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Five major lessons learned from UFC’s whirlwind 2020

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Recapping some of the most notable events and primary takeaways from a year unlike any other ...

Russian mixed martial artist and UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov arrives in Makhachkala after fight with Justin Gaethje Photo by Press Office of the Head of the \TASS via Getty Images

While I’ll do my best to avoid the ever-present and annoying pandemic-isms — would anyone say we’re in this together by any chance? — it’s hard to ignore the simple fact that 2020 was ... different. Regardless of wealth or location, the year will most likely standout for those of us who survived it, simply because something was affected by the various s—t storm of circumstances that made up the last 12 months.

UFC is no exception.

This has been a tremendously long year. Remember all those training videos from Thailand? They were filmed this year, even if it seems several ages ago. The last six months have been perhaps the busiest in UFC history, as UFC rebounded from its forced slow period with a vengeance, putting on more events than ever before.

As the year wraps up and UFC’s final bouts have settled, let’s take a look back at a long, strange 2020 and try to learn a bit from all that happened about our corner of the combat sports world.

Lesson #1: The UFC Machine Crushes Its Obstacles

Regardless of how much one buys into UFC and Dana White’s propaganda about their willingness to act while others were sitting on their hands — a generous interpretation that could also been seen as a company more willing to put its employees at risk — it is absolutely undeniable that UFC were among the first back to business in the sports world.

From Tachi Palace to Jacksonville, UFC searched far and wide for a new home. Eventually, the recently built UFC APEX and newly minted “Fight Island” have become just that, providing consistent venues for fights. It cannot have been easy, but UFC pulled it off.

More than that, UFC maintained its momentum after returning to its feet. Tomorrow night will be the first weekend free of a UFC event since the Fourth of July — 24 weeks in a row! Some of those events were rough. Main events like Jessica Eye vs. Cynthia Calvillo and Anthony Smith vs. Devin Clark should never have happened. Yet, it hardly mattered, as UFC kept the ball rolling and fulfilled its contract with ESPN in return for beaucoup bucks.

UFC’s long-term goal has been to market the company as the primary product, and it’s hard to argue that the company has not succeeded.

Lesson #2: Training Isn’t Real

Count me among those who was skeptical when UFC returned regarding how fighters would be able to perform.

For long periods of time, gyms were closed. In some parts of the globe, they still are! Professional fighters still had to train and prepare under ridiculous circumstances, and there was a seemingly ludicrous expectation that their performances would remain top-notch.

If Lesson #1 was about the strength of the company, this is a shoutout to the fighters themselves, who were able to perform despite the circumstances. Half the roster seemed to contract COVID-19 at one point or another, swapped match-ups willy-nilly, and plenty fought without their usual coaches’ aid, yet the average viewer would never realize the difference.

Two extreme examples immediately come to mind: Paul Felder and Max Holloway. Felder stepped up on a week’s notice without having trained in months to make weight and give Rafael dos Anjos a hard fight for 25 minutes. Holloway, stuck under Hawaii’s extremely strict stay-at-home orders, did a majority of his training via Zoom for the Alexander Volkanovski rematch, and most think he won!

2020 provided numerous examples of short-notice wins and generally unbelievable performances stemming from less-than-ideal circumstances, which only made those moments more impressive.

Lesson #3: Flyweight Is Here To Stay

Flyweights headlined the final two pay-per-views of 2020, and while I doubt they broke any sales records, that’s an accomplishment in itself for the division that was nearly wiped from UFC existence not long ago.

Deiveson Figueiredo obviously deserves a great deal of credit. Three brutal finishes to capture and defend the title established him as perhaps the most aggressive champion on the roster, but his “Fight of the Year”-worthy draw with Brandon Moreno was equally as valuable in solidifying the division’s future.

Plus, the recent rise of the Flyweight division really shifts the focus to what could be. UFC is beginning to recoup some of the athletes cut in the late 2018/2019 purge, but many of the division’s top contenders are still elsewhere. If they were gathered under one umbrella, the 125-pound division could rival most any other.

Imagine for a moment a Top 10 like this:

  1. Deiveson Figueiredo
  2. Henry Cejudo
  3. Demetrious Johnson
  4. Joseph Benavidez
  5. Kyoji Horiguchi
  6. Askar Askarov
  7. Dustin Ortiz
  8. Alex Perez
  9. Manel Kape
  10. Alexandre Pantoja

While “Mighty Mouse” may now forever be out of reach, there is a real depth of talent at 125 pounds that has yet to be fully capitalized on. Maybe 2021 is the year?

Lesson #4: Khabib Nurmagomedov, G.O.A.T. Candidate

Nothing is set in stone, but it appears fairly certain that Khabib intends to step away from competition for good at 29-0.

Nurmagomedov’s excellence has never really been in question. We did not enter 2020 wondering if “The Eagle” was any good. However, Nurmagomedov made perhaps the greatest single fight statement imaginable. He frankly embarrassed Justin Gaethje, walking straight into the knockout artist’s grill and wearing him down to nothing in a round and a half.

On the mat, Nurmagomedov cut through the two-time All American’s defense like a hot knife through butter. Then, he immediately called it quits, leaving us to ponder his legacy.

There is no clear greatest of all time (GOAT). Perhaps Georges St. Pierre said it best, that all the top stars have small moments as GOAT. Whatever your interpretation of the murky label, Nurmagomedov leaves the sport with his own name on the shortlist.

He may not have a dozen title defenses, but Nurmagomedov’s level of dominance was unmatched, and that counts for something.

Lesson #5: Kevin Holland Is Good Now

UFC 256 featured the two frontrunners for “Fighter Of The Year” on the main card. Figueiredo brought a 3-0 record in three title bouts into his fourth title fight of the year, while “Trailblazer” entered the cage as the only man with a chance to go 5-0 in 2020.

Figueiredo’s draw was a great fight, but it cannot hold a candle to knocking out Ronaldo Souza from bottom position. Holland took an apparent disadvantage and turned it into an exclamation point, scoring the biggest win of his career in the process.

Holland actually entered the year following a loss. More than that, the only thing keeping his UFC record above .500 was an iffy split-decision win over Gerard Meerschaert. His talent was matched by his poor decision-making, and few would have expected a breakout year.

Four knockouts in five wins changes his situation dramatically, placing Holland at No. 10 in the Middleweight division and priming him for a title run next year.

Of course, there were hundreds of fights and pivotal moments, so lots of other lessons can be learned from UFC’s 2020. What did we miss?