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Winfree’s 2020 MMA Year End Awards: Fight of the Year, Breakout Fighter, More

January 8, 2021 | Posted by Robert Winfree
Zhang Weili vs Joanna Jedrzejczyk UFC 248

Hello everyone and welcome to my 2020 Year End MMA Awards. I’m Robert Winfree, and since once again this seems like a good idea I’m handing out mostly non-existent awards in the world of MMA. These are the best, and worst, of the year as I see it. Usual disclaimer here: I can only rank what I have seen and I haven’t seen everything.

Ian McCall Memorial Worst Luck Award

Leon Edwards

Let’s be clear, a lot of fighters had some awful luck in 2020. Heck, the vast majority of humanity had some pretty bad luck in 2020. So trying to figure out the recipient for this somewhat infamous award was a bit difficult, and there were plenty of viable choices but ultimately I landed on Leon Edwards. Coming into 2019 Edwards was a top contender in the very deep welterweight division, he was on a great eight fight winning streak that included wins over notable names like Vicente Luque, Donald Cerrone, and former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. He wasn’t just a top ranked fighter, there was a very real case to be made that he should be fighting for the title. Edwards was set to battle former champion Tyron Woodley in England in March, a big fight that almost certainly would have locked down a title shot for him with a win. Unfortunately for Edwards, March was when the lock downs started happening and the UFC events started getting canceled. The UFC wanted Edwards to fly to the US, but had no date or venue for to possible reschedule his fight with Woodley and given the lock downs happening the UK it would have stranded Edwards in the US for months. A few other fighters did fly to the states and did in fact get stuck here, Marvin Vettori being an example, but Edwards stayed home with his family. That led to some acrimony between Edwards and the UFC, and they wound up removing him from the rankings later in the year. He was reinstated when he signed to fight one of the breakout fighters of 2020, Khamzat Chimaev. But then Edwards got Covid, a case severe enough that Brett Okamoto reported he lost 12 pounds and was unable to train at all. Around the same time there were reports of Chimaev getting Covid, which turned out to be accurate as Chimaev had to pull out of their rescheduled fight. That fight had been rescheduled for January 20th, but I’m still kind of counting the loss of bout in Edwards’s case. All in all 2020 was a terrible year for Edwards, losing out on a main event in his home country against the biggest name he’d ever faced, promotional acrimony, a serious illness whose long term consequences can be severe, and despite holding a ranking having lost any semblance of momentum he had coming into the year.

Worst Fight of 2020

Honorable Mention – Leonardo Santos vs. Roman Bogatov, UFC 251: This is included simply because I believe this fight has the most fouls a 3 round fight has had in the UFC. Plus I think Bogatov managed several different kinds, eye pokes, fence grabs, low blows, this was a clown fiesta.

5. Jessica Eye vs. Cynthia Calvillo, UFC on ESPN 10

Remember when Cynthia Calvillo had hype? That went away in a hurry. This fight was pretty dismal, it was a slap dash main event after the original one (Moraes vs. Yan) fell apart so we got five full rounds of circling, shadow boxing, and the occasional takedown. Eye missed weight for this fight as well. Just a drab, boring, dreadful main event. Honestly one of the worst main events the UFC has put on, I would genuinely rather watch Adesanya vs. Romero (which nearly made this list) than this again.

4. Michel Pereira vs. Diego Sanchez, UFC on ESPN+ 25

What do you even say about this? Pereira has had some weird fights, and he was still looking to find the right balance of wackiness and stuff that actually works here. Sanchez should have been cut from the UFC a long time ago, he offered nothing here. Pereira abused him for two and a half rounds, putting two 10-8’s up by my reckoning, then very stupidly landed an illegal knee. Sanchez took the out, got an utterly meaningless disqualification win to cap off a truly odd fight.

