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MMA Fighting’s 2020 Event of the Year: UFC 256

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UFC 256: Figueiredo v Moreno
Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

1. UFC 256

Riding the wave of a string of action-packed events, the UFC’s December pay-per-view had the almost impossible task of satiating the bloodlust of fight fans to close out its ill-fated 2020 calendar.

With the original main event and co-main event already victims of unfortunate circumstances, UFC President Dana White and friends were put to work to find suitable—and healthy—replacements. Their solution? Call up the resident boogeyman and ask him to fistfight a man with anacondas for arms.

But even with Tony Ferguson and Charles Oliveira in tow, there was still a serious lack of gold atop the card. Surely there was some sort of heavyweight, light heavyweight, or even a welterweight to save the day?

Think again…

In stepped flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo, a pint-sized Brazilian with concrete fists, a squeeze that could choke out an elephant, and the meanest mug on the roster. Standing opposite this bleach-haired pugilist was Brandon Moreno, a Mexican scrapper with endless cardio, an unpredictable array of and submissions, and the biggest grin this side of the Atlantic.

It was a clash of personalities that would create magic as they battered each other senseless for 25 minutes en route to a majority draw. It was a fitting end to such a momentous event after Oliveira’s star-making performance against Ferguson in the co-headliner.

Still not satisfied? How about Kevin Holland shattering the record books with his fifth win of the year, Ciryl Gane’s crippling destruction of Junior dos Santos, Cub Swanson and Rafael Fiziev tearing through respective opponents like tissue paper, or Chase Hooper forcing Peter Barrett into submission with a dazzling ground game?

UFC 256 had it all in spades.

2. UFC 249

UFC 249 in Jacksonville churned up a vast array of emotions for fight fans. It was here Dana White drew a line in the sand, challenging detractors that lambasted him for hosting an event amidst a global pandemic. While many were ecstatic to see their favorite fighters throw down, there was an equal number of fans wary of the risks.

Combined with the fact that the entire card was thrown together from the bones of several cancelled events, including both the main and co-main event, the night was one of the most memorable in the promotion’s history — inside a completely empty arena no less.

While the undercard most certainly had its moments, including big wins for Anthony Pettis, Bryce Mitchell, and Vicente Luque, it was the main card where the fight gods really started to work wonders.

After Greg Hardy’s methodical win over fellow heavyweight prospect Yorgan De Castro, Calvin Kattar cemented his place in the featherweight division with a skull-rattling TKO of Jeremy Stephens. Not to be outdone, Francis Ngannou handed Jairzinho Rozenstruik a one-way ticket to the shadow realm with a 20-second knockout.

Kicking off the title fights, bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo made Dominick Cruz bend the knee by landing a picture-perfect one between the former champ’s eyes. After defending his title, he rode off into retirement.

With a path of destruction laid down, it was up to Ferguson and Justin Gaethje to put a violent exclamation point on the night. Ferguson rode a 12-fight winning streak that predated the Ronda Rousey era of the UFC, while Gaethje had rattled off three straight first-round knockouts. The hype surrounding the interim lightweight title fight was palpable.

(Side note: Sitting cageside for this fight will remain one of the most memorable moments of my journalism career.)

With empty chairs surrounding the grizzly scene, Ferguson and Gaethje battered each other senseless. Sweat and blood dripped from their bruised skulls, and neither man relented as they continued to attack. But in the end, it was Ferguson’s body that gave out as Gaethje earned a fifth-round finish, putting an end to one of the most insane nights in combat sports history.

3. UFC 254

Let’s go through the checklist for the UFC 254 prelim card in Abu Dhabi, shall we?

  • A doctor stoppage due to a gruesome cut? Got it.
  • First-round armbar? You know it.
  • First-round KO from a returning heavyweight? Absolutely.
  • A break out performance at bantamweight? Bingo.
  • A split draw between light heavyweights? Yup.
  • The emergence of an undefeated welterweight from Kazakhstan? Surprisingly, yes.

It was one of those rare nights (or mornings if you were stateside) where the preliminary fighters set the bar high for the main card.

Magomed Ankalaev, Lauren Murphy, and the debuting Phil Hawes were more than happy to keep pace as they steamrolled their opponents. A freshly-inked Alexander Volkov pieced up Walt Harris, followed by yet another dominant win for former middleweight champ Robert Whittaker as he shattered Jared Cannonier’s arm and winning streak.

So what closing moment could possibly be worthy of such a thrilling card? How about lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov announcing his retirement after making light work of Gaethje with a second-round triangle choke. A fitting end to a perfect career.

Honorable mentions:

Honorable HONORABLE mention: Fight Circus: Vol. 2, by Jed Meshew

In the world of serious MMA, unquestionably the event of the year was UFC 256. But in the world of human cockfighting, there was no more spectacular or triumphant event than the return of CamSoda to MMA with Fight Circus: Vol. 2.

For the uninitiated, Fight Circus is the brainchild of Jon Nutt, an American expat living in Thailand. Nutt’s goal is to bolster an economy hit hard by COVID-19 and provide entertainment to fans by promoting the carnival sideshow aspect of MMA.

Whether or not he succeeded on the former, I have no clue. But on the latter, he came through in spades. For a deep dive on the event, MMAFighting did a write-up on Vol. 1, but the short version is this: there was intergender wrestling; a kicking-only fight; secret bonus bouts; and a two-on-one fight that redefined the term “immediate rematch” (literally, after the solo fighter lost in about a minute, they just ran it back on the spot).

And that really only scratches the surface of all that occurred (thankfully, the event was enough of a success that the second event, Vol. 2: Circus Harder, took place just a few months later, with more installments to follow). At its core, MMA is a hooligan sport, and Fight Circus reminded us that it’s OK to not take things too seriously – it’s good to push the boundaries and have some fun.

Not everything they tried worked and not everyone will want to see more, but at the end of the day, a random American in Thailand and a porn-streaming company delivered the most daring, ridiculous, and captivating three hours of combat viewing this year.