Every hardcore MMA fan has that friend who just won’t shut up about how this chop or that technique would clean up in the octagon, right? Mine thinks Steven Seagal and his wrist locks are too deadly, so deadly, that it’s impossible to determine the world’s toughest fighter because he has been excluded from sanctioned competition. (Little did he know the front kick to the face was Seagal’s contribution.)
Point is, certain techniques don’t work in the octagon. We’ve known this since tournaments weeded out S.A.F.T.A. and Pencak Silat. New techniques do arrive on the scene from time to time, but only do they become widely used when they’re effective. That particularly applies to striking. Calf kicks are all the rage because they’re relatively low risk and high impact. We don’t see a whole lot of wheel kicks because they’re more for show than damage. If you want to win, it’s not worth it to get too acrobatic.
Unless you’re Joaquin Buckley, and you’ve got nothing to lose.
A split-second hold of the left ankle - a thought, really, as opponent Impa Kasanganay paused before trying to disincentivize him from kicking during their UFC Fight Island 5 meeting – ended up the literal springboard for a strike more common to video games and taekwondo tournaments than UFC fights. When Kasanganay held, he was clearing the leg like you’re trained to do in muay Thai. But it was enough support for Buckley, a Walgreens manager on his off-hours, to leverage his entire body. With a spin and a back kick from his right leg, he went airborne. That might have been the end of things right there. But he stuck his foot right on Kasanganay’s jaw, and with an involuntary shutoff of consciousness, the Contender Series veteran toppled like a tree and cemented Buckley’s place in UFC history.
Anthony “Showtime” Pettis only landed his “Showtime Kick” once. These techniques are not destined to be part of the everyday repertoire of UFC fighters. That’s why we have to celebrate them when they happen, when a small reaction from one fighter produces a reaction from another that stretches the bounds of what’s possible in this sport – and gives everyone something to talk about.
2. Kevin Holland vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza - UFC 256
Transitions can be beautiful in MMA. They can also be as awkward as all get-out – look no further than the north-south position.
There are tons of spaces fighters can find to do damage in the twisting and tumbling of bodies as they grapple. That’s one of the things that makes MMA so challenging, particularly for jiu-jitsu devotees who are used to safe harbor in certain positions. There is no safe harbor in MMA. You can be on the bottom, as Randy Brown was against Niko Price, and get knocked out by a hammerfist. You can be in 50-50, as Marcio Cruz was against Andrei Arlovski, and get dazed by a punch. Or, as Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza found out, you can be on your knees, holding onto your opponent’s ankle, and a hook can crumple you backward against the fence.
The amazing thing about Kevin Holland’s knockout wasn’t necessarily the position from which he caught Souza, who made a fatal error in not covering up as his opponent was righting himself, but the force with which Holland generated for that fight-altering hook. It came from a swing of his right leg, like someone napping who’d suddenly decided to get off the carpet. Then, of course, it was Holland’s killer instinct, which were as well-honed as his choice of words in the middle of competition. Holland just writes his own rules and finds his own spaces to do damage in the octagon, and unless you’re on guard at all times, you’re going to be his victim. Buckley was, and he was the winner of this year.
3. Cody Garbrandt vs. Raphael Assuncao – UFC 250
Figuratively and quite literally, former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt was backed against the wall.
As Raphael Assuncao advanced at the end of the second round of a co-headliner at UFC 250, Garbrandt faced a fourth straight loss in the octagon. Accustomed to being the hammer over the nail, Garbrandt’s fall was precipitous after a pair of knockout losses to T.J. Dillashaw and another against Pedro Munhoz. Gunslinging had served the Team Alpha Male standout well early in his career. But as he’d run into opponents who could survive his heavy hands, deficits in his chin had been exposed. Moving forward, observers questioned how he could he hold up against the best in the world.
Raphael Assuncao, who had once been offered a bantamweight title shot, was the test. The grizzled veteran had his own demons to shake, needing to prove he was more than an also-ran after a pair of losses sapped his title momentum.
So neither man came out gunslinging. But Garbrandt’s power was still there, evident in a right hand that briefly knocked down Assuncao. Keen to get one back on the ex-champ, the Brazilian backed up his opponent with a jumping roundhouse and closed in. As he wound up for a right, he kept his left hand nearly at his hip, a perfect opening for a quick-handed counter-puncher – Garbrandt, in other words. And the setup – Garbrandt turned to his side, crouched, one eye on his opponent, almost looking the part of wounded animal – was the perfect answer for that literal and figurative bind: When your back’s against the wall, keep swinging, and you’ll find your problem’s chin.
4. Sean O’Malley vs. Eddie Wineland – UFC 250
It was clear from the Contender Series that Sean O’Malley was a special talent in the octagon. Not only that, his funkadelic persona was magnetic. Whenever he spoke, weed-smoking gamers seemed to take notice.
Eventually, though, he had to fight tough guys. And not to say O’Malley’s previous opposition wasn’t. They just didn’t have the high-level experience of Eddie Wineland. The former WEC champion had faced just about every top-tier opponent at 135 pounds. If O’Malley couldn’t get past him, he wouldn’t go far at bantamweight.
If Wineland was going to win, he was going to have to get inside to use his favored boxing. But even with a smaller cage, O’Malley made sure not to get cornered. Kicks covered his entries and exits, and three inches in height and reach allowed him to catch Wineland with his fists. Just over one minute into the opening frame, he wheeled his hands as if to say, “look at this,” and fired an overhand right that connected with impact. Right there, he found the key to unlock the win.
This stuff might not work, mind you, if you’re not younger and therefore faster. Wineland’s plus in age and experience came with a concurrent minus in speed. In a game where milliseconds count, O’Malley just needed to time things right, as he later explained in this very helpful breakdown of his win.
And boy, did he. Dipping his right hand, he made Wineland look and uncorked a straight punch with the same fist. Wineland couldn’t react in time. The ex-champ learned what had happened when he woke up a few seconds later.
5. Khamzat Chimaev vs. Gerald Meerschaert - UFC Fight Island 5
One punch. Is there any more that needs to be said?
We knew Chimaev liked to work fast. He got in and out of the octagon twice on Fight Island in 10 days, spending just over four minutes to do his work. Even then, he measured a bunch of strikes. He missed on a bunch. Then he got the job done.
This fight, he got close to Gerald Meerschaert, an otherwise tough and durable middleweight with a strong grappling game, wound up, threw a right hand and – Borz. Knockout.
What else can you say?
Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2020 KO of the Year played out.
- Magomed Bibulatov vs. Rodrigo Praia – ACA 112
- Mamed Khalidov vs. Scott Askham – KSW 55
- Cory Sandhagen vs. Marlon Moraes – UFC Fight Island 5
- Aaron Pico vs. John de Jesus – Bellator 252
- Jordan Leavitt vs. Matt Wiman - UFC Vegas 16
- Beneil Dariush vs. Drakkar Klose – UFC 248
- Calvin Kattar vs. Jeremy Stephens – UFC 249
- Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik – UFC 249
- Khaos Williams vs. Abdul Razak Alhassan – UFC Vegas 14