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
Ariane Lipski's kneebar finish of Luana Carolina
Creativity goes a long way in earning one of the finishing awards in any given year, and there was no shortage of that when it comes to this year's submission candidates.
None however were as brutal and terrifyingly quick as the submission scored by the aptly nicknamed "Queen of Violence".
As Carolina had Lipski's leg entangled in an attempt to lock up a similarly painful calf slicer, her own right leg was trapped and unable to defend her other leg from Lipski's dastardly plans.
Seeing the opportunity for violence, Lipski reefed on Carolina's helpless leg, quickly hyperextending it and tearing ligaments in her poor victim's knee before she even had a chance to tap out.
The unique kneebar finish was as sudden as it was excruciating to watch and will have fighters thinking twice about where they put their legs when attempting a calf slicer on their opponents for years to come.
Runner-Up: A.J. McKee's neck crank finish of Darrion Caldwell
Bellator CEO Scott Coker's PRIDE-style slow-burn approach to building stars is a hotly debated topic amongst hardcore MMA fans - his tendency to build up prospects by handing them softball opponents in order for them to score impressive finishes can sometimes hinder a fighter's career, slowing their progress as they aren't forced to improve against top competition (see Michael Venom Page for instance).
At other times however, it allows a young prospect the chance to truly come into their own in the gym without suffering damage until they are truly ready to compete at the highest level and shine - enter A.J. McKee.
The undefeated 25-year-old sat at an impressive 16-0 entering his lone bout of 2020, having finally faced some stiffer competition in the earlier rounds of Bellator's featherweight Grand Prix and passed his tests with flying colours.
For his semi-final match-up in November, he faced arguably his toughest test to date in the form of NCAA Division I wrestling champion and former Bellator bantamweight champ Darrion Caldwell.
Despite his opponent's extensive grappling pedigree, it took McKee just 71-seconds to tap out the decorated wrestler with an extremely painful-looking neck crank never seen before inside a cage.
Locking up the unique submission from inside his own guard, McKee trapped Caldwell in what looks kind of like a cross between a guillotine and a crucifix, cranking McKee's neck until he had no choice but to tap out.
It was yet another impressive showing from the budding star and if McKee isn't on your list of fighters to watch in 2021, you haven't been paying enough attention.
Honourable Mentions: Khabib Nurmagomedov's slick triangle over Justin Gaethje, Deiveson Figueiredo's brutal RNC over Joseph Benavidez, Jim Miller's quick armbar on Roosevelt Roberts, Jennifer Maia's upset armbar on Joanne Calderwood, Germaine de Randamie's surprise high-elbow guillotine of Julianna Pena, Charles Oliveira's guillotine from half guard on Kevin Lee
Comeback of the Year
Beneil Dariush's stunning round two knockout over Drakkar Klose
Drakkar Klose was having his way with fan favourite Beneil Dariush at UFC 248, landing heavy leg kicks throughout the first round and generally beating Benny to the punch at every turn.
At the beginning of round two, the leg kicks appeared to be taking their toll on Dariush who was then put on wobbly legs by a massive right hand. Klose chased his prey all the way to the Octagon fence, hammering him with heavy shots the entire way. It looked as if Dariush was well on his way to a knockout loss, but if you've seen a Beneil Dariush fight, you know that the man loves to brawl.
In the midst of the onslaught, Dariush managed to regain his composure and began to land bombs of his own, rocking Klose and turning the tables on his former oppressor, chasing him all the way to the other side of the cage before uncorking a devastating overhand left that put Drakkar on ice.
The incredible sequence had the fans in the arena and watching at home on their feet, an unbelievable and wild thirty seconds showing just how unpredictable mixed martial arts can be even when it seems the fight is all but finished.
Runner-Up: Trevin Jones' upset knockout over Timur Valiev
Trevin Jones was not supposed to beat Timur Valiev.
Valiev was a 16-2 Dagestani prospect who didn't have an unavenged loss since his MMA debut in 2010. The powerful Russian was expected to make light work of Trevin Jones in his UFC debut, particularly given that Jones took the fight on just two days' notice after Valiev's original opponent tested positive for COVID-19.
The first round went as fans and bookies expected, with Valiev dominating his short notice opponent, dropping Jones and generally looking like the superior fighter. But Jones refused to take the hint and despite a rather brutal first round, he managed to survive and land some of his own shots in the second.
Less than halfway through the middle stanza, a beautiful lead right hook caught Valiev on one leg as he was throwing a leg kick; nasty ground and pound followed and sealed the deal on Jones' stunning comeback, derailing Valiev's hype train in emphatic fashion and earning Jones one of the biggest upsets and biggest comebacks of 2020.
