Bleacher Report 2019 MMA Awards: Best Fighter, Fight, Stoppages and Story

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJanuary 1, 2020

Bleacher Report 2019 MMA Awards: Best Fighter, Fight, Stoppages and Story

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    Israel Adesanya
    Israel AdesanyaASANKA BRENDON RATNAYAKE/Getty Images

    The UFC held 41 different events in 2019. That's roughly 500 fights this year in the UFC alone. Across the sport, there were literally thousands of chances to make an impression.

    That sort of volume, combined with the frenetic, almost harrowing nature of the sport and the drama it generates, guarantees that memories will be made. But only a select few reached the top of the heap and entered their names into the running for Bleacher Report's annual MMA superlatives. 

    It was a tumultuous year for the sport. In 2019, the UFC bid farewell to BJ Penn, Cris Cyborg, Cat Zingano and Gilbert Melendez, among others. It saw the retirements of Georges St-Pierre, Ben Askren, Cain Velasquez and—for seven months—Conor McGregor. There were 19 UFC title fights, with belts changing hands on nine occasions.

    In February, the UFC held the first event of its milestone TV deal with ESPN. Plenty of questions exist over the deal, its effectiveness and its longer-term ramifications, but if nothing else, it's a solid foothold with arguably the world's top sports media property.

    It's a lot to wade through, but we're here. That's right: It's the new-look Bleacher Report MMA team (see? lots of changes everywhere). Tom Taylor, Kelsey McCarson, Lyle Fitzsimmons and I, Scott Harris, put our heads together to determine the standout fighter, fight, knockout, submission and story of 2019. Every show—including Bellator, the UFC's closest competitor and itself a host of 27 shows in 2019—was eligible, though admittedly the UFC's incomparable talent stock, visibiity, schedule and stakes heavily tip the scale in that direction.

    Each category features a winner and a runner-up. Do you agree with our decisions? Did we miss something? Surely the answers are yes and no, respectively. Feel free to offer your agreements and congratulations in the comment section.

MMA Knockout of the Year 2019

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    Masvidal lands the record-setting knee on Askren.
    Masvidal lands the record-setting knee on Askren.Josh Hedges/Getty Images

    Knockout of the Year: Jorge Masvidal's Epic KO of Ben Askren 

    Has there ever been a more picture-perfect KO than Jorge Masvidal's stunning five-second destruction of Askren at UFC 239? 

    The 34-year-old from Miami practically sprinted right toward Askren just as the bout began that night. Just a few seconds later, it was all over for Askren, who went from longtime undefeated phenom to just another guy who maybe just hadn't faced as stiff of competition as everyone thought he had during his unbeaten ONE Championship and Bellator welterweight runs. 

    Askren, just about two weeks shy of his 35th birthday that night, probably never thought he'd end up getting put to sleep so fast. 

    An excellent MMA wrestler who had gone undefeated across other various top promotional outfits and was already 1-0 in UFC, the brash American dipped his shoulders in hopes of taking Masvidal straight to the mat, where Askren expected to have the advantage.

    But Masvidal saw it coming from a mile away.

    Using that visionary approach, Masvidal landed the full force of his flying knee just as Askren dipped his head down low.

    The rest is UFC history.

    It was the fastest knockout ever seen in the promotion, one second faster than Duane Ludwig's previous company record of six seconds against Jonathan Goulet in 2006.

    Masvidal went on to enjoy the rest of the single best year of his entire 16-year professional MMA career.  Askren, on the other hand, lost his next fight against Damien Maia and retired from the sport soon after.


    Runner-Up: Douglas Lima vs. Michael Page

    Had Masvidal not recorded the for-sure fastest, and maybe most shocking, KO in UFC history during 2019, perhaps Douglas Lima's epic knockout of Michael "Venom" Page at Bellator 221 would have landed him the honor. 

    There's a serious component of comeuppance embedded in the pick. Honestly, the same could be said when it came to Askren getting smoked by Masvidal. But in this case, Page had just hurt Lima with a punch and was smack dab in the middle of carrying his hands down way too low in what looked like an effort to create a highlight-reel knockout of his own when it all went wrong for the 32-year-old from London. 

    That's when Brazil's Lima smartly kicked Page's front leg out right from under him. Once his opponent was off-balance and halfway on the ground, Lima blasted the previously undefeated Page out for good with a sharp hook to finish the job.


    Kelsey McCarson

MMA Submission of the Year 2019

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    Cory Sandhagen lines up an armbar.
    Cory Sandhagen lines up an armbar.Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

    Submission of the Year: Cory Sandhagen's Armbar

    Cory Sandhagen began 2019 as a promising bantamweight prospect, but he will close out the year as a bona fide bantamweight contender. His career-altering year started on January 19 in Brooklyn, on the undercard of the UFC's first-ever event on ESPN+.

