Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The 19 Greatest MMA Fights of 2019

Counting down the best mixed martial arts bouts of the year that was, from bantamweight brawls to welterweight wars to heavyweight hootenannies

By: Jimbo X

At first, I kinda’ thought 2019 was a bit of a disappointing year for mixed martial arts. I mean, with Conor McGregor sidelined and heavy hitters like Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Stipe Miocic limited to just one or two fights all year-long, it seemed like ‘19 was a pretty forgettable one in the grand scheme of things. BUT once you look past the lack of marquee names and focus on the quality of the fights themselves, you quickly realize that 2019 offered PLENTY of great MMA action from January to December, and not all of it was centralized in the UFC, either. 

Looking to wax nostalgic on the MMA year that was? These 19 fights right here are CERTAINLY worthy of a revisit — and DEFINITELY worth going out of your way to experience if, for some stupid-ass reason, you didn’t catch them live as they transpired. From heavyweight slugfests to middleweight technical showcases to featherweight fireworks galore, 2019 gave hardcore mixed martial arts fans just about everything they love about the sport; and trust our judgement here at TIIIA when we declare such to, unquestionably, be the absolute best of the best from the preceding 365 days (and some change) ...

Jairzinho Rozenstruik vs. Alistair Overeem (Dec. 07, UFC on ESPN: Overeem vs. Rozenstruik)

You know, as much as I want to say there’s more to this match than the morbid appeal of “look, ya’ll, he litterally punched that nigga’s lips off!” at the end of the day, that’s what generations ahead of us are going to remember about this fight, and in a way, it kinda’ sums up the MMA year that was in 2019, overall. Despite the all-time freakshow body horror finish, really, this match ought to be remembered as one of the best comeback fights of the year, with Rozenstruik rallying back after getting outclassed by the Reem in the first three rounds of the bout, increasing his tempo considerably in the fourth round and then just going full negroid Super Saiyan in the final five minutes of the fight, en route to unloading an all-time barrage against Alistair in the last 10 seconds of the contest that not only saved him from an obvious unanimous decision loss, but gave him an ultra-gruesome highlight reel finish people are going to be talking about (and puking over) for decades to come. 

Israel Adesanya vs. Anderson Silva (Feb. 09, UFC 234: Anderson vs. Silva)

Yeah, I think it’s safe to call this one a “passing of the torch” match if there ever was one. The seasoned veteran versus rookie phenom clash had a fairly obvious ending, but it sure was fun watching Adesanya test his mettle against his MMA hero — who, thankfully, made it an effort to show up in this one, at times ALMOST showing off a few glimmers of the OLD Spider from 15 years ago. Ultimately, this was an old school, super-methodical striking showcase, with Adesanya seemingly tempering his shots to begin, only to realize the heat was on when Silva started throwing those dangerous knees and elbows in the second. The third round was especially riveting, as Silva actually controlled the tempo for most of the final five minutes, making one final (yet fruitless) offensive putsch with 60 seconds to go that saw Silva throw everything he still had in his gas tank at “The Last Style Bender” — and Adesanya, like the up-and-coming superstar he is, just stood his ground and put on a defensive fighting showcase. It may not have been a match glutted with high spots, so to speak, but the dazzling technique — and sheer emotion of the fight — definitely gave it a certain gravitas that few other MMA bouts in 2019 conveyed.

Jon Jones vs. Anthony Smith (March 02, UFC 235: Jones vs. Smith)

There’s a bizarro, alternate reality world where Smith took the easy way out and let the ref give him the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship by virtue of an illegal knee DQ “injury” sustained in undoubtedly the biggest fight of his career. Of course, Smith — perhaps knowing that he would always be remembered as the flukiest title holder in company history had he gone that route — decided to take his ass whupping like a man, as Jon Jones proceeded to do what Jon Jones does for 25 minutes in a bout where we all hoped against hope that Smith was going to do the impossible. Naturally, this fight went pretty much the way everybody anticipated, with Jones drubbing Smith to a facile unanimous decision title defense. Still, Smith’s pluck, grit and failure to roll over and die definitely made this captivating combat sports-entertainment from start-to-finish; plus, he reminded me how great of a song “Return of the Mack” is, so the match gets bonus points for that by sheer default.

