2019 has been a wild ride for the sport of MMA. The UFC kicked off a new era with its partnership with ESPN, ONE Championship has arrived as an international player and Bellator has chimed in with some of the most exciting fights and fighters of the first six months.
The UFC has crowned six new champions. Jon Jones is back as the defending light heavyweight king. Patricio Pitbull avenged his brother with a knockout win over Michael Chandler. Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov were finally punished for their wild post-fight brawl (h/t ESPN.com’s Brett Okamoto & Ariel Helwani).
It’s been an eventful half-year.
After all of that, some hardware needs to be handed out.
The Bleacher Report staff huddled up to vote on the best mid-year awards, and now is the time to dole them out. Here are the awards for Best Knockout, Best Submission, Best Fight, Biggest Story and Best Fighter for the first-half of 2019.
We’re back from the trophy shop and ready to hand out the hand-polished awards. These are the selections for the B/R MMA Mid-Year Awards.
Best Knockout: Valentina Shevchenko d. Jessica Eye Via Head Kick
Maybe it was the crack, the sound of a bat making contact with a baseball on a perfect summer afternoon. Except the bat was actually Valentina Schevchenko’s left leg and the ball an actual human skull.
It could have been the visual now seared into my brain, poor Jessica Eye laying on the mat, legs twitching, looking for all the world like the victim of a particularly gruesome crime.
Possibly it was the fact that, for some time, MMA Twitter sat and wondered together if we had just seen UFC’s first televised death.
I can’t say for sure what triggered me. But triggered I was. All I know for sure is that, when it was revealed that Eye was indeed okay, that Valentina Schevchenko did not have a homicide on her conscience, I turned off the television, my capacity for witnessing violence overwhelmed by what I had seen.
That kind of visceral response, the momentary reckoning with the morality of the spectacle on display, is powerful. Are we, through our mere participation as spectators, partly responsible for the devastating consequences of a Shevchenko head kick? It’s the kind of question only a truly great knockout prompts—and this was one for the ages.
Best Submission: Brent Primus d. Tim Wilde Via Gogoplata
Brent Primus may be one of the most unheralded fighters in the game today. He quietly entered the Bellator Birmingham main event on May 4 with an 8-1 professional record. He was in hostile territory against Tim Wilde but showed no fear in taking the bout.
And he didn’t need the full 25 minutes. In fact, he just needed 80 seconds to get the job done.
Primus got stuck with a stiff jab as he tried to land a low kick. Being on one leg, it knocked him to the canvas. Wilde went to the mat quickly in search of ground and pound, but Primus was quick to secure guard.
He wasted no time in attacking with the gogoplata.
It’s a submission we rarely seen attempted let alone completed. It requires incredible dexterity and technique. Primus put both on display. The foot went across the throat, he pulled down on the head and Wilde had nowhere to go.
Bellator was able to tweet out the entire bout.
To complete a gogoplata in the main event of a major promotion in 2019 is to do something very special. The win will put Primus back on a path to compete for Bellator’s lightweight title.
Biggest Story: Greg Hardy Loses by DQ
Greg Hardy grabbed a lot of headlines when he made the decision to take-up MMA. Those headlines were amplified when the UFC signed him in 2018.
Once a feared defensive lineman, Hardy’s off-the-field issues forced him out of the NFL. He had been charged with domestic violence and was arrested on cocaine possession. There was nothing to like about Hardy, and he showed no remorse for his actions.
Hardy’s MMA career began on the amateur circuit. As a superior athlete with big power, he plowed through the competition in a total of 2:22. 3-0 with three knockouts. He signed with the UFC, and Dana White put him on the Contender Series show for his first two professional bouts. Both ended in under a minute. After another sub-minute knockout, the company decided to book him for the big show.
On January 19, on their first ESPN+ broadcast, the UFC inexplicably put Hardy in the co-main event.
It could not have gone much worse.
Hardy didn’t get a quick KO, but more importantly, he didn’t look like a competent heavyweight fighter. Allen Crowder survived the early onslaught and the two lumbered around. It was anything but high-level MMA even by heavyweight standards.
Then, as if to confirm all negative opinions about himself, Hardy threw a knee at Crowder when he was downed on the mat. It wasn’t a mistimed knee that may have been justifiable. It was blatant. Crowder couldn’t continue and Hardy was disqualified.
All of the criticism for signing Hardy came rushing in ten-fold from what had been said pre-fight as Hardy confirmed everyone’s notions. There it was — the unapologetic villain did a villainous thing inside the Octagon. The UFC got exactly what it deserved.
