2019 First Half MMA Awards
The top two fights on this weekend’s UFC on ESPN 3 event are great but we’re pretty much right at the half way point for the year so its time to take a look back at the best of 2019 to date. Even if Junior Dos Santos vs. Francis Ngannou and Joseph Benavidez vs. Jussier Formiga live up to my expectations I don’t suspect they would change anything on this list. And if they do we can always catch up with them at the end of the year. Overall it hasn’t been the most exciting six months in the history of the sport (and the second half already looks markedly better on paper) but as usual there have been plenty of highlights.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Fighter of the Year – Henry Cejudo
Cejudo is the only champion to fight twice in 2019 so far and he took advantage of that opportunity. He kicked off the year, and the UFC on ESPN era, by knocking out bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw to defend his flyweight belt. Even more impressive is that it turned out Dillashaw was juiced, testing positive for PEDs not long after the fight and getting a two year suspension. With the future of the 125 pound division in question Cejudo turned his attention to 135 pounds and the newly vacated bantamweight belt. UFC 238 was more than two weeks ago but it is still at the forefront of my mind and Cejudo’s exciting comeback TKO victory over Marlon Moraes is a big reason why. As he’ll tell you himself he not only becomes the newest double champion with the win but the first and only triple champion if you include his gold medal in wrestling. His gimmick is corny but its hard to argue with the results. Hes talking about moving up and winning the featherweight belt to add to his collection but that will have to wait until he recovers from shoulder surgery.
Honorable Mentions: Dustin Poirier, Valentina Shevchenko
Fight of the Year – Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum
UFC 236 was fairly lackluster for the first 11 fights but as soon as the co-main event got started we had one of the best hours of fights in a long time, back to back fight of the year worthy title fights to close things out. As good as Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway was I have to give the edge to the interim middleweight championship. Both Gastelum and Adesanya looked as good as they ever have and each had moments where it looked like they were taking over to finish the fight. I wrote an article in February about how Adesanya could be the UFC’s next big star and this fight was a big step in that direction. He showed that he has heart and survive adversity while being exciting all along the way. He looked like he was in trouble in the middle rounds but dug deep to nearly finish Kelvin in the fifth. With his win the UFC has a chance to put together an epic showdown in Australia between Adesanya and Robert Whittaker, a fight that has a chance to top this category at the end of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Vicente Luque vs. Bryan Barberena, Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway
Event of the Year – UFC 238
As good as the final two fights of UFC 236 were, UFC 238 was great from top to bottom. I’ve already mentioned the bantamweight title fight between Henry Cejudo and Marlon Moraes in the main event. It also had another fight of the year contender with Tony Ferguson vs. Donald Cerrone, two important top contender fights in the bantamweight division (impressive wins by Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling respectively), and another win for the best prospect in women’s MMA (Tatiana Suarez). Even the co-main that I was worried would be a one sided slog ended up having a big moment of the night. Women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko knocked out Jessica Eye with devastating head kick that had her laying unconscious for more than five minutes. It was a night to remember between action fights, memorable finishes, and important story lines that we will continue to follow. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the event of the year still when December 31st rolls around.
Honorable Mentions: UFC 236, UFC on ESPN 1
Breakout Fighter of the Year – Johnny Walker
Johnny Walker really broke onto the scene last November when he made his UFC debut on a Fight Night card in South America. He knocked out Khalil Rountree with an impressive standing elbow in the first round. But he took it to another level once the calendar turned over. In February it only took him 15 seconds to knock out Justin Ledet with a spinning backfist and then a month later, in a big step up in competition, Misha Circunov only lasted 36 seconds before succumbing to a flying knee and follow up strikes. It sure looked like he was on the fast track to challenge Jon Jones with his unique look and personality, exciting fighting style, and great name but unfortunately he dislocated his shoulder in his post fight celebration. Safe to say that X factor he has that draws people in also has its disadvantages. It looks like he’s in line to return in the fall and he can continue to look as good in another step up in competition then he really could be knocking on the door of a title shot.