Rafael dos Anjos vs. Kevin Lee (May 18, UFC Fight Night: Dos Anjos vs. Lee)

This was just a good, old-fashioned, grueling war of attrition, complete with one of the most satisfying sub finishes of the entire year. Lee scored a big knockdown early, but dos Anjos was effective in the clinch for most of the first — even if Lee did manage to get some big head shots in before the bell sounded. Round two was more back and forth action, with Lee hitting dos Anjos with a HYUGE slam and spending most of the frame just carving his foe alive in the corner with sharp jabs. Dos Anjos, foreshadowing Jorge Masvidal’s immortal first round finish of Ben Askren, came FLYING out the third round with a jumping knee strike, and then, it was time to wrestlefuck that fucker to death. The only thing is, Lee actually held his own pretty well grappling, almost getting a couple of sub attempts in to close out the round. But the fourth and final round, of course, was what made this MOTY-worthy, as Rafael countered a Lee single leg attempt with some HELLACIOUS ground and pound, in turn setting up the beautiful arm-triangle finish with 1:13 to go in the round.

Lance Palmer vs. Alex Gilpin (May 23, PFL 13: Palmer vs Gilpin)

Yes, there actually are MMA promotions out there not called “UFC” or “Bellator,” and sometimes, in the case of this tremendous little donnybrook from late spring, they actually put on some highly entertaining slugfests. This 15-minute blitzkrieg started with Gilpin throwing everything AND the kitchen sink at Palmer, only for Gilpin to get clipped by a big, PHAT hook while Palmer was on the defensive. Palmer spent the rest of the round trying to submit Gilpin, who did a pretty good job of protecting his back, to the point he actually ended the first in the full guard. In the second, Gilpin tagged Palmer early, who retaliated by bulldozing his ass to the mat. From there, it was grinding’-it-out city, with Gilpin landing another big slam to bookend the round. Palmer began the third with an immediate takedown, and from there, the two spent the bulk of the battle jockeying for position. Both men would get vertical once more — only for Palmer to quickly take down Gilpin again and pretty much smother him ’til the final bell sounded. 

Anthony Smith vs. Alexander Gustafsson (June 01, UFC Fight Night: Gustafsson vs. Smith)

A hard-fought, ultra-competitive matchup pitting two lanky honkeys that went the distance against Jon Jones low-kicking and overhand righting the living shit out of each other for 15 minutes straight en route to one of the best out-of-nowhere finishes in MMA all year-long. In round one, Smith LITERALLY made the Swede bleed from leg kicks, and Smith’s relentless assault only got more intense in round two. But in round three, Gustafsson flipped the script a little, absolutely ROCKING Smith with some fantastic-looking jabs before dropping him to the mat and ending the round in the full mount. Alas, Smith came roaring back in the fourth, ultimately dragging Gustafsson to the mat, slyly catching has back, absolutely obliterating the back of his head with elbow shots and finally making the Ryan Gosling TAP via a textbook-perfect RNC with about two and a half left in the round. Oh, and it certainly hadn’t an emotional/historical undercurrent to, considering Gustaffson announced his retirement from the sport in the post-loss interview.

Henry Cejudo vs. Marlon Moraes (June 08, UFC 238: Cejudo vs. Moraes)

A great, tactical, tit-for-tat battle between two evenly-matched opponents that ultimately gave us one of the best (and most brutal) beatdown finishes in MMA all-year-round. Moraes came out with both guns blazing’ in the first, throwing some nasty leg kicks and stuffing Cejudo’s first takedown attempt. Moraes kept working the low kicks to begin the second, at one point dropping Cejudo to the canvas. Moraes followed that up with a GREAT head kick that Cejudo totally no sold, and from there, Henry just went full Jason Voorhees, eating punches like Red Vines and kneeing the absolute dogs hit out of Moraes to end the round. About halfway through the third round Cejudo finally got the takedown, shook off a counter armor attempt and DESTROYED Moraes from the half guard with elbows and punches galore, en route to making him a two-division champeen. 

