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2020 Year in Review: Men’s bantamweight division

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UFC 251: Yan v Aldo Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

2020 was a wild year for MMA, that feels like it lasted a lifetime. With all the action that took place over the year, it’s hard to remember what took place. This series looks to help out with that, providing an overview on what happened in each weight class, and a look at what we can expect to come in 2021.

Year in Review

The Good

2020 was a year of transition for the bantamweight division as the UFC, Bellator, and Rizin all saw the crowning of new 135-pound champions. The UFC in particular felt in flux as the champion at the beginning of the year, Henry Cejudo vacated his title and retired from the sport. In the aftermath, Petr Yan claimed the vacated title with a win over Jose Aldo at UFC 251 to restore some hierarchy, even though many feel that Aljamain Sterling is the true uncrowned champion of the division.

Meanwhile, over in Bellator, the world’s No. 2 MMA organization finally got around to crowning a champion after stripping Kyoji Horiguchi of that title last year due to inactivity. Juan Archuleta won the title after an excellent five-round battle with Patchy Mix at Bellator 246. And in Rizin, Kai Asakura claimed the title Manel Kape vacated when he signed with the UFC, however, Asakura’s reign was short-lived as he lost the belt on New Year’s Eve to none other than Horiguchi.

It wasn’t just new champions for the bantamweight division though. All along the rankings, contenders rose and announced themselves, while aging veterans seem to have finally aged out. Pedro Munhoz, Rob Font, Merab Dvalishvili, Marlon Vera, and Sean O’Malley all began making noise in the UFC’s loaded 135-pound division, and figure to be key players moving forward.

The Bad

Like Joseph Benavidez at flyweight, 2020 was a year to forget for Marlon Moraes. The former bantamweight title challenger went 0-2 in the UFC, getting knocked out by Cory Sandhagen and Rob Font. Moraes’ chin appears to have abandoned him, and despite being only 32 years old, at this point it’s difficult to imagine he rights the ship. Bantamweight is only getting younger and more hostile, and it appears that the “Magic” might just be gone.

The Ugly

Colby Covington may call himself “Chaos” but that name more aptly describes Henry Cejudo. First, despite being champion of one of the deepest divisions in the sport, Cejudo was actively disinterested in defending his title against the top contenders. Instead, Cejudo attempted to defend against Jose Aldo, and when that fight had to be scratched, he then fought Dominick Cruz. Both Aldo and Cruz are legends of the sport, but neither were top-contenders in the division. Then, after walking through Cruz, Cejudo retired, leaving a total fustercluck behind him.

In Cejudo’s absence, the UFC booked Petr Yan vs. Aldo for reasons that still boggle the mind and instead made Aljamain Sterling face Cory Sandhagen, ostensibly for the next title shot. However, after Sterling obliterated Sandhagen, the UFC still spent months dragging their feet booking Sterling vs. Yan, despite both parties and all the fans clearly wanting it. Finally, they did set it up but because it took so long, visa issues prevented Yan from making the bout. All in all, the UFC royally mismanaged one of their best divisions in 2020, but so great is bantamweight that no one even remembers.

MVP

The MVP of a division is not just a question of “Who is the best fighter in the division?” Instead, it looks at who provided the most entertainment in the division over the course of the year, win or lose.

Competition was steep in the bantamweight division this year. Kyler Philips only fought twice in 2020 but both times earned Performance of the Night honors. Sean O’Malley fought three times this past year, turning in two Performance of the Night bonuses and then getting knocked out in his third fight, all while stirring things up with top bantamweights. Then there’s Naoki Inoue over in Rizin who got three clean wins, two by first-round submission. But really, this is a two horse race between Kai Asakura and Brian Kelleher.

Kelleher fought four times in 2020 (though one was at featherweight) and earned performance bonuses in three of them. Meanwhile, Asakura fought four times in 2020 (including an exhibition bout) and delivered two first-round soccer kick knockouts and a 24-second submission in his three wins, and then a quick KO loss to Horiguchi. The difference between the two really boils down to the loss, with Kelleher’s fight against Merab Dvalishvili providing less entertainment value than Asakura’s rematch with Horguchi. In the end, no fighter provided more bang for your buck this year than Kai Asakura.

Honorable Mentions: Merab Dvalishvili, Juan Archuleta, Nate Maness, Casey Kenney

Fights to Watch Again

Kyoji Horiguchi KOs Kai Asakura with punches, Rizin 26

Juan Archuleta wins unanimous decision over Patchy Mix, Bellator 246

Brian Kelleher submits Ode Osbourne with a guillotine choke, UFC 246

Kai Asakura KOs Hiromasa Ougikubo with a knee and soccer kicks, Rizin 23

Kai Asakura KOs Shoji Maruyama with punches and soccer kicks, Rizin 24

Aljamain Sterling submits Cory Sandhagen with a rear-naked choke, UFC 250

Victor Henry KOs Masanori Kanehara with punches, Rizin 21

Kenji Kato KOs Erson Yamamoto with punches, Rizin 22

Naoki Inoue submits Yuki Motoya with a rear-naked choked, Rizin 26

Sean O’Malley KOs Jose Alberto Quinonez, UFC 248

Sean O’Malley KOs Eddie Wineland with a punch, UFC 250

Davey Grant KOs Martin Day with a punch, UFC 251

Randy Costa KOs Journey Newson with a head kick, UFC Vegas 11

Miles Johns KOs Kevin Natividad with a punch, UFC Vegas 12

Adrian Yanez KOs Victor Rodriguez with a head kick, UFC Vegas 12

Looking Ahead to 2021

As 2020 was a year of transition for the bantamweight division, 2021 figures to be a showcase year for 135-pounders the world over. On the UFC front, Petr Yan has a potential Fight of the Year with Aljamain Sterling in the offing, and following that, the winner can likely expect to face the winner of Cory Sandhagen vs. Frankie Edgar, with plenty of other rising contenders waiting in the wings. Outside the UFC, Bellator has a ready-made challenger for newly crowned champion Juan Archuleta in Sergio Pettis, or perhaps another co-promotion with Rizin and Kyoji Horiguchi. If not that for Horiguchi, there is always a trilogy match with Asakura or, more likely, a fight with Naoki Inoue.

In short, the darling division of hardcore MMA fans is entering 2021 with a number of marquee matchups already set in motion and, with only more opportunity coming, is likely to remain one of the most beloved divisions in the sport.