mma / Columns

The Best and Worst of MMA in 2018: Daniel Cormier, CM Punk, Fight of the Year and More

January 2, 2019 | Posted by Robert Winfree
Daniel Cormier UFC UFC 226

Hey there everyone and welcome to my Year End Awards in MMA for 2018. I’m Robert Winfree and I’m the one you get to harass about the order of these awards or who I left off. In fairness, I did ask if you all were interested in me doing this again after last year and no one shouted me down, threatened me, or showed up at my house with pitchforks and torches so here we are.

2018 is in the rear view mirror now, so let’s try and parse this thing out as well as handing out arbitrary and useless awards. But first some highlights from 2018, the good stuff. In fact you’ll see a few of the moments in this video show up later.

Ian McCall Memorial Worst Luck Award

Ray Borg

Cat Zingano may have put in a late entry for this award at UFC 232 but ultimately this goes to Borg. Borg had zero fights in 2018, never a good thing, but the reasons are why he’s taking home this metaphorical trophy. Borg was supposed to fight Brandon Moreno a few times this year, first at UFC Fight Night 126 but it was moved due to a Moreno injury to UFC 223 where Borg was in the bus that Conor McGregor attacked and subsequently had to withdraw from the fight due to glass winding up in his eyes. The pair was set to fight again but Borg withdrew due to his sons medical issues, which is another reason Borg is showing up here. Joking and gimmicks aside, Borg’s infant son has been in and out of the hospital all year and as of this writing is recovering and apparently out of the woods thank God. That’s still bad luck though and does bear consideration here. And to cap off 2018 Borg wound up withdrawing from a bout with Joseph Benavidez in November for medical reasons. All in all, Borg had the worst luck I observed all year and so he gets this consolation prize.

Oh, for those wondering, yes the award is a trophy modeled after McCall’s mustache.

Worst Fight of 2018

Boy were there some bad fights last year. Per usual there’s a caveat here, I can only rank what I’ve seen and I try very hard to curate my MMA intake to avoid burnout. So if you’ve got a fight I didn’t see that you want to mention below in the comments section I’m happy to look it up but I’m not retroactively changing this list. With that in mind, here’s the worst we saw in terms of fighting this year.

Honorable Mention: Andrei Arlovski vs. Walt Harris from UFC 232

5. Michael Johnson vs. Artem Lobov from UFC Fight Night 138: Lobov only had the one fight this year so I didn’t have to try and choose from several. This fight wasn’t good. Lobov did what he always does, waddle forward and swing wide hooks, make faces every time he got hit, and then felt annoyed that his opponent didn’t engage on his terms. Speaking of his opponent, Michael Johnson didn’t look good here either. Johnson still struggles past the first round when his hand speed starts to drop off and his cardio suffers, both of which showed up in this fight, and he missed weight to top it off. Not a good showing from either man, the fact that it killed the momentum of the card given it’s co-main event slot hurts as well.

4. Austin Arnett vs. Humberto Bandenay from UFC Fight Night 140: The first, but not last, instance on this list of two guys who shouldn’t be in the UFC. I nearly put another fight featuring Austin Arnett in this spot, but his opponent in that case was at least competent. Humberto Bandenay got into the UFC by being on a season of TUF: Latin America and scoring a nice knockout on that finale card, but has done nothing but lose since then. Arnett isn’t UFC ready, Bandenay isn’t UFC ready, and this awkward bout was evidence of that as Bandenay gassed badly and Arnett’s only response was a highly conservative approach.

3. Gian Villante: Yeah, I’m kind of cheating here but it’s my list so at least hear me out. Last year I gave Tyron Woodley two different spots on this same list (for the second Thompson fight and the Maia fight) and I could have made this specific list much easier on myself if I just listed all 3 of Villante’s 2018 fights, but I feel that Villante’s offerings for this year were so uniformly bad they deserve some kind of special recognition hence his singular placement here. Villante fought three times in 2018, against Francimar Barroso at UFC 220, against Sam Alvey at Fight Night 131, and against Ed Herman at Fight Night 138 and you’ll be hard pressed to find a worse set of three fights featuring a single fighter in a calendar year. They were all boring, all slow paced, displayed an extremely low skill level, went the distance, and featured crappy split decisions. I genuinely couldn’t pick which of them were worse than the others and didn’t want to exclude some of the other bouts I highlighted here.

