Every year in MMA we get performances that blow fans away maybe it was a surprise win or done in a manner no one expected. Sometimes a fighter will look unbeatable or demonstrate high fight IQ. This list is simply based on all around performances that impressed or excited me the most, it’s not a list of knockouts but the best overall performances and the circumstances of these performances, as always, I may be forgetting some and this list is very subjective based on my personal preferences.
Honorable Mention: Israel Adesanya defeats Paulo Costa
This was a completely dominant performance from Adesanya who completely destroyed the number 1 contender in the division in a fight most people felt would be difficult. On paper this should be in the list and I would not argue with anyone having it in theirs. The problem for me is that I never really believed Costa was a test for Israel who I knew would be levels above the fairly basic striking style of Costa, not to mention Costa only has one good win that I thought he lost. Again it was a great performance but did not give me any real feeling of excitement and just felt expected unlike the others on the list.
Number 10: Brandon Moreno Draws Deiveson Figueiredo
Look, both fighters performed excellently in this close compelling fight and the champ will get his due further in the list. But there is always something intrinsically exciting about and underdog defying expectations. Yes, a fighter should not have to show they have a solid chin but we love it when they do. Moreno did what all of his peers failed over the past year and stood up to the power punching champion and went toe to toe for a brutal 25 minutes. I picked Moreno in the fight and believed he would do well but that did not stop me from having the surprised excitement you get from an underdog rising to the occasion. Moreno also showed improved elements to his game including much crisper striking and footwork not going to his usual looping punches. This performance has finally gained him a wider fan base which in itself is amazing hopefully this new momentum can carry through to 2021.
Number 9: Marvin Vettori defeats Jack Hermansson
Hermansson was coming off of a quick sub win over Kelvin Gastelum and rightfully gaining a lot more hype as a result. Vettori at this point wasn’t even a top 10 fighter and too many saw him as just the guy who had a good fight against the champ but coming in at short notice and putting on one of the best fights of the year has quickly proven the Izzy fight was no fluke and that we have a genuine new contender at 185. Vettori proved just how well rounded he is by outstriking and successfully grappling with an expert grappler all as a short notice replacement. One thing that especially impressed me was the head movement. Vettori rolls with many of the punches thrown at him meaning he is either making the opponent miss or taking any power away from the punches. Fans have previously had doubts about the cardio of Vettori due to his size but he lasted 25 minutes against a fighter known for his high cardiac output. This was pretty much the definition of a breakout performance and not just some KO against an unranked opponent but a genuine fight against an elite level talent.
Number 8: Charles Oliveira defeats Tony Ferguson
This fight single handily erased many of the doubts I still had over Da Bronx even with his current win streak. While it is possible that Tony is past his best, Charles dominated from start to finish in a way very few expected and put many like myself into a state of sadness. Seriously though Charles really upped his game here and showed how great his ground game truly is with some of the smoothest transitions I have seen all year and that arm bar was a work of art. Tony is truly a madman for not tapping to that. Now overnight, Charles is viewed by many as being the next champion in the best weight class in the UFC. It was one of those performances where even people who picked Da Bronx to win were shocked by the way he accomplished it, a truly dominant display that I only have slightly lower because the next where either more shocking or exciting.
Number 7: Kevin Holland defeats Ronaldo Souza
In general, 2020 has been the year of Kevin Holland who has been the most active fighter of the pandemic era against less than elite but still really solid competition. Holland has shown so much growth in these fights and the Souza win was truly the perfect end to this run. The way Holland beat Souza left me truly speechless. I picked Holland to win but felt it would be by decision and that if Souza took him down it would spell trouble for Holland as Souza is a master of BJJ. Well Souza did take Holland down and Holland attempted a triangle, a guillotine and then got a vicious KO from his back all while talking to Souza in the process. Holland really erased any doubt I had on him and now I can’t imagine him not being a star for the UFC he is hilarious in interviews, really likeable, and extremely talented. I can’t wait to see Holland fight again and I will struggle to pick against him.
Number 6: Brian Ortega defeats Korean Zombie
If you asked me the ways I thought this fight could go, the last thing I would’ve expected is for Brian Ortega to out strike the Korean Zombie for 5 rounds and make it look easy. I would have laughed at anyone who told me that would be the outcome and it happened, I saw it happen. Ortega had so much stacked against him here’s the list in full:
- Coming off of a brutal beat down loss
- Not known for being the best striker
- Best chance was getting a sub
- Korean Zombie has excellent Jiu Jitsu to counter the subs
- Korean Zombie a world class KO artist
- Ortega on a 2 year lay off
- Ortega shaved his hair!
All of this should have spelled out a brutal KO win for Zombie, but instead Ortega managed to completely out class him and show a vastly improved striking game. A loss can make or break a fighter and its evidently made Ortega better. With all the time off being dedicated to improving his striking game. Ortega 2.0 arrived and it will be interesting to see how he can follow up this performance, he was always a dangerous fighter but with better striking has become a nightmare for anyone in the division.
Number 5: Deiveson Figueiredo defeats Joseph Benavidez
To be clear I am talking about the second fight. While I was not surprised at the result of this fight and on paper it went exactly how I expected, I was not prepared for the 4 minutes and 48 seconds of pure brutality that occurred this night of July 19th, in which Deiveson Figueiredo should have received a life sentence for the murder of Joseph Benavidez. This was one of the most lopsided one round beatings I have ever seen and easily the most dominant round of the year. It solidified Figgy as being an absolute savage to those not already aware and put an end to any hopes of a title for Joey B. It was a complete performance for a new champion who has really made a mark on 2020 MMA and all it took was a brutal sacrifice.
