There were times during the first half of 2020 when the idea of voting for midyear awards in any sport seemed ill-conceived, and it was no different for the UFC.
Would there even be enough events from which to garner candidates for the various categories? The coronavirus pandemic canceled sports around the world and although the UFC had to cancel six cards, promotion president Dana White was determined to forge on.
As it turned out, not only were there enough candidates to fill a midyear awards ballot, there was a fight that registered among the best ever, a knockout that resurrected a career and a prospect whose colorful hairdo was eclipsed only by two impressive finishes.
ESPN’s 12-person panel had plenty of performances from which to choose, including Dustin Poirier‘s epic win over Dan Hooker on Saturday. Two winners were unanimous while others were narrow winners. But each would have been a strong contender in any year.
Editor’s note: Polls and a list of the panelists are at the bottom.
Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk trade blows throughout their championship bout at UFC 248.
For five rounds, Zhang and Jedrzejczyk threw everything they had at each other. There were huge right hands, left hooks, head kicks, knees and elbows. Both women were rocked on several occasions. There was blood. By the end, Jedrzejczyk had a hematoma that covered her entire forehead. “I looked like a zombie,” she said.
Zhang won by split decision to retain her UFC women’s strawweight title, which followed a turbulent training camp marred by the coronavirus attacking her home country of China. But the result almost didn’t matter. From the very moment the last second ticked off in the fifth round, Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk was regarded as one of the best fights in UFC history. Not one of the best women’s fights. One of the best fights — period.
Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk had everything you could want in a fight. It was all action from the first round. It was dramatic with the younger, more athletic Zhang taking the lead early with hard shots, then former champ Jedrzejczyk mounting a rally in the later rounds. Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk was a war of attrition; it was a combat masterpiece. And it won’t be soon forgotten.
— Marc Raimondi
Best male fighter(s)
Justin Gaethje lands stiff punches throughout his interim lightweight title fight vs. Tony Ferguson en route to victory in Round 5.
Gilbert Burns, 33, went to bed on New Year’s Eve as a rejuvenated fighter, having won four bouts in a row, his last two following a move to welterweight. But the native of Brazil couldn’t have dreamed what 2020 would bring.
That boosted Burns into a matchup with former champion Tyron Woodley, and that one-sided beatdown on May 30 earned Burns his second straight Performance of the Night bonus and also put him in line for something bigger. When the UFC could not reach an agreement with Jorge Masvidal or Leon Edwards for a title fight, the matchmakers turned to Burns, who will challenge Kamaru Usman on July 11. That sure was fast.
However, Burns must share this best male fighter honor with Gaethje, who has fought just once in 2020 — but oh, what a fight. Gaethje lived up to his nickname — “The Highlight” — by dismantling Tony Ferguson on May 9 in a fifth-round upset TKO. That one performance earned Gaethje an interim lightweight title, a still-to-be-scheduled shot at champ Khabib Nurmagomedov and a split of this ESPN award as both fighters had six votes each.
— Jeff Wagenheim
Best female fighter
Zhang Weili opens up about her road to becoming an MMA fighter and explains the role of Chinese MMA fighting in the world.
It’s easy to forget this now, but earlier this year the coronavirus had not yet extended its reach around the globe. The virus’ impact was initially felt only in China, and it had an enormous impact on the UFC’s Chinese champion. Zhang was forced to interrupt her camp in February and ultimately traveled to Thailand and then Abu Dhabi before making it to the U.S. for her first title defense against Jedrzejczyk on March 7 in Las Vegas. She described the experience as something akin to a “refugee trying to leave.”
Zhang defended her 115-pound championship via split decision against Jedrzejczyk in an instant fight-of-the-year candidate. Not only was the fight itself incredible, the opponent Zhang defeated made it that much sweeter. Even today, Jedrzejczyk is considered the most dominant champion in UFC strawweight history, having defended the title five times from 2015 to 2017. Although Zhang has fought only once this year, she received twice as many votes as any other female from ESPN’s panel.