2. Derrick Lewis vs. Francis Ngannou from UFC 226: Take two of the physically largest men in the UFC with a history of finishing fights, documented power in their hands, in a fight with title implications and what do you get? In this case you get a staring contest for fifteen minutes. Even the commentary team for this fight spent most of the last round speculating about where the fight ranks on the worst heavyweight fight ever list. While I don’t quite think it takes the top spot, Arlovski vs. Sylvia 3 was basically this but with two more agonizing rounds tacked on, it comes darn close. Lewis was gun shy, Ngannou was gun shy, neither man is exactly a technical wizard or even has a backup game plan to go to when things go sideways on them. This was dull, slow paced, low action, and seemed to take longer than the fifteen minutes of allotted time. Watching it live one might genuinely wonder if the amount of sucking this fight did didn’t actually distort time around it, and this fight very nearly could have taken the top spot on this list except for. . .

1. Phil “CM Punk” Brooks vs. Mike Jackson from UFC 225 :

This fight. This was just awful. In fairness to both men, if you watch a lot of regional MMA this wasn’t all that distinguishable from any other 0-1 vs. 0-1 affair. These kinds of fights happen all the time, and frankly I don’t begrudge them occurring because I’ve seen more than a few and enjoyed them if I’m in the right mood. But regional MMA isn’t the UFC. I absolutely hold the UFC to a different standard, and judge the fighters and product accordingly. Punk had no answer for a simple jab from Jackson, no real takedown ability and a mediocre clinch, a non-existent guard, and somehow his real kicks looked worse than his worked kicks when he was in professional wrestling. All that is bad, and would have been enough to land the result on this list but we also have to consider the other fighter in this one. Mike Jackson doesn’t even have a great jab, simply a serviceable one that he was unable to build off of. When Punk gassed badly Jackson’s response was to sit in his guard landing hammer fists to the body, likely influenced by his own poor cardio. At least Mickey Gall had the common courtesy to end things quickly, Jackson dragged this out due to his own woefully inadequate skill set. And, just because I’m going to find any and all reasons to bury this fight, I could have at least somewhat justified this fight existing to kick off a PPV if it had actually served the purpose of exploiting Punk’s celebrity into a decent buyrate but even the buyrate fell mostly flat at 250k. This was more farce than fight.

Bisping’s opening bit on the analyst desk below is better than anything in the actual fifteen minutes those two were in the cage.

Breakout Fighter of the Year

Breakout or breakthrough categories are tricky because there’s a variety of criteria to be weighted. For me the big one is distance covered, who went the farthest over the time frame, with level attained being essentially a tie breaker. With that in mind, here’s the fighters I felt made the most headway.

5. Alexander Hernandez

This was a tough category this year, as the number five spot should indicate. Hernandez fought and won twice in 2018 but boy were they big, he debuted on short notice against perennial top fifteen Beneil Dariush and starched him in the first round. He followed that up by besting Olivier Aubin-Mercier via decision further solidifying his spot in the top fifteen of the most competitive division in MMA. The guy started 2018 as just another body in a stacked division then made the most of the opportunity put in front of him, he covered a lot of distance this year and in past years would have likely been higher on this list.