Unfortunately for Jones, a positive marijuana (yes, marijuana) test resulted in the incompetent Nevada Athletic Commission overturning his epic comeback into a No Contest, but as much as they like to abuse what little power they have, they can't take Jones' epic win away from the minds of the fans.
Honourable Mentions: Alistair Overeem's comeback over Walt Harris, Maurice Greene's odd submission over heavyweight Gian Villante, Ed Herman's controversial post-"nut shot" kimura over Mike Rodriguez, Damon Jackson's submission over Mirsad Bektic, Sasha Palatnikov's gritty brawling comeback over Louis Cosce, Cub Swanson's beautiful KO over Daniel Pineda, Chase Hooper's heel hook on Peter Barrett
Breakout Fighter of the Year
Kevin Holland (5-0, 4 knockouts)
2020 was truly Kevin Holland's year - the brash prospect went from a man who appeared to be his own worst enemy in the cage to a bonafide contender and rising star that joined Roger Huerta and Neil Magny as the only fighters in modern UFC history to go 5-0 during a calendar year, and he accomplished that feat in just 7 months.
Not only did he sharpen up his technique, but instead of making peculiar strategic blunders as he was known for in the past, Holland fully utilized his skill set in each of his match-ups and still managed to deliver his trademark creativity in spades. That creative striking was on full display when Holland broke into the upper echelon of the middleweight division by knocking out legend Jacare Souza in under two minutes this past month from his own back, putting him in prime position for a potential run at the title in 2021.
After his stunning victory he even called out fellow breakout star Khamzat Chimaev to a fight the following week given Chimaev's original opponent falling off the card, though Chimaev ultimately didn't accept the challenge.
Runner-Up: Khamzat Chimaev (3-0, 2 knockouts 1 submission)
The undefeated Chechen prospect entered the UFC with a lot of hype back in July on Fight Island, sporting a 6-0 pro record with all of his wins coming via finish and a similarly sterling 3-0 record as an amateur.
The three time Swedish national champion in freestyle wrestling combined an impressive grappling base with Khabib-style ground and pound and an impressive striking arsenal - it was his mauling top game that he displayed in his UFC debut that had fans and commentators alike comparing him to Khabib Nurmagomedov however.
Despite normally being a welterweight, Chimaev took the short notice opportunity to absolutely smash John Phillips en route to a second round D'Arce choke submission.
Just ten days later Chimaev returned to welterweight to take on 10-2 Rhys McKee, mauling his overmatched prey once again and finishing him via ground and pound in the opening round, setting a UFC record in the process for the quickest turnaround in modern UFC history between wins.
His talent now abundantly clear, Chimaev earned a step up in competition in September in the form of Gerald Meerschaert, once again up at middleweight as he vowed to take on any comers in either weight class.
Chimaev knocked Meerschaert out cold with the first punch he threw, just 17 seconds into the fight.
The star-making performance saw the UFC fast-track Chimaev to a top ranked opponent in the form of Leon Edwards at welterweight, however positive COVID tests from both men continuously pushed back their meeting, which most recently was pushed back to January only for Chimaev to pull out for undisclosed reasons.
The UFC is seemingly intent on keeping the match-up despite the repeated cancellations, with many fans already souring on the Chechen due to the UFC's perceived favoritism of the budding star - time will tell if Chimaev can get back into fans' good graces and keep the hype train rolling in 2021.
Honourable Mention: Joaquin Buckley (3-1, 3 knockouts)
Technical Turnaround of the Year
If you've been reading this article, this category's winner really should be apparent by now.
Although he has certainly continued to evolve technically (particularly on the ground), the biggest difference Holland showed in 2020 compared to years past was his drastically improved fight IQ.
Holland managed to transform himself from an honourable mention in last year's awards for worst fights thanks to his horrendous decision making, to the winner of the Breakout Fighter of the Year and a close runner-up in the Fighter of the Year awards.
Such a drastic turnaround is quite rare in MMA and it has truly been a delight to see the new and improved Kevin Holland compete in 2020, going from what appeared to be a failed prospect to a bonafide contender in the span of a single year. Here's hoping that incredible momentum continues well into 2021.
Runner-Up: Jan Blachowicz
Jan Blachowicz has been known for quite some time as a solid if unassuming light heavyweight contender with a well-rounded skill set.
At one point in time he appeared to be just a step away from a pink slip from the UFC, losing four out of five fights between 2015 and 2017 by decision, with losses to Jimi Manuwa, Corey Anderson, Alex Gustafsson, and Pat Cummins.
Since that fateful loss to Cummins, Jan showed steady improvements to his game (particularly in his wrestling), winning four straight including two performance bonus-worthy submissions and an exciting Fight of the Night victory to avenge his prior loss to Jimi Manuwa.
