As 2019 fast approaches its end, who are the fighters who have shone the boldest and the brightest in another busy year of MMA?
I think it’s safe to say that 2019 has been an interesting one for the sport of mixed martial arts.
In a brief and tertiary glance-over of the year, so we can really get into the good bit; titles changed hands in stunning fashion, others stayed where they were. We saw the suspension of TJ Dillashaw, once considered one of the greatest Bantamweight champions of all time, now a disgraced example of ‘the perilous downward spiralling helix of synthetic performance enhancement’ or whatever it was that his coach, Sam Calavitta was trying to say in his statement on the matter.
Ben Askren debuted post One Championship swap with Mighty Mouse, landing himself a controversial win, the UFC went to Abu Dhabi and under the glistening lights of Madison Square Garden, we crowned ourselves a BMF. On top of all of that, we saw some highlight reel knockouts (in recent memory James Vick and Gregor Gillespie as some proper hard-to-watch KO’s).
Most importantly, however, we saw some truly amazing fights and watched with burning intensity and bated breath as these elite-level athletes duked it out amongst themselves to see who’s the best of the best in their respective divisions.
With that being said, let’s talk potential fighter of the year nominees:
Weili Zhang: Number 6
I think it’s safe to say that it’s been a pretty good 2019 for Weili “Magnum” Zhang. Granted, she hasn’t had the busiest of years we’ve ever seen, but it certainly ended on one hell of a high note.
Zhang, born in Handan, China began her career in martial arts training both Sanda and Shuai Jiao, both of which being martial arts of her home country. Zhang would eventually transition over towards MMA after finding an interest and passion for BJJ.
Storming into 2019 with a decision win over Tecia Torres at UFC 235; the Chinese strawweight next went on to snatch the championship belt off of Jessica Andrade at Fight Night 135, on August 31st.
The Black Tiger Fight Club athlete stormed out of her corner and stood toe-to-toe with the Brazillian champion, landing some solid leg kicks. Andrade drove Zhang backwards towards the cage, but Magnum dropped the champion and landed some heavy knees to the body. Andrade now reeling across the cage and Zhang hot on her heels ends up netting herself the stoppage win with a final few sit-down strikes.
Not only did Zhang snatch the belt in such a frankly dominant fashion, but she also became the first-ever Chinese fighter to hold a belt in the UFC. Now, with a heated back and forth between Zhang and former champ Joanna Jedrzejcyzk getting ever hotter, it also seems as though the current queen of the strawweight division is going to have a just as busy 2020 inside the Octagon. Either way, a strong and groundbreaking year for Zhang and Chinese Mixed Martial Arts as a whole.
Kamaru Usman: Number 5
It has to be said, I quite like Kamaru Usman, I know it’s not an unpopular opinion, but still. Admittedly, he wasn’t particularly on my radar last year, until his win over RDA at the December 1st TUF 28 finale, but he certainly caught my eye throughout 2019. While Usman may be on the lower side of the list that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s been anywhere near to a bad year for “The Nigerian Nightmare”.
Born in Nigeria, to a veteran father, Usman moved to the United States when he was 8, but began to wrestle when he reached high school. Whilst training in high school, it was then that Kamaru was given the nickname “Marty”, as his coach struggled to pronounce his name correctly.
Usman snatched the Welterweight strap on March 2nd at UFC 235 from long-standing champion Tyron Woodley, in what one could politely call a one-sided 25 minute beat down, with the judge’s scorecards showing scores of 50-44, 50-44, and 50-45. Usman displayed incredible skill, pressure and an amazing gameplan.
Out of the cage, he showed us all a humble and respectful attitude post-fight, as well as netting himself the honour of being the first African fighter to hold a UFC belt to boot, bragging rights to be sure.
With his next fight being set for December 14th against the ever-charming and eloquent Colby Covington, it seems as though Usman’s toughest challenge is yet to come, and I for one, am excited to watch them scrap.
Amanda Nunes: Number 4
Amanda “The Lioness” Nunes, queen of the women’s Bantamweight and Featherweight divisions. Nunes had a stellar 2018, ending her year with a starching of Featherweight champion Cris Cyborg in just 0:51 seconds of the first round.