4. Petr Yan

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve been pretty high on Yan since I caught his first fight with Magomed Magomedov on ACB’s youtube channel near the end of 2016 so there might be a bit of bias in him placing 4th instead of 5th. Yan wasn’t known much outside the hardcore community, but word of his violence was spreading when he signed with the UFC in 2018 and thus far he’s lived up to that hype. Debuting against Teruto Ishihara Yan smashed him in the first round, turned in a Fight of the Night for his second bout beating a short notice opponent, then closed the year beating down a top fifteen opponent so badly that the fight was stopped between the second and third rounds. Making headway at bantamweight isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do and the fact that some of Yan’s opposition wasn’t of the highest caliber is part of why he’s not higher on this list. Also my required shout out to Grabaka Hitman on twitter is most relevant here, he’s the one who first led me to discover Yan a couple of years ago.

3. Anthony Smith

We’ve had our debutantes on the list, now for the veteran warhorse who finally found his footing in the cage. Fighting in one of the weakest divisions helped as well, but maximizing your potential takes good business decision making into account. Smith fought four times this year, and frankly the loss he suffered in the first one is what keeps him from the second spot on this list as he was stopped by Thiago Santos in what wound up being Smith’s last fight at middleweight. Since moving up to light heavyweight Smith has looked darn good, he stopped two legends and former champions in the form of Rashad Evans and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua before besting a fighter not over the hill in former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir. Smith started the year as a good but essentially rank and file guy at middleweight, then ended a bona fide title contender with three pretty brutal finishes under his belt.

2. Alexander Volkanovski

Prior to UFC 232 Anthony Smith was in this spot, but then Alexander Volkanovski scored the biggest win of his career. Volkanovski has been with the UFC since 2016 and has been doing nothing but winning. Another full disclosure thing, I’ve been on the Volkanovski bandwagon dating very nearly to his UFC debut. In 2018 Volkanovski fought and won three times, smashing another prospect in Jeremy Kennedy, stepping up in competition then out working and out fighting Darren Elkins, and closed by stepping up from that to the truly elite level when he stopped Chad Mendes in the second round with strikes. He started the year a rising prospect but a bit unheralded, and ends it being just the third man to finish Chad Mendes and is a genuine contender in a deeply talented division. He had a great year, but then there was the man in the top spot. . .

1. Israel Adesanya

This was the easiest spot on any of the lists for this column, I just gave Adesanya the top spot and built backwards rather than the other way around. Adesanya was a kick boxing phenom who started making waves in MMA, then in 2018 he debuted in the UFC. He scored four wins this year against a steadily increasing level of opposition and rose to the occasion each time. Heck, he didn’t just rise to those occasions he showed massive improvement to his overall game in each outing. While he struggled a bit in the first round of his debut against Rob Wilkinson, specifically with consistent clinch breaking as well as getting his back off of the fence, he persevered and finished his opponent in the second round. A hard fought decision against Marvin Vettori followed and earned him a main event spot against veteran Brad Tavares. If Adesanya hadn’t fixed the holes in his game from earlier that year Tavares could exploit them and punish him, but he had addressed those issues and shut down Tavares for essentially the entire fight. To close the year he fought up another level of competition against Derek Brunson, and stopped him in the first round after thwarting all of Brunson’s attempts to wrestle. Adesanya started the year as a possible prospect with a great background but little MMA experience, and he ends it in the title picture at middleweight. I don’t think anyone broke through more than Adesanya.

Have some Adesanya highlights, including his kick boxing days if you’ve never seen them.

Submission of the Year

5. Anthony Rocco Martin’s anaconda choke of Jake Matthews from UFC Fight Night 142

I think everyone has a few submissions that, for whatever reason, they’ve got a soft spot for. I’ve got a couple, a few others are going to appear on this list later, and the anaconda choke is one of them. The recently re-dubbed Rocco Martin came close to making the Breakthrough list given how he’s re-invented himself at welterweight and he capped off a stellar 2018 with this beauty of a submission. Martin used a clever set up for the choke, he took a ride position that Ben Askren calls “the assassin” which is nasty enough in folk style wrestling (look up the last part of BJJ Scout’s multi-park study on Askren if you want some more details on it) but in MMA leads almost perfectly into the anaconda choke, and Martin became the most recent guy to use that set up into this choke.

