To put it mildly, 2020 was a surreal year.
While many of us spent much more time indoors than we would like thanks to a global pandemic, the sporting world would offer a merciful reprieve with MMA faring better than most.
From early willing ignorance of attempting to force through events on US tribal lands to a COVID-19 secure bubble on ‘Fight Island‘, the UFC would take the lead in bringing back elite sport to our screens and would finish out the year with a consecutive run of events dating all the way back to July.
With great title fights, shocking upsets and sublime submissions, 2020 was a bumper year for MMA with all things considered and so here is our annual retrospective look at the year that has passed, handing out some awards for the best that MMA had to offer.
With eight awards to dish out, all of the nominees stem from the major MMA promotions barring any truly exceptional piece of brilliance. So, without further ado, here are the 2020 ReadMMA End of Year Awards:
Fight of the Year
(Previous Winners: ’16: Cub Swanson vs. Doo Ho Choi; ’17: Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Johnson; ’18: Robert Whittaker vs. Yoel Romero II; ’19: Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum)
Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UFC 248)
Technical, relentless and punishing for both women, Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk would simply batter one another non-stop for 25 minutes over the UFC strawweight championship. Leaving Jedrzejczyk with a gruesome haematoma and Weili swollen and bloodied herself, it would be the reigning champion in Weili who would leave with their hand raised via split decision in her first title defence.
Josh Emmett vs. Shane Burgos (UFC on ESPN 11)
Pitting two of the featherweight division’s most powerful punchers against one another, Josh Emmett and Shane Burgos duly delivered as both men swung for the fences in the pocket. Despite Emmett suffering what would later be revealed as a brutal knee injury in the opening exchanges, Emmett would withstand Burgos’ sustained leg attacks to earn a unanimous decision after scoring two knockdowns in the third and final round.
Dustin Poirier vs. Dan Hooker (UFC on ESPN 12)
Both Dustin Poirier and Dan Hooker would throw any defensive intuitions out of the window in this fight as the pair of lightweights threw everything and the kitchen sink at their opponent. With Poirier relying on his boxing as opposed to Hooker’s more varied and rangy kicks and knees, ‘The Diamond’s’ experience and greater gas tank allowed him to rebound into the win column after losing a 155 lbs unification in his previous outing.
Michelle Waterson vs. Angela Hill (UFC Fight Night 177)
With Angela Hill famed for her work rate and Waterson developing a reputation for an unengaging style, ‘Overkill’ would bring the best out of Waterson in a short notice five-round fight. Going blow for blow on the feet, Waterson’s more varied skillset would see her edge out Hill on the scorecards as they traded right until the final buzzer.
Marvin Vettori vs. Jack Hermansson (UFC on ESPN 19)
Vettori vs. Hermansson would only come together on a weeks notice due to COVID infections but the middleweight pairing would go on to break records for significant strikes landed at 185 lbs, beating out last years fight of the year in Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum. With knockdowns, takedowns and battles in the pocket, ‘The Italian Dream’ would get the nod over 25 minutes in the biggest fight of his career thus far.
Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno (UFC 256)
With both combatants fighting just three weeks prior at UFC 255, UFC 256’s flyweight championship main event will go down in the history books as the best in 125 lbs history. Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno would ultimately be ruled a majority draw thanks to a point deduction for the champion in Figueiredo but the two men left everything inside of the octagon to close out the UFC’s 2020 in glorious fashion.
Winner: Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk
After a combined 768 strikes were thrown at a blistering pace over 25 minutes, Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk is simply one of, if not the, best fight in MMA history regardless of gender.
With the champion’s fight camp taking her across three continents due to the COVID-19 pandemic taking hold in her native China, the fact that Weili even made it to the octagon that night was a special feat in itself.
Once inside of the cage, the technique, heart and determination of both women was truly awe-inspiring as the last UFC event to host a crowd was made that extra bit sweeter as this jaw-dropping fight unfolded.
