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2019 Year in Review: The Welterweights

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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 and light heavyweight divisions. Next we’ll cover the welterweights.


Year in Review

It was a big year for the welterweight division. Kamaru Usman unseated Tyron Woodley for the 170-pound title, Ben Askren made his UFC debut and made everything more interesting, and Nate Diaz returned and brought a new belt with him. Then to wrap everything up, Usman defended his title in a Fight of the Year contender against bitter rival Colby Covington. On top of all that, there were a number of KO of the Year contenders.

It was a good year for the division.

Movers and shakers

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

And here’s how things look now:

As far as the established names go, the big gainers this year are Jorge Masvidal and Leon Edwards who both jumped up six spots and into the top-five. Outside of those two, Anthony Pettis and Nate Diaz made their debuts in the welterweight rankings, surging into the top-10 with one win apiece.

On the other end of things, there were no huge losers. Robbie Lawler and Stephen Thompson saw their stocks drop a little bit after a rough year but nothing too drastic. Ponzinibbio dropped off the rankings entirely but that was due to lack of activity not a string of losses. The only real loser of the year was Gunnar Nelson who dropped out of the rankings after two losses.

Storyline of the Year

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Baddest Motherf*cker Title

Moreso than anything else, 2019 will be remembered as the year the UFC finally got creative, even if really all it did was appropriate Nate Diaz’s idea.

Diaz, the mercurial fighter who rose to superstardom by submitting Conor McGregor, hadn’t fought since his 2016 rematch with McGregor. Then, suddenly, Diaz was interested in a comeback and he faced Anthony Pettis - or as he called him, “The Wheaties box guy” - dominating the former lightweight champion. After the win, Diaz cut one of the greatest promos in UFC history, calling out Jorge Masvidal for a fight a belt Diaz created, The Baddest Motherf*cker in the Game title. The idea caught on like wildfire and and it didn’t take long for the Dana White to decide to take the idea and run with it, creating the inaugural BMF title.

But it didn’t stop there. With the UFC essentially opening the door to validating other, more creative titles, fans and fighters alike started calling for their own variations on the BMF title. Joanna Jedrzejczyk called for a female BMF title, Stephen Thompson called for the Nicest Motherf*cker title, and fighters off all weight classes began calling for a junior BMF title or a heavy BMF title. And then of course there were the fighters who wanted to challenge Masvidal for the belt, including Conor McGregor. Now, Dana White has been adamant that the BMF title was a one-time thing but, with so many fighters interested in it, or something similar, it’s only a matter of time until another special title is awarded by the UFC.

Once again, Nate Diaz has changed the game.

MVP

Jorge Masvidal Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Jorge Masvidal

For well over a decade, Jorge Masvidal has ranked among the best fighters in the world but it wasn’t until 2019 that Street Jesus broke out into mainstream stardom.

For most of his UFC tenure, Masvidal toiled in ignominy, putting together a few wins before losing a split decision that really, he probably should’ve won but, oh well, back to the drawing board. Then, last year after spending three months sequestered on a Telemundo reality show, Masvidal had a moment of clarity. By his own admission, he reconsidered his entire career to get to the heart of why he kept losing fights he should have won and why he wasn’t a champion or a star. What he determined was simple: he was playing the game to win, not to destroy his opponents, and he decided to change that.

It was a good decision. Not only did Masvidal embark on the most impressive run of his career in 2019, knocking out both Darren Till and and Ben Askren, but he also let his personality shine through, as a charismatic, no-f*cks-given, street fighter - after all, he has the bonafides to prove it - and the combination of the two vaulted Masvidal into worldwide recognition and set him up to be one half of the UFC’s first ever non-title title fight, when he took on Nate Diaz for the BMF belt. After beating Diaz for the inaugural belt, fellow Miamian The Rock wrapped the title around Masvidal’s waist.

It took 16 years, but Gamebred finally arrived at the top of the mountain.

KO of the Year

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Jorge Masvidal def. Ben Askren at UFC 239

Was there ever a doubt? Not only did Masvidal score a sensational flying knee knockout, he did it against a previously unbeaten fighter that many pundits thought might be the best welterweight in the world. Oh, and he did it in record-breaking time. Masvidal’s flying knee was the best KO of the year, full stop so it certainly takes top honors here.

That being said, the rest of the welterweight division delivered more than their fare share of KOs. Anthony Pettis’ superman punch KO of Stephen Thompson at UFC Nashville finished as the third best KO of the year and Douglas Lima’s vicious uppercut KO of Michael Venom Page finished fourth. Then of course there was Masvidal’s starching of Darren Till as well as a bevy of other stupendous knockouts from the likes of Michel Pereira, Niko Price, and Dwight Grant. It was a great year for bangers in the welterweight division.

Submission of the Year

UFC Fight Night: Maia v Askren Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Demian Maia def. Ben Askren by rear-naked choke at UFC Singapore

Wow, rough year for Askren.

After getting obliterated by Jorge Masvidal, Ben Askren was hoping to rebound against Demian Maia and prove he was the best MMA grappler in the world. Instead, not only did Maia prove decisively that he was the superior grappler by choking Askren into submission, he also choked the former Olympic wrestler into retirement.

Look, a rear-naked choke isn’t the most exciting submission in the world but when you do it against a grappler the likes of Ben Askren, and in so doing stake your claim as the MMA grappling GOAT, you get props.

Fight of the Year

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Vicente Luque vs. Bryan Barbarena at UFC Phoenix

In a world where Jorge Masvidal didn’t run roughshod over the division, Vicente Luque may well have been the welterweight MVP. Luque fought four times in 2019, with three of them earning Fight of the Night honors but none of them as dramatic or exciting as Luque’s three-round battle with Bryan Barbarena at UFC Phoenix.

Against the hard-nosed veteran, Luque threw everything including the kitchen sink, lighting up Barbarena with all manner of strikes. But “Bam Bam” proved equal to the task and kept returning fire, dropping Luque. Despite being clearly rocked, Luque managed to sneak to an overextended Barbarena’s back and lock on a rear naked choke but through sheer force of will Barbarena escaped, only to roll right into a D’Arce from Luque. With ten seconds left, Barbarena escaped the choke and hammered Luque with elbows until the horn. And that was only the first round.

Things escalated from there with Luque and Barbarena engaging in a battle of wills, going toe-to-to and back-and-forth for the entire second round and most of the third. Then, with only a minute left, Luque turned the heat up, landing heavy punches before dropping and finishing Barbarena with only six seconds left. It was one of the best fights of the year and the clear cur best welterweight fight of 2019.

Did anything major happen outside of the UFC?

For years, Douglas Lima has been one of the best fighters outside of the UFC and in 2019, he proved it, running through the Bellator welterweight grand prix.

In May, Lima turned in a KO of the Year contender when he blasted Michael Venom Page in the semifinals. Then in the grand prix finals, Lima got his revenge, outclassing Rory MacDonald over five rounds to claim both the grand prix title and the Bellator welterweight title. It was an impressive run and with it, Lima staked his claim as possibly the best welterweight in the world.

What’s in store for the division in 2020?

The welterweight division is likely to be one of the most exciting divisions in 2020. For one thing, in just a few weeks Conor McGregor and Donald Cerrone will fight in a welterweight contest at UFC 246. Besides that, with functionally two titles now in play in the division, there are a host of exciting options that could happen. The most obvious would be a welterweight champion vs. BMF champion title clash between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal but Usman has made overtures that he’d prefer to face Leon Edwards next. That would free up Masvidal for a fight with McGregor.

Welterweight has always been one of the deepest divisions in the sport and so 2020 looks to be as exciting as 2019 was.