4. Aleksei Oleinik’s Ezekiel choke of Junior Albini from UFC 224

This is the second year in a row Oleinik has appeared on this list with the same technique. I said last year that ezekiel choke’s really shouldn’t happen in MMA, which is true, and definitely shouldn’t happen at the elite level yet Oleinik makes it work for him. Granted his success with it might say more about his opponent in these last couple of cases than anything else but being able to pull that choke off in the UFC more than once is impressive pretty much however you slice it.

3. Zabit Magomedsharipov’s Suloev stretch of Brandon Davis from UFC 228

This is another technique I’m a sucker for, it’s hard to pull off but is absolutely devastating if you can make it work. This kneebar from the back mount variation puts incredible strain on the hamstring and knee ligaments if you can get it fully extended, and tends to off balance your opponent if nothing else by stripping away part of their base. Zabit Magomedsharipov gave us a darn near text book example of how to use it here. Of course there was another one of these rare submissions pulled off at UFC 228.

2. Aljamain Sterling’s Suloev stretch of Cody Stamann from UFC 228

Why one of these over the other when I already demonstrated a willingness to tie or split places? It’s a fair question and there were some other really nice submissions that could have made this list if I did have the dueling stretch’s share the second spot, but part of the reason I enjoy MMA is my appetite for violence and Sterling’s slightly different variation was more damaging. In this instance of the move there’s so much weight on the leg Sterling is attacking that as he extends it the stability of Stamann is compromised and his knee joint gives out at a rather odd angle instead of just having his hamstring torn apart. The extra damage inflicted is why it winds up one spot higher. Frankly this might have been the top spot before this little beauty. . .

1. Ryan Hall’s inside heel hook of BJ Penn from UFC 232

Yeah, I’m a real sucker for heel hooks so sue me. Ryan Hall hit a beauty of an inside heel hook here, he landed a leg kick to BJ Penn that got Penn to lift his leg and plan himself on one foot, Hall retracted the kicking leg way back into shooting position then dove into a lovely Imanari roll (itself a rarely successful move, though if you want to see it attempted frequently Tony Ferguson throws at least one per fight) that set up the finishing sequence. This marked the first time the legendary Penn had ever tapped out in MMA, granted that’s somewhat mitigated by it being 2018 and Penn being a shell of himself, but it’s still nothing to sneeze given Penn’s MMA and jiu-jitsu credentials. There could also be a bit of bias here given how recent this was, but even putting that aside this was a thing of violent artistry.

Knockout of the Year

Honorable Mention: Yoel Romero’s punches vs. Luke Rockhold from UFC 221

5. Eryk Anders’ head kick vs. Tim Williams from UFC Fight Night 135

There’s a couple of these that changed around at the last minute, at various points this was either one spot higher or the honorable mention but ultimately I wanted to devote just a bit of time to this. I’ve mentioned before I’m a fan of violence, and I’m not necessarily calling for soccer kicks to be legal as I understand the safety concerns or just the fact that they’re considered too unpalatable from a regulatory stand point, but seeing Eryk Anders time this kick as well as he did while Williams was executing a technical get up was great. It’s worth paying attention to this type of kick specifically if you’re fighting under the new rules as the moment your knee/hip is off the mat with just one hand down that kick/knee to the head is legal and we could well see more of these going forward.

4. Marlon Moraes’ head kick of Jimmie Rivera from UFC Fight Night 131

For the second year in a row Marlon Moraes makes an appearance on this list, for essentially the same technique though with slightly different application this time. Last year it was an attempted switch kick that wound up being a knee strike to the jaw of Aljamain Sterling, this time around it’s one of the quickest and prettiest switch kicks you’ll ever see cracking Jimmie Rivera upside the head with one of the more audible connections you’ll find leading to a quick finish. Every time I look at this finish I’m in awe of that switch from Moraes just as much as I am the sheer force he generates into the kick.

