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2019 Year in Review: The Heavyweight Division

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Jairzinho Rozenstruik
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With 2019 coming to a close, it’s time to look at how each division fared over the year. What where the bright spots? What were the low points? What’s in store for 2020? First we covered the light heavyweight division, which you can read about here. Next we’ll cover the big boys, the baddest (and daddest) men on the planet: the heavyweight division.


Year in Review

2019 was a pretty stagnant year for the heavyweight division. The top-five mostly stayed the same, and the division was largely held up by Daniel Cormier, whose injury delayed a title fight until August. Add in Stipe Miocic’s rematch win to set up a trilogy, and the division was almost completely hamstrung. Fortunately, if there’s any division that can handle a logjam at the top, it’s heavyweight since most of the top contenders already have had a shot at the title.

In other developments, we saw a few old dogs finally drop out of the rankings and the emergence of a few younger talents, including Jairzinho Rozenstruik, who’s been a shot of life into an otherwise listless division.

Movers and shakers

This is what the UFC Rankings looked like at the start of the year (shoutout to MMANation).

And here is how things look now.

The big mover this year is obviously Rozenstruik, who had one of the best years in MMA across all weight classes. Rozenstruik made his debut in February, and four fights later, he’s in the top-five at heavyweight. Outside of Rozenstruik, Walt Harris moved up four spaces over the year, and Blagoy Ivanov, Augusto Sakai, and Sergei Pavlovich all debuted in the rankings.

2019 was a bad year for fighters trying to claw their way up. Top-10 ranked Justin Willis fell off completely after being released from the UFC. Aleksei Oleinik fell four spots. Andrei Arlovski and Stefan Struve both fell out of the rankings altogether, and Marcin Tybura dropped a precipitous six spots. But the biggest loser has to be Tai Tuivasa, who lost two fights, dropped off the rankings, and is suddenly looking like his UFC career might be done. For a guy who just this past year was an undefeated prospect, it was a long fall.

Storyline of the Year?

In many ways, 2019 was a forgettable year, so it’s unfortunate the story that will be remembered most is the one some of us wish we could forget. After a short amateur career and even shorter stint on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, Greg Hardy made his UFC debut. He was the most active fighter in the heavyweight division, fighting five times to wrap the year at 2-2 with one 1 no contest.

Hardy’s controversial past immediately made him a lightning rod for criticism, and the UFC did itself no favors by giving him feature placement on several cards, including the company’s debut on ESPN, where he fought alongside domestic violence survivor Rachael Ostovich. Hardy added more fuel to the controversy fire with his in-cage performances, losing his first UFC fight by disqualification due to an illegal knee and then getting his third win overturned to a no-contest after using an inhaler in the middle of a fight with Ben Sosoli, which is illegal. His win over Dmitry Smolyakov also did him no favors; even Dana White was critical of Smolyakov’s quality as an opponent.

For better or worse, 2019 will probably be remembered as the year of Greg Hardy entered the UFC.

MVP

Jairzinho Rozenstruik

Unlike end of the year awards, the divisional MVP goes to who did the most work in the division, keeping it relevant, turning in good performances, and entertaining the fans. On those fronts, no one in 2019 did more than Jairzinho Rozenstruik.

Rozenstruik made his debut in February and had one of the most active years in UFC history. It’s impressive enough to get in four fights in a year as a heavyweight. But on top of that, the Surinamese fighter scored one head-kick KO, two first-round KOs, and a comeback of the year with a win over Alistair Overeem. There was no one more interesting or impressive than Bigi Boi.

KO of the Year

Jairzinho Rozenstruik KOs Alistair Overeem - UFC Washington D.C.

The best heavyweight KO of the year is always a tricky one; after all, the big boys tend to produce more than their fair share of highlight reel devastation. But this year was clear-cut: Jairzinho’s incredible comeback over Overeem, a fight where he lost 24 minutes before winning the final one, has to take the honors. Francis Ngannou ‘s first-round knockout of Cain Velasquez, a stoppage that sent the ex-champ into retirement, was arguably the most important KO of the year, but the curious surroundings of the knockout – and difficulty in seeing it clearly – detract from is impressiveness. Meanwhile, Bigi Boy not only pulled off the comeback of the year, but he may well have been the author of the image of the year, the mangled visage of Overeem, lip split like the victim of some grisly horror movie.

It was a big year for Bigi Boi.

Submission of the Year

Stefan Struve submits Marcos Rogerio de Lima with an arm-triangle choke

In what was supposed to be the final fight of his career, Stefan Struve went out on a high note, overcoming a first-round knockdown to submit Marcos Rogerio de Lima in the second round at UFC Prague. Of course, Struve went on to un-retire shortly afterwards, but the fact that he was essentially knocked out and then came back to win the fight – all without landing even one significant strike – is incredibly impressive and was one of the real highlights for the heavyweight division this year.

Fight of the Year

Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier II - UFC 241

It’s hard to go with any other fight besides the obvious: Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier II. After months of saying their first fight was a fluke, Stipe Miocic - the erstwhile heavyweight G.O.A.T. - finally got his chance to prove it at UFC 241. And for three rounds, Daniel Cormier made him look like a liar. Then in the fourth, Miocic made a title-winning adjustment, finding a home for vicious hooks to the body, and left Cormier reeling for answers. “D.C.” found none, and Miocic was able to finish the two-weight world champion to reassert himself as “The Baddest Man on the Planet.”

Did anything major happen outside of the UFC?

The biggest thing that happened in the heavyweight division outside of the UFC this year took place in the very first month, when Ryan Bader knocked out Fedor Emelianenko at Bellator 214 to claim the Bellator heavyweight title and the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix title. Outside of that, the only other major storyline for the year was PFL’s heavyweight playoff which will conclude on New Year’s Eve with Jared Rosholt taking on Ali Isayev.

What’s in store for the division in 2020?

Unfortunately, the heavyweight division may be in store for another middling year. At this point, the trilogy fight between Miocic and Cormier seems unlikely to happen until the early summer. That means the division is once again stalled. And should Cormier win a tiebreaker, things get very murky. Cormier is likely to retire, leaving Miocic coming off a loss and likely taking on a title fight against an opponent he’s already defeated. If that comes to pass, it’ll definitely take some shine off the division.

Outside of the upcoming title fight, there are a few interesting options on the horizon. Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik seems likely to happen sometime next year, which will not only be fireworks on its own merits, but sets up a legitimate title contender for the winner of Moicic-DC III. The wild card here is if Jon Jones finally decides to move up to heavyweight. If that happens, the division suddenly becomes one of the most interesting in the sport with plenty of exciting matchups for Jones and a potentially massive title superfight.