The Submission of the Year field was wide open heading into the final UFC event of 2018.
There were miraculous buzzer-beating submissions, rarely-seen techniques pulled off from impossible angles, and maneuvers that had fighters twisted up so awkwardly that it wasn’t even clear what caused them to tap out. But when thinking about the best submission finish of the last 12 months, few could agree on the first to spring to mind, unlike previous years that saw the likes of Demetrious Johnson’s all-time classic “Mighty Wizbar” in 2017 or Ronda Rousey’s unforgettable 14-second armbar of Cat Zingano in 2015 that proved to be closer to the end of her dominance than the beginning.
Then, unassuming as ever, Ryan Hall came along and worked his magic.
Best known for his inimitable jiu-jitsu style (and inactivity since winning The Ultimate Fighter 22 three years ago), Hall was considered to be an ideal matchup for former two-division UFC champion B.J. Penn, as far as not being a threat to cause further significant damage to the 40-year-old who hasn’t won a fight since November 2010. Not only could fans of “The Prodigy” sleep easy knowing that Penn wasn’t in danger of eating a rocket uppercut, there was even the hope that he might defeat Hall if he could keep the fight standing.
And stand Penn did for the opening minutes of their fight, knowing full well not to fall into the dangerous guard (and even more dangerous 50/50 guard) of Hall. Hall dropped to his back and welcomed Penn to engage with him on the ground, which is where Penn himself humbled many an adversary in his prime. On this occasion, he was content to kick at Hall’s legs and wait for the referee to stand him up.
It looked like this would be a repeat of Hall’s last fight, a unanimous decision win over Gray Maynard that saw Maynard infuriated by the evasive tactics of Hall. But with half a round remaining, Hall proceeded to attack with a gorgeous Imanari roll before transitioning into his trademark 50/50 guard and setting up a heel hook that ended the fight just seconds later.
Penn tapped immediately. Hall released just as quickly. And still Penn couldn’t avoid injury — that’s how fast Hall was able to perfectly lock in the technique.
Though he wasn’t knocked out, Penn’s 31st pro bout saw him have to accept defeat by submission for the first time in his career. He’d been outwrestled and outworked on the mat before, but it took Hall’s singular submission ability to do what legends like Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre couldn’t: Make Penn tap.
Afterwards, Hall seemed unimpressed with his own performance, saying he was “very fortunate” to compete against Penn and describing the win as “bittersweet.” He also confirmed the worst as far as the effectiveness of his heel hook.
“You never know, honestly I didn’t expect him to tap because it’s B.J.,” Hall said. “He’s rubbery and some people just don’t tap. His knee popped pretty good. I don’t know if it’s torn, I’m not sure. But it went like, ‘crack, crack, pop,’ which when you put a heel hook on with pace a lot of times that can be the result.”
Hall also spoke to his difficulties finding an opponent, though he couldn’t offer an explanation as to why other fighters have hesitated to sign on the dotted line to face him.
In the future, all anyone has to do is point to the 2018 Submission of the Year to understand why.
2. PAUL CRAIG DEF. MAGOMED ANKALAEV — MARCH 17, UFC LONDON
OH MY!!!!@PCraigMMA pulls off the MIRACLE upset in the final 5 seconds and gets the submission victory!! WOW!!! #UFCLondon pic.twitter.com/iQ6en9TokC— UFC (@ufc) March 17, 2018
At the highest levels of the sport, catching an opponent with a finishing hold, snatching their very will to fight from their bodies, and presenting them with the age old question of tap or snap or nap, remains an extraordinarily difficult thing to do and in many ways is still the ultimate form of imposing your will on another fighter and proving one’s superiority.
Or in the case of Paul Craig, proving to everyone, including himself, that he deserved his spot in the Octagon.
Prior to Hall’s chart-topping finish of Penn, it was actually Craig who was poised to take this award home from the MMA Fighting voter committee, though without a majority of the first-place voting. That’s a fitting footnote for the “Bearjew,” who was one second away from becoming a footnote himself in the annals of the UFC.
On March 17 at UFC London, Craig was matched up with unbeaten Dagestani fighter Magomed Ankalaev. This had all the makings of a showcase for Ankalaev, who was debuting on the strength of a 9-0 record and back-to-back first-round knockouts. Craig was coming off of back-to-back first-round KOs too, but in his case he was on the wrong end of them.
The then-30-year-old Scotsman was also fulfilling the last fight on his UFC contract, so it’s fair to say that the matchmakers weren’t overly invested in Craig’s future.
Billed as a -700 favorite on the broadcast, Ankalaev methodically went on to outclass Craig through the first two rounds and pulled even further away in round three, clipping Craig with a head kick and showing off his highly-vaunted Sambo skills by mauling Craig on the mat.
The seconds ticked away on what headlines were sure to soon describe as an impressive debut for Ankalaev. Craig was on his back, pinned against the cage with little options other than to defend against ground-and-pound. Then, instead of coasting to the finish line, Ankalaev attempted to throw one last kill shot, Craig’s legs shot up and around Ankalaev’s head and shoulders. locking in a tight triangle — and seconds later, the tap.
Then one second later, the buzzer.
Just like that, Craig had taken Ankalaev’s 0, earned himself a new contract with the UFC, and, oh yeah, recorded the latest finish in a three-round fight in UFC history at 14 minutes and 59 seconds.
Appearing on The MMA Hour after the fight, Craig confirmed that if he’d lost and the UFC cut him, his fighting days were over.
“When we got the contract, it was this massive relief,” Craig said. “As I said, I was leaving the UFC and I was leaving MMA behind, but I still believe I have some gas left in the tank to get more fights and make my way back up the rankings. There are so many people in front of me and I believe in my head and in my heart that I can beat them.”