Honorable Mentions: Petr Yan, Weili Zhang
Knockout of the Year – Anthony Pettis (Superman Punch) over Stephen Thompson
This could easily be the leader in the clubhouse for the ‘upset of the year’ category as well but I think better belongs here. When the main event in Nashville was announced it was a bit of a head scratcher. Pettis would be moving up to welterweight to fight one of the top five fighters in the weight class. This is a guy who had a couple fights at featherweight and isn’t a particularly big lightweight. But his big problem has always been pressure fighters and wrestlers and ‘Wonderboy’ was a decent match-up in that regard. ‘Showtime’ was having some success with leg kicks but otherwise looked to be on his way to getting predictably outpointed to a decision loss before he pulled out a superman punch off of the cage out of nowhere, knocking Thompson out cold. A few coffin nails later and Pettis had one of the biggest wins of his career, setting himself up for a big fight against Nate Diaz in August.
Honorable Mentions: Valentina Shevchenko (Head Kick) over Jessica Eye, Jessica Andrade (Slam) over Rose Namajunas
Submission of the Year – Marlon Moraes (Guillotine Choke) over Raphael Assuncao
Unless I’m missing something there was no clear cut winner to this category for me. Charles Oliveira is always a candidate to pull something crazy off and Manny Bermudez continues his under the radar run at bantamweight but I went with the one that made me say ‘wow’ when they pulled it off. Moraes earned his title shot off of this great win and while a guillotine choke isn’t the most impressive submission in the world when you factor in who it was against and how he pulled it off it starts to make sense. Assuncao is a super tough guy who had only been submitted one other time in his career, nine years ago at the hands of UFC hall of famer Uriah Faber. Assuncao had beaten Moraes in his UFC debut in 2017 but this fight didn’t resemble that one at all. Moraes came out aggressive and was putting it on Assuncao, nearly finishing him with strikes before transitioning to the choke. I doubt this pick will stand when the clock strikes midnight into 2020 but for now its the best we have.
Honorable Mentions: Charles Oliveira (Anaconda Choke) over David Teymur, Manny Bermudez (D’Arce Choke) over Benito Lopez
Upset of the Year – Dustin Poirier over Max Holloway
The odds would tell you that this isn’t particularly close to the biggest upset of the year so far and that is completely fair. But for one I didn’t want to pick the same fight (Anthony Pettis vs. Stephen Thompson) to win two awards. Also, I had Max Holloway as one of the best pound for pound fighters in the sport and the biggest threat to be the first man to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov. That still may be the case and he just needs more time to prepare for his eventual permanent move up to lightweight but Dustin Poirier is as motivated a fighter as I’ve ever seen. He had already beaten Holloway in 2012 when Max was 20 years old and making his UFC debut but most prognosticators (including myself if I can be considered as such) thought ‘Blessed’ had improved to the point that the roles would be reversed. I underestimated how much Poirier himself had improved in that time. The self belief, heart, and power in his hands gave him the interim belt and a chance to shock the world once again when he takes on Khabib Nurmagomedov in September. I won’t doubt him this time around.
Honorable Mentions: Anthony Pettis over Stephen Thompson, Henry Cejudo over TJ Dillashaw
Top 10 Most Anticipated Fights for the Remainder of 2019
1. Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson (Hypothetical)
2. Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier (UFC 242)
3. Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya (TBA)
4. Nate Diaz vs. Anthony Pettis (UFC 241)
5. Amanda Nunes vs. Holly Holm (UFC 239)
6. Daniel Cormier vs. Stipe Miocic 2 (UFC 241)
7. Jon Jones vs. Luke Rockhold (Hypothetical)
8. Max Holloway vs. Frankie Edgar (UFC 240)
9. Yoel Romero vs. Paulo Costa (UFC 241)
10. Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington (TBA)
An auxiliary member of the MMAJA, Bob used to run the baseball blog 'The Oriole Report' before transitioning to podcasting about movies, TV, Video Games, and MMA. 'The Redbox Report' movie podcast was started in 2013 followed by 'The Redbelt Report' MMA podcast in 2016. In 2018 they were merged into 'Phelan to Communicate', a podcast that can be found on iTunes and a blog that can be found at http://PhelanToCommunicate.wordpress.com. Bob has also written for Konsume.com and BaltimoreSportsReport.com and delivers mail for a living in Baltimore County. Follow him on Twitter @PhelanToTweet.