She grew up in a small town outside of Saõ Salvador, Brazil where she began her martial arts career in karate. Nunes transitioned over to BJJ, after being invited by her sister (who also trained).
Amanda Nunes made her professional debut in 2008, and it wouldn’t be long before she began transitioned to Strikeforce in 2011 off the back of a 5 fight win streak. Nunes would sign with Invicta FC in 2012 and then eventually with the UFC in 2013. There, she would restart her win streak, before in 2016, earning the UFC Women’s Bantamweight belt in 2016 at UFC 200, following a win over Miesha Tate.
Her victory over Cris Cyborg in December 2018, as mentioned, is what really began to secure Amanda Nunes as a very strong contender for the greatest women’s mixed martial artist of all time, after all, she had beaten all the other icons and pioneers; de Randamie, Tate, Shevchenko, Rousey and now Cyborg. The only opposition left standing between Nunes and her legacy was Holly “The Preacher’s Daughter” Holm.
The two were set to fight for the women’s bantamweight championship at UFC 239: Jones vs. Santos, slotted in as the co-main event. In front of a Las Vegas crowd the two touched gloves in the centre of the Octagon.
Beating Holly Holm UFC 239
Holm stepped out strong, fighting out of a southpaw stance and immediately began setting up oblique kicks. The champion struck out hard but was clipped on the chin. Before Holm can even think of pushing the attack, the champ charged forwards with a massive overhand punch and drove the challenger back.
Nunes next rocked Holm with a solid right hand to the jaw, and followed up with a body kick. Upon their next engagement, a hesitant Holm pulled back early and was dropped by a devastating kick to the head. Reeling backwards, post-shin to the dome, Amanda Nunes finished Holly Holm with some ground and pound punches.
And with that stunning knockout, The Lioness marked herself as a true legend. Having stormed into the UFC, knocking out icons, legends and stars- left, right and centre, Amanda Nunes has gone on to solidify herself as the greatest female fighter on the planet. I loved watching her then and I love watching her now. Out of everyone deserving of her place in the sport, is there truly anyone better than Nunes?
Henry Cejudo: Number 3
And from one double champ to another, we move onto Henry “The Messenger” Cejudo. Arriving in the top three at the same time, it’s time to talk about ‘Triple C’, ‘The King of Cringe’; whatever you want to call him by, there is absolutely no denying the absolute draw he has had in the world of MMA this year.
Born as one of seven children, and to parents, both of whom were illegal Mexican immigrants into the USA. Triple C grew up in a family that was constantly moving around the country and in fact, Cejudo never slept alone in a bed of his own until he participated in an Olympic residency program, prior to winning his gold medal in 2008.
Cejudo grabbed the Flyweight Championship belt from Demetrious Johnson in August last year, after a 5 round war between the two. Following the aftermath of what was considered to be one of the greatest upsets in recent memory in MMA, Cejudo confidently went straight into his next fight at Bantamweight instead.
Set to meet now-disgraced ex-champion TJ Dillashaw, the two prepared to set off the UFC’s new brand deal with ESPN+ on January 19th with a bang.
The date was set, the venue chosen, and the two stood ready to defend what was at their back. For TJ, his Bantamweight strap and a four-fight win streak, but for Cejudo, (amidst talks of the UFC disbanding the Flyweight division), he was defending the very livelihood of his fellow 125’ers. With a face/heel rivalry that almost seemed straight out of the WWE, we all gathered around for another champ v champ superfight.
Taking the UFC Bantamweight Title from TJ Dillashaw
Most of us had Dillashaw, the bigger fighter pinned to get the W here, I know I did. What I don’t think any of us were expecting, however, was for Henry Cejudo to absolutely flatten TJ in a little over 30 seconds.
After meeting in the centre of the Octagon, Dillashaw landed a pair of strong leg kicks to the inside and outside of Cejudo’s lead leg. Cejudo, setting up with a bit of hand fighting, threw a winging head kick, before shoving his advancing opponent to the mat.
Cejudo piling onto a stunned Dillashaw secured himself in back side position and connected with a brutal flurry of ground and pound strikes causing referee Kevin Macdonald, to the sound of a roaring crowd, to call the stoppage win in favour of The Messenger.