3. Brian Ortega’s uppercut of Frankie Edgar from UFC UFC 222

A little bit of history was made here, Brian Ortega became the first man to finish Frankie Edgar and he did it inside of a round. Ortega timed an elbow with a slightly too predictable rush from Edgar and badly wobbled the former champion, a head kick followed to keep him off balance, then from a near hockey fight position Ortega landed an uppercut that caused Edgar to leave his feet for a moment before crashing onto his back mostly unconscious. The uppercut wasn’t the prettiest from a technical perspective, in fact Ortega struggles to find the distance with it initially and lands a few to the chest of Edgar as Edgar stumbles forward, but it absolutely got the job done.

2. Lyoto Machida’s front kick of Vitor Belfort from UFC 224

It might be odd to say this about a fight, or a finish like this, but we all should have seen this one coming. Belfort stands in more of a Thai stance with his body partially squared up and his guard flared at the elbows leaving an obvious lane for a straight kick to the face. Anderson Silva exploited that a few years ago, this time it was Lyoto Machida getting his second front kick to the face finish and immediately bowing to his fallen foe as the ref rushed in to wave off the fight producing a great visual and the second best knockout of the year. You know we’ve had some good knockouts when a straight up KO from a front kick to the chin comes in second to something like. . .

1. Yair Rodriguez’s elbow vs. Chan Sung Jung from UFC Fight Night 139

Watching this live I’d have sworn it was a clash of heads that resulted in Chan Sung Jung dropping like a marionette with the strings cut at the literal last second of their five round fight. A few moments later the video replay confirmed this absolutely insane elbow strike from Rodriguez snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. One of the things that both attracts me to MMA and frustrates me is the near infinite complexity it offers, this particular blow is perfectly legal yet has never been used like this on anything approaching this kind of stage or with the generally high level of expertise these two bring into the cage. Even if you remove the last second drama from the finish it would rate the top spot on this list, add it in and forget about it, this was one of the easier top spots to give out.

Fighter of the Year

5. Kyoji Horiguchi

Horiguchi almost didn’t make the list last year, thankfully some research on my end fixed that, and this year he sneaks into the last spot by virtue of his New Year’s Eve win over Bellator bantamweight champion Darion Caldwell. Horiguchi opened 2018 by knocking out Ian McCall in just 9 seconds, bested Hiromasa Ogikubo, and closed it out by submitting Caldwell to win the Rizin bantamweight title. Horiguchi is undefeated since losing to Demetrious Johnson and since moving to Rizin he’s resorted to taking out legitimate bantamweights because there just aren’t enough flyweights for him to battle. It’s a crying shame we never got a rematch between Johnson and Horiguchi, maybe in the future though. As it stands Horiguchi continues to be one of the very best fighters not in the UFC, especially in the smaller weight classes.

4. Dustin Poirier

Poirier only had two fights in 2018 but there’s a lot to be said for finishing both Justin Gaethje and Eddie Alvarez in the space of about three months. Quite frankly Poirier’s schedule over the last 18 months or so has been nuts, he’s twice battled Eddie Alvarez, once to a No Contest then finishing him in the rematch, finished Anthony Pettis, and finished Justin Gaethje. Poirier is an absolute savage and he emerged from 2018 one of the more action oriented, bloody, and highly rated lightweights in the world. If lightweight functioned normally he’d be in the title picture, sadly it doesn’t.

3. Khabib Nurmagomedov

The now undisputed undefeated UFC lightweight champion realized his dream to start 2018 when he claimed the lightweight crown. The circumstances were crazy, his initial opponent got injured a week out and he faced a revolving door of replacements until after the weigh ins when it was settled that he’d fight Al Iaquinta. Adding to the chaos was McGregor attacking his transport bus ahead of UFC 223, but Nurmagomedov kept his cool and his resolve. When it came to actually battling Iaquinta Nurmagomedov was his predictably dominant self, pitching a complete shutout with at least one 10-8 round and realistically two of them against a last minute replacement with a radically different style from everyone else who’s name had been put forward. Winning the title is a great thing, the fact that it set up the most lucrative fight of his career is even better. Nurmagomedov and McGregor met in what is possibly the most purchased PPV in UFC history at UFC 229, and Nurmagomeodv battered and finished his brash nemesis. The post fight antics left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and now have both Nurmagomedov and McGregor tied up in the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Nevada State Athletic Commission, but there’s no denying that Nurmagomedov had a wonderfully successful 2018.

