep, his lifeless body a chilling visual for his legion of fans and a grim reminder to all that the fight game is not for the faint of heart.


Finally putting Joe B in his rear-view mirror, Figueiredo went on to defend his title for the first time in November against Alex Perez. Originally slated to face former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt in Garbrandt's flyweight debut, Perez was picked as his replacement after Cody caught COVID-19; many fans cried foul about the match-up, as Brandon Moreno had clearly cemented his status as the next contender in line for the title and was fighting on the very same card, but the UFC opted to gift the untested Perez a title shot instead.


Figueiredo made it clear why virtually no one was giving his challenger a chance as he made quick work of the Contender Series alum, dropping for a leglock as Perez fought for a takedown only to transition into a slick guillotine choke that forced Perez to tap less than two minutes into their title tilt.


Earlier on the card, one Brandon Moreno had made short work of his own challenger, Brandon Royval, getting the best of the prospect in a scramble-filled back-and-forth scrap before a dislocated shoulder ended Royval's night early, likely saving him from suffering more damage from the top contender.


With both men making quick work of their opposition and coming out unscathed, the UFC opted to right their previous wrong by offering the two fighters a pay-per-view headlining gig just three weeks later opposite one another.


Both men happily agreed and in the process Figueiredo would set a new record for the fastest turnaround time between title defenses (just 21 days) for a UFC champion.


With the momentum from their last fights and the unique situation in which the fight was put together, the flyweight title bout had a surprising amount of hype considering it wasn't long ago that the division was nearly scrapped from the UFC entirely.


The highly anticipated fight ended up delivering even more than anyone could have asked for.


Figueiredo and Moreno ended up going to war for the full 25-minutes, biting down on their mouthpieces and trading bombs in arguably the greatest title fight in the division's history.


After looking sensational early, Deiveson began to fade in the middle chapters of the fight and began to foul his opponent "accidentally", proving the old adage "if you aren't cheating, you aren't trying", poking Moreno in the eyes and then landing a brutal kick to Moreno's cup in the third round. Referee Jason Herzog regained control of the fight by taking a point from the champion after the crippling low blow before action resumed, and a notably less-dirty Deus Da Guerra went back to work, seemingly finding a second wind for the championship rounds.


The back-and-forth war culminated in a rare majority-draw, the point deduction Figueiredo received in round three proving more costly than Deiveson expected. Without the deduction, it was Figueiredo's power and pressure that ultimately saw him pick up more rounds on the cards and would have sent him home with a win. Despite what would normally be an unsatisfying result, the MMA world was delighted; at the end of such a great fight there really were no losers and the draw all but ensured an instant rematch between the two warriors.


What made the performance even more impressive was the fact that Figueiredo was hospitalized the night before the fight - despite being ill, Figueiredo managed to take part in one of the best title fights you'll ever see and defended his title twice over the span of just three weeks.


Runner Up: Kevin Holland (5-0, 4 knockouts)


A solid prospect with clear talent and a knack for rather hilarious banter in the middle of his fights, Holland became a frustrating man to watch over the course of 2019.


Despite his apparent skill and abilities, he appeared to be lacking mightily in the fight IQ department (something noted in last year's awards) which made his fights into boring slogs.


Rather than use his clear striking advantages, Holland seemed happy to engage Gerald Meerschaert on the mat and likewise played the same game with Alessio Di Chirico, displaying no sense of urgency even after very close rounds in two tepid affairs which he squeaked out victories in. To make matters even worse, Holland complained about his opponents always wanting to "just hug him", seemingly ignoring the fact that he had shown no sense of urgency to get out of the grappling positions and regularly put himself into them.


Against Brendan Allen, this poor decision making saw him submitted in the second round in another frustrating performance; though he went a solid 2-1 overall in 2019, he was thoroughly unimpressive - fast forward to May 2020 and an entirely new Kevin Holland showed up to play.


Determined to get past a handful of uninspiring performances, Holland charged out of the gates in Jacksonville, Florida to absolutely demolish poor Anthony Hernandez in just 39 seconds.


After an injury forced him out of a planned return later that same month, Holland looked to come back in August only for his opponent Trevin Giles to pass out on his way to the cage - returning a week later against UFC newcomer Joaquin Buckley, who himself had just knocked out an opponent one week earlier in the LFA, Holland picked apart the aggressive challenger who would make himself a viral star in his very next outing.


On that night however, Holland proved too much for the debuting Buckley, a sharp 1-2 planting Buckley on the canvas early in the third round.


An exciting back-and-forth scrap against "The Dentist" ensued, with Holland's volume and creative striking giving him the edge on the judges' scorecards after fifteen minutes of action.