    The Colorado native was initially expected to battle Thomas Almeida on the card, then John Lineker, but after a series of shake-ups, he ultimately found himself in the cage with debuting Mario Bautista. 

    The change of opponent didn't seem to matter.

    Early in the first round, Sandhagen sent Bautista careening to the ground with a rocket-fuelled flying knee. The pair then briefly returned the feet, but the action soon hit the mat again when Bautista deftly countered an attempt at a whizzer throw with a takedown of his own.

    This second trip to the canvas was the catalyst for Bautista's doom, as Sandhagen began feverishly hunting for submissions. First it was a triangle, then it was kimura, and finally, an armbar that forced the tap.

    It was a dizzying display of killer instinct on the ground capped off by a beautiful example of one of MMA's most popular submissions—all on one of the UFC's most important shows of the year. Nearly 12 months later, it's still the coolest submission of 2019.


    Runner-Up: Brent Primus' Bellator Gogoplata

    Had Sandhagen not tied Bautista into a knot in January, Brent Primus' May defeat of Tim Wilde would have  been our 2019 Submission of the Year.

    Primus, the former Bellator lightweight champion, entered the cage with Wilde in dire need of a win, having recently surrendered the belt to Michael Chandler. He got the win he sought and more, finishing his foe with one of the rarest submissions in MMA: the gogoplata. And he did it in less time than it takes to microwave a Hot Pocket.

    Roughly a minute into the fight, Wilde chopped Primus down with a leg kick. He then chased the former champion on to the canvas, which turned out to be a major error. After a momentary struggle, Primus locked up the gogoplata from bottom position, driving his left shin into his foe's neck, and pulling down his head for a fight-ending squeeze. 


    Tom Taylor

MMA Fight of the Year 2019

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    Kelvin Gastelum (left) and Israel Adesanya
    Kelvin Gastelum (left) and Israel AdesanyaJosh Hedges/Getty Images

    Fight of the Year: Israel Adesanya defeats Kelvin Gastelum

    A wannabe Fight of the Year needs to check a lot of boxes.

    Among them:

    • A significant prize at stake

    • Multiple swings in momentum

    • The real possibility of a surprise result

    • Enough violence to keep Joe Rogan shrieking

    • A dramatic final-round crescendo

    The UFC 236 brawl between Israel Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum had all those items in spades, and, amazingly enough, it wasn't even the marquee-topper on that early-spring night in Atlanta. 

    In fact, though it was merely a sidepiece to the Dustin Poirier-Max Holloway rematch, the thrown-together interim title bout at 185 pounds was worthy of revisionist main-event status after both men—including the unbeaten betting favorite—were shaken and rattled, not to mention dead-even on the scorecards as they rolled into the final five minutes of a 25-minute instant classic.

    A grappler by form, Gastelum broke from pre-fight chalk and got to work with his fists as the fight began, nearly depositing his strike-specialist foe on the mat with a right hook in the opening round. The resilient Adesanya responded, however, and seized control in the form of a knockdown with his own right-hand shot in the second and continued success from distance in the third.

    A clean kick to the head got Gastelum back into the fray in the fourth, and a salvo of power punches had Adesanya reeling in its last minute, setting up a compelling final round that began with Gastelum going for a clincher via takedown. 

    But Adesanya rallied yet again, and though he was unable to get a submission on the mat, he was the more active fighter down the stretch, scoring another knockdown with a vicious combination with just more than a minute to go and cementing a decisive 10-8 round—and the narrow, but unanimous, decision that came with it—with a brutal ground-and-pound sequence to the final bell.

    The winner parlayed his triumph into a long-awaited title shot 176 days later and emerged as full-fledged king of the middleweights with a second-round KO of Robert Whittaker at UFC 243 in October. Gastelum, meanwhile, is still searching for a return to the win column after dropping a split three-round verdict to Darren Till at UFC 244 a month later.


    Runner-Up: Paulo Costa vs. Yoel Romero

    Another middleweight bout, another classic.

    And again, though buried on the card beneath a title change at heavyweight and the return of Nate Diaz, Paulo Costa vs. Yoel Romero was a three-round slugfest between an unbeaten Brazilian and a menacing Cuban that came away from August's UFC 241 show with scores of raised eyebrows.

    "That was one of the rare fights that lived up to all of the hype," Joe Rogan exclaimed, on the ESPN+ broadcast. "Amazing."

    Both men were dropped in a tumultuous first round, and Costa barely got the better of Round 2 with his hands despite a late Romero takedown. Romero responded with his own effective punches in the third, then he shook off a midsection-searing kick from Costa before reigniting the fracas down the stretch.

    Costa was awarded the decision by matching 29-28 scores on all three cards.


