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MMA Fighting’s 2020 Fight of the Year: Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk

1. Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk- UFC 248

Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Zhang Weili at UFC 248 on March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Legend has it that if UFC fights didn’t have a five-round limit, these two would still be slinging leather.

Zhang Weili had taken the strawweight division by storm, winning her first four UFC fights to bolster her pro record to 20-1 and completely obliterating Jessica Andrade in just 42 seconds to become UFC champion. Still, there was plenty of reason to be skeptical of her chances in her first title defense. Standing across from her at UFC 248 was the 115-pound GOAT, Joanna Jedrzejczyk. The Polish star had successfully defended that same belt five consecutive times and only lost to Rose Namajunas and Valentina Shevchenko (the latter at 125 pounds). There was a reason that her nickname was “Joanna Champion.”

The preview for this fight pitted Zhang’s power vs. Jedrzejczyk’s precision. Explosive finishing ability vs. death by a thousand cuts. The new champ vs. the old guard. And after 25 minutes, we all knew we had seen the best vs. the best.

At a glance, you wouldn’t know that Jedrzejczyk was the challenger. She stalked Zhang with the same confidence she had during her title reign and landed with the sharpness and accuracy we’d grown accustomed to. The thing is, Zhang was right there with her, punch for punch and kick for kick. Outside of the Namajunas fights, Jedrzejczyk had rarely been challenged in the standup department. It had become a familiar sight to see her out-strike and outpace her foes. That wasn’t going to happen with Zhang.

Re-watch the fight and you’ll swear there was an invisible tether between Zhang and Jedrzejczyk. Except for in-between rounds, they were never far from each other, always ready to throw. This wasn’t a wild brawl either. They took their time picking their shots and assaulting every inch of the human body that they could reach. Sizzling combinations, perfectly-timed counters, raging flurries. There was hardly a moment for them to catch their breath and the same was true for the entranced audience.

It didn’t stop. For five classic rounds, it just didn’t stop. In fact, according to the stats, the striking output increased as the fight went on. Even as they did their best to permanently rearrange each other’s faces (an accidental headbutt that later caused Jedrzejczyk’s forehead to swell to the size of a melon didn’t help things), neither showed any quit. This was one of the most majestic dogfights you will ever see.

If the quality of a title fight is defined by its championship rounds, then this may have been the greatest UFC title fight ever. They saved the best for the last 10 minutes, leaving it all in the octagon and leaving everyone wanting more.

The end result was a split nod in favor of Zhang, who is destined to cross paths with Jedrzejczyk again someday. Jedrzejczyk suffered her fourth straight loss in a championship fight, but this performance will be remembered as one of the best of her storied career, regardless of who had their hand raised.

It’s fitting that this bout took place on the last UFC event of 2020 before the pandemic changed everything, because until fans can attend fights again this will serve as a reminder of the magic that can happen when a live crowd gets to witness two all-time greats at the peak of their powers.

Nine months later, people are still talking about it. Expect that to still be the case 90 years from now.

2. Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno - UFC 256

UFC 256: Figueiredo v Moreno
Brandon Moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 256 on Dec. 12, 2020, in Las Vegas
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno reminded us of a simple, inarguable fact: Flyweights rule.

Heading into his first UFC title fight, Moreno’s story was as incredible as that of any contender. The lowest-seeded fighter of the 16 contestants on The Ultimate Fighter 24, Moreno was eliminated in the first round of that season’s tournament, won his first three UFC fights, headlined a show in Mexico City, and then found himself released less than 18 months after making his octagon debut.

Figueiredo had a more traditional route to championship glory, though his story isn’t without its quirks. A former hairdresser and sushi chef among other pre-UFC occupations, “Deus da Guerra” has always had the skills to rule a division, but there was the question of whether he could consistently make championship weight, something he failed to do in his first bid for a title against Joseph Benavidez.

That meant beating Benavidez twice, which he did spectacularly, and then recording another fast finish of Alex Perez (stepping on as a replacement for former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt) to secure his first title defense. Little did Figueiredo and Moreno know they’d be called upon to do something no fighters had ever done in UFC history.

Twenty-one days. That was the turnaround for the flyweight stars, who immediately went from UFC 255 to UFC 256 so that the Dec. 12 pay-per-view would have a title fight on it after several other championship matchups fell through. In the end, it’s hard to imagine any of them topping what Figueiredo and Moreno did.

Benavidez and Perez failed to make it out of the first round in their championship challenges and while Moreno had never been finished, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Figueiredo dispatched him with the same swiftness. But Moreno was no walkover. He took the fight to Figueiredo from the opening bell, competing with the reckless abandon temerity that had won over fans since the first time they’d seen his boyish grin grace their televisions screens. Moreno might always look like he’s just happy to be there, but he wasn’t playing around with a UFC title within reach.

Figueiredo showed the poise of a champion, welcoming Moreno’s ferocity and reminding the challenger why few dared to go toe-to-toe with him. Still, Moreno came forward. The action was marred somewhat by a low blow in round three that cost Figueiredo a point (which occurred after an eye poke that Figuereido was not penalized for) and a questionable 10-9 scorecard for Moreno in round five. After all of the chaos, we were left without a winner, though Figueiredo did enough to retain his title.

