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MMA Fighting’s 2020 Submission of the Year: A.J. McKee taps out Darrion Caldwell with move he created

1 . A.J. McKee vs. Darrion Caldwell – Bellator 253

It’s not everyday a fighter pulls off a submission they’ve created, but that’s exactly what A.J. McKee managed to do in order to punch his ticket to the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix finals.

After sitting out the majority of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, McKee was anxious to return to action when he faced off with a former NCAA champion wrestler in Darrion Caldwell. McKee was also from a wrestling background, training under his father, veteran MMA fighter Antonio McKee. But he knew Caldwell would almost assuredly attempt to drag him to the mat as soon as the fight got started.

The young McKee scouted his opponent perfectly.

The fighters barely had the chance to throw a single punch at the start of the opening round before Caldwell swooped inside, snagged a leg and worked to bring McKee down to the ground. Once the action hit the mat, McKee immediately tried to make Caldwell pay for it as he chipped away at the former Bellator champion with elbows and punches from inside the guard while constantly scrambling to earn a better position off his back.

As Caldwell continued to maintain top control, McKee saw an opening for a submission and locked his legs around his opponent’s waist, latching into an underhook. It was the perfect set up for a move he’d actually created when he was first learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a wrestler.

“It’s a mix of a neck crank and a chin whip, and I used to do it a lot as a child,” McKee revealed when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I’d go from the chin whip and just keeping the underhook and once I started doing jiu-jitsu, I stopped on my back, so I’d get stuck there a lot, especially with guys that were bigger. I’d get stuck on my back with an underhook. So I just started figuring out ways to kind of manipulate the body in a way that it’s not supposed to bend.

“Even if you’re a strong person, that’s a move that you can get caught in. If you don’t know where you’re at and you get put in a bad position, I’m going to take it. It creates openings. It’s a lifelong childhood move so once I saw the opening, I trapped the body triangle on the body, I knew I had it. He couldn’t go anywhere.”

McKee seized on the opening, and once he had Caldwell trapped, there was no escape from the submission he dubbed the “McKee-o-tine.” A few seconds later, Caldwell had a telling grimace on his face, and he was forced to tap out just 71-seconds into the opening round.

Despite an undefeated record, McKee always seems to fight against the perception that he’s overrated and that he hasn’t faced strong enough opponents. Of course, 17 of them have tried and failed to prove that point, and McKee warns that the “McKee-o-tine” was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his bag of tricks.

“I feel like my jiu-jitsu is very underrated,” McKee said. “But hey as long as I keep making up moves finessing people into positions they don’t want to be in, I think people will continue to realize how gifted I really am.”

Considering McKee pulled off a move he created that had never been previously used in MMA, it’s impossible to deny him the honor of taking home the Submission of the Year in 2020.

2 . Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin GaethjeUFC 254

UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov had every reason not to be at his best when defending his title against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254.

The tragic loss of his father Abdulmanap undoubtedly left Nurmagomedov in a shaken state as he prepared to make his return. The loss of a parent is hard enough, but Nurmagomedov and his dad shared an even deeper bond than just father and son – Abdulmanap had also been his coach since the first day he strapped on a singlet and decided to test himself on the mats.

But rather than take an extended break to grieve the loss of his father, Nurmagomedov booked the fight against Gaethje as part of the UFC’s return to Abu Dhabi.

When the first round got underway, Nurmagomedov didn’t seem all that interested in employing his suffocating ground game, which is predominantly how he remained undefeated through the first 28 fights of his career. Instead, Nurmagomedov started walking down Gaethje, which seemed like a colossally bad idea at the time, given the sheer amount of damage the former World Series of Fighting champion dished out every time he competed.

While Nurmagomedov found success on his feet against Gaethje, he opted to rely on his ground game in the second round as he brought the fight to the floor. Rather than punish Gaethje with strikes, he decided to test out his submission arsenal, first setting up an armbar before falling into a perfectly timed triangle choke.

Once Nurmagomedov had the submission wrapped up, Gaethje was stuck with no place to go, and the fight came to an end at 1:11 into the second round.

A few days after the event ended, Nurmagomedov’s long-time friend and teammate Daniel Cormier revealed that the UFC lightweight champion had opted to go for the triangle choke over the armbar because he knew Gaethje’s parents were sitting cageside and didn’t want to harm their son as they watched.

