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2019 Year in Review: The Lightweights

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With 2019 now over, 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? We’ve already covered the heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight, and welterweight divisions. Up next, the lightweights.


Year in Review

For the lightweight division, 2019 was simultaneously incredibly busy and somewhat stagnant. The top fighters in the division remained relatively unchanged, and the prolonged suspension of champion Khabib Nurmagomedov - a holdover from his brawl at UFC 229 with Conor McGregor in 2018 - left the division somewhat rudderless for a good portion of the year. Things started to take shape in the summer, once Khabib submitted Dustin Poirier to unify the lightweight belts. But with McGregor’s return and possible contention, things once again look murky in the sport’s most talent-stacked division.

Movers and shakers

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

Here’s how things look now:

More so than any other division, the UFC lightweight division remained basically the same throughout 2019. Of the 16 top fighters to start the year, only three exited the rankings, and one was Nate Diaz who officially moved up to welterweight. In all, the past 12 months were simply a reshuffling of the deck, with most coming out in substantially similar spots to where they started.

The big winner of the year was Donald Cerrone, who started 2019 off with back-to-back wins over Alexander Hernandez and Al Iaquinta. In doing so, he got back in the title conversation at 155 pounds and earned a spot in the top-five. Aside from Cerrone, Paul Felder and Dan Hooker had excellent years, moving up eight and six spots, respectfully, to become dark-horse title contenders.

The big loser of the year was James Vick, who went 0-3 in 2019 with a unanimous decision loss to Paul Felder and back-to-back knockouts. As a result, Vick dropped from the top-10 to completely out of the rankings.

MVP

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone

Cerrone may not have had the most successful year of his career, but like most years, “Cowboy” outworked his competition over the long haul.

Cerrone fought four times in 2019, and though he split the fights, going 2-2, he not only reestablished himself as a threat at 155 pounds, but also gave fans more entertainment than any other fighter in the division. Three of his four fights in 2019 were awarded “Fight of the Night” honors, and his knockout of Alexander Hernandez earned a “Performance of the Night” bonus as well. Perhaps more important than any of that, Cerrone won the Conor McGregor lottery at year’s end.

Cerrone faces Conor McGregor at UFC 246 this year, thanks in large part to the thing that earns him MVP honors for 2019 - always being ready.

KO of the Year

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Kevin Lee knocks out Gregor Gillespie at UFC 244

This one was razor close. Between Kevin Lee’s incredible head-kick KO of Gregor Gillespie and Justin Gaethje’s picture-perfect right hook KO of Edson Barboza, there was stiff competition. Ultimately though, you had to give the edge to Lee.

Barboza is an elite lightweight, among the best strikers in the world, and has never really been beaten on his feet in the UFC. But Gillespie had never been beaten at all – until Lee put a foot upside his head. Before UFC 244, “The Gift” was among the hottest prospects in the division, if not the sport, and some analysts considered him a candidate for the lightweight title. With his wrestling background, Gillespie figured to be a difficult test for Khabib Nurmagomedov. But Lee put an end to that in under three minutes, and he also reasserted himself as a serious threat in the lightweight division.

Submission of the Year

Brent Primus taps Tim Wilde with a gogoplata at Bellator Birmingham

Heading into Bellator Birmingham, Brent Primus was at a career crossroads. After taking the lightweight championship from Michael Chandler in controversial fashion, he was outclassed in a rematch that took too long to make and left a sour taste in many fans’ mouths. Such a turn could have led to a spiral from Primus, and when Wilde dropped him almost immediately, the worst outcome looked likely. But Primus regained his composure and got to work, tapping Wilde in his own backyard with a submission that’s usually reserved for purple belts who want to style on the new white belt in BJJ class.

Gogoplatas are among the rarest submissions in the sport, and Primus’ was among the best best submissions of the year, regardless of weight class.

Fight of the Year

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway II at UFC 236

Let there be no debate about this one, Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway II was not only one of the best fights of the year, it was one of the best fights of all time. For twenty-five minutes, Holloway and Poirier bared their souls in the cage in search of UFC gold – a first for Poirier and a second title for Holloway. At the end of it, the only reason they didn’t win the Fight of the Year was the co-main event of UFC 236 may well have been the greatest fight in UFC history. But frankly, there was no other lightweight bout in 2019 that came close to the highs this rematch brought, and it certainly whet the appetite among the fans to see more of Holloway at lightweight.

Did anything major happen outside of the UFC?

Bellator MMA

Like Holloway, over in Bellator, Patricio “Pitbull” moved up to the 155 pound division from featherweight. But the younger “Pitbull” brother proved more “Blessed” than Holloway, knocking out Michael Chandler in just one minute to become only the second champ-champ in Bellator history.

Over in PFL, Natan Schulte submitted Ramsey Nijem and Akhmet Aliev to advance to the finals of the lightweight tournament, where he took a unanimous decision over Loik Radzhabov to claim the million dollar prize.

What’s in store for the division in 2020?

Hopefully, the single greatest fight in MMA history.

Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson are set to meet – finally – at UFC 249 in April. The fight has been scrapped on four previous occasions. Hopefully, the fifth time will break the hex on this fight. These two are long overdue for a matchup, and as it stands right now, this is the most important fight in MMA history. They truly are two of the very best fighters of all time, with legitimate claims to being the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world. They’re both riding 12-fight win streaks in the same division. If they finally settling their business, everything else pales in comparison.

Aside from that, the rest of the division will continue to thrive as the best in the sport. McGregor claims he’s going to be an active fighter in 2020, so that portends good things (or bad things if he leapfrogs the line to another title shot). Justin Gaethje has staked his claim for a shot at the belt, and Dan Hooker and Paul Felder are set to throw down in a fight that will at minimum be a “Fight of the Year” contender and could even put one of them in serious title contention. As always, lightweight has a lot going on.