Sherdog’s 2020 Event of the Year

By: Jay Pettry
Dec 30, 2020

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What a difference a year makes. Remember, 2019 brought about more major fights than ever before with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Bellator MMA, Rizin Fighting Federation, Invicta Fighting Championships and other organizations. Due to the story most are likely sick of reading about at this point—five letters, a hyphen and two numbers—MMA contracted and even halted in various promotions. The Professional Fighters League completely shut down, and even though it could have held one-off events, it opted to keep its tournament formula intact. All seemed lost in March, when Bellator scrapped Bellator 241 the day before the fights and the UFC held its final event for the foreseeable future on March 14.

Sports shut down across the board, and perhaps more than others, MMA suffered greatly. In December, some organizations still have yet to recover, while others put out scattered cards throughout the year to build up momentum again. Even when some of these events took place, they were hamstrung by late-notice scratches, positive tests and contact tracing. Despite all of this, almost 100 events were spread across the major promotions this year—not counting One Championship, which made the unusual decision to tape-delay its fight cards and keep the results a secret, all while still allowing betting to take place on shows that had already happened.

Unfortunately for these other promotions, the only cards that received nominations or votes took place under the UFC banner. A few major UFC cards deserved individual recognition, first and foremost the final pay-per-view of the year: UFC 256, which ended with a “Fight of the Year” candidate headliner between Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno. One other especially noteworthy event also went down this summer, when UFC on ESPN 12 concluded June with another “Fight of the Year” contender in Dustin Poirier-Dan Hooker. While there is still one Rizin event left in 2020, unless multiple bouts interject themselves into the “of the Year” discussions, its significance will not likely match the first major fight card to take place after the unexpected break.

After overcoming a logistical nightmare with a herculean effort of valiant UFC staffers and crew, the Las Vegas-based promotion was back in business in May. Merely finding a venue proved a difficult challenge, as several locales declined to host these events and others appeared too costly to consider. The very idea of regulating an event, keeping the fighters safe and allowing the officials to participate was too daring for some commissions, so the UFC went to Florida. In Jacksonville, the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena played host to one of the more memorable events ever to take place with the promotion.

Leading up to UFC 249, there was a real scare that took place on weigh-in day. Ronaldo Souza ended up getting pulled from his match the day before it was set to take place against Uriah Hall, after most of his team tested positive. The UFC was unconcerned and went ahead with 11 fights. The eyes of the world were on the UFC, as no major sport had dived back into live events at the time. For an event without a bona fide pay-per-view draw booked, a reported 700,000 purchasers tuned in to watch the show, and they did not leave disappointed.

The promotion kicked things off at light heavyweight, with rising light heavyweight Ryan Spann against Sam Alvey. The two 205ers fought valiantly for three hard rounds, and the judges had their hands full from the beginning; Spann took a narrow split decision, but luckily for the officials, there was no crowd in the building to agree or disagree with the call. The fun bout started the night off swimmingly, as fans from afar tasted combat for the first time in what felt like an eternity.

The next bout between Bryce Mitchell and Charles Rosa was far less competitive but no less interesting. “Thug Nasty” Mitchell re-introduced himself on the early ESPN preliminary card to the masses with an overwhelming barrage of takedowns, top control and a record number of twister attempts as he dominated Rosa on the ground. When the final bell mercifully sounded for the hapless Rosa, Mitchell officially notched five submission attempts and scorecards of 30-25, 30-25 and 30-24 as a new contender rose at featherweight.

These two decisions gave way to something much more significant, when perennial Top 15 welterweight contender Vicente Luque tangled with unorthodox but ferociously powerful striker Niko Price. Opening the UFC 246 preliminary card, put simply, was the kind of scrap that would have easily won “Fight of the Night” were it not for the spectacular headliner later in the evening. While the scorers each awarded Luque the first two rounds, Price was by no means out of the contest, standing toe-to-toe with his fellow brawler for as long as he could. As damage mounted, Price’s face started to tell the tale of “the spirit is willing, but flesh is spongey and bruised,” his eye swelling shut in a way that forced the doctor to call off the fight.

