Israel Adesanya is the 2018 Breakthrough Fighter of Year.
There is no argument against it.
Right out of the gate, Adesanya announced his presence in his UFC debut with a TKO over Rob Wilkinson in February. He followed that up by “lighting up the eyes” against Marvin Vettori and Brad Tavares. And just like that, the man dubbed “The Last Stylebender” established himself as one of the most must-see fighters in the 185-pound division.
But with his crippling first-round TKO over Derek Brunson at UFC 230, Adesanya catapulted himself from just another fun prospect to a legitimate title contender.
To put his dominance into perspective, Adesanya received 13 of the 15 available first-place votes from the MMA Fighting voting committee. In fact, if not for Daniel Cormier and Amanda Nunes’ reigns as double champs, we could very well be talking about Adesanya as the overall 2018 Fighter of the Year.
Adesanya, to pull from his beloved Anime culture, is a real life Rock Lee, with a dash of Neji Hyūga and an entire spoonful of Naruto Uzumaki: A ninja with a godlike arsenal of strikes and the ability to surgically unravel his opponent while oozing charisma from every pore of his body.
For you non-weeaboos out there, Adesanya is Oberyn Martel from “Game of Thrones,” an unapologetic showman who favors methodically filleting his opponents over brute strength.
But any comparison to any other medium simply falls short. Adesanya is pugilistic genius, a nimble-toed warrior with dynamite in each limb, a globetrotting “broken native” seeking out his “masters degree in ass whooping.”
His crippling combination strikes come forth like a shotgun with a scope as he goads his opponents into a trap like a — you guessed it — viper stalking his prey. It is as poetic as it it horrifying to watch. No man should be this talented at handing down punishment.
With a single twitch, he can wrap his shin around your skull with a stylized display of violence, his face emblazoned with a smirk like that of a child toying with their overmatched younger sibling. He is destruction trapped within the body of a mere mortal. A painter who is only allowed to display their artistry in the safe confines of the Octagon as they splatter the canvas a crimson red.
And oh yeah, he’s only 29 years old and just getting started. He’s also our pick for the 2018 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year.
But don’t take my word for it.
“February, I got signed,” said Adesanya. “Four fights in how many months? All wins as well. Breakout star of the year.”
No argument from me.
2T. AARON PICO
The term “prodigy” is thrown around too often in the world of sports. Too many are named as such and too few live up to the hype.
And yet even fewer reach the level of actually transcending their sport as a whole. In recent year, names like LeBron James, Bryce Harper, Conner McDavid, and Vasyl Lomachenko come to mind. In mixed martial arts, fighters like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey clearly broke through the glass ceiling. But neither were really lauded as prospects.
Pico, on the other hand, has had the term plastered next to his name before he even made his professional debut.
“Simply put, Aaron has all the makings of MMA’s next great superstar, and to have him here at Bellator is something special,” said Bellator President Scott Coker.
A little bit of an understatement, but I digress.
Pico came into the game with so much hype, it was palpable in the air. But after being finished early in the first round by Zach Freeman in his 2017 professional debut, many — including myself — questioned if it was all too much, too soon for the young California native. But the 22-year-old quickly put those questions to rest with three victories in 2018, none of which reached the second round.
In January, Pico sparked out Shane Krutchen in just 37 seconds. He followed that up with a 71-second decimation of Lee Morrision, before putting an exclamation on the year with a TKO over former title challenger Leandro Higo.
And just like that, Pico’s debut loss was a thing of the past.
It’s as close as MMA fans will get to witness the birth of this generation’s “next George St-Pierre” and not even Pico knows where his evolution will end.
“I’m not there yet,” Pico told MMA Fighting. “But in the end, I hope to be on that level if not surpass it. Then, when I get to that level, I wan there to be a young kid that surpasses me. Then it’s just an ongoing effect because this makes the sport that much better.
“I think about those legends that have taken the risk and upped the bar for us young guys. If I want to get to that level, I’ve got to do what GSP does. I want to be that guy that guy one day. Then one day, I want to get a kid that has the same drive as me an says, ‘I want to be better than Pico.’”
You’re well on your way, kid. You’re well on your way.
2T. ANTHONY SMITH
The top 15 of the UFC light heavyweight division offers a few familiar faces. There’s the former champion Daniel Cormier, the current champion Jon Jones and, hell, even Jan Blachowicz is up there.
But one name unexpectedly stood out in 2018: Anthony “Lionheart” Smith.
A Nebraska native, Smith was long just another middling middleweight struggling to make the 185-pound limit. But after a knockout loss at the hands of Thiago Santos prompted a move up to the 205-pound division, Smith has looked like an entirely different human.
Untethered from the trauma of his weight cut, Smith slashed, cut, and pounded out former champions Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua. His once unstoppable foes looked like relics of a Zuffa-led past as this new breed of warrior ran through them like a buzzsaw.