There have been plenty of triangle choke submissions seen throughout the history of MMA, but the fact that Nurmgaomedov had enough faith in his grappling that he gave up one move for another and still got the finish speaks to his tremendous talent.

3 . Jimmy Flick vs. Cody DurdenUFC Vegas 17

A late addition to UFC Vegas 17 when Contender Series veteran Jimmy Flick made his octagon debut against former bantamweight Cody Durden.

Following a bit of a rough start, with Durden winning exchanges on the feet, Flick turned to his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt to turn the tables.

Flick threw a head kick, and Durden caught the leg and started to drive forward, a natural, instinctive thing to do. But rather than just give up a takedown or try to break free, Flick used that opening to leap into a flying triangle choke as he jumped into the air and grabbed Durden’s head before both came crashing back to the canvas.

A split second after falling to the ground, Flick had his legs adjusted into triangle position, and as he locked it up, Durden was forced to tap out.

According to Flick, the flying triangle choke is actually a move he’s pulled off previously in an amateur fight under almost the exact same circumstances after an opponent caught his head kick. Let that serve as a warning to future opposition that Flick’s head kicks may not land flush, but be ultra-wary of what comes next.

4 . Ariane Lipski vs. Luana Carolina – UFC Fight Island 2

Ariane Lipski lived up to her nickname as “The Queen of Violence” when she fought Luana Carolina as part of the UFC Fight Island 2 undercard in July.

Known as a punishing finisher before joining the UFC roster, Lipski hadn’t been able to find that same level of success inside the octagon, starting her career with a 1-2 record. After picking up her first UFC eight months prior, she came out aggressive against Carolina in a battle of two Brazilian prospects.

As soon as the fight got started, Lipski was on the attack. She bullied Carolina against the cage and dropped her with a nasty body shot. Once the fight went to the ground, Lipski and Carolina got tangled up in an odd position as both looked for submissions.

For a moment it appeared that Lipski’s own leg might be compromised, but instead she saw an opening to grab onto a kneebar while sitting down on Carolina’s midsection. Lipski yanked the leg up and extended the knee to a very uncomfortable position, which earned a painful shriek from Carolina as the submission forced a tap.

It was difficult listening to Carolina’s scream, but Lipski obviously did her job, wrapping up her first finish and first submission in the UFC.

5 . Luis Felipe Dias vs. Vanilton Antunes – Shooto Brazil 100

In order to become the new Shooto welterweight champion, Luis Felipe Dias had to combine a couple of different submissions in order to put away Vanilton Antunes back in August.

With the fighters battling on the ground, Dias managed to tie up Antunes while setting up a reverse triangle choke from the back. That submission is rare enough — Jorge Masvidal once got caught by that same move courtesy of Toby Imada when they met in Bellator.

But the reverse triangle choke wasn’t enough to stop Antunes as he continued to scramble and move in an attempt to break free from the submission. Dias never relented, but instead just kept hammering away with punches while further cementing his position on the ground.

Eventually as Antunes tried to roll free, Dias caught his leg and immediately leaned back into the very painful Suloev stretch, which was only compounded by the fact that the reverse triangle was still locked in tight. When Antunes finally tapped out, it appeared he had been folded up like a piece of luggage about to get stuffed into an overhead compartment.

It was a great submission win for Dias, but the finish was even better considering he actually used two different moves combined into one to earn the victory.

Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2020 Submission of the Year played out.

MMA Fighting

Honorable Mentions

Jack Hermansson vs. Kelvin Gastelum – UFC Fight Island 2

Makoto Takahashi vs. Seiichiro Ito – RIZIN 23

Mackenzie Dern vs. Hannah Cifers – UFC on ESPN 9

Aljamain Sterling vs. Cory SandhagenUFC 250

Brian Kelleher vs. Ode OsbourneUFC 246

Vanessa Demopoulos vs. Sam Hughes – LFA 85

Charles Oliveira vs. Kevin Lee – UFC Brasilia

AJ Agazarm vs. Adel AltamimiBellator 238

Paul Craig vs. Gadzhimurad Antigulov – UFC Fight Island 3

Fabricio Werdum vs. Alexander Gustafsson – UFC Fight Island 3

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