The action was reliably steady as the night progressed, when Carla Esparza took a chippy split decision over Michelle Waterson in a strawweight tilt that hung on the razor’s edge. The organization shifting then from the lightest division to the heaviest, Alexey Oleynik similarly edged Fabricio Werdum after three rounds of unexpectedly fun heavyweight grappling exchanges. Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone ran it back at welterweight, in a rematch seven years in the making, with the end result another in a growing line of contentious decisions where one could not slide a cigarette paper between the two. That last battle set the stage for the main card, which started slow but was quickly off to the races.

In an effort to give Greg Hardy some prime airtime, the promotion slotted him on the main card against unbeaten power kicker Yorgan De Castro. While the match was somewhat competitive in the early going, the pace waned as de Castro virtually stopped striking altogether. To note, the Cape Verde native landed a mere nine significant strikes across the final 10 minutes to produce the only lackluster bout of the night. That match out of the way, the main card could well and truly begin, and it did when Calvin Kattar took on Jeremy Stephens.

Two featherweights with vastly different career trajectories stood across from the other, with “Fight of the Night” written all over it. Stephens marred the contest slightly by coming in 4.5 pounds heavy, but “The Boston Finisher” paid it no mind as he walked Stephens down like he was taking Bunker Hill. The longtime vet got the better of the early exchanges, working effective leg kicks while lobbing bombs. In the second round, kicks absorbed by both men did some damage, but they were no less aggressive as they launched shots that would have felled lesser men. After Stephens concluded a combination, the Massachusetts native stepped in with a lethal elbow that short-circuited “Lil Heathen.” Kattar finished the job with slashing elbows that would have made Sweeney Todd blush, putting a cherry on top of his excellent performance that ended the night not impressive enough to muster a post-fight award.

One such performance that did garner the instant bonus check came in the “featured” fight of the night, as Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik squared off in a de facto battle to become the hardest heavyweight hitter. In the span of 20 seconds, these two juggernauts threw nearly 20 strikes, but as it turned out, only one was needed. “The Predator” did just what he set out to do, stalking his prey and chasing it down immediately, with a swarm of punches that could knock down a house. A left hook at the end shut the lights out, and in victory, Ngannou rose to a place all to himself. Ngannou had become the second UFC heavyweight – joining Stipe Miocic – to notch three knockouts in less than a minute. Unlike the champ Miocic, all three for Ngannou came over top-10 opponents Curtis Blaydes, Cain Velasquez and Rozenstruik.

The action was far from over, as the first of two title fights came to bear when Henry Cejudo aimed to knock off who many consider the all-time greatest bantamweight in Dominick Cruz. Unlike so many others, former two-division champ Cejudo, who vacated his 125-pound throne before locking horns with Cruz, did not fall for anything Cruz set up. Confidence seeping out of every pore of his body, the Olympic gold medalist wrestler peppered Cruz’ legs with kicks to stymie the movement of the elusive striker. His strategy proved successful, as he outlanded Cruz by a wide margin while doing much more damage when landing. As the two speedy competitors crashed together like waves in a storm, an inadvertent head clash split open Cejudo’s forehead, infuriating the champ. “The Messenger” sent a message loud and clear after the action resumed, planting his knee upside Cruz’ head and sending the ex-champ down to the canvas. A cool dozen unanswered strikes were all referee Keith Peterson needed to save Cruz from any further nonsense. In the blink of an eye, Cejudo served Cruz his first knockout loss, and then retired.

Time and tide wait for no fighter, as the UFC had to keep rolling right into the main event, with the interim lightweight strap on the line between Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson. In 2020, there was no shortage of “Fight of the Year” contenders, and while this match may not have taken home the honors, it certainly belonged in the conversation. In the red corner, the irresistible force of “El Cucuy” and a 12-fight win streak surged into this title fight. In the blue, a nearly immovable object Gaethje with a three-fight first-round knockout streak – the second fighter in UFC lightweight history to do this, predated by B.J. Penn – closed as an understandable but sizeable +190 underdog. The fight did not play out relative to expectations.