3. Gian Villante vs. Jake Collier, UFC on ESPN 19

This was an embarrassment. I try hard not to body shame (my own physique hardly being noteworthy) but these two aren’t heavyweights if we’re talking purely frame, they’re heavyweights because they don’t want to be disciplined about their lifestyles. Villante has been a fixture in worst fights for years, his plodding footwork, his low output, his abundance of clinches, it’s all been a blight on viewers for a really long time. The UFC also has the audacity to sell this man as a knockout artist, Villante hasn’t finished a fight since 2016. Collier looks like he ate the Jake Collier who used to fight at middleweight. The comically bad spinning exchange at the end of this fight all you really need to see of it to understand how bad this was. This fight has perhaps two saving graces, it’s funny and wasn’t boring. Speaking of boring though. . .

2. Derrick Lewis vs. Ilir Latifi, UFC 247

I will never understand the segment of the audience that thinks Derrick Lewis is an exciting fighter. That’s a claim that simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Lewis has some memorable finishes to his name, but a finish is not a fight. This fight in particular was the worst of what Lewis offers as a fighter, stalling, clinching, trying to maintain some level of energy, and tossing out the occasional flurry. Latifi has never been appointment viewing, and here he tries to drain energy from Lewis via clinches and takedowns, doing perhaps more damage to his own gas tank than that of Lewis. It’s boring, it goes the distance, and to top it off Latifi probably should have won the decision but the fight was so yawn inducing that no one really raised a stink.

1. Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan De Castro, UFC 249

Hardy featured on this list last year for a similar fight but this one managed to be even less entertaining while being just as uninteresting. De Castro was slightly cursed by his UFC debut, scoring a memorable knockout against horribly over matched opposition gives you a reputation even if it’s based around a single point of data. Both men are also very green, neither had hit double digit professional fights when they squared off for this bout. Some leg kicks, some jabs, lots of circling, and both men gassing despite the tragically low activity. There isn’t even base entertainment value in this 15 minute encounter. The fact that this opened a PPV is equal parts tragic and comic.

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. Ciryl Gane

Gane’s exclusion last year from this category was an oversight on my part, all I can do is apologize in that respect. Gane went 4-0 last year, compared to just one fight in 2020 but it was a notable one when he stopped former champion Junior dos Santos. Heavyweight is a shallow division and Gane has made some serious noise, hopefully he can be more active in 2021.

4. Joaquin Buckley

A bit more on Buckley later, but the man was responsible for the most viewed clip on the UFC’s various social media accounts. Only time will tell if Buckley actually pans out, but he went from total unknown to a man a lot of people pay attention to this year.

3. Merab Dvalishvili

Dvalishvili not only went 3-0 in 2020, he did so against an ever increasing level of opposition and set the UFC record for most takedowns scored in a single year. Bantamweight either the best or second best division in the sport, and Dvalishvili set himself up for some big opportunities going into 2021.

2. Khamzat Chimaev

Chimaev very nearly took the top spot in this category. Debuting earlier this year Chimaev eventually went 3-0 across both welterweight and middleweight, and absorbed just two blows along the way. It’s difficult to fully contextualize that statistic, but the man was struck by opponents a whopping twice. Both of those blows came from his debut fight, neither of his next two opponents landed a glove on him. His one punch knockout of Gerald Meerschaert was a tough cut out of the Knockout of the Year list a little further down, and he was supposed to meet top ranked Leon Edwards to close out the year. Chimaev’s performance and personality captured a lot of attention, and he had this top spot more or less set before our winner’s final fight of 2020.

1. Kevin Holland

Kevin Holland entered the UFC by taking a very short notice fight against Thiago Santos, only getting that call after his barrage of in cage talk in a losing effort on Dana’s Contender Series made him slightly memorable. He took a beating from Santos but wasn’t stopped and he’s been fighting hard in the UFC ever since. In 2020 Holland went 5-0, four of those being finishes with a tough split decision in the middle (I thought he lost that fight but my opinion doesn’t change the facts) but ultimately it’s the last fight that got him this spot. Holland stopped Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in his final fight of 2020 cleanly with punches in the first round. Souza had suffered just one TKO loss in the UFC prior to that, succumbing to a second round head kick from future champion Robert Whittaker in 2017. Holland not only fought and won five times, he stopped a perennial top contender and set himself firmly into the title orbit as we start 2021.