Nate Diaz vs. Anthony Pettis (Aug. 17, UFC 241: Cormier vs. Miocic 2)

The co-main event of UFC 238 DID not disappoint. Diaz made his big return to the Octagon after a roughly three-year hiatus, and he looked surprisingly crisp in the first round, using his patented long boxing approach to keep the former WEC champ at bay. The first frame, however, was a battle of wills on the canvas, as Pettis desperately tried to lock in a choke with just seconds remaining on the clock; eventually, Diaz ended the round in the full mount, but with hardly enough time to bring the punishment. Round two was a tit-for-tat mini-masterpiece, with Diaz dropping Pettis early with a leg kick and Pettis busting Diaz’s right eyeball with a hard counter. Then they started body shotting the SHIT out of each other, with more knees and elbows getting thrown around in the remainder of the round than your average New Japan main event — with Diaz entering the third round bleeding profusely. Alas, Diaz closed the gap big-time in the third and decisive round, hitting Pettis from the clinch with a ton of punches and knees before dragging him to the mat and ALMOST getting double hooks in. There’s some more ferocious stand-up, and high drama as Pettis, obviously behind on the score cards, mustered as hard as he could to get the last-second rear-naked choke — which, as obvious by the 30-27 decision across the board for Diaz — he simply couldn’t pull of. 

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier (Sept. 07, UFC 242: Khabib vs. Poirier)

We all hoped against hope that Poirier would prevail over his terrifying Russian foe, and while D.P. held up rather admirably, at the end of the day this was simply nothing more than another showcase for Khabib’s practically unparalleled brutality inside the Octagon. Khabib got a takedown early in the first round and almost got a choke, but Poirier did what he had to prevent the WAY early submission. D.P. actually managed to SURVIVE a nasty neck crank attempt and get back to his feet, only for Khabib to drag him back down to the canvas and elbow him profusely before the bell sounded. Round two began with Poirier ROCKING Khabib and trying to desperately finish him with a barrage of jabs and knees, only Khabib to snap out of it and take his foe down once again. The savage ground and pound continued, with D.P. getting busted up around the eye sockets. Khabib landed one more takedown for good measure to conclude the second. It only took a little over two minutes for Khabib to end this one in the third round. While it looked like D.P. miraculously caught a guillotine early, it wasn’t long before Khabib reversed, got his back and sunk in a LETHAL rear-naked choke for the sudden stoppage. 

Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier (Aug. 17, UFC 241: Cormier vs. Miocic 2)

Cormier made Miocic look like a bitch in their first fight, absolutely blistering Cleveland’s favorite son with a first round KO back at UFC 226. And the first frame of this fight seemed to be a continuation of that theme, with Cormier landing some big leg kicks early. From there, D.C. shot for a takedown and managed to ROCK Stipe’s world with a huge, highlight-reel-worthy slam, although Miocic, to his credit, did a fantastic job defending himself from the bottom. Miocic utilized a very intelligent upkick strategy to afford him an opportunity to get back to his feet, en route to a takedown attempt of his own to close the frame. Miocic got some decent shots off in the early parts of round number two, only for Cormier to fire back with some HUGE elbows and heavy right hands. The two concluded the round clinching like professionals, with both men exchanging big uppercuts and DC getting the last laugh, proverbially, with a head kick right before the bell. Cormier was obviously looking for the takedown to begin the third stanza, only for Miocic to successfully ward off his grappling advances. Stipe landed some good elbows and knees here, allowing Miocic to get undercooks in and actually take D.C. down, for a change. The round, naturally, ended with both men throwing home run shots, and it was, in a word, beautiful. Alas, four rounds was all we needed to decide this one, as Stipe brilliantly works D.C.’s body, culminating with Miocic catching the reigning, defending champion with a gigantic right and some HELLACIOUS follow-up shots to reclaim his belt AND avenge his loss from a year earlier.

Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway (April 13, UFC 236: Holloway vs. Poirier)

LITERALLY coming off the 2019 FOTY, to say expectations for this Lightweight clash of the titans were sky high would be an understatement. And while Holloway and D.P. didn’t quite put on the throwdown of the year, their five-round grinder was nonetheless a technical showcase witnessing two of the best 155-pounders on the planet going FULL-TILT for 25 minutes straight. Really, you can just pick a highlight here: Poirier bouncing back from a barrage of shots against the cage in round one, D.P. dropping Holloway with a HARD straight right in second, that absolute barn-burning exchange in the middle of the third. Ultimately, it all boiled down the fifth and final round, where D.P. effectively earned the championship via an early staggering left hand shot and a downright WILD final flying-fist-off as the bell sounded. 

Tony Ferguson vs. Donald Cerrone (June 08, UFC 238: Cejudo vs. Moraes)

Had this gone on for one more round, not only would it have been a lock for fight of the year, it likely would’ve been a contender for fight of the decade. These two maniacs gave it everything they had and then some in the first round, with Cerrone seemingly gaining the upper-hand in the scorecards with a BEAUTIFUL left hook followed by swift kick right to the breadbasket. The second frame, somehow, was even more exciting, with Ferguson stunning Cerrone early with a rock-hard jab and to follow up, a Yoshiro Tajiri-in-ECW-in-early-1999-esque buzzsaw kick to the gut. Another brutal job from Ferguson made Cerrone spring a nasty leak, and then Cerrone went for a desperation takedown. But really, all that did was make Tony MADDER, as he proceeded to smash Cerrone’s face like a guy on a bad acid trip trying to kill invisible ants with motorcycle helmets glued to his fist. Of course, the fight will forever be tainted by Ferguson’s WAY late punch after the second round bell, but for 10 minutes, at least, we got some gloriously violent, non-stop action. Still, one can only IMAGINE the insanity and brutality that would’ve transpired had the doctors not declared that medical TKO heading into the third ...

Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington (Dec. 14, UFC 245: Usman vs. Covington)

Everybody went into this one sorta’ expecting a “We have Anderson Silva/Chael Sonnen I at home” scenario, but thankfully, this very-familiar-looking white, conservative grappler versus flashy, striking-oriented brown person from a foreign land contest took on a life of its own, giving us what was probably the last truly great bout of ‘19. Usman slipped early in the first round, but didn’t afford Covington enough time to capitalize on the gaffe. Shockingly, Covington at first seemed to actually outjab Usman, only for the defending champ to crank up the intensity in the second, bloodying Colby’s nostrils and tagging him with a HARD left hand and then a staggering right. By the third round, Usman was pretty much in complete control, with the one-sided drubbing only momentarily halted by an “errant” eye poke on behalf of the hellish, Trump-lovin’ Covington. Apparently, Usman shattered Covington’s jaw on a humongous right in the waning seconds of the third, which put Colby in do-or-die mode in the fourth. Colby actually managed to rattle off a couple of decent combos despite the injury, although Usman was never really in THAT much danger from the strikes. Of course, another questionable ref timeout marred the pace a bit, resulting in Covington attempting to land the cheapest Superman punch of all-time to finish the round. Basically a tied ball game, it all came down to the fifth and final round, with Usman getting the best of a CRAZY retard-fight exchange that saw Covington eat canvas twice before Usman clobbered Covington into oblivion on an ill-advised takedown attempt with less than a minute left in the fight.

Vicente Luque vs. Bryan Barberena (Feb. 17, UFC on ESPN: Ngannou vs. Velasquez)

A fantastic welterweight showcase to spark the very first UFC on ESPN special. Luque pummeled Baberena mercilessly in the first, only for Barberena to battle back from the clinch and drop his ass with a hard left. In the ensuing ground battle, however, Luque actually managed to get Barberena’s back and nearly finished him with a bravo choke, only for Barberena to miraculously escape and ALMOST finish Luque with some nasty fist burgers and elbow sammiches from the top. In the second, the two just carved one another alive, with Luque ultimately dropping Barberena in the closing seconds of the round and ALMOST finishing him with ground and pound before he, too, is saved by the bell. The third began with Barberena battering Luque with short-range punches, only for Luque to hit his opponent with two HUMONGOUS knees that put Barberena flat on his back with just seconds left in the round. Of course, Luque quickly hopped on his foe’s carcass and quickly poured on the ground and pound, with the ref calling it a fight with just six seconds to go in the contest.