Stepping in as an injury replacement on Halloween night, a positive COVID test took his original opponent off the table and instead saw Holland face another UFC debutant, Charlie Ontiveros. Kevin made short work of his foe, a slam midway through the opening round injuring Ontiveros' shoulder and earning him a TKO victory.


His impressive 2020 winning streak and an injury granted Holland an opportunity to take a big step up in competition as he was slated to face top 5 middleweight Jack Hermansson in December, only for Holland to test positive for COVID himself. After passing tests following his removal, Holland competed just one week after originally scheduled, this time against Jacare Souza, a legend in the sport and elite talent that was a similar step up in competition for the young prospect.


Bettors were evenly split on the outcome, with many believing Souza would be too much for Holland at this stage in his career, while others believed Holland could outpoint the slower Jacare on the feet to earn himself the victory. No one expected what came at UFC 256 however.


Jacare managed to take Holland down early, a sure sign that "Trail Blazer" was in for a rough night, yet Holland showed an impressive ability to keep Jacare at bay on the floor, the typically smothering Brazilian BJJ ace unable to pin Kevin to the canvas. After creating space between him and his attacker (talking to him the whole time as well, because that's totally normal when a man like Jacare is trying to maul you), Holland whipped his leg around to generate momentum as he sat up and punched a seated Souza across the temple.


Shockingly, the strike from his back stunned the iron-jawed Brazilian, who was then knocked unconscious by a second strike while on his knees and attempted to stand up as Holland got to his own feet. Subsequent strikes simply made the stunning knockout even more brutal as the unconscious legend crumpled backward over his own legs against the cage.


The unbelievable knockout solidifed Holland as a legitimate contender capable of knocking out anyone in the division and capped off a historic run in 2020, made all the more impressive by his drastic improvements over the previous year. Here's hoping the Kevin Holland of 2020 is here to stay.


Honourable Mentions: Jan Blachowicz (2-0, 2 knockouts), Gilbert Burns (2-0, 1 knockout)


Female Fighter of the Year

Cris Cyborg (2-0, 1 knockout 1 submission)


After a whirlwind of a 2019 for the longtime women's great that saw her rebound from her first loss in over 13 years and subsequently see herself ousted from the UFC after an aggressive campaign for a rematch and tiffs with UFC president Dana White, Cyborg found a new home in 2020.


Making her debut in Bellator to start the year, Cyborg faced their featherweight champion Julia Budd, long considered the top featherweight on the planet outside of Amanda Nunes and Cyborg herself.


Despite the stiff competition, Cyborg absolutely demolished her victim, picking her apart at range, mauling her in the clinch and generally turning the fight into a one-sided drubbing that served to highlight just how big a gap Cyborg and Nunes have over the rest of the field. Budd's incredible heart and toughness shone through, but eventually the sustained beatdown proved too much to handle as Cyborg unleashed a furious onslaught in the fourth round that even a prime Wanderlei Silva would be impressed by.


Cyborg captured yet another title and the victory earned her a spot in the record books as the first MMA fighter to win championship belts in four major MMA promotions (Strikeforce, Invicta, UFC, and Bellator) - she also has defended those titles multiple times for all three prior promotions and once thus far for Bellator.


With Bellator taking much of the year off due to the pandemic hysteria before following in the UFC's footsteps and returning to action, Cyborg's afforementioned first defense came in October against the much less highly touted Arlene Blencowe, who sported a rather unimpressive-seeming 13-7 record (and was 4-4 in boxing) but had won six of her last seven and her only loss was a split decision to former champ Julia Budd - in fact, in her last six years of competition, Blencowe was 11-3 with her only losses coming via two razor-thin decisions against Budd, and an armbar loss to WMMA pioneer Marloes Coenen.


Unfortunately for Arlene, Cyborg is an entirely different beast and she soon found out the hard way. Cris battered her prey, dominating her on the feet, in the clinch, and on the ground, smashing her on the canvas in the second before Blencowe gave up her back to try and escape Cyborg's vicious ground and pound. From there, Cyborg took her neck and secured the first submission victory of her 15-year career, once again cementing her status as the scariest fighter in female combat sports history.


Runner Up: Valentina Shevchenko (2-0, 1 knockout)


Flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko was just narrowly passed over for this year's award - like Cyborg, Shevchenko dominated both of her fights in 2020 and left fans puzzled as to who could really challenge them outside of one Amanda Nunes.


Her first challenger in February had many fans believing Valentina may be in for a close fight destined for the score cards as Katlyn Chookagian presented herself as a well-rounded fighter that proved very difficult to hit - Shevchenko shattered those delusions from the opening bell at UFC 247, easily blasting Chookagian at will and dominating her both on the feet and on the canvas.


Taking Chookagian down after an odd exchange early in the third, Shevchenko proceeded to trap her victim in a mounted crucifix, raining down punches and elbows on her hapless foe until the referee was forced to stop the unanswered beating.