Number 4: Jan Blachowicz defeats Dominic Reyes
Some may instantly disagree with this pick especially being so high but I truly think the context surrounding this fight makes the already great performance 10x better. Dominic Reyes coming into this fight was riding an incredibly high wave as many believed (including myself) he had defeated Jon Jones earlier in the year and was the future of the division. Jan Blachowicz is an older fighter at 37 years old who was on a run of solid wins starting with knocking out Luke Rockhold and recently doing the same to Corey Anderson. I have been a fan of Blachowicz for a long time but never did I believe he would be the UFC champion. I like others believed that his best chance was a fluke KO win, but to my delight he went out there and pretty much dominated the younger more athletic fighter.
Jan really came into this fight with mean intentions. Clearly feeling disrespected, he went to work on the body and Reyes and over 2 rounds properly broke him down to make way for the famed polish power. Jan proved that age is always important and that despite losing some key fights his resilience proved stronger than anything. Michael Bisping one of my absolute favorite fighters of all time was the same in that he would lose key fights but always move beyond his setbacks and keep going until he eventually got the title. For me Jan finally getting the belt was one of the feel-good wins of the year and proved hard work and resilience can pay off.
Number 3: Cory Sandhagen defeats Marlon Moraes
While I have a huge biased with this pick (Sandhagen fanboy) for someone who loves foot work and feint based striking it really doesn’t get any better than this. Cory Sandhagen has often been compared to Dominick Cruz but I don’t think this is completely accurate as Sandhagen has higher striking IQ and fundamentals along with KO power. Henry Cejudo laid a clear blue print on how to beat Moraes which is to survive the early power shots and gas him out and this was perceived as Sandhagen’s best path to victory. Turns out Sandhagen is such a great striker that he did not need to follow this to beat Moraes and did what even Cejudo could not do – beat him from the very beginning.
Sandhagen was the one putting in the pressure targeting everywhere from the head, body and legs gradually breaking down Moraes over the first round. Moraes is a very high-level striker but he clearly felt lost from the opening round due to the masterful feints and footwork of Sandhagen always giving Moraes something to think about. The finishing sequence was brilliant, Sandhagen landed a kick which broke Moraes’ orbital bone and he quickly realized this, shouting to his corner to let them know and put fear into Moraes. He then feinted the body kick and quickly switched it into a wheel kick where the damaged eye was which is just striking at its most efficient. This was a masterful performance made even better considering Sandhagen was coming off of an embarrassing loss to Aljo, but he showed how determined he is and this win solidified him as an elite level fighter and possibly a future champion (Fingers crossed).
Number 2: Justin Gaethje Defeats Tony Ferguson
Straight off the bat the reason I put this above the win of Charles Oliveira is because this was a more entertaining performance but mostly because it was less expected and the fight that ended the epic win streak of Tony Ferguson. While the performance of Da Bronx was overall more dominant, Gaethje delivered a brutal performance and its possible that he is the main cause in the decline of Tony Ferguson. Even those who predicted Gaethje to win felt it would be from a 1st or 2nd round knockout not many would have expected a 5 round beat down. Yes, Ferguson was firing back but the difference in damage taken was very clear. Gaethje over the year had been developing his game into that of a more patient fighter and this fight was the best example of this since rather than brawling Gaethje simply allowed Ferguson to repeatedly walk into his counters most notably his right hand. What really helped this performance was the excellent coaching of Trevor Whitman, in the second round after being knocked down Gaethje was told to take 10% off of his shots and from this moment on the fight was over as Gaethje used this piece of advice to fully take over the fight.
Gaethje, even in his brawling based fights was always a smarter fighter than given credit for he was just too much of a wild man to fully contain. Here we got to see how elite Gaethje can truly be to the point he looked unrecognizable. Even if Ferguson loses 3 more fights this win will still be special as it broke the epic win streak and killed the hopes of the Khabib vs Ferguson fight inserting himself into the mix which leads directly into my number 1 pick.
Number 1: Khabib Nurmagomedov defeats Justin Gaethje
I couldn’t resist putting this in the top spot as there is too much going on here to not put it in first place. Initially I believed much of this came down to Gaethje underperforming but on multiple re-watches I have increasingly understood what Khabib did so well in this fight and how he managed to essentially turn Justin Gaethje into a back-foot fighter. Khabib went straight in to pressure Justin Gaethje and used fantastic defense with a little help from a rock-solid chin too for Gaethje to wing out his punches and gradually gas himself out by overreacting to everything. The thing that really put this performance on the next level was the perfect finishing sequences. Gaethje was successfully landing multiple leg kicks throughout the fight in an attempt to compromise Khabib and it seemed this plan was working until Khabib caught the leg of Justin Gaethje.
My previous article about this fight went into more detail but what occurred here was one of the smoothest and greatest transitioning sequences I have witnessed, in what equaled essentially a flawless finish truly showing how masterful of a grappler Khabib is. Along with what happened in the octagon the outside factors make this performance even more impressive. Khabib had lost his father who had been a coach to him all his life. It’s all but certain Khabib would have struggled with motivation for this fight without his father there but his mental toughness really came into play here, along with this Khabib was injured during the fight. Gaethje was viewed as the fighter with the style to perfectly contrast Khabib due to his great take down defense, raw punching power, and brutal leg kicking.
Khabib did the same as always and made the win look fairly easy. To me, this fight established something which I long suspected which is that no current light weight would have beaten Khabib who is simply a true once in life time level of talent. In the era of two belts, Khabib stuck to his weight class and beat his top contenders and in his final performance beat his nightmare matchup with a fair amount of ease. If this was indeed the last time we saw Khabib in the octagon then it was perfect performance for him to go out on and in my mind the best performance of 2020.