2. Amanda Nunes

MMA is a constantly evolving thing, and not just in terms of in cage technique. There aren’t too many sports that have to constantly re-orient essentially the known universe as often as this one does and Amanda Nunes was responsible for another of those moments. Moments like Weidman knocking out Anderson Silva, Werdum tapping Fedor, or Holm head kicking Rousey, they seem unthinkable prior to them actually happening. Even if you know that the seemingly invincible fighters are inevitably going to lose there’s a bit of a disconnect between that abstract knowledge and seeing the results laid out before you. Nunes battering and face planting the seemingly invincible Cyborg in less than one minute is definitely one such moment. Nunes made all kinds of history with that win in terms of titles, simultaneous titles, different divisional titles, and so on but even that is a bit secondary to the reality of stopping a fighter who hadn’t lost in over a decade and hadn’t even looked to be in danger in several years in such decisive fashion. It should be noted that Nunes also defended her bantamweight title earlier this year and absolutely wrecked Raquel Pennington in one of the more uncomfortably lopsided title fights this year. As we leave 2018 behind us Nunes has the single best resume in women’s MMA history, she’s bested Valentina Shevchenko twice (controversy around the second fight not withstanding), finished Cyborg, finished and retired Ronda Rousey, finished and essentially retired Miesha Tate, finished the first featherweight champion Germaine de Randamie, finished the aforementioned Pennington, finished Olympic wrestling silver medalist Sara McMann, and finished current Bellator featherweight champion Julia Budd. You can’t find a woman with a better resume in MMA. Quite frankly if you give Nunes the top spot for 2018 I’m not arguing that much, but I feel she was just edged out by. . .

1. Daniel Cormier

In some respects Cormier will always have to deal with the shadow of Jon Jones, but he did everything possible in 2018 to move beyond that association and cement himself as an all time great. Cormier entered 2018 coming off of the first finish loss of his career when Jon Jones had knocked him out, and while the result was over turned and he was given back the light heavyweight title he still had to deal with the fallout from being finished so publicly by the last man walking Gods green Earth he’d ever want to lose to. He started 2018 by defending the light heavyweight title with relative ease, pounding out Volkan Oezdemir, before setting his sights up at his old stomping grounds of heavyweight and the prestige of becoming a simultaneous champion. When Cormier stepped into the cage with heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic he was fight the most successful UFC heavyweight champion ever and an all time great heavyweight in his own right, and Cormier stopped him cold in the first round. After winning two titles he made history when he beat a thoroughly over matched Derrick Lewis by becoming the only fighter to defend two different titles. Of all other dual champions in UFC history (Penn, Couture, McGregor, St-Pierre, and as of this writing Nunes) none had defended two different titles. Penn never defended the welterweight strap, Couture never successfully defended the light heavyweight title (he won an interim title over Liddell then beat Tito Ortiz for the real one before dropping it to Liddell in their second fight), McGregor has never defended any title he’s ever won, and St-Pierre relinquished the middleweight title due to health concerns before any defense could be arranged, and Nunes has yet to have the featherweight title long enough to do anything with it. Heck if we want to extend the scope of the discussion to include Dan Henderson in PRIDE he never defended either of his titles in that organization successfully. It really is a huge achievement to defend a title once, much less two different titles. While he may have given up the light heavyweight title as 2018 came to a close he defended that title three times successfully and provided a model for how a dual champion should try and manage holding two titles. We might not have Cormier in MMA much longer, he’s intimated being done before 2019 comes to a close, but if this is truly his penultimate year in the sport it couldn’t have gone much better.

