What were the biggest upsets of 2019? The Highly Unofficial Awards season continues with the fights where the underdogs bit back…
Jan Blachowicz has long been one of the top light heavyweights in the world, so he could have been the favorite when welcoming Luke Rockhold to the 205-pound weight class. But the general feeling was that Rockhold had been having such a tough time getting down to the middleweight limit that the former champion was going to be in prime form 20 pounds north. He wasn’t, and Blachowicz informed him of that at 1:39 of the second round with a blistering knockout.
Since returning to lightweight in 2017, Anthony Pettis had reinvigorated his career, and despite going 2-2, the former champ appeared to be on the right track to possibly getting a shot at regaining his title. So when he took a fight at 170 pounds against Stephen Thompson, many shook their heads in disbelief. The rest of us loved the idea of two of the top strikers in the game squaring off, but assumed that Thompson would get the win. Pettis wasn’t following that line of thinking, and he went on to deliver one of the best knockouts of the year in the process. Game. Set. Match. Pettis.
With a 13-fight winning streak that included nine Octagon victories, Kamaru Usman earned his shot at Tyron Woodley, but the pre-fight chatter was that while Usman was a great wrestler with finishing power in his hands, Woodley did both those things better. Then the fight began and it was all Usman for 25 minutes. Shows how much we know.
Michel Prazeres has never been someone people are lining up to fight, as he’s a freakishly strong, smothering grappler who can make any opponent’s life miserable. And he was on an eight-fight winning streak as he entered the Octagon to face UFC newcomer Ismail Naurdiev. Now Naurdiev had plenty of positive notices coming into his debut, but he wasn’t going to beat the Brazilian tank. But that’s just what “The Austrian Wonderboy” did, making us all believers in the process.
In a return to MMA math, Rose Namajunas defeated Joanna Jedrzejczyk twice. Jedrzejczyk defeated Jessica Andrade. So when Namajunas met Andrade, guess who was going to win? And hey, for the first five minutes, Namajunas was putting it on Andrade and appeared to be sailing to not just an easy win, but a finish. But in round two, it was Andrade taking the strawweight title by force with a frightening slam that was a reminder that it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
Given Pedro Munhoz’ UFC resume, no one should be surprised that he defeated former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt, but who really saw it coming, especially in the fashion “The Young Punisher” pulled it off. Opting to put his jiu-jitsu black belt in his back pocket for four minutes and 51 seconds, Munhoz slugged it out with the Ohio knockout artist, and I mean slugged it out. When the dust settled, it was Munhoz with his hand raised, proving once again that he’s more than a submission specialist.
Looking at the numbers, I don’t know why I consider this to be such a big upset, but I do. Experience wise, Modafferi had everything on her side, and age wise, Modafferi was only 36 compared to Shevchenko’s 34. But the narrative leading up to the fight was that Shevchenko was the rising star and the fresher fighter while Modafferi was in the closing stages of a pioneering career. But it was “The Happy Warrior” prevailing in Russia, proving that tales of her fighting demise have been greatly exaggerated.
There’s always one fight that lands in this space where you wonder why anyone thinks it was an upset. This is that fight. But if you go back a year, TJ Dillashaw was coming off a pair of knockouts over Cody Garbrandt and he was getting serious consideration as the best fighter in the world, pound for pound. Cejudo was defending his flyweight crown against a challenger dropping down in weight, but in beating Demetrious Johnson for the belt, he just eked out a split decision. You know, MMA math. But at Barclays Center, Cejudo needed only 32 seconds to stop Dillashaw and kick off a year to remember. That, my friends, is why they fight the fights.
If I had to pick my favorite story of 2019, it would be Tristan Connelly’s upset of Michel Pereira in September. In 2015, Connelly was 5-5 as a pro. That gave him as much chance of getting a call to the UFC as I would. But he persevered. “What do I do at 5-5?” Connelly told me after the Pereira fight. “I’m thinking I’m not going to the UFC, but there’s no point in fighting cans. I love fighting – so let’s fight the best guys I can possibly fight on the regional circuit. I own a gym, I teach, I coach, I have people under me and I want to be the best me I can be for them and learn the most I can learn. So I just started taking all the hardest fights I could.” Suddenly, 5-5 turned into 13-6, and while he wasn’t on the UFC’s radar, he was around when Sergey Khandozkho was forced out of his bout with Brazilian up and comer Michel Pereira. Connelly took the short notice fight up a weight class in his home province, and then Pereira even came in heavy, putting the newcomer at more of a disadvantage. But when the Octagon door shut, Connelly was there to fight, and fight he did for 15 minutes en route to a decision victory that not only put him in the UFC win column but earned him $100,000 in bonus money. See why it was my favorite story of 2019?
If you’re in this business long enough (over 19 years in MMA to be exact), you get a vibe about certain fighters when it comes to them becoming stars. Not champions or elite fighters, but stars, because being a champion or an elite fighter doesn’t necessarily translate to becoming a star. Devonte Smith has that something. Sure, going 2-0 with two knockouts after coming to the UFC after the Contender Series helped, but it was something about his personality and his fighting style that stuck with you. So, even though Smith was going to his third opponent after John Makdessi and Clay Collard were pulled from the UFC 241 event in August, I figured he’d have no issue adding to his KO list when he faced former training partner Khama Worthy. Worthy, 32 at the time, was no slouch and he brought a five-fight winning streak into his bout with Smith, which he took on less than a week’s notice. But given the short notice and the different points both were at in their careers, there was no way Worthy would win. Until he did, knocking Smith out at 4:15 of the first round. Do I still think Smith is a future star? Absolutely. It’s just going to take a bit longer road to get there now.