After an injury prevented a return in the summer against Joanne Calderwood, Calderwood made the mistake of taking a short notice fight against former Invicta flyweight champion Jennifer Maia - Calderwood's title hopes were subsequently dashed courtesy of a first round armbar in an upset, though not an overly surprising one for fans who had followed both of their careers.


Shevchenko returned most recently in November to take on Maia, whose strength and technical prowess made her a much more compelling match-up for the dominant champion than Calderwood ever did.


Shevchenko had a clear edge in speed and put it to good use early, but Maia's strength in the clinch and on the canvas began to pay dividends in round two, where Maia was able to ground the champ and spend much of the round on top. While Maia was unable to do much of significance on top, her control secured her the round and with it the commentary began to sow the seeds of a monumental upset.


Unfortunately for that narrative, Shevchenko avoided the bottom from then on, returning to her dominant ways and picking apart the Chute Boxe standout on the feet and securing takedowns of her own, earning herself a lopsided decision victory and proving once more that she is head and shoulders above her competition.


Honourable Mentions: Weili Zhang (1-0), Mackenzie Dern (3-0, 2 submissions), Lauren Murphy (3-0, 1 submission), Amanda Ribas (2-0, 1 submission)


Fight of the Year

Weili Zhang vs. Joanna Jędrzejczyk, UFC 248


Now this was truly a toss-up and one can argue until they're blue in the face that either this or the runner-up deserve Fight of the Year honours - fortunately for those debating, there is no wrong answer.


Though many have seemingly forgotten about this strawweight war for the ages given that it happened back in March and was followed by the dreadful let down that was Adesanya vs. Romero, Weili Zhang and Joanna Jędrzejczyk put on a back-and-forth technical brawl that had the entire crowd on its feet throughout the 25-minute scrap (back when there were crowds - it feels like another era entirely).


Rather than give a detailed blow-by-blow breakdown, it's best to simply watch the fight yourself and bask in its greatness. The two combined to land over 300 significant strikes on each other, both women battered and bloody with Joanna's forehead famously swelling to comical proportions as the rounds wore on.


Zhang appeared to have an advantage in power while Joanna had volume and diversity on her side, with fans split on who they felt won the epic war. At the end of five incredible rounds, the judges gave the split decision victory to Zhang, and while a sizable chunk of fans disagreed with the decision, it was such a close fight it truly could have gone either way.


With a few weeks off from live UFC action, now is as good a time as any to relive this instant classic on Fight Pass.


Runner Up: Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno, UFC 256


Deciding the Fight of the Year was truly one of the toughest decisions for this year's awards, and Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno sure didn't make it easy.


The two flyweights turned around after dominant performances at UFC 255 to fight each other just 21 days later, and boy are fans happy that they did.


Their main event scrap was filled with wild exchanges and winging bombs, both men getting their shots in and showing their toughness and durability to the world. Figueiredo's power and pressure ultimately gave him the edge, but Moreno's never-back-down attitude and incredible toughness forced the "God of War" to bite down on his mouthpiece and even reach into a veteran's dirty bag of tricks, scoring eye pokes and a nasty cup check that forced referee Jason Herzog to take a point away from the champion when he was seemingly slowing down in the third round.


That point would ultimately prove costly to the Brazilian as it turned what would have been a unanimous decision victory into a draw, but with how incredible the fight was fans simply didn't care - neither man deserved a loss on their ledger after such a performance, and practically forcing an instant rematch was simply icing on the cake for the masses.


What ultimately prevented this brilliant flyweight title fight from topping its 2020 counterparts was a slower fifth round - granted Moreno injured his shoulder early on in the round and the two had just put on an absolute show for the twenty prior minutes, Weili and Joanna's pace never relented over the course of 25-minutes and thus took home the top spot.


Here's to hoping the two men heal up quickly and can deliver a similarly epic rematch at some point in 2021.


Honourable Mentions: Dustin Poirier vs. Dan Hooker (UFC on ESPN 12), Josh Emmett vs. Shane Burgos (UFC on ESPN 11), Dan Hooker vs. Paul Felder (UFC on ESPN+ 26), Song Yadong vs. Marlon Vera (UFC on ESPN 8)


Round of the Year

Deiveson Figueiredo vs Brandon Moreno (Round Four)


It may not have gotten the nod for fight of the year, but the fourth round between Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno undoubtedly deserves to be recognized as the best round of action in 2020.


After having lost a point in the third round due to fouls, Figueiredo knew he had to come out swinging in the fourth and Deus Da Guerra did just that, plowing forward with his signature brand of sharpshooting and bomb slinging. Never one to back down, Moreno bit down on his mouthpiece and gave the champion everything he could handle in return, winging bombs in wild exchanges and somehow managing to stay on his feet despite eating massive shots that would have felled virtually any other flyweight on the planet.