Submission of the Year

While last year submissions were something of a rarity we have a pretty good crop to choose from this year. Some more gimmicky, some just rare, and some that almost sublime.

Honorable Mentions
Maurice Greene’s arm triangle vs. Gian Villante, UFC on ESPN 12 – This was pure hilarity. Villante got caught with an arm triangle from the bottom and tapped because he was badly gassed out. High quality heavyweight hilarity here.

Deiveson Figueiredo’s rear naked choke vs. Joseph Benavidez, UFC on ESPN+ 30 – I’m a fan of brutal chokes, and you’ll be hard pressed to find one more violent than this. Figueiredo twisted Benavdiez around like a training dummy as he put him to sleep.

5. Ariane Lipski’s kneebar vs. Luana Carolina, UFC on ESPN+ 30

While this wasn’t the most technical application of a kneebar it was certainly fun. You don’t see kneebars from the top too often, but Carolina wasn’t careful of her legs and Lipski was happy to crank that thing off and take it home with her.

4. Jack Hermansson’s heel hook vs. Kelvin Gastelum, UFC on ESPN+ 30

Look, I promise other events will pop up on this list. I’m a sucker for a good heel hook and this one was top notch. Hermansson got the leg entanglement, Gastelum didn’t really respect it or try to separate until it was too late. Hermansson was able to get control over the knee line, tip Gastelum over and crank on the heel hook to force a tap. Really good stuff.

3. Fabricio Werdum’s armbar vs. Alexander Gustafsson, UFC on ESPN 14

Armbars from the back are a criminally underused technique in MMA, most fighters are too fearful of losing the position to really try anything beyond rear naked chokes. By contrast Werdum has no fear going for them, and has grabbed several arms during his career by doing so including Gustafsson’s. Gustafsson tries to defend, but Werdum’s positional mastery means he’s just delaying the inevitable as they wind up in spiderweb before Werdum extends the arm to force the tap. High level fundamentals.

2. Jimmy Flick’s flying triangle choke vs. Cody Durden, UFC on ESPN+ 41

If there was a general lesson we all should have learned from 2020 in terms of fighting it would be this: If you’re going to catch a blow, do something with it quickly lest you become vulnerable. Durden catches a head kick, but he’s slow to do anything with it and Flick is happy to jump guard with the triangle mostly locked in place. From there it’s just refining the position while Durden is several steps behind trying to defend.

1. Khabib Nurmagomedov’s triangle choke vs. Justin Gaethje, UFC 254

I barely have words for this one. In the second round, Gaethje lands a leg kick and 28 seconds later is completely unconscious. It should have been a quicker finish, but the ref missed several obvious taps on Gaethje’s part. The back take alone that Khabib hit was a piece of art, to say nothing of how he transitioned from there, threatened an arm triangle, threatened the triangle, threatened the arm as he fell back then locked up the triangle. The technique was darn near flawless. Khabib also became the first champion in UFC history to secure three consecutive submission wins in title fights. This was just about as perfect a finishing sequence as you’ll find.

Knockout of the Year

Now this was a heck of a category this year. Narrowing this down to just this list was hard, and I’m still sure I missed several awesome KO’s. We had some high quality violence this year, and this list could be almost entirely rewritten with different entries and there would be very little complaint (except for the top spot).

Honorable Mentions
Rafael Fiziev’s combination vs. Renato Moicano, UFC 256 – Most of the top spots are going to single strike finishes, but I did want to highlight this lovely bit of combination work from Fiziev.

Magomed Bibulatov’s wheel kick vs. Rodrigo Paria, ACA 112 – Lovely little bit of work here, I’m still a little surprised the UFC let Bibulatov go or at least didn’t make more of an effort to get him back after they kept flyweight around.

Jordan Leavitt’s slam vs. Matt Wiman, UFC on ESPN 19 – The low level of opposition keeps this out of the top spot, but slam KO’s are almost always cool and this one was no exception.