Cejudo’s next fight and first Bantamweight title defence came at UFC 238, and was in this humble writer’s personal opinion, like something straight out of a sports film.
The challenger of Henry Cejudo’s brand new title was Marlon “Magic” Moraes. Moraes came out strong in the first round, denying takedowns and landing absolutely wicked leg kicks and some solid shots to the body. Cejudo went back to his corner, battered but as we would see, far from out of the fight.
By the time of the second round, the fight began to level out, gradually. Moraes kept up the same pace of aggression as before. Cejudo, however, had begun to give Moraes as good as he got. He connected with some solid shots to the chin, as well as landing some The fight evened out, as a wobbly Moraes went back to his corner to prepare for the third.
Round 3 and Cejudo came out fast, Moraes now clearly struggling to contend with the pressure. Cejudo once again blasted Moraes with knee strikes, before driving him to the cage, at long last securing a takedown. Henry Cejudo, with all guts and determination, manages to earn the TKO victory at 4:51 of the third round.
I told you, it totally is like a sports film. Henry Cejudo, saviour of the Flyweight division, double champion and UFC sensation, what an outstanding year you have had.
Before we reach the finale of this list, it’s time to give a moment to those who didn’t quite make it. The fighters who just didn’t make the cut for one reason or another. Regardless, they’re all truly amazing fighters and I can’t wait to see what prospects a brand new decade will hold for them inside the Octagon. And with that, the honourable mentions:
Colby Covington, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Maycee Barber, Tony Ferguson, Justin Gaethje, Jessica Andrade, Dustin Porier, Stipe Miocic
Now then, onto the top two:
Jorge Masvidal: Number 2
Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal, following his return to the Octagon in 2019, after a year-long hiatus has taken the world of mixed martial arts by storm.
Gamebred’s difficult upbringing begins with his father, a Cuban immigrant who as a young boy emigrated to the Miami, FA on a makeshift raft. Masvidal’s father would go on to instil many of the strong survivalist virtues into his son that continues to shape him today. Masvidal’s father served a collective twenty years for drug trafficking and manslaughter.
For a young Jorge, growing up in the slums of Miami wasn’t easy. Around the age of 18, Masvidal would be involved in one of Kimbo Slice’s brutal backyard fights. There, he fought a brutal scrap with Kimbo’s protege Ray and won.
Sometime after, Masvidal began to veer into kickboxing, and then to MMA. First joining the Bellator rankings, Gamebred went on to join Strikeforce where he challenged then-champion Gilbert Melendez for the belt, resulting in a loss via unanimous decision.
Jorge Masvidal joined the UFC in 2013 and for the most part, had a relatively unremarkable beginning to his career in the promotion. That being said, he did net wins over Michael Chiesa, Pat Healy and Cezar Ferriera.
Masvidal began his 2017 with a second-round TKO of Cowboy Ceronne, earning himself a Performance of the Night bonus in the process. However that year, Gamebred stepped away on hiatus, following his 2 loss streak, first to Demian Maia at UFC 211, and then to Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson at UFC 217. Gamebred, in an interview with UFC news, back in October told us:
“That dude that fought that day…that guy is no longer with us. He’s resting in peace somewhere else. I buried that guy a long time ago.”
Taking on The Gorilla Darren Till
Masvidal’s return to the UFC came on March 16th at UFC on ESPN+ 5 in London, England. There he was set to fight one of the biggest stars of modern British mixed martial arts, Darren “The Gorilla” Till.
Early in the first, Masvidal landed an accidental low blow to his opponent. The two brushed it off, touched gloves and continued the match. Till however, hit back hard with a solid left hand that dropped Gamebred to the mat. Masvidal, as characteristically tough as ever scrambled back to his feet and would drill some hesitation back into Till landing a few solid shots of his own across the remainder of the round.
By the time the 5-minute buzzer sounded and the two returned to their stools, I reckon there were few in attendance who could’ve predicted what would happen next.
Masvidal would go on to strike back hard against Till, clearly planning to make him pay for not stopping him when he had the chance. Gamebred would land a solid left hook to the jaw of Till and send the Englishman crashing to the mat, stiff as a board. A once roaring and cheering O2 Arena now sat in stunned silence as referee Marc Goddard covered a now unconscious Till from further harm and waved off the fight.
