1. UFC 236
How could an event headlined by two interim title fights take the top spot on this much debated list? Was there a barnburner of prelim fight? Sure. Was there a violent sub-minute knockout earlier in the night? Yes, indeed. Did we witness a fighter gain revenge with a suffocating submission? Absolutely.
But were any of these scraps the reason this entire event is held in such high regard? Not even close.
While early fights did their job to keep fans’ attention, no one was prepared for the hurricane of blood and violence awaiting them at the end of the night.
Leading off the two interim scraps, the flashy Israel Adesanya went to war with the ever-durable Kelvin Gastelum. In a battle of polar opposite pugilists—both aesthetically and stylistically—Gastelum and Adesanya battered each other for 25 minutes in front of a screaming Atlanta crowd. With give-and-take action and no sense of who was ahead on the scorecards, the two men not only cemented themselves as two of the toughest fighters to grace this mortal plane, but they also catapulted themselves onto the shortlist for greatest fight in the history of MMA. In the end, Adesanya reigned supreme with a shiny new UFC championship.
What could top this historic co-main event? Another all-time classic.
Reigning UFC featherweight champ Max Holloway hoped to avenge a 2012 loss and capture the interim lightweight title when he stood toe-to-toe with Dustin Poirier. Just as their middleweight predecessors did, the Americans bit down on their mouthpieces and swung leather for 25 straight minutes.
It was as if someone had thrown two wrenches into a blender. Poirier blitzed out of the gate, grenades taped to his hands, to run into Holloway’s grit and heart. A crimson mask of blood streaked down Holloway’s face. The two men clanged fists, shins and elbows off each other’s rattled brains. And in the end, Poirier cried when UFC President Dana White wrapped an interim UFC title around his waist.
This is what’s so magical about martial arts. No bad blood, no trash talk, no hatred. Just four fighters out to prove their superior hand-to-hand combat skills, and willing to die trying. Combine that with a boisterous crowd that showered every effort with affection, and you have an event that will live forever in those who saw it.
2. UFC 239
UFC 239, which took place in Las Vegas, was a rare card that was stacked on paper and lived up to expectations.
Up-and-coming prospects Edmen Shahbazyan, Song Yadong, Arnold Allen and Julia Avila all scored impressive wins on the preliminary card inside T-Mobile Arena. The UFC’s annual International Fight Week event was off to a red-hot start.
Not to be outdone, Michael Chiesa started the main card by tearing through fellow TUF champion Diego Sanchez. But that performance was quickly erased when Jan Blachowicz welcomed ex-middleweight champion Luke Rockhold to the light heavyweight division with a jaw-shattering knockout that pushed the fighter-turned-supermodel one step closer to retirement.
What on earth could top that finish? How about a record-setting one?
Jorge Masvidal and Ben Askren had never minced words as they traded jabs in the media. True to form, Askren baited his opponent with promos that would make Ric Flair proud. The no-nonsense Masvidal would have none of it, promising to decapitate his curly-haired foe.
Boy did he deliver, spiking a knee into Askren’s skull. Just five seconds into the fight, Masvidal had transformed himself into a mainstream attraction. Extra punches included, you went along for the “super necessary” ride.
Backstage, Masvidal’s teammate Amanda Nunes, considered by many to be the greatest-ever female fighter, watched in awe as she prepared for a title defense against Holly Holm. Then she got to work making her own highlight. A fight that looked competitive on paper turned into a showcase for for the champ-champ, who never let Holm show off the world-class kickboxing skills that sent Ronda Rousey to the great beyond. Late in the first, Nunes wrapped her shin around the challenger’s head and sent her to the canvas. Another scalp on her mantle.
The event closed out with a title fight pitting light heavyweight champion and pound-for-pound great Jon Jones against the surging Thiago Santos. And the crazy thing about that was, Santos was one score away from a win.
3. UFC 244
It’s not every day the President of the United States sits cageside at a UFC event. In fact, it’s not any day. But that’s who showed up one November night inside Madison Square Garden.
Secret service swarmed the area and shut down major roads. They patted down fans and media members. This was more than what we in the business call a “big fight feel” – it was an official state visit.
