With COVID causing constant cancellations and rendering a whole heap of matchups infeasible, many martial artists struggled to see action at all, much less distinguish themselves from their compatriots. Still, a few managed to pull it off, so join us as we check out 2020’s “Fighters of the Year.”
5. Israel Adesanya/Valentina Shevchenko (tie)
The Middleweight king and Flyweight queen were two of just three UFC champions to make the walk more than once this year, and for that alone they deserve recognition.
After claiming last year’s Fighter of the Year crown, “The Last Stylebender” stumbled out of the 2020 gate with a stinker against Yoel Romero, which saw both men throw far more feints than strikes. Luckily for Adesanya, Paulo Costa was there to reignite the hype, initiating a prolonged war of words to set the stage for what figured to be a terrific clash between a technical wizard and a heretofore unstoppable powerhouse. Instead, Adesanya utterly demolished the hulking Brazilian, once more demonstrating the seemingly insurmountable gap between him and the rest of the stacked Middleweight division.
Shevchenko, meanwhile, inverted that arc somewhat. Her February walloping of Katlyn Chookagian was pure domination from start to finish, culminating in the second (T)KO finish of her Octagon career. She then geared up to face Joanne Calderwood in June, but after “Bullet” withdrew due to injury, “Dr. Kneevil” elected to stay busy against former Invicta champ Jennifer Maia, who usurped her spot in the queue with a first-round armbar.
Despite that impressive effort, Shevchenko entered her clash with Maia as a nearly 20-to-1 favorite in places, only to run into some early adversity thanks to the Brazilian’s potent top game. Still, Shevchenko quickly regained momentum, ultimately claiming a unanimous decision in a reasonably entertaining tussle.
It’s unclear where the pair will go from here; Adesanya has claimed he’s moving up to challenge Jan Blachowicz for the 205-pound title, but there’s a whole mess of worthy contenders waiting for him if that doesn’t pan out. As far as Shevchenko, she lacks a standout contender, though that could easily change.
4. Charles Oliveira
“do Bronx” has personally experienced more rises and falls than your average three fighters put together. He exploded onto the UFC scene in 2010, ran headlong into Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone, then tried his hand at Featherweight, where constant weight misses and losses to top-flight opponents intervened any time he looked fit to break out.
His 2017 defeat to Paul Felder, which saw him completely fall apart in the face of adversity, he regained momentum once again, and 2020 proved that this turnaround may be the one that finally sticks.
Entering the year on a six-fight, six-stoppage streak, Oliveira headlined a March 14th Fight night against the dangerous Kevin Lee. Though “The Motown Phenom” offered the sort of wrestling and jiu-jitsu skill that’s plagued Oliveira in the past, the Brazilian fought brilliantly for two full rounds before tapping him with a bonus-willing guillotine.
Another high-risk match up against Beneil Dariush loomed afterwards, but after that fell through, Oliveira signed on to face Tony Ferguson earlier this month. “El Cucuy,” the Lightweight division’s god of attrition, would have utterly ruined the old Oliveira. The new version ran roughshod over Ferguson, punching through his vaunted takedown defense with contemptuous ease and nearly destroying his arm with an early armbar.
I admit to being terribly saddened when promising fighters fail to pan out. To see Oliveira put it all together after following his efforts for a decade warms my heart.
3. Jan Blachowicz
It’s hard to overstate the extent of Blachowicz’s improvement. When he joined the world’s largest fight promotion back in 2014, he made immediate waves with a brutal body kick finish of Ilir Latifi, only for subsequent efforts to reveal his nonexistent gas tank and shoddy takedown defense. He could have very easily been cut after his 1-4 skid, but he instead fixed the glaring holes in his game and emerged as a bonafide contender.
The Polish bruiser opened his 2020 campaign with a rematch against Corey Anderson, who rather handily dominated him in 2015. This time around, Blachowicz leveled him with a perfectly timed counter right, which ultimately earned him a shot at the newly vacant Light Heavyweight belt. In his way stood Dominick Reyes, who had seemingly defeated Jon Jones earlier in the year before falling victim to shoddy judging.
As with almost all of his recent bouts, Blachowicz entered as an underdog, and as with almost all of his recent bouts, he proved terribly undervalued. He never allowed “The Devastator” to get out of first gear, and his power proved potent enough to dispatch Reyes in the second round.
Blachowicz now finds himself floating atop a shark tank, and whether he meets Glover Teixeira, Aleksandar Rakic, Israel Adesanya, Jiri Prochazka, or someone else next, his work is far from done. For now, though, he can sit back and enjoy the view form atop the mountain.
2. Kevin Holland
Your average UFC fighter in 2020 fought two, maybe three times if he or she was lucky. A select few managed four. Kevin Holland laced up the gloves five times in the span of seven months. Hell, he might have managed six if a shoulder injury hadn’t kept him from facing Daniel Rodriguez on a two-week turnaround.
It’s not like he fought scrubs, either. The only gimme among them came against Charlie Ontiveros, who stepped in on ultra-late notice for the high-risk, low-reward Makhmud Muradov. In May, he smashed former LFA champ and “Contender Series” standout Anthony Hernandez in just 39 seconds. In August, he schooled and ultimately finished Joaquin Buckley, who went on to score one of the greatest knockouts of all time. In September, he edged out the always-dangerous Darren Stewart by split decision.
And in December, he somehow contrived to knockout the legendary “Jacare” Souza from his back.
Holland was always immensely talented, and it seems like he’s finally learning to fully utilize that talent. I can’t wait to see where he goes from here.
1. Deiveson Figueiredo
“Deus da Guerra” fought twice as many times as any other UFC titleholder this year, and he turned in entertaining performances every single time. Can’t ask for much more than that.
Things admittedly got off to a rough start when he missed weight against Joseph Benavidez, but the Brazilian quickly caught fire. He flattened a division stalwart with a vicious right hand in the second round, successfully made weight for the rematch five months later, and crushed “Joe B” in even more dominant fashion to claim the vacant Flyweight title.
Former Bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt came knocking, only to pull out with a torn bicep and force capable contender Alex Perez to take his place. Figueiredo, heedless of Perez’s top-notch submission skills, needed less than two minutes to catch him in a fight-ending guillotine.
When UFC 256 suddenly needed a new main event, they knew who to call. Figueiredo made the fastest turnaround in UFC title history to face the lethal Brandon Moreno on three weeks’ notice and put on a fight for the ages. Though he was forced to settle for a draw thanks to a point deduction, he still ended the year with the belt around his waist.
Figueiredo has no shortage of worthy challengers waiting for him in 2021 and I’d be happy to see him fight any one of them. Keep up the good work, champ.
Honorable Mentions: Gilbert Burns, Khamzat Chimaev, Brandon Moreno, Neil Magny, Marcin Tybura
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