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Highlights

Ten Best – The Fighters of 2019

Several athletes put a stamp on 2019 and made their case as the fighter of the year.

I tapped out. After more than 14 years of doing these awards, I finally came to a point where I just couldn’t make a decision for the highly unofficial Fighter of the Year. Some would say that’s a good problem to have because it means it was a heck of a year in 2019, and that’s true, but only if you don’t have to make a list. And usually, if there are dilemmas, I can ultimately make a rock solid case for a winner and live with it. 

That wasn’t the case in 2019, and I blame Israel Adesanya, Henry Cejudo, Jorge Masvidal and Kamaru Usman. If anything, those were the top four fighters of 2019, but I can’t separate them and put them in any sort of order because I can make a case for any of them being the best of the year. They were all that good against top level competition. So whoever was number one on Wednesday wasn’t going to be in that spot on Thursday, and so on and so on.

Ultimately…I wimped out, and in the final installment of the Highly Unofficial Awards season, here are the top fighters of 2019…in alphabetical order.

PS – Don’t know if it makes anyone feel better, but even choosing the 10 honorable mention folks was tough. Yeah, didn’t think so. And as far as the rules (and my sanity) goes, to be considered, a fighter has to have competed more than once in 2019.

Israel Adesanya
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 06: Israel Adesanya celebrates his victory over Robert Whittaker between in their Middleweight title bout during UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium on October 06, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 06: Israel Adesanya celebrates his victory over Robert Whittaker between in their Middleweight title bout during UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium on October 06, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

So, Israel Adesanya, how did you spend 2019? Well, start with beating an icon of the sport in Anderson Silva. Then engage in the Fight of the Year with Kelvin Gastelum, putting a stamp on the victory with an epic fifth-round surge. Finally, how about upgrading that interim middleweight title to undisputed with a one-sided stoppage of Robert Whittaker? Sounds like a year well-spent.

Henry Cejudo
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08: Henry Cejudo celebrates his TKO victory over Marlon Moraes of Brazil in their bantamweight championship bout during the UFC 238 event at the United Center on June 8, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08: Henry Cejudo celebrates his TKO victory over Marlon Moraes of Brazil in their bantamweight championship bout during the UFC 238 event at the United Center on June 8, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Triple C may only be Double C after relinquishing his flyweight title, but Henry Cejudo, the man still holding the bantamweight belt, did have a year to remember in 2019, first stunning the MMA world with a 32-second knockout of TJ Dillashaw in defense of his 125-pound crown, then coming back from some serious adversity to halt Marlon Moraes and take the 135-pound title. 

Justin Gaethje
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - SEPTEMBER 14: Justin Gaethje celebrates after defeating Donald Cerrone in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Rogers Arena on September 14, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - SEPTEMBER 14: Justin Gaethje celebrates after defeating Donald Cerrone in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Rogers Arena on September 14, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

After a couple hard-fought and punishing losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, Justin Gaethje needed to make some tactical changes if he was going to stay on track to one day challenge for the UFC lightweight title. That was a scary proposition for those of us used to his take no prisoners style. But the “new” Gaethje is doing just fine, and after ending 2018 with a knockout of James Vick, he put two more KOs on the board in 2019, halting Edson Barboza and Donald Cerrone.

Demian Maia
SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - OCTOBER 26: Demian Maia of Brazil celebrates his submission victory over Ben Askren in their welterweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Singapore Indoor Stadium on October 26, 2019 in Singapore. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - OCTOBER 26: Demian Maia of Brazil celebrates his submission victory over Ben Askren in their welterweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Singapore Indoor Stadium on October 26, 2019. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa)

How did 42-year-old Demian Maia make it on this list? It’s quite simple, actually. After three straight losses to Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman in 2017-18, the Brazilian gentleman only came back in 2019 with three wins (and two finishes), as he sandwiched a decision victory over Anthony Rocco Martin with submissions of Lyman Good and Ben Askren. And such success couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Jorge Masvidal
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 02: (R-L) Jorge Masvidal and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson pose for a portrait backstage during the UFC 244 event at Madison Square Garden on November 02, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 02: (R-L) Jorge Masvidal and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson pose for a portrait backstage during the UFC 244 event at Madison Square Garden on November 02, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Finally, the rest of the sporting universe knows what most MMA fans have known for years, that Jorge Masvidal is a real fighter and an entertaining throwback to a different era in combat sports. But better yet, he may be in his prime right now, and for proof, just look at a 2019 campaign that saw “Gamebred” finish Darren Till, score the fastest KO in UFC history against Ben Askren and then win the inaugural BMF title with a stoppage of Nate Diaz. It’s the year we’ve all been waiting for from Masvidal, and in 2019 we got it.