The violence was reprehensible. I could feel the concussions through my television screen as the bloodthirsty Smith pushed the future Hall of Famers that much closer to retirement. Smith later stamped an exclamation on the year with a thrilling submission win over former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir.
He is dangerous, different, and terrifying. Yet his silent demeanor, soft spoken voice, and jovial personality that sit behind a pair glasses is almost calming. He is an anomaly atop a division dominated by a small handful of world beaters. And dear God can he hit hard.
Like Adesanya’s emergence, Smith’s rapid ascension is almost unheard of in the annals of combat sports.
“Israel has had a pretty cool rise but he’s not killing world beaters or former champions,” Smith said earlier this year. “What I’ve been able to do from February until now has probably been unmatched, probably ever. Has anyone had that quick of a turnaround from a loss to possibly number one contender? It’s pretty wild.”
4. TATIANA SUAREZ
The future is immensely bright for the highly touted Tatiana Suarez.
Behind her cold stare and signature cornrows, an aura of invincibility is beginning to be draped around Suarez’s shoulders. She is the female Khabib Nurmagomedov. A gorilla with anaconda arms trapped within a 115-pound frame, a nightmarish amalgamation that sends chills down the spines of the strawweight division. She is truly the boogeywoman of her weight class — or at least appears ready to be.
Since sawing through the competition during season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter, the 28-year-old has barely broken a sweat drowning her opponents with a suffocating top game.
In May, Suarez squared off against the surging Alexa Grasso, a raven-haired Mexican scrapper who had yet to be finished in her professional career. While Grasso didn’t have dynamite in her hands or a ground game to set the jiu-jitsu world on fire, she had a knack for pulling her opponents out of their elements and into her world. Too bad Suarez was having none of it — she stripped the oxygen from Grasso’s lungs with a first-round rear-naked choke.
Four months later, Suarez was face-to-face with former champion Carla Esparza. But just like her past meals, Suarez swallowed up “Cookie Monster” whole.
She is a personification of annihilation, a force perhaps never before seen at strawweight. Simply put, it’s only a matter of time before she gets her shot at UFC gold.
5T. WEILI ZHANG
Just like the UFC light heavyweight division mentioned before, the UFC women’s strawweight division has had few change to its top 15 in recent years. There’s the champion Rose Namajunas, former champions Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Carla Esparza, as well as veterans Tecia Torres, Felice Herrig, and Michelle Waterson. But one name left out that fans will certainly soon be acquainted with is Weili Zhang.
Labeling Zhang an unknown fighter in early 2018 would have been an understatement. In fact, it would be remiss of me to not admit that I had no idea who “Magnum” was until she entered the Octagon against Danielle Taylor at UFC 227 in August. I vividly remember looking at the card and picking Taylor as the most surefire win of the night. After all, Taylor was coming off the biggest win of her career, a decision over former Invicta FC champion Jessica Penne. Zhang, on the other hand, had dominated the Chinese fight scene to the tune of 15 straight wins, but this was the UFC and memories of former Chiense standouts like Zhang Tiequan, Zhang Lipeng, and Ning Guangyou succumbing to superior competition inside the Octagon were still fresh in my memory.
But Zhang quickly put an end to any questions surrounding her skill level as she outpointed Taylor en route to a decision victory. She later stamped her presence among the elite at 115-pounds with a shocking submission win over former WSOF champion and women’s MMA stalwart Jessica Aguilar in November. And just like that, Zhang joined the ranks of the best fighters on the planet NOT to have their own Wikipedia page.
5T. ALEXANDER VOLKANOVSKI
Just as Adesanya kicked off this list, it’s only right we close it out with his teammate, Alexander Volkanovski.
An Australian featherweight who smashes through his opponents like a video game character whose programmer forgot to cap out his power level, Volkanovski was already a fighter to watch for at 145 pounds at the very beginning of 2018. With wins in his first three bouts inside the Octagon, the man dubbed “The Great” was ready for a leap up in competition. In stepped Jeremy Kennedy, an undefeated scrapper ready to halt Volkanovski’s rise.
Too bad Volkanovski was hungry for that “0,” as he handed Kennedy his first professional defeat with a violent second-round TKO at UFC 221 in February. After a pit stop in Idaho, where fans saw Volkanovski snap Darren Elkin’s six-fight win streak at UFC Boise, Volkanovski received another massive step up in the form of three-time title challenger Chad Mendes at UFC 232.
It was clear the UFC was using Mendes as a measuring stick for the hulking Volkanovski. After all, if Volkanovski could get past the man who challenged Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor as the top featherweight in the game, the UFC would have a star on their hands.
Volkanovski not only used his opportunity to prove he belonged in the title picture, but did so in devastating fashion as he steamrolled over Mendes with a second-round TKO.
Watch out world. The Australian fight scene is here, and they’re ready to take over.
Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2018 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year played out.