No sport sees stars rise and fall as rapidly as mixed martial arts, and 2019 was no exception. The landscapes of most divisions radically shifted, bringing forth a new wave of standard-bearers for the future. Let’s have a look at 2019’s “Fighters of the Year.”
5. Alexander Volkanovski
2018 was when Volkanovski went from interesting prospect to contender. 2019 saw him assert his status as the No. 1-ranked Featherweight on the planet.
Admittedly, his win over Jose Aldo lacked the fireworks of “The Great’s” star-making knockout of Chad Mendes last year. Rather than push for takedowns or let his nuclear right hand fly with abandon, the division’s fiercest ground-and-pounder showed exemplary patience and gameplanning to defuse a legend and walk away with the victory in hostile territory.
Max Holloway, however, looked to be a whole different conundrum. Where Aldo was conservative to a fault, “Blessed” was a never-ending whirlwind of strikes with an indestructible chin and insane takedown defense to boot. His lone loss since 2013 had come at Lightweight against a much larger man in Dustin Poirier.
And Volkanovski fought him brilliantly. Though known for his bruising power, Volkanovski never allowed Holloway to find any momentum in the striking, constantly punishing the champion’s lead leg and stifling Holloway’s signature lengthy combos with his own intercepting punches. We saw little of the volume-punching terror that had recently seized Featherweight GOAT status, and when the smoke cleared, Volkanovski’s work payed off with a title.
With huge power, great wrestling, a great gas tank, and a freshly proven ability to think his way around what he can’t just destroy, it looks like we’re set for a damn entertaining title reign.
4. Kamaru Usman
I first read Usman’s name way the hell back in 2014, when he took the #1 Welterweight spot on Bloody Elbow’s Prospect Watch. From T.P. Grant:
It really seems like the sky is the limit with this kid. Both I and Zane fully expect him to contend for the UFC Welterweight title at some point in his career, and very possibly hold the belt for extended period of time. Usman looks like he is already an elite MMA wrestler and is ready to feast on some UFC prelim fights and if his current rate of skill progression holds steady he will be a Top 5 fighter. His career path could be something of what would-have-been if Yoel Romero had started his career 10 years ago. Usman could end up being very similar to his Blackzilian teammate Anthony Johnson. If everything clicks for Usman as he moves forward he could experience a rise that would bring out Jon Jones comparisons.
His rise proved slower than their prognosis, but otherwise, good call. Starting with a hilariously deflating victory over the red-hot Hayder Hassan, whose late-season heroics saved American Top Team on TUF 21 and whom ATT head Dan Lambert confidently asserted he would pick to beat Godzilla, Usman rode into 2019 with nine UFC victories under his belt and Welterweight champ Tyron Woodley in his sights.
Oddswise, it was a pick-em. In reality, Usman ran roughshod over the champ, outworking and outclassing him in every aspect of the game to claim the title.
Then came nearly nine months of feuding with Colby Covington, and while “Chaos” may have claimed to be playing a character, Usman treated their feud with grave sincerity, culminating in a surprisingly entertaining battle at UFC 245. “The Nigerian Nightmare” ended said battle with authority in the fifth, pounding his wounded rival out in the waning seconds.
Usman earned his place atop a division full of monsters. Love or hate his style, you’ve got to give him that.
3. Henry Cejudo
Henry Cejudo may be the King of Cringe, but there’s little to be mocked about his efforts in the cage this year.
His decision over Flyweight GOAT Demetrious Johnson and his opponent’s inexperience at the weight weren’t enough to convince oddsmakers or the viewing public that he’d retain his title against would-be double champ TJ Dillashaw, who’d masterfully dismantled Cody Garbrandt in successive efforts.
All the well-researched technical analysis out there proved moot, as Cejudo clipped his man in the opening seconds and put him away with ground-and-pound before the first minute had passed.
What controversy the finish produced quickly died when Dillashaw’s use of EPO came to light, leaving Cejudo in prime position to make a bid for the vacant belt. All he had to do was get past Marlon Moraes. Easier said than done, considering that “Magic” had not just beaten but swiftly finished practically every other noteworthy contender. Aljamain Sterling went down from a knee to the head in 67 seconds, Jimmie Rivera didn’t even last half as long before eating a shin to the dome, and a three-minute club-and-sub of Raphael Assuncao avenged Moraes’ lone defeat since 2011.
Moraes spent the first five minutes making Cejudo look pedestrian, dazzling with his speed and striking versatility. The Flyweight king once again showed the mettle that saved his division, though, and came back with equal fervor in the next two rounds to batter the larger man into submission.
Even though he surrendered his 125-pound crown, which Joseph Benavidez and Deiveson Figueiredo will fight for early next year, Cejudo won’t have time to rest on his laurels; between the likes of Petr Yan, Cory Sandhagen, and Aljamain Sterling, 2020 figures to feature his toughest assignments yet. Can’t wait to see how he manages.
2. Jorge Masvidal
After 16 years of “almost” and “not quite,” Masvidal finally managed to break through in 2019.
Reeling from consecutive losses to Demian Maia and Stephen Thompson, the latter of which wasn’t particularly competitive, “Gamebred” entered his headlining bout with Darren Till as a moderate underdog. “The Gorilla” had demolished Donald Cerrone in his own breakout win and looked fit to do the same to Masvidal after dropping him early, only to eat a beautiful Superman punch that earned Masvidal a pair of $50k bonuses.
I don’t think I need to soliloquize about his fight with Ben Askren. In one of the sport’s most viral moments of the year, Masvidal, once again the underdog, roared out of the corner and knocked the “Funky” one with a flying knee before the clock even hit the screen. The commentators were mid-sponsor-plug when knee met afro.
Then came the BMF title fight with fellow street tough Nate Diaz, fresh off a trouncing of Anthony Pettis. It was supposed to be competitive. It wasn’t. “Gamebred” straight-up kicked the snot out of Diaz, winning every minute of every round until the latter’s carefully cultivated collection of scar tissue betrayed him once again.
It remains to be seen whether Masvidal will be Usman’s second challenger or whether fellow top contender Leon Edwards will get involved somehow, but congratulations are absolutely in order while we wait to find out.
1. Israel Adesanya
It says something about the UFC’s confidence in Adesanya, and Adesanya’s confidence in himself, that his 2018 Octagon campaign saw him fight three grappling specialists and a striker in Brad Tavares who’d historically shown solid wrestling. The generous among you might forgive him, then, for taking on the shopworn Anderson Silva in his first fight of 2019.
The bout proved more competitive and entertaining than expected, garnering Fight of the Night honors thanks to “The Spider” showing a remarkable amount of lingering magic. It was just the appetizer for what came next, though: Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum. a fight Adesanya took on a two-month turnaround after Robert Whittaker’s guts imploded.
Thanks to “The Reaper’s” bowel, we got a Fight of the Year.
Gastelum’s power and persistence forced Adesanya to dig deeper than ever, and he found what he was looking for. After four back-and-forth rounds, Adesanya put a stamp on things with a dominant fifth round that Gastelum only escaped by the skin of his teeth. Adesanya had gone from UFC debutant to (interim) champion in just over 14 months.
This set the stage for a battle for Oceanic dominance against Robert Whittaker, who’d looked unstoppable since moving up from 170 pounds. Instead of another war, however, we got a schooling. Adesanya smoked “The Reaper,” leaving him swinging at air until a brutal counter did what 50 minutes of Yoel Romero artillery couldn’t and put Whittaker down for the count.
Luckily for us, Adesanya will have no shortage of willing dance partners come 2020. Let’s see if he can’t find his way to the top of this list again.