    Lyle Fitzsimmons

MMA Story of the Year 2019

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    Dual-division champ Amanda Nunes was the year's second-best MMA story.
    Dual-division champ Amanda Nunes was the year's second-best MMA story.Steve Marcus/Getty Images

    Story of the Year: Jorge Masvidal's Amazing Mid-30s Comeback 

    If all our lives are storybooks in which we get much to say in regards to the content, then nobody became a better author this year than Masvidal.

    Masvidal burst back into the UFC with a renewed fervor, and he did so when most people probably thought they'd already seen the best of him.

    Behold, it was the birth year of "Street Jesus," and the baptismal blessings he dispensed were black eyes and bloody noses. 

    Masvidal wasn't supposed to be this good. Remember?

    Oh sure, he was a fan-favorite, one who the hardcore MMA fans had followed for years.

    But when Masvidal stepped inside the Octagon back in March, he did so on a two-fight losing streak and hadn't even competed in the sport since dropping a decision to Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson back in November 2017.

    But Masvidal went on to earn three amazing victories to become B/R's biggest story of 2019. 

    First, he thumped England's Darren Till via second-round knockout at UFC on ESPN+ 5 in London. Then, he scored the fastest KO in UFC history with what I like to call "the flying knee seen around the world" at UFC 239. 

    For good measure, Masvidal stopped Nate Diaz for the first-ever "BMF" title at UFC 239, and the honor was presented to him by The Rock, just as Masvidal had requested. 

    All those things would be solid highlights of an entire MMA career. Masvidal did it in just nine months during the time of his life that most MMA fighters start thinking about retirement. 


    Runner-Up: Amanda Nunes Proving GOAT Status

    Last year, people wondered if Amanda Nunes might someday be considered the greatest female fighter ever.

    This year, there seems to be no doubt she is. 

    Sure, maybe her one-round destruction of Cyborg during the last weekend of 2018 is still fresh in our minds a little bit, and technically it shouldn't be part of the equation. 

    But, then again, how couldn't it be? 

    Because Nunes went on from there to stop Holly Holm at UFC 239 in July 2019, and she followed it up by thrashing Germaine de Randamie over five rounds in a rematch six years after the first fight to leave no doubt about "GOAT" status. 

    Let's put it another way. 

    Nunes ended 2019 as the double champion of the women's bantamweight and featherweight divisions. On top of that, she's beaten every single female UFC champion in those weight classes ever.

    Can anyone else say that?

    Congrats to Nunes for the epic 2019.


    Kelsey McCarson

MMA Fighter of the Year 2019

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    Israel Adesanya finishes his fight with Robert Whittaker.
    Israel Adesanya finishes his fight with Robert Whittaker.Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

    Israel Adesanya is the year's top fighter

    The biggest superlative of the year is, in 2019, perhaps the most open and shut. With apologies to Masvidal, Henry Cejudo, Alex Volkanovski and a few others, Adesanya is the only credible choice for the year's top fighter.

    In three fights, which raised his pro record to 18-0 and his UFC record to 7-0, Adesanya vanquished his aging idol in Anderson Silva, waged the aforementioned Fight of the Year with Gastelum, and captured the undisputed UFC middleweight title in by destroying the previously indestructible Whittaker.

    But it's more than end results. Each win advanced Adesanya and his career in notably distinct and important ways. Silva, despite being 43 years old when they fought, was still famous enough to be Adesanya's biggest-name opponent to date. Against Gastelum, Adesanya gutted through his opponent's tenacious pressure to win his toughest UFC fight. Then, when the champ borrowed a page from Gastelum, Adesanya showed his own ability to learn by neutralizing Whittaker's bull rush with surgical counter rights.

    In all three, Adesanya showed why many believe he has the best standup game in the UFC. His trademark panache outside the cage doesn't hurt. After his mastery of Whittaker, the verdict is clear: Adesanya had not only the stuff of a champion, but the makings of a star.

    After defeating Whittaker, Adesanya turned his attention to several juicy new rivalries: Brazilian beach god and head hunter Costa, Cuban wrestling god Romero and light heavyweight kingpin Jon Jones—who engaged Adesanya during the run-up to the bout with Whittaker. 

    There is plenty to look forward to with Adesanya. He's still only 30 years old. This will be the year fans look back on as the one that saw his tantalizing potential fully converted into something kinetic. 


    MMA Fighter of the Year Runner-Up: Jorge Masvidal

    Masvidal set a new UFC record for fastest knockout, started a phenomenon in his bout with Nate Diaz at UFC 244 in New York for the BMF belt, knocked out Darren Till in March in Till's own backyard in London, and in the process, he entered the welterweight title picture with a bullet.

    We've covered Masvidal in the knockout and story sections, so we won't repeat ourselves here. Suffice it to say that Masvidal had the best year outside of Adesanya, with his relatively advanced age (he turned 35 in November) making it that much more impressive.


    Scott Harris