Fight of the Year

A very different crop of fights from last year, which was mostly brawling. It’s to my personal shame that I didn’t include the first Whittaker vs. Romero fight anywhere on my list last year in this same category, which should stand as testament to just how wrong I can be as it absolutely should have been there. This year we got a healthy mix of brawls, technical affairs, bloody wars, momentum swings, and hopefully this list is more accurate than last years.

5. Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje from UFC on FOX 29

This fight was free on FOX. That’s pretty crazy, given the history of both men and the amount of blood they tend to draw from the opposition. Poirier and Gaethje had a brutal affair here, Poirier used combination boxing to the body and head to keep Gaethje off balance but Gaethje’s commitment to pressure and his nasty leg kicks started slowing Poirier down and badly hobbling his movement. Both men had moments to shine, ultimately a naked leg kick from Gaethje left him vulnerable to a counter punch from Poirier that spelled the beginning of the end. The visual of Gaethje, badly hurt from that punch, grinning and waving Poirier forward is a great one.

4. Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega from UFC 231

In so many ways this fight was everything you wanted it to be. You had a clear cut champion against the most deserving contender, two fighters at the peak of their game and in many respects operating near the peak of how we understand MMA right now. The fight itself was a bit too one sided to rank higher this list (I have no argument with those who place it higher but it’s my list and that’s something I take into consideration) as Holloway seemed to have Ortega’s number most of the fight. Holloway is the best example in MMA of the efficacy of double or triple jabbing, Robert Whittaker would be a close second, and he used it to near perfection here. Max Holloway is kind of like water, he flows well but more importantly he wears you down. There’s not many people in all of MMA who can do what Holloway does in that respect, he controls the fight in terms of pace and distance, he finds openings in your game and then methodically but relentlessly exploits them until you collapse under his offense. The fourth round of this fight was a near massacre, Holloway landed more punches in that round than he did in either of his fights with Aldo in their entirety, but Ortega never fell over. I don’t mean to paint a picture of Ortega being undeserving of his shot, he had certainly earned it and he did have moments of success. In the third round he caught Holloway with an elbow that actually had Holloway backing up, and considering the quality of Holloway’s chin that’s definitely saying something. He also did a good job of working elbows generally and he was game throughout the fight, but he struggled with Holloway’s pace, angles, and just the relentless volume. If there is any weakness in your game Holloway will find it and will punish you for it, this fight was a great case study in that reality as Ortega is an exceptional fighter who was the deserving number one contender, but as the fight went on Holloway just kept pulling away from him in every appreciable metric until the doctor had to save Ortega between rounds four and five. This was about as good a way for Holloway to return after his health issues as any, it reminded us all just why he’s so special.

3. Tony Ferguson vs. Anthony Pettis from UFC 229

I’m so glad Tony Ferguson is back fighting, he’s one of my favorites to watch. Tony might be the bloodiest fighter in MMA, I think the last time he fought someone he didn’t split open was either Gleison Tibau or Abel Trujillo, and I love a good blood bath. This fight was no exception to that standard. Pettis and Ferguson both had moments, Pettis landed a right hand in the second round that had Tony performing Granby rolls to try and gain space or force a grappling exchange so he could clear his head, but clear it he did and he went on to cut Pettis to pieces with elbows. Pettis has always struggled with pressure fighters, and there aren’t many fighters who apply pressure like Ferguson does, even though Pettis would find moments of success they came further and further apart while Ferguson just kept coming with kicks, elbows, knees, punches, and a maniacal grin on his face. Eventually Pettis’ corner stopped the fight between rounds 2 and 3, which was the right call, but up until that point this fight had some crazy momentum swings, plenty of blood, and just the general level if craziness we’ve all come to expect from a Ferguson fight.

