1. KHAMZAT CHIMAEV
From his short notice octagon debut to his potential title eliminator, Khamzat Chimaev has made his presence felt in a big way in 2020.
“Borz” joined the UFC in July and absolutely tore through John Phillips in a middleweight bout at UFC on ESPN 13. A little over one week later, he returned – dropping down to welterweight in the process – and rolled over Cage Warriors and BAMMA standout Rhys McKee to become the star of Fight Island.
An enigmatic athlete was born, one the MMA world couldn’t ignore for a single episode. He was a man that said very little. But when he did, it got people talking.
As Chimaev’s star rose, he found himself double-booked against Gerald Meerschaert and Demian Maia. He was on the hook for back-to-back fights in two weight classes, one against a 44-fight veteran with a high finishing rate, and the other against a multi-time UFC title challenger widely considered to be a legend of the sport. In the end, though, only one of those fights transpired.
In one of the biggest “you’ve got to be kidding me” moments of the year, Chimaev was standing over a knocked-out Meerschaert just 17 seconds and one punch into the co-main event of UFC Vegas 11,
There were and still are lingering questions about Chimaev’s ceiling. But when UFC President Dana White revealed to Jim Rome that the breakout star would headline UFC Vegas 17 against Leon Edwards, it wasn’t a shocking revelation. Chimaev is 3-0 in the UFC over a two-month period and is now potentially one win away from a welterweight title shot. He is setting new precedents.
Unfortunately, the matchup was postponed when Edwards tested positive for COVID-19; it is now set to headline UFC Fight Island 8 on Jan. 20 in Abu Dhabi. In the grand scheme of 2021, Chimaev’s path is unequivocally one the year’s biggest stories.
On Jan. 21, will that story get even more chaotic? Or, will it become one of overcoming adversity? Chimaev has his hands full, and I think he loves that people believe that.
2. KEVIN HOLLAND
The interpretation of this award can go in a number of different ways. If it’s based on buzz, social media following and clicks, the answer is hands down Chimaev. But when it comes to who had the best overall year competing in the octagon, Kevin Holland wins.
Just 14 months ago, Holland ended his 2019 with a submission loss to Brendan Allen at UFC Boston. On several occasions in 2020, the 28-year-old took his hat off to Allen. But he also said he “slipped on a banana peel.” Prior to the setback, he was winning fights and entertaining fans by talking smack in the middle of his contests. But a breakout performance – one with a finish that answered the question, “Can he live up to the potential we all see?” – had eluded him.
Holland went from preparing to fight Jack Marshman in March at UFC London to challenging him to a video game battle when the event was cancelled due to the pandemic. “Trailblazer” was looking to do exactly what his nickname suggested. Once he got his first chance, he never looked back.
In a year shortened by the pandemic, Holland managed to go 5-0 in 2020. While that number is impressive on its own, people forget that four of his wins, starting with a knockout of Joaquin Buckley, happened between Aug. 8 and Dec. 12.
As fun as Holland has been throughout the year, he became a legitimate threat to the middleweight title when he knocked out Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza at UFC 256. While the year-end award season may end with a bunch of silver medals, all eyes are upon Holland heading into 2021. Whether he ends the year with 10 fights under his belt or possibly gets a title shot, neither seems impossible.
3. JOAQUIN BUCKLEY
Sure, the August octagon debut of Joaquin Buckley was one he’d like to forget. But did he ever put a stamp on 2020.
After his knockout loss to Holland at UFC Vegas 6, “New Mansa” made his sophomore UFC appearance on Fight Island against an undefeated prospect in Impa Kasanganay. The spinning back-kick he pulled off that night will be shown in every highlight-reel until the end of time, and it was the winner for MMA Fighting’s Knockout of the Year. The finish also made Buckley the most-discussed story of the week despite an incredible KO by Cory Sandhagen against Marlon Moraes in the main event of that card.
Following his Knockout of the Year kick, Buckley sparked rivalry with UFC veteran James Krause an interview with MMA Fighting. The bad blood continued to boil throughout the year. Hopefully, the UFC can give the fighters and the fans what they want in 2021.
4. KHAOS WILLIAMS
Although he suffered his first octagon defeat at UFC Vegas 17, Khaos Williams lived up to his first name in his first year with the company.
On super short notice, “The Oxfighter” took on Alex Morono, who had won his previous three fights, in his promotional debut at UFC 247. Williams put Morono away in just 27 seconds to pick up his first UFC win and earn a performance bonus.
It took nine months for Williams to make his sophomore appearance. But he left a lasting impression when he faced fellow knockout artist Abdul Razak Alhassan at UFC Vegas 14. A right hand landed 30 seconds into the fight, and Williams was once again standing in the winner’s circle with an extra $50,000 in his bank account.
Even before his fights begin, Williams is exciting; the 26-year-old’s mean mugs are fun to watch as his opponents make their way to the cage. It’s something he’s done his whole career, he told MMA Fighting.
How does Williams bounce back in the new year? I think curiosities are piqued.
He only needed one fight to do it, but light heavyweight Jiri Prochazka rounds out this year’s list.
“Denisa” created waves when he signed with the UFC in January, and he made even more when he made his promotional debut against former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir.
In the featured prelim of UFC 251, Prochazka and Oezdemir hit each other with everything but the kitchen sink and delivered one of the best rounds of the year. In the second frame, the 28-year-old became an instant title contender when he knocked Oezdemir out with an overhand right, earning his 11th straight victory in the process.
Although Prochazka didn’t get a second UFC fight in 2020, his first 2021 appearance is a gigantic opportunity. He takes on one-time title challenger Dominick Reyes in the main event of the UFC’s Feb. 27 card. With a win, the former RIZIN champion could get himself a crack at the UFC title.
Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2020 Breakout Fighter of the Year played out.