Valentina Shevchenko
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08: (L-R) Valentina Shevchenko of Kyrgyzstan knocks out Jessica Eye in their women's flyweight championship bout during the UFC 238 event at the United Center on June 8, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08: (L-R) Valentina Shevchenko of Kyrgyzstan knocks out Jessica Eye in their women's flyweight championship bout during the UFC 238 event at the United Center on June 8, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

From the spectacular to the sublime. That may be the best description of Valentina Shevchenko’s year, as she lit up highlight reels with her head kick knockout of Jessica Eye before a shutout of the first fighter to beat her – Liz Carmouche – in a fight that may not have been a thriller, but one that showed just how dominant Shevchenko has become as the UFC women’s flyweight champion.

Kamaru Usman
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 02: (L-R) Kamaru Usman of Nigeria walks back to his corner after the a round of his welterweight championship bout against Tyron Woodley during the UFC 235 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 2, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 02: (L-R) Kamaru Usman of Nigeria walks back to his corner after the a round of his welterweight championship bout against Tyron Woodley during the UFC 235 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 2, 2019.(Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Tyron Woodley held the UFC welterweight title for nearly three years and it looked like it was going to be an even longer reign before he ran into Kamaru Usman and got shut out over five rounds. That was impressive stuff from “The Nigerian Nightmare,” but he took it to another level in his first title defense, as he used his standup attack to hold off a fierce charge from heated rival Colby Covington, ultimately closing the show in the fifth round of a Fight of the Year candidate.

Alexander Volkanovski
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 14: (L-R) Alexander Volkanovski of Australia eyes Max Holloway in their UFC featherweight championship bout during the UFC 245 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 14, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 14: (L-R) Alexander Volkanovski of Australia eyes Max Holloway in their UFC featherweight championship bout during the UFC 245 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 14, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.(Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

When discussing the greatest featherweights in UFC history, the conversation will come down to two names as the top of the list: Jose Aldo and Max Holloway. Australia’s Alexander Volkanovski beat both of them in 2019. Let that sink in for a bit as Alexander “The Great” prepares to defend his shiny new UFC featherweight championship belt in 2020.

Petr Yan
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 14: Petr Yan of Russia taunts Urijah Faber in their bantamweight bout during the UFC 245 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 14, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 14: Petr Yan of Russia taunts Urijah Faber in their bantamweight bout during the UFC 245 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 14, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

“No Mercy” is one of the cooler names in the mixed martial arts world, but the way Petr Yan has been going about things, “No Fear” might be more appropriate. Debuting in the UFC in June 2018, Yan fought five times in less than a year, a stretch that included 2019 wins over bantamweight contenders John Dodson and Jimmie Rivera. Only injury slowed him down after that, but in December, he knocked out UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber to keep the train rolling on its way to what he hopes is a 2020 title shot.

Zhang Weili
SHENZHEN, CHINA - AUGUST 31: Zhang Weili of China celebrates after her knockout victory over Jessica Andrade of Brazil in their UFC strawweight championship bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre on August 31, 2019 in Shenzhen, China. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC)

Winning 20 straight fights is a feat in and of itself; earning four of those victories in the UFC adds to the accomplishment achieved by Zhang Weili thus far in her career. But there’s more, and after decisioning perennial contender Tecia Torres in March 2019, she stepped up to face Jessica Andrade for the strawweight title in August and needed just 42 seconds to become the first Chinese fighter to win a UFC title. Not a bad year for Ms. Zhang, was it?

Honorable Mention (also in alphabetical order) – Gilbert Burns, Dan Hooker, Geoff Neal, Francis Ngannou, Amanda Nunes, Charles Oliveira, Jairzinho Rozenstruik, Cory Sandhagen, Edmen Shahbazyan, Glover Teixeira