1. DEIVESON FIGUEIREDO
It’s hard to imagine a “Fighter of the Year” award being handed to an athlete that has missed weight for a championship bout, and hasn’t actually won every time he’s entered a cage to compete, but Deiveson Figueiredo’s perfectly imperfect year was hard to ignore.
“Deus da Guerra” started 2020 facing off against Joseph Benavidez for the UFC’s vacant 125-pound belt, but hestepped on the scale 2.5 pounds over the championship limit. Benavidez still had a chance to be crowned the new king that night in February, but Figueiredo simply demolished the veteran.
The UFC wasted no time booking an immediate rematch, this time for the infamous Fight Island of Abu Dhabi. Figueiredo had pre-fight issues once again as he dealt with the death of his grandfather and a positive COVID-19 test that prevented him from boarding the UFC chartered flight in Sao Paulo.
Credit goes to Figueiredo and his team, who battled the result as a false-positive and were eventually proven right, allowing them to arrive in Abu Dhabi with a few days before the official weigh-ins. Figueiredo avoided controversy this time, making weight and stopping Benavidez a second time.
The first Brazilian man to claim a UFC belt since Jose Aldo’s second reign was then paired up against MMA star Cody Garbrandt, but Alex Perez stepped in as a replacement after “No Love” withdrew with an injury. In a stretch of 21 days, Figueiredo made weight twice and defended his belt against Perez and Brandon Moreno, albeit the second one via a majority draw after an epic 25-minute war.
“I broke records,” Figueiredo told MMA Fighting. “I admit I’m proud of myself for making what I thought wasn’t possible. It never crossed my mind that I would make weight twice in 21 days, and I did it. I defended my belt, I did the Fight of the Night, I won two bonuses in the end of the year, so I’m definitely proud of myself.”
Looking back at the difficulties he’s faced throughout the year, including a hospitalization the night before UFC 256, Figueiredo sees it all as “the enemy placing barriers in an attempt to stop me, but I believe in God and I broke all those barriers.”
“It was a tough fight, yes, but I walked away with my belt,” Figueiredo said of his draw with Moreno on Dec. 12. “I get in there to put on a show, brother. I get in there with a killer spirit, I want to rip my opponent’s head off and get out as quick as possible.”
Figueiredo doesn’t plan on slowing down in 2021. In fact, he’s aiming for four more title defenses and more records broken. Can he do it again?
2. KEVIN HOLLAND
“Trailblazer” was just 3-2 under the UFC banner when 2020 started and didn’t even enter the octagon until May, courtesy of the health crisis that took the world by storm. What Kevin Holland was able to do in the final seven months of the calendar earned him a No. 2 spot in this list. In times where the UFC found itself in need for athletes willing and capable of competing during a pandemic, Holland was there.
First, he dropped Anthony Hernandez in just 39 seconds. Three months later, Holland finished future “Knockout of the Year” winner Joaquin Buckley with a right cross. Holland entered the eight-sided octagon twice in the next couple of months, winning a decision over Darren Stewart and then stopping Charlie Ontiveros.
Holland had already exceeded everyone’s expectations in 2020, but he was hungry for more. When former Strikeforce middleweight champion Ronaldo Souza was left without an opponent for the final pay-per-view of the year, Holland answered the call yet again. Winning wasn’t enough: Holland gave “Jacare” one of the worst losses of his MMA career, brutalizing the veteran with one of the best KOs of 2020.
3. JAN BLACHOWICZ
When 2020 started, everyone would have laughed at whoever suggested that Jan Blachowicz would be the UFC light heavyweight champion by the end of the season. A lackluster win over “Jacare” Souza in November 2019 didn’t exactly have fans clamoring for Blachowicz to enter the title picture, but the Polish star pulled it off.
The 37-year-old veteran, who was only a point short of Holland in MMA Fighting’s “Fighter of the Year” list, avenged a 2015 decision defeat to Corey Anderson in his first appearance in February, knocking him unconscious in just three minutes.
With Jon Jones off of the throne and heading to heavyweight, Blachowicz was in the right place at the right time, finishing Dominick Reyes in the second stanza at UFC 253 to be crowned Poland’s second-ever UFC titleholder.
4. CHARLES OLIVEIRA
“Do Bronx” flew under the radar for years while running through everyone the UFC put in front of him, including veterans like Jim Miller and Clay Guida. His current winning streak caught everyone’s the attention for good in 2020.
Charles Oliveira headlined a UFC show for the first time as a lightweight in February, scoring an impressive submission victory over Kevin Lee inside an empty arena in Brasilia, Brazil, the first show affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It took him nine months until he finally fought again, but, man, was it worth the wait.
The Chute Boxe talent, who was briefly linked to a 155-pound clash with Beneil Dariush but then forced to withdraw, didn’t think twice when the UFC starting looking for an opponent for Tony Ferguson in December.
At last, Oliveira had the shot at a big name he had long campaigned for and he dominated “El Cucuy” in a way no one else had done before, earning a clear decision victory. The winner of eight in a row in one of the UFC’s toughest weight classes, Oliveira has finally entered the mix for a chance to claim the gold.
5. ISRAEL ADESANYA
Adesanya’s year wasn’t as spectacular as the one that earned him MMA Fighting’s “Fighter of the Year” honors in 2019, when he beat Anderson Silva, Kelvin Gastelum and Robert Whittaker in an eight-month stretch, but it was impressive enough to land him in the top-5 this year.
Sure, Israel Adesanya kicked off his run on the wrong foot in 2020 with one of the most bizarre title defenses in UFC history. Slow, lackluster, you name it, Adesanya’s decision win over Yoel Romero was historic for bad reasons. He still had his hands raised in the end, and the UFC thought they had the right nemesis to prevent it from happening again.
Just like when Chael Sonnen was thrown in a cage to challenge Anderson Silva after some disappointing Silva title fights, undefeated Brazilian knockout artist Paulo Costa was thought to be the one to take Adesanya to deep waters. Years of trash talk led to one of the biggest rivalries of the year, and Adesanya rose to the occasion.
“Borrachinha” could hurt the champion with his powerful strikes, some thought, and even threaten him on the ground if he chose to use his black belt in jiu-jitsu against the decorated striker. When they met in the octagon on Sept. 26 though, it wasn’t even close. With spectacular accuracy and precision, Adesanya dismantled Costa in the second.
Unbeaten in 20 professional MMA bouts and running out of challenges at middleweight, “The Last Stylebender” is expected to move up to light heavyweight in 2021 to challenge Blachowicz for the belt, a win that could definitely earn him the No. 1 spot in 2021’s Fighter of the Year list.
Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2020 Fighter of the Year played out.