Jon Jones vs. Thiago Santos (July 06, UFC 239: Jones vs. Santos)

The fight where, for a brief point in time, it looked like the greatest MMA fighter on the planet was finally “solved.” Santos pretty much controlled the pace of the first round, keeping Jones at bay with low kicks and head shots galore — at one point, he even knocked the mouthpiece out of Jones’ pus with a HARD right hook. Of course, Jon Jones started doing what Jon Jones does in the second (no, not cocaine), using his range to pepper the challenger with high kicks and jabs en masse. It was more of the same in round three, this time with Jones whiffing on two probable knockout attempts — the first being a flying knee he missed by several zip codes and the other being a spinning back elbow that just barely missed taking Thiago’s head off. Santos made a brief comeback in the fourth, sticking to a fairly effective low kick/straight left jabbing combo. It was anybody’s ball game in the fifth, as Santos came out throwing a ton of kicks and left hands, only for Jones to fire back with some low kicks and straight jabs of his own. Ultimately, Jones did enough offensively in the fifth to secure a split decision victory — although I and pretty much everybody else who gives a shit about MMA pretty much demand we get a second tilt between these two at some point in 2020.

Pedro Munhoz vs. Cody Garbrandt (March 02, UFC 235: Jones vs. Smith)

The best 4:51 minutes of action all year-long in MMA. Munhoz went for a leg lock early, only for Garbrandt to fire back some hard jabs. There is some PHENOMENAL near-haymakers tossed, and Munhoz finally manages to stagger Garbrandt a little bit with a low kick, thus allowing Munhoz to ROCK his foe with a right hook and follow-up left that sent him hurtling to the canvas like a human version of SkyLab or something. Alas, Garbandt managed to weather the storm on the ground and get back to his feet. And that’s when the RETARDED MONKEY KNIFE FIGHT OF 2019 got underway, with both men effectively saying “FUCK being able to remember my mom’s face 15 years from now” and proceeding to just bomb the living fuck out of each other for the next 20-30 seconds. Ultimately, Garbrant connected with BIG left hook, only for Munhoz to shake it off and wax his opponent with an even more horrific right hook to the chin. Munhoz quickly hopped on his carcass, got a couple of free shots in and the ref waved it off with just nine seconds remaining in the first. Needless to say, if you like your MMA explosive, this is about as good as it got in the year that just was.

Paulo Costa vs. Yoel Romero (Aug. 17, UFC 241: Cormier vs. Miocic 2)

It seems like every year Romero pops up for at least one FOTY candidate, and thankfully, ’19 was no exception. In this superb middleweight clash, it didn’t take long for Costa to bully his elder opponent into the cage and start a’ clipping’, only for Yomero to harness the supernatural power of “no for Gay Jesus” to DROP Costa with a hard defensive right hand. From there, Costa got a good little barrage in, only for Romero to riposte with a jumping knee right to the chin. Post-blatant ballshot, Costa gets a half-takedown and then the two just started lobbing nuclear warheads at each other, with Costa concluding the first with a ridiculous spinning wheel kick attempt. Round two was considerably more strategic in nature than the first, with Costa trying to get into a rhythm with body shots and Romero trying his darndest to keep his foe at bay with ranged jabs. Romero pretty much won the round by scoring a takedown right at the bell. With the scorecards likely tied after the first 10 minutes, it all came down the third and final round, and it did not disappoint. Romero quickly tagged Costa with a mean uppercut, only for Costa to come roaring back with a hard right hand of his own. Then Costa PUTS HIS HANDS BEHIND HIS BACK and DARES Romero to take a swing, to which Romero responded by hilariously popping him right on the buttonhole. With a minute left, Romero rattled off a GREAT-looking combination, which in turn allowed him to score a leg trip with just seconds left in the round … only for Costa to pop right back up and connect on a spinning back fist just as the bell sounded. While one can complain about Costa getting the unanimous decision nod, one thing that you CAN’T complain about is just how much awesome action this one gave us, from the opening salvo to the final blow. 