Jorge Masvidal had just silenced a nation, and this was only the beginning of his night. Backstage, whilst giving a post-fight interview, co-main event winner Leon Edwards walked by Masvidal and the two ended up exchanging words.
Shortly after, the two ended up exchanging fists as well, giving rise to the now-famous “three-piece and a soda”.
UFC 238 Ben Askren Beat Down
But as fans worldwide had been growing more and more enamoured with Masvidal, another welterweight was also growing more and more popular in the sphere of the UFC. That person of course, being Ben “Funky” Askren; the trash-talking, curly-haired, dad-bod sporting wrestler, hot off the back of his swap from ONE Championship to the UFC.
Askren, having been ONE’s bargaining chip wherein he was exchanged for UFC flyweight great Demetrious Johnson. His first fight was against MMA legend “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler. Lawler and Askren met at UFC 235. The fight opened up with an absolutely visceral beginning that almost saw Lawler earn a TKO.
Askren, however, managed to lock his opponent in a bulldog choke and get the 1st round submission win, amid the immediate protests of Lawler who insisted that he, in fact, wasn’t unconscious to referee Herb Dean.
Jorge Masvidal, now hot off arguably his biggest win ever and Askren, coming off his first UFC victory were booked to meet on July 6 at UFC 239. And meet the two did, after some seriously intense verbal back and forth building up to the fight at the T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, NV.
The two had managed to draw up an insane amount of press coverage and were almost always at each other’s throats and ready to give it their all inside the Octagon, until, just 5 seconds into the match when Jorge Masvidal sent Askren crashing to the mat, out cold from a devastating flying knee.
Masvidal’s KO marked the fastest knockout in UFC history, snatching the long-held position from Duane Ludwig. I remember watching this live on TV myself and ended up missing the entire fight, as I had turned around to get my drink.
three-piece and a soda
Masvidal had just blown the roof off the arena. The commentators, the crowd and Gamebred himself had gone absolutely wild. He had just positioned himself as the hottest name in all of the UFC. Jorge himself seemed to agree, saying “I can’t get food, coffee anywhere—and I’m talking all over the world—without getting recognized. It’s crazy”.
Many fans were particularly enamoured with Masvidal’s attitude and demeanour towards the industry. Following his altercation with Leon Edwards, Masvidal said the following:
“And as I’m walking up to him, I’ve got my hands behind my back to signal I’m not coming here for problems. But he put his hands up like this and walks towards me. Where I’m from, if you do that, you’re gonna punch me in the face and that’s not gonna happen.”
It was clear from this, and Masvidal’s reaction to all of the trash talk between himself and Askren that he was clearly showing shades of the Diaz brothers, both of which are of course, famed for their no-nonsense, streetwise attitudes.
Amid a clamouring army of fans wanting to see Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz (fresh off a victory over Anthony Pettis) brawl it out in the middle of the Octagon, the fight was officially booked for November 2nd in Madison Square Garden. The UFC even went as far as to create a brand new belt for the two of them. The BMF belt and The Rock was going to be the one to hand over the belt to the victor.
Taking the UFC BMF Belt from Nate Diaz
It was clear from the offset that there was a clear level of respect between Diaz and Masvidal. The two seemingly saw a lot of themselves in one another’s upbringings and their general attitudes. When the two met in the Octagon, it was clear that they were both there for the same reason- to scrap.
Masvidal ended up dropping Diaz early in the first, where he followed with some solid ground and pound, cutting his opponent open. By the end of the first, it was clear that a bloody Nick Diaz was struggling to keep up with the pressure his opponent was throwing at him. Again in the second, Masvidal managed to drop Diaz with a heavy body kick.
Diaz forced his way back to his feet and fired back with some solid offence as Gamebred rattled more shots off the body. By the third, more of the same, as the two stood toe to toe and brawled; A bloodied but determined Diaz landing solid combinations and a hungry Masvidal teeing off on the body repeatedly.
However, by the end of the round, the ringside doctor had taken a strong interest in the cut on Diaz’s eyebrow. Diaz, determined to continue the fight, gave the doctor a thumbs up and stepped away from his corner, but amid protests the official called off the fight, granting Masvidal the win via doctor’s stoppage.