— Brett Okamoto
Henry Cejudo’s retirement on May 9
Henry Cejudo announces his retirement after successfully defending his bantamweight championship against Dominick Cruz.
Over the past year, Henry Cejudo quietly has told people that he would be willing to walk away from the sport of MMA if he didn’t get paid more. Heck, he said this to me before his win over Demetrious Johnson two years ago, as well as after his bantamweight title win over Marlon Moraes last June. This has been on his mind for quite some time. So, technically, him walking away from the sport following his UFC 249 victory over Dominick Cruz shouldn’t have come as a massive surprise.
But still, it was.
Any time you have someone at the top of their game, at just 33 years old, walk away, especially when they seem to be on the verge of making more money than ever, it’s surprising. Cejudo is about to get everything he’s ever wanted: the money, the fame, the adulation … and he’s walking away from all of that?
It’s still hard to believe and I have serious doubts that he sticks with this, but Cejudo, once a UFC double-champion, heads into the midyear belt-less, and that in its own right is surprising. The fact that he announced his retirement seconds after his win over Cruz is surprising, too. He didn’t even try to negotiate a new deal. He just left on top — for now. In a midyear filled with surprising moments, this one takes the cake.
— Ariel Helwani
Cody Garbrandt shakes up Raphael Assuncao with a jab to the face in the first round.
Time was ticking off the clock. Assuncao had Garbrandt’s back nearly up against the fence, looking for some offense that would perhaps sway the judges to give him the second round. Garbrandt ducked and Assuncao landed a leg kick. Then Garbrandt ducked again and loaded up his right hand, almost from the mat. Assuncao tried to time Garbrandt’s ascent with his own right hand that ended up whiffing. Garbrandt, on the other hand, did not miss. He jolted Assuncao with a whip-like right hook that sent him crashing to the mat, face down. Assuncao was unconscious. The fight was over with one second left on the clock.
Garbrandt’s knockout punch didn’t just throttle Assuncao. It was a message to the rest of the UFC bantamweight division. Garbrandt, the former champion, had been on a three-fight losing streak with injuries piling up, and it seemed like the 28-year-old Ohio native would not follow through with his vast potential as a possible UFC superstar. But Garbrandt started splitting time between his Team Alpha Male gym in California and coach Mark Henry in New Jersey. The adjustments, born out of maturity, manifested themselves in the fight. What looked like a big swing and knockout blow against Assuncao was much more than that to Garbrandt. It was a career starting anew.
After nearly two years out of the Octagon, Sean O’Malley made a statement at UFC 248 and may be on the brink of UFC stardom.
O’Malley shouldn’t even have been up for this honor. If his career had not been put on hold for two years, “Suga” might very well be beyond the “prospect” stage at this point. But starting in 2018, he was twice suspended by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency after testing positive for the banned substance ostarine — although USADA later acknowledged that O’Malley had popped for trace amounts consistent with use of a tainted supplement. Regardless, he had been out of the sport for 24 months when he entered the Octagon in March to face Jose Alberto Quinonez. O’Malley’s return was brief, as he knocked out Quinonez in just over two minutes.
Three months later, at UFC 250 on June 6, O’Malley was back in the cage for a high-profile meeting with former WEC bantamweight champion Eddie Wineland. This time it took the 25-year-old just 1 minute, 54 seconds to get the finish and run his record to 12-0 (4-0 in the UFC). O’Malley’s one-punch knockout of the tough veteran was eye-opening. The UFC brass certainly took notice, awarding him a Performance of the Night bonus. And our ESPN panel was impressed as well, making O’Malley the unanimous choice of all 12 voters as the hottest prospect in the sport. Better late than never.
The panelists: Andrew Davis, Andrew Feldman, Tim Fiorvanti, Ariel Helwani, Tessa Hursh, Eric Jackman, Roman Modrowski, Phil Murphy, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Steve Takaba, Jeff Wagenheim