5. Beneil Dariush’s punch vs. Drakkar Klose, UFC on ESPN+ 29

Dariush had a spinning back fist later in the year that almost made this list as well, but ultimately I prefer this one. He and Klose have a back and forth affair, but Dariush winds up getting the better of it and bouncing Klose off of the fence with his finishing blow.

4. Kevin Holland’s seated punches vs. Ronaldo Souza, UFC 256

The novelty of this would be impressive enough, to say nothing of doing it against a fighter the caliber of Souza. Holland just clipped Souza with punches from his seat as Souza was on a knee looking to further engage in the grappling. It was something of a first for me, but a wicked finishing sequence to see unfold.

3. Mamed Khalidov’s jumping switch kick vs. Scott Askham, KSW 55

This remarkable finish was sadly overshadowed by another one from later that same day which ultimately took the top spot on this list. Still it was a really nice combination from Khalidov and the jumping kick that ended things was quite a sight.

2. Cody Garbrandt’s buzzer beater punch vs. Raphael Assuncao, UFC 250

This wasn’t the most technically perfect punch you’ll ever see, but man was it something impressive. Garbrandt lured Assuncao in by dipping his level, then fired off a right hook from the depths of hell to steal the soul of Assuncao just before the end of the round.

1. Joaquin Buckley’s jump spinning back kick vs. Impa Kasanganay, UFC on ESPN+ 37

There was only ever one choice once this kick landed. You’ve probably seen it, so I don’t have to describe the sheer insanity of this kick landing and working the way it did. There’s the added bonus of Kasanganay falling like Ricky Steamboat selling a jawbreaker. Just pure violent magic.

We had a lot of high quality violence this year, there’s some below but hardly all of it. Definitely a great year for finishes all around.

Fighter of the Year

What an odd year to try and figure out who owned it. Debutantes turned in a lot of effort given the travel restrictions, some champions had very limited schedules because of it as well.

5. Charles Oliveira

This one might not leap off the page at people, but Charles Oliveira had two really important wins this year. First he finally got the monkey off of his back in terms of besting elite competition and overcoming adversity along the way when he beat Kevin Lee just as the world started shutting down. It was an impressive win to be sure, but what followed was more impressive. When Oliveira thoroughly dominated Tony Ferguson to close out his year it was shocking how easy he made it look, and if I live to be 1000 I will never understand how Tony didn’t tap to that armbar in the first round. Oliveira enters 2021 right in the thick of the title picture for lightweight.

4. Petr Yan

No Mercy only had one fight in 2020, and it was also a really great one, but I give a bit higher value to clearly beating a legend like Jose Aldo in the manner he did. Yan is hopefully fighting Aljamain Sterling soon, and that should be a heck of a fight.

3. Israel Adesanya

The man I should have given clear Fighter of the Year to for 2019 is back. In a year when title fights were at something of a premium Adesanya defended his title twice. He’s only at 3 because one of those fights (Romero) was pretty darn bad. To his credit he rebounded by styling all over Paulo Costa before finishing him in the second round, but the best you could put him is second.

2. Kevin Holland

I went over much of Holland’s credentials above, but 5-0 on the year with 4 finishes then concluding his 2020 campaign with a stunning knockout. The man had a darn good 2020, very nearly the best of anyone.

1. Deiveson Figueiredo

In most years Figueiredo’s 2020 campaign would be on this list but probably not the top spot seeing as he missed weight for his first fight of the year then went to a draw in his final one. But the field, especially at the championship level, was a little weaker this year and while that last fight was a draw it was also one of the better fights of the year. Figueiredo stopped Joseph Benavidez twice, the second bout being among the more lop sided title fights you’ll find, submitted Alex Perez without much difficulty and then just 21 days later turned in a Fight of the Year contender with Brandon Moreno. Oh, he also became the true savior of the flyweight division so there’s that as well. There might be some blemishes on his resume this year, but given everything that happened 2020 was the year of Figueiredo.

Fight of the Year

We has some absolutely amazing fights this year, a few of the cuts made here were incredibly difficult and I’m still not convinced the order is correct.

