Ranking the Top Contenders so Far for MMA's 2019 Fight of the Year

Nathan McCarter@McCarterNFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2019

Ranking the Top Contenders so Far for MMA's 2019 Fight of the Year

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    UFC 236 reminded everyone of what amazing, high-level MMA can bring to the table: Pure excitement.

    After the main and co-main events, the race for Fight of the Year ramped up with two new additions.

    Dustin Poirier and Israel Adesanya were able to capture UFC interim gold in incredible fashion. They were involved in the types of fights that help build legacies. Earning the official title of Fight of the Year would be a career-defining mark.

    So, where do those fights check in at, and what is the competition?

    We will look at the five most likely contenders for Fight of the Year through the first third of 2019. It's not a clean sweep for the UFC, but the leader of MMA has certainly brought it with incredible fights thus far. With big fights and events on the horizon, there is only more amazing action to come.

    It should be an interesting ride through 2019 the rest of the way, but here are the current contenders for the year's top prize.    

No. 1: Israel Adesanya def. Kelvin Gastelum

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    The leader in the clubhouse for Fight of the Year is the recent UFC 236 interim middleweight championship clash between Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum.

    It was a war. But it was not one of the sloppy, haymaker-ridden battles that plague the sport. This was high-level mixed martial arts with both men making reads and adjustments throughout the fight.

    It would be reductive to say it was power vs. technique because the things Gastelum was doing were also technical. Gastelum used a power jab and timing to counter Adesanya. The Kiwi was able to utilize his wide array of striking talents in conjunction with his distance to frustrate Gastelum.

    Fans had also not seen Adesanya challenge on the mat, but Gastelum was able to take him down. Adesanya answered the call. Not only was he able to get back to his feet quickly, but Adesanya was close on a couple of submission attempts as well.

    The 25-minute bout was a showcase of the sport at its best.

    Adesanya pulled away in the fifth and final round and nearly stopped Gastelum with a violent barrage in the final minute.

    Both men scored. Both men were hurt. Both men showed championship heart. It was the kind of title fight that goes down in history, and it is well on its way as the leader for Fight of the Year.

No. 2: Dustin Poirier def. Max Holloway

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    Just behind the UFC 236 co-main event was the evening's main event for the interim lightweight title.

    Poirier and Max Holloway met for the second time in their careers, but it was a much different fight as they entered the Octagon as mature, elite fighters.

    Holloway, the reigning featherweight champion, was quickly tested, and the strength discrepancy was obvious. If the fight got out of hand and he was stopped no one would have been surprised.

    Instead, Holloway's toughness not only kept him in the fight, but it gave him glimmers of hope throughout that he could come away with the belt.

    Poirier rallied and recuperated to take charge, although Holloway never went away.

    It was a sensational main event in its own right, but it failed to really capture the back-and-forth aspect that Adesanya vs. Gastelum had. That is the biggest knock against it when compared against the co-main from UFC 236.

    Regardless of how close it may get to earning 2019's Fight of the Year, Poirier vs. Holloway II delivered a fantastic scrap to fight fans.

No. 3: Jing Nan Xiong def. Angela Lee

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    ONE Championship's A New Era event set the stage for their international growth. It was a great event, but the strawweight title clash truly brought the drama that was needed.

    Jing Nan Xiong put her belt on the line against the face of the promotion, Angela Lee.

    The bout was supposed to be the coming out party for Lee. She was going to become a double-champ in ONE and continue her ascent as one of the brightest international stars in the sport. But the champion, instead, gave China its biggest MMA win to date.

    Lee looked good early. Her striking was touching Xiong, she avoided the heavy return shots and she controlled the action in grappling exchanges. A deep armbar attempt looked to be the end, but Xiong survived. Lee was dominating.

    Everything was going well until it wasn't.

    Digging deep down, Xiong started to pelt Lee in the final round. The heavy shots took their toll on Lee, who began to look visibly tired. Xiong continued to pour on the punches and kicks as Lee could do nothing but absorb them. The referee was forced to make the stoppage.

    If any fans missed this fight, it is worth tracking down. Xiong's grit and the drama it caused has made it one of 2019's most memorable performances.

No. 4: Vicente Luque def. Bryan Barberena

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    That's the only word to describe the battle of attrition between Vicente Luque and Bryan Barberena.

    From the start of the fight these two men took to the center of the cage and threw down. The first round saw an exchange of strikes and momentum. Per UFC Stats, Luque landed 37 of 64 and Barberena landed 30 of 67 in the first round.

    Barberena had a slightly better second round, but Luque was still an active threat. Everything was coming down to the final five minutes.

    Barberena kept the momentum going well into the third round. He looked to be en route to a decision win by pulling away. But this is a fickle sport where everything can change in a split-second.

    In the waning moments, the two warriors decided to exchange heavy fire one more time. Luque was able to land a big knee that rocked Barberena, and a second put him on the mat. Follow up shots would force a stoppage before the final bell.

    This one was for the "Just Bleed" crowd.

No. 5: Ben Askren def. Robbie Lawler

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    It is rare a one-round fight can wind up on a Fight of the Year shortlist, but UFC 235's meeting between Robbie Lawler and Ben Askren is worthy of consideration.

    The former UFC champion, Lawler, was intense from his walkout. He was ready to welcome Ben Askren to the UFC in a rude manner. The bell sounded, and that is exactly what he did. Lawler sent Askren crashing to the canvas.

    Hard punches connected, and the fight looked like it was mere moments from being stopped. Lawler dished out incredible amounts of punishment in a short period of time. Askren survived and managed to score a takedown. That is when controversy struck.

    After locking in a bulldog choke, Herb Dean thought Lawler was out and stopped the fight. The problem is that Lawler was not out.

    The disappointing end hampers this fight's bid for Fight of the Year consideration, but for the few minutes of action we got, it was some of the most exciting of the year.