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Plenty to be thankful for in 2019 MMA calendar and beyond

UFC 244 Masvidal v Diaz: Ultimate Media Day Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The benefit of hindsight isn’t even needed to declare 2019 the year of Jorge Masvidal.

Once considered something of a journeyman, Masvidal engineered one of the most stunning, rapid transformations in MMA history. In the last 12 months, he reworked himself from a middling welterweight in need of ending a losing streak to one of the biggest stars and most compelling personalities in the sport.

The Darren Till knockout. The Ben Askren flying knee. The BMF belt. The Scarface suit. The “three piece and a soda.” It was mostly unexpected, and it was all sublime.

Seriously, this is one of the most epic 12-month stretches in MMA history, and prior to this year, what was Masvidal most known for? His knockout of Donald Cerrone? His Strikeforce title fight loss to Gilbert Melendez? The time he was submitted in an inverted triangle by Toby Imada? His backyard Miami fights under Kimbo Slice? He was mostly just known for being a tough dude who never quite got to the top. Yet suddenly, he’s about as big as it gets in MMA, and that’s one of the great things about this sport. After all these years, it still has the ability to surprise us in new and amazing ways. It’s what draws us in to so-so cards on Saturday nights, and what exhilarates us about hotly anticipated matchups. It’s definitely something to be thankful for. So is Masvidal’s rise. Here are a few others.

The uniqueness of the Last Stylebender

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

What a gift Israel Adesanya has been to MMA since committing to the sport full time.

Pretty spectacular 2019 for him, with wins over Anderson Silva, Kelvin Gastelum and Robert Whittaker, the last of which made him the undisputed UFC middleweight champion.

I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t think Adesanya had it in him. Sure, he’s a certified sniper, but I thought he’d have trouble staying upright against a tough and powerful grappler like Kelvin Gastelum. I thought his style would find problems against a rugged and durable bully like Whittaker. Nah. He’s just awesome and fun and full of surprises. On top of that, he has a playful personality and seems like a great dude. Have you seen the videos of him bringing the title back to Nigeria? It’s impossible to watch the ebullient faces of those kids without cracking a smile, leaving further proof that Adesanya is wonderful and an MMA treasure.

The human moments

There are so many throwaway moments in MMA when fighters have to pretend to be someone they’re not in hopes of getting attention that we should not let the contrasting, authentic moments pass unnoticed.

One such moment took place in the aftermath of Kamaru Usman’s championship victory at UFC 235. After beating Tyron Woodley, an emotional Usman was limping his way to the locker room when he ran into Woodley’s mom, Deborah. She promptly embraced him in a warm hug that cut through his brave face and left him sobbing. In a sport often seen as savage, it was a sweet moment that highlights the camaraderie and sportsmanship that is often hidden behind the scenes.

The entertainers

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

We’ve all sat through cards that seemed interminable. Not every fight can be a thrill ride, so it happens. That’s why we have to tip our hat to the men and women of MMA who go out of their way to ensure nothing like that will happen on their watch. They exemplify the gameness label perhaps above all else, they exist at all levels of the sport, and they show their wares in different ways.

There are classic warriors like Justin Gaethje and Donald Cerrone that stand in the pocket and trade heatseekers; there are acrobats like Michel Pereira; there are unpredictable wild men like Yoel Romero, Yair Rodriguez and Tony Ferguson; there are ferocious competitors like Niko Price, Charles Oliveira, Joana Jedrzejczyk and Chan Sung Jung. They are the kinds of fighters who make it worth our while.

The good guys (and women)

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There are so many good people in the sport doing good things that don’t get noticed nearly enough.

Dustin Poirier started a non-profit, “The Good Fight,” that raises thousands for various charitable initiatives. Justin Wren’s “Fight for the Forgotten” is helping to equip the Batwa Pygmies in southwestern Uganda with land, water, resources, and education to enable them to build a sustainable future, and Cris Cyborg has been a key benefactor. Brian Ortega started “The Brian Ortega Foundation” to benefit youth.

Others like Demian Maia, Michelle Waterson, Douglas Lima, Robert Whittaker, Michael Chandler and Daniel Cormier continue to be gold standards of personal conduct in and out of the cage.

The rising stars

UFC Fight Night: Barber v Robertson Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The physical demands of MMA and its resulting shortened career arcs demand the constant infusion of new talent. Luckily, the MMA gods always seem to deliver.

There are some brilliant young talents that exploded into the upper tier of the sport in 2019 and have awed us with their skill and ambition.

Here are just a few: Bellator’s featherweight A.J. McKee and bantamweight Patrick Mix; UFC’s flyweight Maycee Barber, bantamweight Cory Sandhagen, middleweight Edmen Shahbazyan, light-heavyweight Dominick Reyes and straw weight Zhang Weili. All of them had breakout years, with Zhang having captured the championship in August and Reyes poised to challenge for Jon Jones’ belt in February 2020. With that kind of talent, the sport remains in good hands.

The future

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

As we reach the stretch run of 2019, things should be wrapping up. But no, there is still one final burst to come. On Dec. 14, the UFC boasts a championship tripleheader at UFC 245. Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington, Max Hollaway vs. Alexander Volkanovski, and Amanda Nunes vs. Germaine de Randamie. Marlon Moraes vs. Jose Aldo and Petr Yan vs. Urijah Faber are also on that card. Bellator will then do back-to-back shows from Hawaii, featuring Josh Barnett, Ilima-Lei MacFarlane, and rising star McKee. Then they go to Japan to put on Fedor Emelianenko vs. Quinton Jackson and Michael Chandler vs. Benson Henderson. On New Year’s Eve, the PFL will host its seasonal championships with Kayla Harrison chasing her first belt, and Rizin will host its annual evening of madness. Giggity!

The MMA community

Photo courtesy of Walt Harris’ Instagram

We may be a dysfunctional global family, but we’re still a family that pulls together when it’s needed. In the last month, we saw the outpouring of support for UFC heavyweight Walt Harris and family as authorities searched for his missing stepdaughter Aniah Blanchard. MMA notables such as UFC president Dana White, UFC champion Jon Jones, and Dominance MMA CEO Ali Abdelaziz all pledged thousands in reward money for information on the case, and the MMA community has been diligent in keeping her name in the news. While just yesterday, the worst possible outcome was confirmed, here’s hoping the MMA world will continue to support Harris and his family during this incredibly difficult time.

Life is precious. Life is short. If you’re around your loved ones during the holiday season, forget the petty squabbles, squeeze them tight and be grateful for the moments you’re together. Happy Thanksgiving.

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