The streak saw him matched up with the streaking former middleweight Thiago Santos early in 2019, whose normally hyper-aggressive style was eschewed in favour of a patient counter striking game that ultimately proved disastrous for Jan. Preferring to counter himself, Blachowicz would often simply blitz his opponents when he was forced to lead, and when he found himself losing patience with the more reserved Santos who continued to chop away at his legs from range, his title hopes were quickly dashed by a nasty counter from "Marreta".
Jan rebounded by spoiling Luke Rockhold's move up to light heavyweight, stuffing the former champion's takedowns until the bloated middleweight gassed himself out and was summarily dispatched in the second stanza.
Jan's next outing to close out his 2019 was a rather dismal decision win over Jacare Souza (another middleweight trying a move up to 205), a 25-minute tiresome affair that can best be summed up as a competitive staring contest.
In 2020 however, a new beast emerged.
With a renewed focus on his heavy hands, Blachowicz showcased his Polish power by starching Corey Anderson in just three minutes with a massive right hand, beautifully countering a low kick to avenge a decision loss in 2015.
The victory earned Jan a shot at the vacant light heavyweight crown left behind by Jon Jones thanks to his planned move to heavyweight, opposite the man the MMA community felt rightfully earned the title at UFC 247 - Dominick Reyes.
Reyes had outboxed Bones and built up what fans believed to be a sizable lead before Jones mounted a comeback in the championship rounds, ultimately losing his title bid in a hotly debated decision. Rather than granting Reyes the rematch fans demanded, Jones opted to vacate his title, paving the way for the Polish contender to get a crack at UFC gold after six years with the company.
As the uncrowned people's champion Reyes was a sizeable favourite against Jan, his speed and accuracy perceived to be a major problem against the slower Blachowicz. In practice however, Jan's power and pressure more than made up for any speed advantage Reyes had.
Rather than recklessly charging at his evasive opponent, Jan applied pressure beautifully, utilizing thudding body kicks that quickly left nasty welts on Reyes' rib cage and catching his mobile target repeatedly. Jan's defense was also rather impressive when Reyes went on the offensive, allowing him to avoid much of Dominick's attacks and ultimately opening up opportunities for his now legendary Polish power to shine.
Late in the second round as Reyes body showed more and more damage, Dominick made the crucial mistake of standing and trading with the heavy handed Jan who cracked him with a counter left that put him on skates - follow up shots sealed the deal and just like that, Jan Blachowicz, the man who was once just 2-4 in the UFC and had lost to Patrick Cummins, now had UFC gold wrapped around his waist.
Upset of the Year
Roxanne Modafferi's win over Maycee Barber
Maycee Barber was one of the breakout fighters of 2019, an undefeated 21-year-old wrecking machine that had parlayed an impressive showing on Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series into three straight knockouts in the UFC.
Barber had convinced many fans that she had a genuine shot at beating Jon Jones' record for the youngest champion in UFC history; her fight against resurgent veteran Roxanne Modafferi was simply another step in her path to glory.
Unfortunately for Barber, Modafferi didn't get the memo.
A close first round soon turned into a disaster for Barber, who seemed to be having issues with Modafferi's extensive grappling background - to start the second round, a jab sent Barber reeling to the canvas and stunned fans and bettors alike.
Barber suffered a torn ACL early, rendering her completely unable to do much of anything on the feet and left her a sitting duck on the canvas for Modafferi to rain down elbows and batter the prospect from pillar to post, leaving the surging prospect in a pool of her own blood and shattering her undefeated record in the process.
The doctor stepping into the cage between the second and third round to tell her she had a torn ACL after merely feeling her knee (and making it clear to her opponent that she was injured) didn't help matters, and her corner's unwillingness to throw in the towel certainly didn't save Barber from taking heaps of unnecessary punishment in the third round.
Barber didn't exactly help matters with her actions after the fight, taking away from Roxanne's victory and denigrating a highly respected MMA veteran in the process with her assertions that she'd have easily won if not for the injury. The salt however simply made Roxanne's upset victory even more satisfying in hindsight.
Runner-Up: Shana Dobson's TKO of Mariya Agapova
The biggest upset of the year in terms of betting odds (and in UFC history according to some sports books) came when the 3-4 Shana Dobson came back to defeat the budding Kazakhstani star Mariya Agapova in August.
After turning in a solid scrap with Tracy Cortez on Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series in 2019 that ended up handing her the first loss of her career, Agapova quickly racked up two first round finishes in Invicta to earn herself a spot on the UFC roster in 2020.
Taking on Hannah Cifers in her debut, Agapova impressed with her wanton aggression and overwhelming style, crushing Cifers on the feet before submitting her just midway through the opening round. Her extremely aggressive fighting style and outspoken personality had many stating that the 9-1 prospect was set to become a star for the promotion, and just two months later she was given a seeming softball in the form of Shana Dobson.