Knockout of the Year
(Previous Winners: ’16: Michael Page – Flying Knee vs. Evangelista Santos; ’17: Francis Ngannou – Uppercut vs. Alistair Overeem; ’18: Yair Rodriguez – Back Elbow vs. Chan Sung Jung; ’19: Jorge Masvidal – Flying Knee vs. Ben Askren)
Calvin Kattar (vs. Jeremy Stephens) (UFC 249)
Sean O’Malley (vs. Eddie Wineland) (UFC 250)
Cody Garbrandt (vs. Raphael Assuncao) (UFC 250)
Beneil Dariush (vs. Scott Holtzman) (UFC Fight Night 174)
Mamed Khadilov (vs. Scott Askham) (KSW 55)
Joaquin Buckley (vs. Impa Kasanganay) (UFC Fight Night 179)
Cory Sandhagen (vs. Marlon Moraes) (UFC Fight Night 179)
Khaos Williams (vs. Abdul Razak Alhassan) (UFC Fight Night 182)
Jordan Leavitt (vs. Matt Wiman) (UFC on ESPN 19)
Kevin Holland (vs. Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza) (UFC 256)
Winner: Joaquin Buckley
Not only is Joaquin Buckley’s spinning back kick the knockout of 2020, but it’s also more than likely the best of all time.
From his first kick being caught, Buckley would quickly spring up into the air, swing his hips at an electric pace and land a spinning kick with his other foot straight into the mush of Impa Kasanganay.
Buckley’s KO would look outlandish in a movie or video game but with ‘New Mansa’ bringing fiction into the real world, his knockout is the only possible winner.
Submission of the Year
(Previous Winners: ’16: Mackenzie Dern – Omoplata/RNC; ’17: Demetrious Johnson – Suplex Armbar; ’18: Aljamain Sterling & Zabit Magomedsharipov – Suloev Stretches; ’19: Bryce Mitchell – Twister)
Kyle Crutchmer – Anaconda Choke (vs. Scott Futrell) (Bellator 239)
Mackenzie Dern – Kneebar (vs. Hannah Cifers) (UFC on ESPN 9)
Aljamain Sterling – Rear Naked Choke (vs. Cory Sandhagen) (UFC 250)
Ariane Lipski – Kneebar (vs. Luana Carolina) (UFC Fight Night 172)
Oliver Enkamp – Japanese Necktie (vs. Emmanuel Dawa) (Bellator 248)
Khabib Nurmagomedov – Triangle Choke (vs. Justin Gaethje) (UFC 254)
Alexander Romanov – Forearm Choke (vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima) (UFC on ESPN 17)
A.J McKee – Neck Crank (vs. Darrion Caldwell) (Bellator 253)
Jimmy Flick – Flying Triangle Choke (vs. Cody Durden) (UFC Fight Night 183)
Ayaka Hamasaki – Leg Scissors (vs. Miyuu Yamamoto) (RIZIN 26)
Winner: A.J McKee - Neck Crank
While Ayaka Hamasaki ran the winner close with her New Years Eve leg scissor, A.J McKee’s unique neck crank gets the nod due to its rarity and brilliant execution.
Remaining active from his guard, McKee would sneak his arm in for an underhook, get his hooks in around Darrion Caldwell’s waist and use his free left hand to apply the crank on Caldwell’s neck to devastating fashion.
Now dubbed the ‘McKee-otine’, anyone who gets a submission named after them is deserving of submission of the year.
Event of the Year
(Previous Winners: ’16: UFC 205; ’17: UFC 217; ’18: UFC 229; ’19: UFC 236)
UFC 249 (Gaethje vs. Ferguson)
UFC 251 (Usman vs. Masvidal, Volkanovski vs. Holloway, Yan vs. Aldo)
UFC on ESPN 15 (Edgar vs. Munhoz)
UFC Fight Night 178 (Covington vs. Woodley)
UFC 256 (Figueiredo vs. Moreno)
Winner: UFC 256
They say to save the best for last and the UFC certainly did just that with UFC 256.
While the PPV event itself was scheduled to feature three different title fights at one stage or another, a quick turnaround for the flyweight championship would save the fight card and produce one of the fights of the year in the main event.
