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2019 Year in Review: The Middleweight Division

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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, and welterweight divisions. Next we’ll cover the middleweights.


Year in Review

While other divisions in MMA were fairly stagnant in 2019, the middleweight division saw some of the most turnover, and shows some of the most promise heading into 2020. The top of the middleweight divisions in both the UFC and Bellator saw a changing of the guard and, in the UFC in particular, the emergence of a potentially massive star.

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:

In 2019, middleweight was among the most tumultuous divisions in the UFC. Paulo Costa who moved five spots up from seventh to number two and will presumably received a title shot after he recovers from his injury. Likewise, Jared Cannonier also jumped five spots, from nine to four and is set to fight former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker. And then of course, there’s Israel Adesanya who rose from sixth-ranked contender to champion. But the big gainer for 2019 was former welterweight title contender Darren Till, who made his 185 pound debut in style, outpointing Kelvin Gastelum to earn himself an immediate spot in the top-five of the rankings.

The big losers of 2019 were the old guard of the division. Former champions Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold both made the move up to light heavyweight with disastrous results, and former Strikeforce champion Jacare Souza did the same, fairing only marginally better. Then there’s long-reigning champion Anderson Silva who continued his decline, losing to both Adesanya and Cannonier, the latter even stopping Silva with leg kicks in the first round.

Storyline of the Year?

February 9, 2019 — Israel Adesanya, just promoted to the main event that morning, gives a nod to Naruto’s Rock Lee in his fight against Anderson Silva. Esther Lin

The rise of Israel Adesanya in 2019 was not only the most prominent middleweight story of the year, it was among the most important stories for the UFC writ large.

After exploding into the UFC with four win in 2018, Adesanya kept that momentum churning in 2019. “The Last Stylebender” made scores of fans with his magnetic personality and thrilling fighting style, drawing comparisons to Conor McGregor’s rise to superstardom. And like McGregor, Adesanya showed out in his first UFC title fight, knocking out Robert Whittaker.

Adesanya wasn’t done there though. Aside from claiming UFC gold, Adesanya also laid the ground work for a potential fight with light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. What started as friendly banter quickly devolved into a full-blown feud and, should Adesanya hold onto his title throughout 2020, a match up with Jones in 2021 figures to be a massive event.

MVP

Israel Adesanya Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Israel Adesanya

As discussed above, Adesanya had an incredible year both inside and outside the octagon. “The Last Stylebender” kicked the year off with a Fight of the Night performance against Anderson Silva at UFC 234, then won the interim middleweight title in the 2019 Fight of the Year against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 236, and capped things off with his Performance of the Night domination of champion Robert Whittaker at UFC 243. Adesanya is on the short-list for Fighter of the Year across all of MMA and he’s certainly the 185 pound MVP for 2019.

KO of the Year

Cosmo Alexandre knocks out Sage Northcutt at ONE Championship

While Adesanya’s knockout of Whittaker is certainly the most important KO of the year, and the performance precipitating the knockout was spectacular, the best pure KO of the year came outside of the UFC when Cosmo Alexandre face-planted Sage Northcutt at ONE Championhip: Enter the Dragon.

Northcutt obviously made his name in the UFC and his moving to ONE was seen as a big coup for the organization. Those plans quickly turned sour though as Alexandre obliterated Northcutt in just 29 seconds, fracturing his face in eight places which required a nine-hour surgery and several months to recover from. Northcutt has not fought since.

Submission of the Year

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Jack Hermansson submits David Branch with a modified guillotine at UFC on ESPN 2.

For some time, Jack Hermansson seemed like a bit of an “also-ran” in the middleweight division but in 2018, “The Joker” began to change that narrative with a pair of solid wins, including his own style of modified guillotine choke over Gerald Meerschaert in December of 2018. Then, Hermansson showed that that choke wasn’t just a one-off but was a staple of his offense, submitting former WSOF champion David Branch with it at UFC Philadelphia.

Hermansson’s go to grappling manuever is essentially an arm-in guillotine only with the arm in on the same side of the head as Hermansson’s body, resulting in a choke that’s almost a cross-breed of a guillotine and a necktie. Whatever you call it though, you certainly have to call it effective as the crafty maneuver submitted a BJJ blackbelt who had previously been nearly unsubmittable, and went on to play a major role in Hermansson’s win over BJJ world champion Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in his next fight.

Fight of the Year

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Israel Adesanya wins a unanimous decision over Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 236.

There was never a question about this one. Not only was Adesanya vs. Gastelum 2019’s Fight of the Year, it was one of the single greatest fights in UFC history. Early on Adesanya controlled the bout with his superior striking but Gastelum was relentless and seriously hurt Adesanya in the fourth round. Heading into the final round the bout was still up for grabs and then, Adesanya turned in a pantheon-level performance, dropping Gastelum a number of times, securing the win though he was unable to finish the impossibly tough Gastelum. It was the kind of battle of wills that people write stories about for years to come.

Did anything major happen outside of the UFC?

Bellator MMA

The biggest news outside of the UFC was former BJJ world champion Rafael Lovato Jr. claiming the Bellator middleweight title with a split decision win over Gegard Mousasi at Bellator 223. Lovato is one of the most accomplished jiu-jitsu competitors to ever transition into MMA and his rise to the top of the Bellator division was an unexpected and tremendously fun happening. Now it looks like Bellator may once again put on a champion vs. champion fight between Lovato Jr. and welterweight champion Douglas Lima, which would certainly be highly interesting.

What’s in store for the division in 2020?

Unlike the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions, the middleweight division is teeming with possibilities in 2020. Though Adesanya was supposed to defend his title against Paulo Costa, Costa’s injury has him sidelined for the first part of the year and all signs are pointing to a Yoel Romero title shot, with ostensibly Costa getting the winner of that. Meanwhile, Robert Whittaker is set to taking on the suddenly red hot Jared Cannonier. Then of course there’s the new kid in town, Darren Till, who is probably only one or two big wins away from a title shot. With Adesanya intent on solidifying his claim to the throne over the next year, middleweight should be one of the most interesting divisions in 2020.