Brandon Girtz vs. Saad Awad (March 29, Bellator 219: Awad vs. Girtz)

On any other year, this PROBABLY would’ve been the FOTY. Still, there’s no denying this is an absolute BARNBURNER, and quite possibly the single greatest fight in Bellator history to date. In the first round, Girtz clipped Away with a quick right, but he couldn’t quite get much going on the ground. A series of jabs and knees left Awad a bloody mess, but he did manage to get the late upper hand with a beautiful flying knee and a hard left to conclude the round. The two exchanged PHAT head kicks to begin the second, with Girtz briefly stunning his foe with a kick. And that, of course, is our cue for RETARD MONKEY KNIFE FIGHT CITY, with both men just throwing NUCLEAR warheads at each other with no regard, seemingly, for their own safety. The super-exciting round concluded with Girtz hopping on Awad and throwing a million billion head shots ’til the bell sounded. The third round started out more methodical, with Awad throwing some solid low kicks and Girtz loading up that lethal left hand, just WAITING for the perfect opportunity to uncork it. Girtz manages to rock Awad about halfway through the fight, but Awad quickly scrambles back to his toes. The final minute of this one was just bonkers, with each men desperately, direly trying to land that decisive knockout blow with NO fucks whatsoever given. While it’s hard to argue against Girtz’ unanimous decision win, there’s no denying Awad gave it his ALL in this one, and for giving us what is far-and-away the best non-UFC fight of ‘19, both men should be given proper dap. And lots of it, really. 

Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum (April 13, UFC 236: Holloway vs. Poirier)

Well, this is hardly a surprise, is it? For once, the herd consensus is right — not only is this EASILY 2019’s best fight, I’d would probably land in the top five matches of the decade, maybe even the top three. Kelvin came storming out the gates in the first, with Adesanya firing back with low kicks and left hands galore. They took turns exchanging body shots (just like THOTS in college), then Kelvin DROPPED Adesanya with a hard high. Kelvin, of course, quickly sprang back to his feet, and the two traded sharp, pinpoint jabs until the bell sounded. In round two, Adesanya started to get into a rhythm with his jab-kick-jab strategy, eventually managing to drop his opponent with cinder block of a right hand. A follow-up head kick put Gastelum in Street Fighter II dizzy mode, and then Adesanya dropped his ass again with a spinning back elbow. Alas, Kelvin survived the round, and in the third frame, it was pretty much more of the same from Adesanya — a knee here, a kick to the spleen here, a low kick here for good measure. But just when you think this is going to be a blowout, out of nowhere Gastelum lands the double leg out of nowhere, although Adesanya does managed to get back to his feet before the bell chimed. Round four was decidedly more competitive, with Gastelum starting hot with solid right hooks and jabs by the pound. Gastelum, of course, retaliated with some HARD knees to the solar plexus and an uppercut that landed about as clean as it could’ve from the clinch. Then, out of the blue, Gastelum HEAD KICKED Adesanya into oblivion, only instead of going for the TKO barrage, he instead shot for a takedown, which Adesanya easily stuffed. But it was the fifth round action that DEFINITELY propelled this one to the top of the 2019 fight list. Both men exchanged low kicks and jabs like it was Virtua Fighter 4 or something, then Gastelum went for a takedown, only for Adesanya to counter it with a guillotine. On the mat, Adesanya converts THAT into a deadly looking triangle choke, only for Gastelum to miraculously escape. The two continue to trade har jabs, until Adesanya sends Gastelum crashing to the canvas with a sledgehammer right. Adesanya lands another hard right In the clinch, then follows suit with another left hook which drops Gastelum YET AGAIN. With 20 seconds to go, Kelvin just BARELY avoided the TKO finish, adding some fantastic human drama to what was already one of the all-time great MMA slugfests. All I can say is that if  anything manages to exceed this one in 2020, we’re in store for one HELL of a year to be a mixed martial arts fan…


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