From Chase Hooper pulling off a comeback heel hook on the early preliminary portion of the night, the main preliminary card would also see Tecia Torres, Rafael Fiziev and Cub Swanson pick up impressive stoppage victories of their own.
The main card would carry on the same vein as Ciryl Gane and Kevin Holland defeated veteran opponents with stoppages of their own – Holland’s a KO of the year contender before the final three fights of the night would all be excellent bouts going the distance.
With Mackenzie Dern defeating Virna Jandiroba in an exciting clash before Charles Oliveira announced his arrival at the elite end of the lightweight division at Tony Ferguson’s expense, the championship fight between Figueiredo and Moreno would go on to be the greatest in 125 lbs history.
Prospect of the Year
(Previous Winners: ’16: Lando Vannata; ’17: Volkan Oezdemir; ’18: Israel Adesanya; ’19: Edmen Shahbazyan)
Miguel Baeza (10-0)
Making a big step up in competition in 2020, Miguel Baeza would defeat two tough opponents to cement his position as one of the best welterweight prospects in MMA.
First off, Baeza would hand the dogged veteran Matt Brown a TKO loss in May before showcasing a solid ground game to submit the heavy-handed Takashi Sato in November.
Khamzat Chimaev (9-0)
Perhaps the star of the UFC’s Fight Island residence, Khamzat Chimaev went from unknown debutant to one of the most talked-about fighters in no time at all.
Breaking the promotional record for the quickest turnaround of wins in modern history (10 days), Chimaev would float from welterweight to middleweight and dominate all three of his UFC fights from controlling grappling to a one-punch KO of Gerald Meerschaert.
Rafael Fiziev (9-1)
After an unassuming start to his UFC career in 2019, Rafael Fiziev burst into life in 2020 and is now on the precipice of a top 15 ranking in one of the deepest weight classes in MMA.
Defeating Marc Diakiese in a stand-up battle for his first outing of the year, Fiziev would go on to put an exclamation mark on his credentials with a sensational knockout of Renato Moicano at UFC 256.
Jamahal Hill (8-0, 1 NC)
Winning all three of his bouts before a positive marijuana test saw his victory over Klidson Abreu ruled a no contest, Jamahal Hill looks to be a real prospect at light heavyweight.
Finishing out 2020 with a TKO win over Ovince Saint Preux, Hill will be looking towards the top 15 at 205 lbs in 2021.
Mounir Lazzez (10-1)
Tasked with taking on a returning Abdul Razak Alhassan in his UFC debut, Mounir Lazzez went toe-to-toe with the heavy-hitting powerhouse and showcased a gorgeous striking ability to end Alhassan’s three-fight run of first-round knockouts.
Alexander Romanov (13-0)
Alexander ‘King Kong’ Romanov is a finishing machine in the heavyweight division as the 30-year old has won each and every one of his 13 fights inside the scheduled distance.
With two submission wins on his UFC resume for 2020, Romanov’s second, a forearm choke on Marcos Rogerio de Lima, would be a submission of the year candidate.
Ilia Topuria (10-0)
Undefeated at 10-0, ‘El Matador’ Ilia Topuria looks to be a huge prospect at 145 lbs.
With wicked boxing that is more than comfortable punishing the body, Topuria has raced to a 2-0 UFC record including a brilliant KO of Damon Jackson in December.
Winner: Khamzat Chimaev
From debutant to a scheduled fight with the #3 ranked welterweight, Khamzat Chimaev is unquestionably the prospect of the year.
With three truly dominant wins and absorbing one solitary strike combined, ‘Borz’ is a relentless machine that can either suffocate his opponents on the mat or put them unconscious on the feet.
Upset of the Year
(Previous Winners: ’16: Michael Bisping vs. Luke Rockhold; ’17: Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk; ’18: Amanda Nunes vs. Cris Cyborg; ’19: Tristan Connelly vs. Michel Pereira)
Roxanne Modafferi vs. Maycee Barber (UFC 246)
Roxanne Modafferi was seemingly set up as a veteran for the fast rising Maycee Barber to overcome but ‘The Happy Warrior’ would get the last laugh thanks to her grappling and a knee injury suffered by Barber.