If you could only watch five minutes of fighting for the entire year, make it the fourth round of UFC 256's main event; you won't be disappointed.


Runner-Up: Brandon Royval vs Kai Kara-France (Round One)


You want to talk about an insane barnburner filled with near constant momentum shifts, look no further than Brandon Royval's scrap with Kai Kara-France at UFC 253.


Knockdowns, wild exchanges, spinning shit, you name it, this fight had it in its 5:48 minute runtime, with the first round delivering some of the most intense action of 2020. The only disappointing part of this fight was that it didn't last longer.


Honourable Mentions: Dustin Poirier vs. Dan Hooker (Round Two), Weili Zhang vs. Joanna Jędrzejczyk (Round Four and Round Five), Sasha Palatnikov vs. Louis Cosce (Round One)


Knockout of the Year

Joaquin Buckley's spinning back kick over Impa Kasanganay


In a year filled with ridiculous knockouts, one stands above the rest as the best of 2020 and possibly the best in UFC history.


The fight between Joaquin Buckley and Impa Kasanganay was a highly anticipated scrap between two talented prospects that showed a lot of promise - Buckley had impressed with his aggressive style and power despite being knocked out in his short notice UFC debut against Kevin Holland, while Impa showed incredible promise and a well-rounded skill set over his two appearances on Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series and in his UFC debut that ran up his record to a sterling 8-0.


Buckley had seemingly picked up the competitive first round thanks to his raw power and aggression, rocking his undefeated foe on multiple occasions, but Impa continued firing back and made it clear this was going to be a war.


In the second round however, he made a normally innocuous decision to catch Buckley's leg after blocking an attempted head kick.


Impa used his crossing arm to move Buckley's kicking leg across himself and off to the side, as is good practice in Muay Thai, and even kept his shielding arm up to brace himself for a follow-up strike. In spite of his demonstration of perfect technique, he found his head clanging off the Octagon floorboards a moment later regardless.


With his caught leg up in the air, Buckley used it as an opportunity to launch himself off his other leg into a picture-perfect spinning heel kick, the ball of his foot flying inside of Impa's guarding arm and slamming right into his face.


Kasanganay's lights were shut off immediately and the collective MMA world leapt out of their seats in shock and awe as Impa's lifeless body came tumbling down onto the canvas.


The devastating kick was executed so impeccably and it came from out of nowhere - the fact that Buckley was able to pull off such a technique while his leg was caught, and that he landed it so beautifully despite his opponent showing virtually flawless technique himself, just made the knockout even more incredible.


The finish unsurprisingly went viral and it truly deserves a spot amongst the greatest knockouts in the history of the sport, let alone of this past year.


Runner Up: Cody Garbrandt's buzzer beater over Raphael Assuncao


Cody Garbrandt's back was truly up against the wall when he returned to the Octagon in 2020 - over the past three years, his stunning undefeated run and capture of the bantamweight title had been eclipsed by three straight knockout losses, two coming at the hands of since-disgraced cheat TJ Dillashaw and a third coming to Pedro Munhoz.


Though his pure talent and skill remained undeniable, his tendency to simply stand and wing right hands in the pocket and throw his impressive defense out the window had gotten him knocked out in nearly identical fashion repeatedly and had many questioning whether he would ever make it back to the top of the division.


Returning to face longtime contender Raphael Assuncao, Garbrandt showed a more patient version of himself that reminded fans of the way he had risen up the ranks, his speed once again impressing in a close and tactical opening round against a fellow elite striker.


Right at the very end of the first round however, Assuncao backed Garbrandt to the fence and looked to capitalize on his opportunity as the round drew to a close. Garbrandt ducked heavily to waist height, inspiring Assuncao to load up on a right hand aimed at Cody's lowered head. Instead, Garbrandt whipped back up and threw everything into a right hand of his own, catching Assuncao clean across the jaw as his own right hand hit nothing but air.


Assuncao was instantly out cold and crumpled to the canvas as the horn sounded to end the round, the sound of the impact sickeningly loud in the empty arena just a moment before horn signalled the end of the round - and of the fight.


Garbrandt's buzzer-beating knockout was easily one of the most beautiful knockouts in recent memory and if it wasn't for a certain matrix-like spinning kick, his triumphant comeback would have earned him KO of the Year honours.


Honourable Mentions: Kevin Holland's logic defying KO of Jacare Souza, Francis Ngannou's terrifying murder of Jairzinho Rozenstruik, Sean O'Malley's beautiful right hand over Eddie Wineland, Jan Blachowicz's demonstration of Polish power against Corey Anderson, Beneil Dariush's epic comeback KO over Drakkar Klose, Calvin Kattar's cracking elbow against Jeremy Stephens, Khamzat Chimaev's quick execution of Gerald Meerschaert


Submission of the Year