And that was that Jorge Masvidal was crowned the BMF, and with promises of a rematch to his opponent, Gamebred stepped out of the Octagon as a red hot as he was on the way in.
From a two-year hiatus to one of the biggest names in MMA today Jorge Masvidal has had an earth-shaking, record-breaking, title-holding 2019. And with talks of a fight against Nate’s brother Nick, it truly does seem right now that the sky’s the limit for Masvidal.
Israel Adesanya: Number 1
And now we arrive at my pick for Number 1 this year, the wild and incredible kickboxing sensation that is Israel “The Last Stylebender”.
Born in Nigeria, Adesanya began training Tae Kwon Do at a young age. It wasn’t however, until around the age of 18, now living in New Zealand that Adesanya truly found his feet with his passion for kickboxing. Having now sparked an interest in competitive martial arts, the young Stylebender began to chase an amateur career, soon after moving to China to compete.
Around 2009, Adesanya moved to Auckland and began training MMA at City Kickboxing (well known for having produced other star fighters such as UFC Lightweight Dan Hooker, and UFC Flyweight, Kai Kai France). Stylebender began his professional amateur career in 2012 under Supremacy Fighting Championship NZ and continued to fight through various smaller fight organisations.
Adesanya carried on strong, racking up a solid streak of KO/TKO wins as he did. In December of 2017, Israel Adesanya confirmed his signing with the UFC and would soon after a debut at UFC 221 in early 2018.
After scoring himself two strong decision wins over Marvin Vettori and Brad Tavares, Adesanya would go on to really land himself on everyone’s radar with his knockout win over Derek Brunson at UFC 230 in November 2018.
Brunson, a 3-time All-American wrestler would have all eight of his takedowns stuffed by Adesanya throughout the fight. Stylebender walked Derek Brunson down, attacking with flowing, surgical precision and scoring himself three knockdowns before ending the fight with a solid left hand right at the end of the First Round.
However, this would only be the beginning. Adesanya would come into 2019 red hot, but soon after would catch fire.
Anderson Silva Comparisons
Following UFC 230, many started to draw comparisons between Stylebender and a younger prime Anderson Silva. Both utilise a gameplan often focused around inventive and unorthodox kickboxing. Both The Spider and The Last Stylebender have a history of picking apart their opponents using strong framing and counterstriking; as well as strong, subtle kicks- including fake spins and step-ins.
On top of that, the utilisation of wickedly brutal elbows and knees as a tool to balance the distance between themselves and their opponent speaks volumes of their in-cage confidence as elite-level mixed martial artists.
In a passing-of-the-torch moment, Silva and Adesanya would meet in the co-main slot of UFC 234 in Melbourne, Australia. While the two were supposed to be the second-to-last fight of the night, they ended up being the main event following the incredibly minute medical suspension of then-Middleweight champion Robert Whittaker.
The two entered the Octagon with a strong amount of mutual respect between the two fighters. It was evident, that both fighters also acknowledged the similarities in their skills and styles.
Round one was dominated solidly by Adesanya, with the New Zealander landing solid leg kicks and strikes to the body, most head strikes, however, didn’t land on behalf of Silva’s skilful defence. Round two and Anderson fired back hard with his own patented counterpunching, then a rocked Adesanya would cause Silva to eat some hard punches of his own.
The two traded theatrical gestures and wild kicks into Round 3 until the buzzer sounded. There, the crowd roared and cheered in applause as referee Herb Dean raised the hand of The Last Stylebender.
Stylebender Post Fight Analysis
The two bowed in the centre, as it was clear that the torch had been passed from one to the other. Post-fight, Adesanya said this:
“The energy was cool, it was an honour to share the space with him, I can’t describe it. As a kid, as a fan, it was cool, just cool.”
With Adesanya having now set himself up as a top UFC middleweight contender with the likes of Whittaker and Yoel Romero. Stylebender would, post-fight call out Kelvin Gastelum. Soon after, the two were signed and ready for their interim title bout at UFC 236. The fight, set for 14th April would go on to solidly prove itself to be the current leading contender for Fight of the Year.
