Great fights come in all shapes, from technique-free slugfests to 25-minute chess matches. This year gave us oodles of standout wars from all across that spectrum. Join us for a look at the 2019 “Fights of the Year.”
5. Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington (UFC 245)
Of all the expectations this fight accumulated during its marination, “Fight of the Year” candidate wasn’t among them. Neither Usman nor Covington were known to be particularly devastating finishers. Meanwhile, “The Nigerian Nightmare” rode a four-fight decision streak into his first title defense, while Covington was enjoying a five-fight stretch of his own.
As it turns out, these two can put on a show when simply outwrestling their opposition isn’t on the table.
Covington’s customary output carried him to an early lead, but the champ proved able to match his pace and found increasing success with his heavier blows. The third round saw Usman secure a lead with a persistent body attack and a crushing right cross that split Covington’s infamous jaw.
Just as Usman looked fit to cruise, however, his output appeared to wane, allowing Covington to once again outwork him. Covington, now with a firm grip on the momentum, was just minutes away from a decision victory when another of those right hands dropped him hard. Another knockdown soon followed, and as Usman thwacked him with hammerfists, the ref called a halt to proceedings.
Beyond the catharsis of a heel getting his comeuppance, this was just an entertaining scrap. Well done, gents.
4. Brad Riddell vs. Jaime Mullarkey (UFC 243)
There were a lot of knockdown, drag-out slugfests to choose from when making this list and I’m sure that many of you would have chosen one of the honorable mentions instead. This one stayed in my head longer than any other, though, so in the Top 5 it goes.
This had nowhere near the divisional importance or star value of Usman vs. Covington, but what it did have was sheer violent lunacy.
We knew coming in that this was bursting with the potential for insane action Riddell boasted a long, impressive kickboxing pedigree and Mullarkey’s own highlight real included a fair bit of high-octane biffing. When they collided, everything went as expected. This was a brutal, back-and-forth war in which both men dug deep into their bags of tricks, culminating in a historically ludicrous third round that featured multiple knockdowns and some jaw-dropping feats of durability from Mullarkey.
Get both these guys back on the screen as soon as possible.
3. Vicente Luque vs. Bryan Barberena (UFC on ESPN 1)
In one corner stood Vicente Luque, the wholly unexpected TUF 22 product who’d rampaged his way to seven brutal stoppage wins in eight UFC appearance. In the other stood Bryan Barberena, the tank of a man who’d outlasted vaunted prospects Sage Northcutt and Warlley Alves. What ensued was, well, expected.
These two spent the majority of three rounds beating the living hell out of each other, Luque sitting down on teeth-rattling sledgehammers while Barberena unloaded a seemingly endless tide of scoring blows. The latter strategy appeared to be working before Luque, whose punches had failed to do the trick, instead leveled the seemingly indestructible “Bam Bam” with vicious knees in the final seconds of the final round.
This was the first of four 2019 battles for Luque, all of which turned out to be highlights of their respective cards. Though I’m sad to see “The Silent Assassin” take a break, he’s absolutely earned it.
2. Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway 2 (UFC 236)
These two first met in 2012, when Holloway was a gangly 20-year-old striker and Poirier was a gritty brawler with sneaky submissions. We got a couple minutes of solid striking before Poirier manhandled Holloway to the mat and took advantage of the Hawaiian’s underdeveloped ground game.
They stepped into the cage this past April so thoroughly improved that their 2012 selves looked pedestrian. Poirier had evolved from a face-first bruiser into a brutally efficient boxer-puncher, abandoning the debilitating cut to 145 pounds in the process. Holloway’s high-flying offense had been honed into a lethal volume-striking offense, his nonexistent takedown defense refined into an impenetrable wall.
The rematch bore as little resemblance to the first incarnation as its participants. Poirier roared out of the gate, landing at will on the notoriously durable Featherweight king and marching through his customary avalanche of punches. He continued to tee off through the second round, only for Holloway’s gas tank and persistence to drag “Blessed” back into the fight.
Poirier refused to falter, though, and matched the champ’s grueling pace to bank the championship rounds and walk away with the interim Lightweight title.
After dealing with a murderer’s row of top 155-pound contenders, Poirier finally getting the gold was one of the year’s most feel-good moments.
1. Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum (UFC 236)
Whether or not this truly overshadowed the main event is a matter of opinion. Personally, the dramatic momentum shifts and climactic nature of the final round put this one on top.
This fight wasn’t even supposed to happen; Gastelum was set to challenge Robert Whittaker at UFC 234 while Adesanya dealt with Anderson Silva. Then Whittaker’s guts said “nah,” so Adesanya got an (interim) title fight on a two-month turnaround. And good thing, too, because they put on a show for the ages.
Though Adesanya figured to have a significant edge on the feet, it was Gastelum who drew first blood, nearly putting the vaunted kickboxer on his seat with a short right hook midway through the first round. He was unable to capitalize, however, and Adesanya seized the momentum a round later by landing a spinning elbow and flooring the TUF champ with a chopping right as the latter looked to separate.
Adesanya’s range and craft kept him in the driver’s seat throughout the third, only for Gastelum’s power and persistence to reassert themselves. A head kick badly wobbled Adesanya and opened him up to some heavy blows, and despite Adesanya fighting his way back into the mix, all three judges had it 2-2 going into the final round.
Adesanya wound up having a little more left in the tank. Gastelum put in a truly commendable effort, but that belt was going to New Zealand one way or another. Adesanya put Gastelum in submission trouble early, and as an exhausted Gastelum desperately plodded forward, Adesanya met him with lethal counters that left his foe barely clinging to consciousness. All “KG” could do was survive, and that wasn’t enough.
Israel Adesanya is a special fighter, and I can only hope we get to see him ply his craft for years to come.
Honorable Mentions: Yair Rodriguez vs. Jeremy Stephens, Paulo Costa vs. Yoel Romero, Justin Gaethje vs. Edson Barbosa, Pedro Munhoz vs. Cody Garbrandt, Demian Maia vs. Ben Askren
What Was The Best UFC/MMA Fight In 2019?
This poll is closed
Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington
Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum
Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway 2
Vicente Luque vs. Bryan Barberena
Brad Riddell vs. Jaime Mullarkey
Other (Explain in comments section below)