It should have been a night celebrating the new ESPN era or a night celebrating Henry Cejudo’s knockout of T.J. Dillashaw. But by simply putting Hardy on the card, and the subsequent result, the UFC marred its first ESPN event with a dark cloud to start off 2019.
Best Fight: Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum
There are plenty of things that set MMA apart from other sports. Not all of them are good, but many are. One of the key drivers of my own interest over the years is its undeniable realness. The UFC’s venerable slogan, “As Real As It Gets,” rings true in the courage of the fighters when they face utter exhaustion, and in their toughness in the face of pain or even injury. In no other sport are souls laid so bare as they are in a cage fight. Sometimes you see fear and doubt in even the proudest of faces, and so it was for Israel Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum April at UFC 236. They two forged an instant classic over five back-and-forth rounds that forced both men to persevere long past the time when their bodies started screaming for them to stop.
With an interim title and a shot at real champ Robert Whittaker on the line, the Nigerian-New Zealander Adesanya and Arizona native Gastelum were at stylistic odds. Adesanya was the flashy striker who was talented enough to not have been sorely tested in his 16-0 career, which included five bouts in the UFC. Gastelum was the rugged wrestler, whose relentless forward pressure and ground-and-pound had wilted plenty of opponents before. The oft-used prefight analogy was one of the bulls in Gastelum versus the matador in Adesanya.
Each man had key moments throughout the fight, as they hurt and tested the resolve of the other. Gastelum knocked Adesanya down early (a UFC first for Adesanya). It looked like the pressure might knock Adesanya out of his game for the duration, but a counter right put Gastelum on the mat in round two. Both men refused to abandon their signature styles or to give in to the others. At times, Adesanya was flowing, his defense rendering him almost impossible to hit. At others, Gastelum caught the matador, as he did when he crushed Adesanya with a head kick in the closing moments of a scintillating fourth round. As the final stanza began, the light was out of their both of their eyes. Despite their predictable insistence to the contrary, neither man wanted to be there anymore. But the two wounded warriors gathered themselves once more and gamely sprinted to the final horn. Adesanya looked just a bit fresher, hurting Gastelum one last time with a razor-sharp combination as the fight drew to a close. Adesanya ultimately got the judges’ nod and took home the interim belt after weeping tears of joy and exhaustion in the cage.
“I was ready to die in there,” Adesanya said. What else can we do but take him at his word? How else could someone push through that? Where else in sports but MMA could an athlete say that and not have it be instantly dismissed as hyperbole? It was hyperbolic in Adesanya’s case too…right?
That, and not the flashy techniques or blood or wild scrambles, is what makes a great fight great. Two competitors, supremely trained, stripping their bodies and souls to the bare wood in front of anyone who cares to see. Is there anything more riveting in sports than an epic MMA fight? Adesanya and Gastelum reminded us that the answer is no.
Best Fighter: Henry Cejudo
Ignore, if you can, the whole King of Cringe thing. Trust me. I know it’s difficult. To appreciate what Henry Cejudo has accomplished in the first half of 2019, you have to block out the crown and the magic show and just the whole awkwardness that is Cejudo’s public persona.
Because if the close of Cejudo’s 2018—beating the only flyweight champion the UFC had ever known and sending him packing to Asia in the process—was a harbinger of things to come, perhaps we should have set our expectations for 2019 (and beyond) much higher.
Cejudo is a former Olympic gold medalist. He will not let you forget this. There may not be another athlete in Olympic history who is so fixated on that symbol of excellence, or who have turned it into a gimmick. The foundation of Cejudo’s public persona is built upon that gold medal; so, too, was his current standing as one of the best mixed martial artists in the world.
Cejudo opened up 2019 with a massacre of then-bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw in a flyweight title defense that lasted a mere 32 seconds. Dillashaw protested the loss; those protestations became moot a short time later when Dillashaw was suspended for two years for using EPO.
What’s a flyweight to do after folding the bantamweight champion? Move up to bantamweight and challenge for the vacant title, of course. Cejudo did this in June, and by this point, nobody should be surprised that he wrecked the heavily-favored Marlon Moraes.
So Cejudo has a pair of UFC titles, and it looks like he’ll be the first person to defend both belts, which is a bit of history in the making. He’s also the first UFC champion (or double champion) with an Olympic gold medal to his name. He’s calling himself the greatest combat sports athlete of all time; while it’s a bit early for such histrionics, does anyone really doubt Cejudo’s ability to get it done? He’s also calling for a fight with featherweight champion Max Holloway. This seems like a bridge too far, of course. It’s ridiculous. Right?
Or maybe it’s not. Even with all his awkwardness, Cejudo is a special athlete. There may be no limit to what he can accomplish.