The two middleweight stars were both competing for a shot at Whittaker’s Middleweight championship belt. Both Adesanya and Gastelum would go on to give everything that they could possibly give, and then some in front of an ecstatic crowd at the State Farm Arena, Atlanta, GA.
Facing Kelvin Gastelum UFC 236
Early in the first, Gastelum would land a solid right hand that connected, leaving Stylebender on the back foot. By the second, Gastelum continued to apply pressure to his opponent but was reminded of the danger and the power of Stylebender following a strong counter right that caught the 28-year-old flush. Adesanya, now looking more confident began to land consistent shots, topping it all off with a crisp spinning elbow.
Kelvin Gastelum came into round three and four undeterred, standing and swinging with Stylebender. Neither, however, were sacrificing their accuracy as both teed off on one another. Adesanya was even able to defend against Gastelum’s well-praised wrestling, neutralising the striker v grappler dynamic that many expected to see prior to the bout. As determined and persistent as ever, a strong head kick would rock Stylebender with a minute to go in the fourth.
The fifth and final round saw a return to Kelvin Gastelum’s takedown attempts, resulting in an insane scramble. Adesanya would lock his opponent up in a triangle choke. Back on their feet and neither athlete showed any sign of quitting.
Adesanya managed to counter strongly, dropping his opponent Stylebender followed him to the ground, landing a solid elbow and firing off some heavy ground and pound shots. Kelvin Gastelum however, would survive to hear the final bell.
By the time the judge’s scorecards were announced it was Adesanya that had just pulled ahead, landing himself a solid 10-8 in the final round and putting himself another step forwards on the road to a title fight and the Middleweight championship belt.
Robert Whittaker UFC 243 Middleweight Championship
And that day would come at UFC 243, in Melbourne, Australia. UFC 243 would also be the event that would shatter the previous UFC attendance rate, with a record 57,127 people in attendance to watch Whittaker v Adesanya.
The champion, then on a solid nine straight win streak, including two full fights with Yoel Romero (an amazing achievement in of itself) prepared to face the interim champ and challenger Israel Adesanya.
Marc Goddard was the third man in the Octagon and stood between the two warriors, ready to go to war. At the beginning of the first, Whittaker came out hard, lunging forwards with a flurry of strikes, hunting the knockout. Adesanya as calm as ever retaliated with a hook and connected. Following an accidental eye poke, the action continued.
However, right at the end of the round, Whittaker would pay for his aggressive lunges, hard- eating yet another solid counter punch to the jaw, dropping him and to many viewers (myself included) shutting his lights out briefly. Before Adesanya, however, can follow through on his knockdown strike, however, the buzzer rings and a shaky Whittaker returned to his seat.
When the second round rolled around, Whittaker came out, lunging forward as ever. As Adesanya continued on, precisely slipping past the aggressive charging of the champion like the elite striker he is, he began to turn up the pressure.
Stylebender, shaking off a strong head kick would end up countering The Reaper for a final time; sending him crashing to the mat from another left and ending the fight with some ground and pound.
And just like that Adesanya had, in less than ten minutes dethroned the champion. But to go further than that, in a year, Stylebender has gone from his stylish picking-apart of Derek Brunson to defeating his stylistic predecessor, Anderson Silva.
Then he went to war with Kelvin Gastelum in one of, if not, the greatest fight of the year and lastly to defeating Robert Whittaker, one of the greatest Middleweight champions of all-time at home in his own country of Australia.
As such, Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya is my Fighter of the Year.
It was a hard toss-up, especially between Gamebred and Stylebender, but earning himself the Middleweight strap is what swayed me over the line.
Regardless, all six of these amazing and extraordinary fighters have had amazing years, and I’m thankful that we’ve had the opportunity to watch it all in awe. But now, with 2020 just around the corner, there are even more amazing bouts just a few months out.
Conor McGregor v Donald Ceronne and Tony Ferguson v Khabib Nurmagomedov come to mind, (I’d say more, but I wouldn’t want to jinx the fight and have it fall through once again) so I think I can say, in my humble opinion, that it’s looking up to be a truly great start to another decade of MMA.
Images courtesy of forbes.com, mmacrazies.com, latimes.com & chinadaily.com.cnT: twitter.com/MMAmicks