President Donald Trump missed the preliminary card. But Lyman Good mashed his way back into the win column, and standouts Hakeem Dawodu and Katlyn Chookagian cruised to easy victories. A myriad of violent preliminary scraps followed, including Corey Anderson’s dismantling of Johnny Walker, Edmen Shahbazyan’s decapitation of Brad Tavares, Shane Burgos‘ mugging of Makwan Amirkhani and, of course, Jairzinho Rozenstruik’s 29-second massacre of Andrei Arlovski.
Five days earlier, Trump had been roundly booed at a Washington Nationals game. When political reporters confirmed his planned attendance at UFC 244, speculation followed about his reception at a violent sporting event. Many pundits expected a warm reception.
Instead, he was greeted with a mix of boos and cheers, par for the course in these divided times.
Moments later, everyone was on to bloodier things. Kevin Lee obliterated Gregor Gillespie with one of the most picture-perfect head kicks you’ll ever see inside the Octagon. While knockout artists Derrick Lewis or Blagoy Ivanov couldn’t continue the streak of finishes, they put on a thrilling back-and-forth three round scrap and would have had a good argument for “Fight of the Night,” if Stephen Thompson and Vicente Luque hadn’t upstaged them in the very next fight.
A chaotic night culminated in a battle between two fighters who personify violence: Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal. With the “Baddest Motherf**ker” title on the line, Diaz and Masvidal got in the cage and sought to find their opponent’s off button.
Masvidal got the better of his west coast counterpart for three rounds, but Diaz wasn’t completely out of it as they headed into championship time. Unfortunately, the cageside doctor disagreed when a cut over Diaz’s eye rendered him unable to continue. Fans were robbed of the final 10 minutes, much to the chagrin of the fighters and fans.
There was still more room for spectacle, though. Former WWE champ and box office superstar “The Rock” wrapped the specially forged belt around Masvidal’s waist. It didn’t quite have the impact expected, but it was still a hell of a night.
4. CAGE WARRIORS 106: NIGHT OF CHAMPIONS
Six main card fights – that’s a good start if you want to make it on the best-of shortlist for this year, especially if you’re an event few on this side of the pond might watch live. What really set Cage Warriors 106 apart from other marquee events is the absolute carnage it left inside the cage.
Modestas Bukauskas, Samir Faiddine, Mads Burnell and Jai Herbert all had gold wrapped around their waist following violent stoppage wins. The crowd inside London’s Hammersmith Apollo knew they’d witnessed history. Combined with a majority draw in a middleweight fight between James Webb vs. Nathias Frederick, the event already was one of the more unique nights in fighting.
What closed it out was unprecedented.
Ross Houston and Nicolas Dalby were at odds over the promotion’s welterweight crown. The title fight wasn’t different than any other you might see on the regional circuit. The plasma on display was.
Both men turned a deep crimson red as blood seemingly sprayed from every pore of their body. With blood trickling, the canvas quickly became a nightmarish slip-n-slide. Eventually, the cage was no longer suitable for athletic competition, and referee Marc Goddard called off the fight, declaring an unheard-of no-contest due to excessive blood.
“I’ve said this many times at seminars around the world to would-be officials, but in MMA, you’ve never quite seen it all,” Referee Marc Goddard told MMA Fighting the day after the event. “Last night was the first time in 15 years, almost 16 years, that I’ve ever had to make that call.”
Indeed it was Mr. Goddard. And for that, we’ll remember this show across the pond.
5. BELLATOR 214
Bellator sought to crown a new heavyweight champion at the start of its 2019 season, and the “Fabulous” Forum hosted.
Bader punched his ticket to the tournament finals with a violent knockout of Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and a 25-minute beatdown of Matt Mitrione. Emelianenko, meanwhile, had stopped Frank Mir and Chael Sonnen for his spot.
Fans who’d watched Bader’s string of Bellator victories picked him to win. But the fact that Emelianenko had made another tournament final at the age of 42 made the contest historic. Too bad Bader had no time for history – he disconnected his Russian foe from his senses just 35 seconds in the fight, earning a second title.
On the same card, Bellator stalwart Henry Corrales halted a hype train with a skull-rattling KO of Aaron Pico, and former WWE champion turned Bellator heavyweight Jake Hager made his pro debut with a first-round submission win over J.W. Kiser.
It was exactly what Bellator needed to kick off the new year.