What came was nearly 24 minutes of almost constant action, where Gaethje proved his cardio, toughness and fist strength as he hit Ferguson with everything he had. The Arizona native did not allow Ferguson to get into his fabled groove, and walked down the one-time interim champ with bad intentions. Ferguson historically forced fighters to wilt with pressure and pace, constantly landing offense and not allowing his foe to breathe. Gaethje used this very tactic against Ferguson, slamming him in the face with exactly 100 significant strikes before it was all said and done. The accuracy of Ferguson typically lauded, Gaethje one-upped that to a massive degree, scoring an incredible 72 percent of his shots. Ferguson’s otherworldly chin held together for as long as humanly possible.

On the judges’ scorecards, the match may not have seemed particularly competitive: Judges Chris Lee and Derek Clearly had only seen Round 2 for Ferguson, while Sal D’Amato would have handed in a clean sweep for “The Highlight.” These tallies ultimately not necessary, Ferguson needed to finish the fight or rack up 10-8s as early as the fourth round to take home the win in some judges’ eyes. Gaethje would not allow this to happen. As Ferguson started to fade from the mounting damage, swelling and blood flow, Gaethje turned up his intensity. Mere jabs forced Ferguson to shake off the cobwebs, and referee Herb Dean rescued a fighter too tough for his own good. A mere seven fights into his UFC tenure, and Gaethje had gold wrapped around his waist by UFC President Dana White – Gaethje declined to wear the belt, throwing it on the ground and exclaiming, “I’ll wait for the real one,” as he started mentally preparing to take on champ Khabib Nurmagomedov. Gaethje did not even bother to carry the belt with him out of the cage, and instead coach Trevor Wittman scooped it off the ground to bring it along.

It seemed only fitting that Gaethje, a thrilling force who notched easily the biggest win of his career in devastating fashion, took home $100,000 in bonus money for both “Fight of the Night” and “Performance of the Night.” In victory, Gaethje placed himself among a pantheon of fighters to take home double bonuses in multiple fights, in a list that includes only Anderson Silva and Donald Cerrone throughout UFC history. His double bonus-winning performance closed as the lone bout in 2020 to earn such a distinction.

If the story leading up to this momentous event wasn’t enough, and the fights did not quite hit the spot, one last nugget came from UFC 249 directly. During the pay-per-view broadcast, the promotion announced that it will be inducting Georges St. Pierre arguably the greatest fighter in the history of the sport – into the “Modern Wing” of the 2020 UFC Hall of Fame class. The longtime welterweight king and one-time middleweight champion said farewell to the sport twice while on the top of his game, with a belt in hand each time. Although the plans for the ceremony changed, St. Pierre’s induction was an important one regardless of how the UFC Hall of Fame is viewed.

After the dust settled and the commentators started wrapping up the broadcast, the MMA community felt lighter as a whole. Forum posters, Redditors and MMA Twitter members came together, if only for a moment, to celebrate what had just transpired. Although the fragile peace would soon give way to whether Gaethje could upset Nurmagomedov, or on to some tired and rehashed argument about Conor McGregor, for a short time, all was right in the MMA world.

UFC 249 had delivered just what everyone needed, reviving the sport and giving MMA outlets something more to do than tread water running evergreen pieces in hopes of live content to cover. The fights enthralling, the story encouraging and the end result satisfying, UFC 249 knocked it out of the park. It is for these reasons that UFC 249 has been awarded the 2020 “Event of the Year.”

UFC 249 takes its place alongside previous Sherdog “Event of the Year” winners in UFC 236, UFC 229, UFC 214, UFC 206, UFC 194, UFC 178, UFC 166, UFC on Fox 5, UFC 134, WEC 53, UFC 100 and UFC 84.

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