When the bell sounded to begin the fifth round of the main event of the final pay-per-view card of 2020, much hung in the balance for both Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno, as well as mixed martial arts together.
The possibility existed at that moment that the final round could determine the winner of the bout, the holder of the UFC flyweight championship as well as the 2020 Fighter of the Year.
Earlier that night, though, another fighter entered the cage with a chance to do historic things. Kevin Holland, who was largely an unknown outside of the hardcore MMA fan base when the year began, was 4-0 and with a victory over Jacare Souza, could become only the third UFC fighter in history to go 5-0 in a calendar year.
Zhang Weili competed only in March and when she walked to the center of the cage to start the fifth round of her title defense with Joanna Jedrzejczyk, her title hung in the balance. But she finished the fight in style, completing one of the greatest fights in UFC history by hanging on to preserve her strawweight championship and make herself a prime Fighter of the Year contender.
And then, the greatest fighter of them all, lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, was so impressive, so nearly perfect, in his bout with Justin Gaethje at UFC 254, that he thrust himself into the Fighter of the Year race despite that bout being his only bout of the year.
There are other candidates, such as middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz, who deserve to be considered as well.
Many years, there is little debate over who should win the mythical honor, but that is not the case this time around.
There are obvious cases both for and against the seven fighters I mentioned. For both Figueiredo and Moreno, it’s that their fight was scored a draw, and so neither of them put together a perfect year, even though the draw allowed Figueiredo as champion to retain the belt.
But Figueiredo was 3-0-1 and Moreno was 2-0-1.
Holland was a far more impressive 5-0, but his level of opposition was the least.
Zhang and Nurmagomedov each only fought one time. Adesanya’s performance against Yoel Romero in March wasn’t his best.
So that leaves to me the man who, almost out of nowhere, deserves to be Fighter of the Year. Blachowicz opened his year by knocking out Corey Anderson on Feb. 15 in a bout that earned him his shot at the light heavyweight title.
When Jon Jones decided to relinquish the belt and focus on heavyweight, the UFC paired Blachowicz with Dominick Reyes. Blachowicz stopped Reyes late in the second to capture the light heavyweight championship.
He had two knockouts in as many fights, never so much as reaching the third round. Both of his wins earned him a Performance of the Night bonus, and he put himself on the map that few could have expected.
In my mind, he edges out Figueiredo, who would have been the Fighter of the Year without question if he didn’t have a point deducted against Moreno for repeated fouls. That point cost him the victory and, combined with his missed weight for his first bout with Joseph Benavidez, eliminates him from this high-level competition.
That makes Jan Blachowicz the 2020 Yahoo Sports MMA Fighter of the Year.
Fight of the Year
There were a slew of incredible fights in 2020, but the Zhang-Jedrzejczyk fight was just too good to ignore. It had sustained, back-and-forth action, carried great significance and featured two elite fighters competing at the tops of their games.
Trainer of the Year
Two candidates stand out, Trevor Whitman and Sayif Saud, and either could win it. I gave a slight advantage to Whitman for his work with Justin Gaethje in his amazing victory over Tony Ferguson.
Prospect of the Year
I don’t have the age restriction for Prospect of the Year in MMA that I do for boxing because of the stratification that exists in MMA. My only requirements are that the fighter not have fought for a major world title and have fewer than 20 fights total.
That makes this pick the easiest one of the board. Khamzat Chimaev went 3-0 in the UFC and his next fight will be against the No. 3 welterweight in the world. No one else was close to that.
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