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Bleacher Report 2020 MMA Awards: Best Submission

Kelsey McCarsonFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2020

Russian UFC fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov speaks after wining against UFC fighter Dustin Poirier, of Lafayette, La., during Lightweight title mixed martial arts bout at UFC 242, in Yas Mall in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, early Sunday, Sept.8 2019. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Khaled)
Mahmoud Khaled/Associated Press

Unlike our award for KO of the year, Bleacher Report's 2020 MMA award for best submission took a little more time to sort through.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't for a lack of quality candidates. If anything, 2020 was blessed with a multitude of angelic twists and turns that left one fighter writhing in the pain and the other one the winner of the fight.

But when it came down to naming the biggest, best and most important submission of the year, could it really be anything other than UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov's second-round triangle choke against Justin Gaethje?

We don't think so.

The Eagle won that fight under some incredibly difficult circumstances.

More on that later, but the submission itself probably deserves the slight nod over all the other worthy contenders anyway.

First and foremost, the quality of fighter standing across the cage from Nurmagomedov on fight night was stellar in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Gaethje, 32, entered the Octagon with a brilliant strategy for clipping The Eagle's wings in the main event of UFC 254.

Kelsey McCarson @kelsey_mccarson

Justin Gaethje's basic strategy has been revealed: https://t.co/6e3VaoiwBi

The American's hard leg kicks and series of clever counter strikes certainly registered on the unbeaten champion in a way most UFC fans had never really seen before. This was a legit scrap.

Nurmagomedov was even forced to ice his legs between the only two rounds of the fight.

By the way, Gaethje won Round 1 on two of the three judges' scorecards that night. But Nurmagomedov tracked Gaethje down anyway to finish him just like he does everyone.

It didn't matter what Gaethje had done according to those judges.

Heck, it didn't even matter that Gaethje had somehow escaped the arm-bar the Russian grabbed at the end of the first round, or the fast way the challenger started the second round with even more quality work.

Nurmagomedov just kept hunting his prey.

"That pace and pressure from Khabib is what separates him from most guys," Daniel Cormier said while calling the action, and it sure looked that way on pay-per-view.

No matter what Gaethje tried or how hard he hit the champion, Nurmagomedov just kept coming for him.

In that way, watching Nurmagomedov fight is sort of like watching one of those old slasher movies.

Why can't anyone ever escape?

At UFC 254, the title challenger, the same one who had boasted before the fight how he would be the first man to make Khabib see his own blood inside an MMA cage, was looking haggard, frazzled and in serious need of respite.

ESPN MMA @espnmma

“I know I’m gonna see [Khabib’s] blood.” @Justin_Gaethje wants to see how Nurmagomedov reacts when things get bloody 😳 (via @bokamotoESPN) https://t.co/6m5QqNlyjH

That happened in the first round.

"It's that pressure, man. Look at the pressure Khabib puts on you. The whole time, he's got Justin on his heels," Cormier said.

Perhaps even lost in Nurmagomedov's victory over Gaethje at UFC 254 is that maybe some of the most significant strikes landed by Gaethje in the fight happened right before Nurmagomedov nabbed that submission.

It's one thing to win when everything is going your way, and quite another to do it when it's absolutely necessary.

Indeed, it seems the penetrating probes of Gaethje's hard kicks to the champ's legs were exactly what forced Nurmagomedov to seek the takedown that ultimately won him the fight.

Soon, the undefeated destroyer had taken his opponent's back, and he worked that right into full mount.

Uh-oh. Gaethje was toast.

Another arm-bar was threatened, but Nurmagomedov ultimately decided to turn that option into the triangle choke that soon put Gaethje out for good.

Later, Nurmagomedov revealed to the press that the reason he chose that move over the arm-bar was that he knew Gaethje was too tough to tap out and he didn't want to break Gaethje's arm in front of the American's parents.

So Nurmagomedov won via technical submission, and his words after the fact suggest that the triangle choke with which he made Gaethje frantically flail about was the most humane option available.

Because of all those things, Nurmagomedov wins our award for the best submission in 2020.

Beyond the amazing way he scored perhaps his final win in the UFC's Octagon, Nurmagomedov also grabbed some bonus points for the other factors surrounding the fight.

The death of his father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov just three months before UFC 254 put Khabib in a situation he had never been in before.

UFC @ufc

"Thanks father for everything." Khabib honors his father after retiring at #UFC254 https://t.co/niDg1hB9xX

On top of that, Nurmagomedov dealt with mumps and a broken bone in his foot during training camp.

While UFC president Dana White still hopes otherwise, Nurmagomedov retired after his stunning win over Gaethje, and that means UFC 254 might turn out to be the last time anyone ever sees him fight.

If that's the case, he's leaving MMA with Bleacher Report's best submission of 2020 award along with the many other accolades he's received across his amazing career.

Kelsey McCarson covers combat sports for Bleacher Report and Heavy.

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