2. Chris Weidman vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza from UFC 230

This was an interesting fight in a lot of ways. One of the most decorated and successful jiu-jitsu players in MMA battled an all American caliber wrestler in a bout that was contested almost entirely on the feet. Weidman showed off more of a jab for this fight, keeping light and active while avoiding Souza’s more telegraphed punches in the first round. In the second Souza committed to more of a kicking game, and apparently the man kicks like a mule, as well as making the fighter dirtier since he couldn’t match Weidman technique for technique. That wound up being the key adjustment as Weidman couldn’t switch gears going into the third round and between the constant pace these two fought at as well as his foot work failing him a bit Souza was able to find the damaging shots that put Weidman down and out. This is a really good fight especially if you want to see obvious adjustments and their consequences in real time that’s easily readable. Speaking of adjustments making a difference in the outcome of a fight. . .

1. Robert Whittaker vs. Yoel Romero 2 from UFC 225

I’d have to double check the following stat, but this is one of the only times I can recall the Fight of the Year and Worst Fight of the Year being on the same card. This was also a relatively easy call for the top spot, these two set a bar that no one else wound up clearing before the year wound down and this is one of my all time favorite fights. It’s a fight made better by seeing and understanding the first one, this time instead of Romero using the side kicks to the leg it was Whittaker returning the favor, this time instead of Romero opening strong then fading down the stretch it was Whittaker who shone early but got hurt badly in the later rounds. I mean there are return bouts in professional wrestling that don’t build off the previous encounter half as well as these two did while actively trying to cripple each other. Whittaker getting to actually use his jab this fight was a key to his early success as he’s got maybe the best jab in MMA and builds off of it wonderfully, in fact he had Romero’s left eye swollen badly between rounds 2 and 3 based largely off of his jab. Unfortunately for Whittaker he seemed to never quite get a great feel for his front kicks against Romero when Romero fought orthodox, which was a massive change for him as every other fight in his UFC career was done predominantly from southpaw, and an errant front kick from Whittaker left him vulnerable to a booming counter right that badly hurt him in the third round.

If I awarded a Round of the Year it would go to round 3 of this fight as that round was insane, Whittaker got dropped but did everything right to recover, cracked Romero with elbows in close and even landed a flush head kick that Romero essentially no sold. In the fifth round Romero found another power punch that buckled the champion, this time a left that landed as Whittaker thought he was safely exiting the pocket. In fairness to Whittaker had Romero remained orthodox he would have been at a safe angle but Romero’s switch mid combination meant that he had a perfect lane for that left and Whittaker very nearly was finished off of it. Those were the kinds of punches that Romero has slept other men with. Hurt again Whittaker fought to recover in all the right ways. There are three basic means of defending yourself when hurt: get distance, cover up, and fire back. If you watch this fight you’ll see Whittaker doing all three in the appropriate amounts and the appropriate times. He moves away when necessary, buries his head looking for single legs that he’s not going to complete but do keep his head out of danger, and fires back when he sees openings to do so. The fifth round is mostly the first two but he does survive, something no one else had managed to do when put in a comparable position, and took home a controversial split decision. I scored this fight for Romero when doing so live, my general feeling after seeing the fight again is that of a draw based on scoring criteria but I don’t really object to Whittaker taking the decision. Both men were banged up following the fight, Whittaker had a badly broken thumb from the first round and Romero’s face was a swollen mess. These two seem like they were made to fight each other, it’s magic when they touch but they take a massive toll on each other. If nothing else they turned in another all time great fight, this time an all time classic. If this fight doesn’t get your blood pumping while you watch it MMA might just not be the sport for you.

Do you disagree? Please leave a comment, just please be civil about it.

As we move into 2019, what are you most curious about in the world of MMA? What stories are you most aware of? I’ll be here most weekends covering all the action and I hope you’ll join me.

Robert Winfree is a libra, longtime host of the 411 Ground and Pound Radio Show, and current live coverage guru for the MMA zone of 411mania