Honorable Mentions
Josh Emmett vs. Shane Burgos, UFC on ESPN 11 – This might have been the best three round fight all year, I’m not completely sure of that but it’s close enough that it deserves mentioning.

Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway, UFC 251 – I know people dispute the decision, but I find this fight endlessly fascinating. The technique both men use, the adjustments from their first fight, the real time adjustments both make, it’s not as violent or balls to the wall action like some of the other fights on this list but I really felt it deserved at least an HM.

5. Justin Gaethje vs Tony Ferguson, UFC 249

I love this fight, the quiet atmosphere lending a different kind of gravitas to everything that takes place in the cage. The sound of punches landing, the exertion from both men, every blow, every stagger, it all gained a kind of solemnity as all we had was commentary, the corners, and our own thoughts as a backdrop. This fight is contested at a deliberate pace to exacerbate the brutality, Gaethje constantly slamming home leg kicks, and power punches while Ferguson would snap off punches and try to change the momentum. While this is probably the fight I will remember most from 2020, I can’t place it higher than this. Ultimately it’s too one sided, while Ferguson is in the fight and scores the only knockdown in this entire bloody war, this fight has mostly one way traffic with Gaethje breaking down the body of Ferguson until it essentially gives up on him. A truly wonderfully violent affair, but dinged a few notches because it wasn’t quite as competitive as others.

4. Dustin Poirier vs. Dan Hooker, UFC on ESPN 12

What a brutal war this was. The video released of the aftermath was a moving look into the physical toll fighters pay to do this. The action was good, both men got hurt at one point or another, Poirier struggled at long range but once he adjusted and found the pure boxing distance he had a lot of success. Both men dealt damage in the clinch, both dealt it at distance, the momentum swung back and forth and ultimately both men turned in performances they can be proud of.

3. Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo, UFC 251

To all of us who doubted just how much Jose Aldo had left in the tank after the losses to Max Holloway and Alexander Volkanovski, this fight provides some evidence to his continued ability. Yan showed off solid defense, fought much of this southpaw after taking some of Aldo’s hellacious leg kicks, but ultimately his pace, punching power, and diverse offense prevailed. But if you just look at the first three rounds? Aldo more than holds his own with the younger fighter. A wonderful clash of young and old, modern and slightly less modern, and a fight contested at both a high pace and close proximity. This fight was a worth entry into the pantheon of great bantamweight title fights.

2. Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno, UFC 256

It’s rare that a draw is a satisfying outcome, but here we are. Both of these men fought just 21 days before this bout, their fight coming together incredibly quickly after UFC 256’s original main event fell through. The fight is a fast paced one, because flyweights are awesome, and suitably brutal. Figueiredo deals a tremendous amount of damage, but Moreno’s chin holds up and he happily returns fire when they engage. The takedowns from Moreno were a smart part of the fight, both in terms of trying to sap energy and take the power striking champion off of his feet. Unfortunately for Moreno Figueiredo is a capable grappler and even took him down on a few occasions. The closing bit from round five likely saving Figueiredo’s title as he got Moreno down and proceeded to unload with blows. An errant low blow from Figueiredo cost him a point and ultimately that’s what gave us a draw. The fight was remarkable from both men, perhaps more so from Figueiredo when you factor in two tough weight cuts as well as his stint in the hospital the night before the fight with something akin to food poisoning. We’ll hopefully get a rematch soon because this was a great fight.

1. Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk, UFC 248

It’s hard to find something new to say about this fight. Greatest women’s MMA bout of all time, best UFC women’s title fight, and the best fight in all of 2020. This fight started at a fast pace and never really waned. These two fought a pace in the fifth round, after twenty minutes of abuse that had seen Zhang’s eyes cut and swelling while the swelling on Joanna’s forehead rendered her unrecognizable from her introduction, that would kill most heavyweights. This fight had everything, violence, technique, momentum swings, a high pace, and two fighters rising to the occasion presented before them. While I disagree with the decision that’s a minor squabble, the fight was one for the ages.

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

As we move into 2021, 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 Podcast, covers all UFC events and WWE Smackdown for 411mania