Julian Erosa vs. Sean Woodson (UFC on ESPN 12)
Returning to the UFC for a third time as a weeks notice replacement, Julian Erosa would make the most of the opportunity handed to him to earn a third round submission on Sean Woodson.
Mounir Lazzez vs. Abdul Razak Alhassan (UFC on ESPN 13)
With Abdul Razak Alhassan looking to make up for lost time and riding a three-fight first-round KO streak, debutant Mounir Lazzez would take the fight to Alhassan in his domain and bettered the Ghanian with technique and speed.
Trevin Jones vs. Timur Valiev (UFC on EPSN 15)
Acting as a short notice opponent and taking a beating in the opening round, Trevin Jones would rally back as Timur Valiev tired and finished the Russian with strikes in the second.
Shana Dobson vs. Mariya Agapova (UFC on ESPN 15)
Entering the fight with a losing 3-4 record, Shana Dobson was seen as a gimme fight for the hotly tipped Mariya Agapova. What followed was a second round comeback that saw Dobson offer up a shallacking of ground and pound on the mat that saw the contest waved off.
Kevin Croom vs. Roosevelt Roberts (UFC Fight Night 177)
Taking the fight on just one day’s notice, veteran Kevin Croom would score a 31-second standing guillotine on Roosevelt Roberts in his UFC debut at 33-years old.
Damon Jackson vs. Mirsad Bektic (UFC Fight Night 178)
Defeating the talented Mirsad Bektic with a third round submission, Damon Jackson’s first fight back in the UFC since being released in four years ago would see ‘The Leech’ comeback from a poor opening two rounds.
Andrei Arlovski vs. Tanner Boser (UFC on ESPN 17)
While the fight itself wasn’t much to write home about, many saw this fight as a stepping stone for Tanner Boser to continue his impressive ascent through the heavyweight division. Instead, Andrei Arlovski would be that bit quicker to the punch and picked up a unanimous decision win.
Winner: Shana Dobson vs. Mariya Agapova
From a bookies point of view, Shana Dobson’s win over Mariya Agapova is the biggest upset win in UFC history.
Pitting a fighter with a losing record against one who had secured an impressive performance of the night win in her UFC debut, the fact the fight was even made was a bizarre choice.
Nevertheless, Dobson proved practically everyone wrong and to do so with a dominant ending would have been the icing on the cake for ‘Danger’ Dobson.
Female Fighter of the Year
(Previous Winners: ’16: Joanna Jedrzejczyk; ’17: Rose Namajunas; ’18: Amanda Nunes; ’19: Amanda Nunes)
Mackenzie Dern (10-1; 3-0 in 2020)
After suffering the first loss of her career at the end of 2019, Mackenzie Dern would enter 2020 with renewed vigour and showcased all of the skills which saw her become a highly-touted prospect. Submitting both Hannah Cifers and Randa Markos through her famed jiu-jitsu, Dern would close out the year with a decision win against Virna Jandiroba after a brilliant fight.
Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino (23-2, 1 NC; 2-0 in 2020)
Making the move over to Bellator, Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino would get back to her destructive best at the featherweight limit. Handing Julia Budd her first loss in nine years to claim the promotion’s 145 lbs championship via fourth-round TKO in January, ‘Cyborg’ would go on to defend her crown in November with a second-round submission.
Valentina Shevchenko (20-3; 2-0 in 2020)
Continuing her dominance in the UFC’s flyweight division, Valentina Shevchenko would successfully defend her championship twice in 2020. First up would be a commanding TKO win over Katlyn Chookagian in February before recording her fourth title defence against Jennifer Maia in a unanimous decision victory in November.
Zhang Weili (21-1; 1-0 in 2020)
While Zhang Weili would only fight once in 2020, the UFC’s strawweight champion’s lone victory would come in an all-time great fight against the elite striker Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Add in the circumstances surrounding her fight camp and Weili’s first title defence is worth its weight in gold.
