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The Ultimate Fighting Championship successfully bounced back from 2019, where fewer than 30 percent of all fights ended by knockout. 2020 passed that threshold, delivering again and again in a year otherwise handcuffed by COVID-19 woes. For the first 10 months of the year, several standout knockouts took place across the UFC, Bellator MMA, KSW and Legacy Fighting Alliance alike. Whether it was Jake Childers practically slamming Nate Togbah Richardson through the flooring at LFA 83, Ricky Bandejas flatlining Frans Mlambo at Bellator 240 or Francis Ngannou demolishing Jairzinho Rozenstruik in 20 seconds at UFC 249, there was an abundance of glorious carnage.
The field was relatively wide open as the MMA community bore witness to destruction like Beneil Dariush’s spinning backfist of Scott Holtzman at UFC Fight Night 174, or Cody Garbrandt posterizing Raphael Assuncao at UFC 250. That all ceased in October, when one knockout took the sport by storm and virtually ended the search for the greatest knockout authored in this calendar year. To wit, the only two other knockouts this year that even received votes from the Sherdog staff were for Dariush and Ngannou, due to the fantastic nature of this all-time great knockout. Stunning finishes later in the year, like Alexsandro Pereira faceplanting Thomas Powell, or Kevin Holland giving Ronaldo Souza the ol’ “right there Fred,” could not compare. It goes without saying that even though there is still one major event on the books – Rizin 26, which goes down on Dec. 31 – unless a fighter lands something like a Flash Kick from Guile of “Street Fighter,” this category is well and truly sewn up.
With the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on the MMA world this year, fight fans witnessed the spectacle of many a thrilling knockout in front of their computer or television screens. The uproar of the crowd – barring some excited cornermen, officials and commentators – was unavailable to bolster the intensity of any given shocking moment. Gone were the days of the entire T-Mobile Arena leaping to its collective feet when Jorge Masvidal “baptized” Ben Askren and the masses with the 2019 “Knockout of the Year,” or as Yair Rodriguez electrified all 11,426 at the Pepsi Center in Denver in 2018 with his no-look elbow of Chan Sung Jung. With the live audience a non-factor, every sound in the cage seemed magnified, and perhaps none more emphatic than the crack of one of the greatest spinning back kicks ever landed in MMA history.
At UFC Fight Night 179, Joaquin Buckley took every fighter’s previous work and threw it in the outside garbage, finishing his fight in a way that could scarcely be believed. The matchup itself was otherwise nondescript, dropped in the middle of a Fight Night preliminary card that had see four consecutive decisions start off the night. The at-home audience likely growing restless from the lack of a finish, Buckley stepped up to the plate against an undefeated Impa Kasanganay.
“New Mansa,” a signee not from Dana White's Contender Series but one that had developed through Shamrock FC, Bellator and then the LFA, was in the hunt for his very first win inside the Octagon. His UFC debut came a few months prior, and his quest for victory emphatically came to an end from a piston-like right hand from rising star Kevin Holland. Buckley was not out of that fight against Holland, but showed obvious deficiencies, as he charged with reckless abandon until he was put down. This particular strategy was duplicated against Kasanganay, under the pretense that Kasanganay was powerful but not a lightning-quick counter specialist.
The 26-year-old Buckley closed as a substantial +220 underdog, and any momentum into his UFC run had been stamped out by Holland’s stellar performance. Still, the cage door closed, and Buckley and Kasanganay locked horns. The first round leaned towards Buckley, even though the striking totals were slightly in Kasanganay’s favor; the Finney’s Hit Squad fighter’s blows landed with far more import. The thrice-beaten fighter rushed at his foe repeatedly like a bull, throwing everything and the kitchen sink with flying knees, head kicks and even a takedown to mix things up. This round was a mere precursor to what was about to happen, as Buckley had fired off a few head kicks but none that Kasanganay could get his hands on.
The second frame began nearly as recklessly as the first, with the two middleweights slinging powerful but largely inaccurate strikes. As they began to connect with their shots, Buckley started to jaw at his opponent. Whether he sensed he was gaining the upper hand, or tried to play off a strike as though it did not hurt, a wry grin crept across his face. A furious exchange led to Kasanganay snapping his opponent’s head back with a left hook, and Buckley needed to take a quick count of his teeth. Setting the table for his left head kick by forcing Kasanganay to circle to his right, Buckley worked his way forward with quick power punches. “New Mansa” let loose a head kick, and Kasanganay caught it, perhaps thinking he could pull a move from the Anderson Silva playbook against James Irvin. Instead, the unthinkable happened.
Kasanganay grasped on to Buckley’s left ankle with his right hand, pushing it down perhaps in hopes of countering with a straight left down the pipe. In close range, it was not likely Buckley would be able to get full extension off with a spinning back fist or elbow. The Missouri native had other plans. Buckley planted his left foot, spun around and hopped in the air. Like a bolt of lightning, Buckley’s heel crashed into Kasanganay’s chin; just like that, Kasanganay was no longer an unbeaten fighter. “Tshilobo” was out before he hit the ground – he was out as soon as the heel struck his face, for that matter. On the other side of the cage, referee Kevin Sataki needed a half-second to realize what he had just seen, sprinting to the rescue as Kasanganay clattered lifelessly but rigidly to the ground like a 185-pound Terry Etim.
Buckley knew what he had done. There was no need for a follow-up shot, as Kasanganay was communing with his ancestors in the astral plane at the time. The damage was not life-changing, thankfully, as Kasanganay recovered consciousness shortly after, walking out of the cage on his own power. “One of the most spectacular knockouts we have ever seen,” remarked play-by-play commentator John Gooden. Color commentator Paul Felder was similarly blown away, screaming, “That might be one of the craziest knockouts I’ve ever seen in my life!” Fellow commentator Dan Hardy was relatively gobsmacked in the following seconds, allowing Gooden to interject, “That is real life ninja stuff…he hung in the air for like 10 seconds!”
Sometimes, the most significant knockouts of the year are between top-tier fighters, or in a main event, or with gold or bragging rights on the line. They could be as the result of a grudge match, with one man shutting the other up as effectively as humanly possible. A fighter with a penchant for deadly strikes could deliver one fatal shot to shut out the lights and draw universal acclaim. In this instance, there was no trash talk, no major divisional implications for the winner, and the two fighters were relatively unheralded. The brilliance of Buckley’s move, which draws from the Tae Kwon Do playbook – a style mixed in with some of the foundations of the greatest strikers to ever compete in MMA – was on full display.
A jumping spinning back kick, felling his foe in one incredible sequence, was the shot in the arm that Buckley’s career and, frankly, the event needed. Even though Buckley posted another hellacious knockout this year – over another technically undefeated victim in Jordan Wright – it paled in comparison to the kick heard ‘round the world. Out of all of the categories for Sherdog year-end awards, this pick was the most one-sided amongst the staff, making it the clear-cut Sherdog.com 2020 “Knockout of the Year.” There may never be another like it.