With a record of just 3-4 and having lost three straight fights in the UFC (including a 40-second knockout loss to Priscila Cachoeira, who was the runner-up for the worst UFC fighter of the year award in 2019, Dobson's prospects weren't exactly good for pulling off a win.
Some bettors however were questioning why the odds were so staggeringly high however - while Agapova had certainly shown skill and an exciting style, her reckless aggression seemed destined to result in exhaustion should she face someone who could survive her early onslaught. And survive Dobson did.
While Agapova started strong as was expected, Dobson weathered the early storm and sure enough, Agapova's over-aggression began coming back to bite her in the ass. By the end of the first round, Agapova was already absolutely exhausted having expended the energy of a full day of fighting in just five minutes.
Dobson, to her credit, not only was able to survive the early storm but was then able to fully capitalize on her opponent's exhaustion, taking her down and pounding on her until the ref had seen enough. And just like that, another hype train went careening off a cliff.
Event of the Year
UFC 256, December 12
This award was really a two-horse race and either of the two events could easily have taken it, but it's hard not to give the top honour to a card that featured one of the greatest fights of the year in its top slot.
From top to bottom UFC 256 was filled with action and exciting finishes. Chase Hooper's striking was once again exposed for two rounds before the young grappling ace scored a heel hook for the comeback win; Tecia Torres showed why she is nicknamed "The Tiny Tornado" against a late notice replacement; Gavin Tucker and Billy Quarantillo went to war in a three round back-and-forth scrap; Rafael Fiziev scored a gorgeous knockout over Renato Moicano; Cub Swanson scored one for the vets with a stunning second round knockout over Daniel Pineda.
And that was all on the prelims.
The main card started off with French heavyweight prospect Ciryl Gane blowing past former champ Junior Dos Santos, who complained of an illegal blow putting him down despite the fact he had turned his own head away from the elbow.
Next up was Kevin Holland's absolutely insane knockout of Jacare Souza.
A solid scrap between Mackenzie Dern and Virna Jandiroba ensued before Tony Ferguson stepped into the cage opposite Charles Oliveira in a highly anticipated lightweight showdown. The first round saw Oliveira's superb striking put Ferguson on his heels before the Brazilian took down the former collegiate wrestler at will and proceeded to dominate him on the mat, culminating in a locked-in armbar to end the opening stanza that hyper-extended Ferguson's arm yet saw "El Cucuy" not only refuse to tap, but continue to fight on for two more rounds.
Unfortunately the fight slowed after the opening round's excitement and saw Oliveira simply dominate Ferguson on the canvas, cementing his status as a top contender in the stacked lightweight division. Fortunately, the main event more than made up for the lull in action by delivering a five-round war for the ages that is rightfully at the top of the Fight of the Year debate, with Deiveson Figueiredo retaining his flyweight title via a draw.
The last pay-per-view of the year ended the UFC's stellar 2020 on a high note and the fact the stellar main event was put together on just three weeks' notice makes it even more impressive.
Runner Up: UFC 249, May 9
The first event following the "pandemic" shutdown in March, UFC 249 featured a supremely stacked card as the UFC ventured to Jacksonville Florida to restart major sports around the world.
Highlights of the prelims included a dominant grappling showcase from "Thugnasty" Bryce Mitchell over Charles Rosa, a thrilling rematch between fan favourite sluggers Vicente Luque and Niko Price that ended with yet another Luque knockout, a surprisingly fun heavyweight scrap between Aleksei Oleinik and Fabricio Werdum, and a fun back-and-forth striking battle between Anthony Pettis and Cowboy Cerrone.
The main card may have started off with a bit of a dud between Greg Hardy and Yorgan de Castro, but it quickly picked up as Calvin Kattar and Jeremy Stephens traded bombs until one man fell (that man being Stephens courtesy of a nasty elbow).
Francis Ngannou proceeded to terrify audiences the world over as he simply charged and murdered Jairzinho Rozenstruik in a mere 20 seconds, Rozenstruik only realizing the fatal mistake calling out a man like Ngannou was after having a doctor's flashlight shone into his eyes.
Henry Cejudo then impressed many by not only managing to score points against bantamweight legend Dominick Cruz, but by knocking him out (albeit via a controversial stoppage) at the end of the second round courtesy of a vicious knee at the end of the second round. He then shocked the MMA world by announcing his retirement from the sport at just 33 years old.
To cap off the massive event, Justin Gaethje beat the hell out of "El Cucuy", repeatedly skewering Tony Ferguson with massive punches, chopping away at his legs and eventually scoring a fifth round TKO thanks to the ridiculous amount of damage Ferguson had sustained over the course of the fight (despite the monumental beating, Ferguson was never knocked down).
It was the perfect way to return sports to the world and propel the UFC into the limelight during the crazy year that was 2020.
And now we move on to the awards that no one wants to win, the dreaded "worst of" categories...