These two are likely to meet in an immediate rematch soon and while it’s hard to imagine the sequel being better than the original, you know damn well they’ll risk it all to outdo themselves.

3. Dustin Poirier vs. Dan Hooker - UFC Vegas 4

UFC Fight Night: Poirier v Hooker
Dustin Poirier and Dan Hooker at UFC Vegas 4 on June 27, 2020, in Las Vegas
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Dan Hooker was arguably the hottest lightweight in the UFC heading into his fight with Dustin Poirier.

“The Hangman” had won seven of his last eight fights, not only putting on some of the most entertaining fights in all of MMA but also establishing himself as a legitimate title challenger. A win over Poirier, coming off of his own bid for the lightweight championship, would all but guarantee him a future headlining slot on pay-per-view.

Hooker’s exquisite range striking and brutal clinch work gave him the early advantage against Poirier, though “The Diamond” pressed on as he calculated how to close the distance without Hooker slicing him to pieces. He found a way and soon they were trading freely, with both fighters bloodied and bruised by the end of the second round.

It went exactly as you’d expect a fight between two of the most reliable action fighters around to go. The only question was whether it was time for Hooker to make that last step towards greatness. Poirier firmly held his position, maintaining a steady pace as he took Hooker’s best shots and tested Hooker’s chin with his own haymakers. When Hooker changed tactics and attempted to out-wrestle Poirier, it nearly spelled Hooker’s doom. Poirier’s ground superiority saw him dominate the fourth round and he likely would have won by submission or ground-and-pound if it wasn’t for Hooker’s uncanny resilience.

Poirier ended up beating Hooker by decision, but it’s just as accurate to say he outlasted him. What brutal and beautiful and bloody battle. In a division that produces dozens of fantastic fights every year, this one stood above the rest.

4. Josh Emmett vs. Shane Burgos - UFC Vegas 3

UFC Fight Night: Emmett v Burgos
Shane Burgos and Josh Emmett at UFC Vegas 3 on June 20, 2020, in Las Vegas
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Pound-for-pound, there might not have been a harder-hitting fight in 2020.

The phrase “bomb-fest” comes to mind when discussing Josh Emmett vs. Shane Burgos, a featherweight encounter that was a potential show-stealer when it was booked and a surefire Fight of the Year candidate when it was over.

What’s the most impressive part of this fight? Emmett’s absurd right hand bombs? Burgos walking Emmett down and firing as if he wasn’t at risk of getting KO’d at any second? How about Emmett fighting on one leg after injuring his left knee in round one (it was later revealed that Emmett tore his ACL, sprained and partially tore his MCL, and also injured his femur and tibia)?

When Emmett dropped Burgos early in the third, it was almost a relief. It showed that Burgos was actually human… or at least it did until he suffered a second knockdown that would have had the average person curling up into a ball and praying for the referee to save them. Instead, Burgos got back up and finished the fight, looking like he was just warming up when the final buzzer sounded.

Emmett came out on top, halting Burgos’ rise for now and keeping himself in the thick of the featherweight contenders’ race. Whenever he’s healthy and ready to compete again, it’s doubtful that too many fighters are going to line up for the kind of fight he and Burgos gave each other.

5. Justin Gaethje vs. Tony Ferguson - UFC 249

UFC 249 Ferguson v Gaethje
Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 on May 9, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla.
Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Glass half empty view, this is the fight that patted down the dirt on Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson ever happening; glass half full, we might not see another fight as viscerally impactful as this one anytime soon.

Let’s get one talking point out of the way right now. When this fight was waved off in the fifth round, Ferguson actually had the cojones to voice his displeasure with the stoppage. According to the stats, he’d absorbed 100 head strikes up to that point. He wanted more. More punches to the head from Justin Gaethje. Were this any other man, that would seem strange, but it’s become par for the course for Ferguson. His fight with Gaethje was just another example of “El Cucuy” being too tough for his own good.

Gaethje was the perfect dancer partner for Ferguson in many ways, one of the few men on the planet who can match Ferguson’s unique combination of non-stop aggression, uninhibited striking, and sheer fearlessness. He’s not the kind of fighter who would be discouraged by Ferguson absorbing his hardest shots. He’d just make sure to throw harder next time.

It was actually Ferguson who scored the most devastating blow of the opening two rounds, smoking Gaethje with an uppercut that buckled “The Highlight” at the buzzer. That prompted Gaethje’s coach Trevor Wittman to offer some key advice, telling Gaethje to take just a little off of his strikes. As it turned out, 90 percent of Gaethje’s punching power was more than enough to get the job done.

Every punch that Gaethje and Ferguson landed echoed through the empty arena in Jacksonville, Fla., replacing the roar of the crowd. Even those of us watching at home got a strong sense of what it was like to be in the same room as this titanic clash. So when Gaethje turned up the heat in round five and forced referee Herb Dean to step in, it wasn’t too upsetting even with Ferguson still on his feet.

Gaethje became a UFC champion that day with an interim designation, but a champion all the same. While he’d fall short of earning undisputed status five months later, he still holds a title that no one else can claim: he’s the only fighter defeat Ferguson via strikes. All he had to do was go to hell and back to pull it off.

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

Honorable Mentions

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