Yan Xiaonan (13-1; 2-0 in 2020)
Finishing out the year as the #3 ranked strawweight contender, Yan Xiaonan would defeat two long-standing top contenders in 2020. First defeating Karolina Kowalkiewicz after a tumultuous fight camp due to the beginning of the pandemic, Xiaonan would then showcase her ridiculous work rate on the feet to best Claudia Gadelha on the judges’ scorecards.
Winner: Zhang Weili
Despite only one fight in 2020, the level of competition matters in determining this award and the way in which her victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk was achieved was the defining moment in female MMA in 2020.
Tasked with one of the greatest female fighters of all-time standing opposite, Zhang Weili would go blow to blow with the former strawweight queen and bested her in a fight for the ages.
Male Fighter of the Year
(Previous Winners: ’16: Stipe Miocic; ’17: Robert Whittaker; ’18: Daniel Cormier; ’19: Israel Adesanya)
Gilbert Burns (19-3; 2-0 in 2020)
‘Durinho’ Gilbert Burns has simply been on a tear since moving up to the welterweight division and the Brazilian continued his ascendency in 2020. Handing Demian Maia his first stoppage through strikes since 2009 in March, Burns would go on to handily defeat former champion Tyron Woodley in a shutout over five rounds.
Kevin Holland (21-5; 5-0 in 2020)
Tying the UFC record for most wins in a calendar year, Kevin Holland would see his hand raised five times over 2020. With all but one victory coming via stoppage to boot, Holland would put an exclamation mark on his sensational year with a KO of the year contender against the legendary Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza.
Deiveson Figueiredo (20-1-1; 3-0-1 in 2020)
With three stoppage wins and a fight of the year contender, Deiveson Figueiredo may have done more than anyone to save the flyweight division as 2020 saw him become the 125 lbs king. Stopping Joseph Benavidez with strikes and a submission in back-to-back fights to become champion, ‘Deus da Guerra’ would successfully defend his title in less than two minutes against Alex Perez. Just three weeks later, Figueiredo would retain his championship after a brilliant fight against Brandon Moreno was ruled a majority draw.
Jan Blachowicz (27-8; 2-0 in 2020)
Picking up the light heavyweight championship following Jon Jones’ vacation of the title, Jan Blachowicz displayed his ‘Polish Power’ with two huge TKO/KO wins. First securing an opening-round KO of Corey Anderson in a title eliminator in February, Blachowicz would get the chance to battle Dominick Reyes for the 205 lbs championship and promptly scored a second-round stoppage to become the new light heavyweight king.
Marvin Vettori (16-4-1; 2-0 in 2020)
After a rough start to the year that saw three bouts cancelled in succession, Marvin Vettori would finally enter the octagon in June and defeated an over-the-middleweight-limit Karl Roberson with a first-round submission. ‘The Italian Dream’ would then take the biggest fight of his career on just a weeks notice and defeated Jack Hermansson in a non-stop fight of the year contender to become a top-five ranked middleweight.
Winner: Deiveson Figueiredo
With two submission wins, one TKO win, a fight of the year contender and a flyweight championship on his resume, Deiveson Figueiredo was unquestionably the male fighter of the year.
After starting his year with a disappointing failed weigh-in, his first victory over Joseph Benavidez would leave the flyweight championship vacant and see a rematch scheduled down the line. Figueiredo would then prove that his extra few pounds on fight night were not a contributing factor to his first win as their rematch was even more one-sided in the Brazilian’s favour.
With the 125 lbs championship now around his waist, Figueiredo would record another first-round submission as the now 33-year old quickly snatched up a guillotine choke on Alex Perez in his first title defence.
From there, Figueiredo would be tasked with saving a crumbling UFC 256 as a three-week turnaround was scheduled against Brandon Moreno. What followed was the best fight in flyweight history as Figueiredo and Moreno beat lumps out of one another as a point deduction ensured a majority draw and that the title would remain in ‘Deus da Guerra’s’ possession.