Craig would actually go on to lose his next fight, and one more probably puts him in danger of the chopping block again, so that new lease on his MMA life was brief. That said, the next time Craig’s back is up against the wall, it’s his opponent who better be on point for all three rounds lest they suffer the same fate as Ankalaev.
3. ALEKSEI OLEINIK DEF. JUNIOR ALBINI — MAY 12, UFC 224
Aleksei Oleinik finishes the fight with yet another Ezekiel choke. pic.twitter.com/UambFMvU57— FOX Sports: UFC (@UFCONFOX) May 13, 2018
Last year, when Aleksei Oleinik broke out the first Ezekiel choke in UFC history, it was surprising.
This year, it seemed inevitable.
Viktor Pesta was the unfortunate victim in 2017, and even with Oleinik having successfully pulled off the maneuver many times before coming to the UFC, it was hard to blame Pesta for falling into that trap. He was doing damage to Oleinik and looked like he was in control until he wasn’t.
At UFC 224 in May, Oleinik didn’t even give Junior Albini a chance to avoid the choke. The 41-year-old was bloodied early as he marched through Albini’s strikes so that he could get in range to bury his head in Albini’s chest and tie up the Brazilian. Albini defended as well as he could, but eventually found himself snared in Oleinik’s vine-like arms and forced to take top position. Unlike with Pesta, Oleinik only conceded half guard to Albini, and yet that was still enough for him to move his hands into position for his signature finishing move.
We’re at the point now where the question isn’t “Will Oleinik be able to execute another Ezekiel choke?” The question is “Who’s next?”
4. ALJAMAIN STERLING DEF. CODY STAMANN — SEPT. 8, UFC 228
Aljamain Sterling has been touted as a grappling wizard for a while, but prior to UFC 228, he hadn’t actually elicited a tapout from an opponent in almost three years.
But Cody Stamann, Sterling’s opponent at that September show, was more than willing to give “Funk Master” the chance to show what he could do. With an aggressive, in-your-face approach and a strong wrestling background, Stamann took the fight to Sterling from the opening bell and attacked with powerful slams and takedowns.
However, Sterling was determined to snag a submission, scrambling like a wild man with the scrappy Stamann all over him and working to score takedowns of his own or try submissions from bottom. He expertly transitioned from a leglock into full mount and that was the beginning of the end for Stamann.
Giving up his back so as to get Sterling into a position where he could shake him off, Stamann instead ended up having to defend against a full nelson. When he attempted to stand, that gave Sterling the opening to snag his leg and yank it an awful angle. The tapout came quickly, but not before Stamann’s leg was shredded.
It was just the second “Suloev stretch” kneebar in UFC history, or as Sterling called his variation, the “Funk-Strudel.”
Don’t take our word for it, here’s Sterling himself explaining how he pulled off the rarely-seen submission:
5. ZABIT MAGOMEDSHARIPOV DEF. BRANDON DAVIS — SEPT. 8, UFC 228
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Wrestler gets a takedown. Wrestler transitions into back control. Wrestler softens opponent up with punches before sinking in a rear-naked choke. Standard stuff, right?
That’s how it looked like Zabit Magomedsharipov was planning to put away Brandon Davis at UFC 228. Perhaps inspired by the No. 4 entry on this list that occurred earlier in the evening, he took his attack in an unexpected direction, much like he did to Davis’ poor leg.
It was clear from the start that Davis wanted to turn this into a stand-up affair, which against the rangy and ultra-creative striking of Magomedsharipov was still the lesser of two evils given the Dagestani fighter’s powerful grappling game. However, Davis could only stay out of Magomedsharipov’s clutches for so long, and in round two, he fell prey to a takedown, then a trip later on that would seal his fate.
Magomedsharipov sunk his hooks in and Davis had to hand fight to stay alive with one arm already threatening his neck. As Davis attempted to shake himself out of the situation, Magomedsharipov suddenly dove over Davis’s left shoulder to snatch his ankle. Suddenly, Davis’s right leg was trapped and his left leg was being pulled up way past his head. It looked like he was being folded up to fit into a suitcase.
Davis tapped, and just like that Magomedsharipov and Sterling etched two more successful “Suloev stretch” variations into the UFC history books on the same night when the move had only elicited a submission once in the promotion’s last 25 years.
Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2018 Submission of the Year played out.
- Donald Cerrone def. Mike Perry (armbar) — Nov. 10, UFC Denver
- Daniel Cormier def. Derrick Lewis (rear-naked choke) — Nov. 3, UFC 230
- Khabib Nurmagomedov def. Conor McGregor (neck crank) — Oct. 6, UFC 229
- Vinny Magalhaes def. Rakim Cleveland (kimura) — Oct. 13, PFL 9
- Claudio Puelles def. Felipe Silva (kneebar) — May 19, UFC Chile
- Yuki Motoya def. Justin Scoggins (teepee choke) — Dec. 31, Rizin 14
- Darren Elkins def. Michael Johnson (rear-naked choke) — Jan. 14, UFC St. Louis
- Kyoji Horiguchi def. Darrion Caldwell (guillotine choke) — Dec. 31, Rizin 14
- Ilima Macfarlane def. Valerie Letourneau (triangle choke) — Dec. 15, Bellator 213
- Adam Wieczorek def. Arjan Bhullar (omoplata) — April 14, UFC on FOX 29
- Sergio Moraes def. Ben Saunders (arm-triangle choke) — Sept. 22, UFC Sao Paulo
- Kay Hansen def. Sharon Jacobson (armbar) — Dec. 15, Invicta FC 33
- Michael Chiesa def. Carlos Condit (kimura) — Dec. 29, UFC 232
- Manny Bermudez def. Davey Grant (triangle choke) — July 22, UFC Hamburg