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
There’s a good case to be made that strawweight is the marquee division in women’s MMA, and early on in 2020, that certainly looked to be the case. In March, UFC champion Weili Zhang and former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk put on what can only be described as the single greatest fight in women’s history and maybe the greatest fight ever, period. For 25 minutes, the two women went hammer and tongs with one another, actually increasing their ridiculous output as the fight drug into the championship rounds. If literally no other strawweight fight happened this year, that fight would be enough to call 2020 a success for the 115-pound division.
But of course other fights did happen. Mackenzie Dern and Xiaonan Yan made the leap to bonafide contenders, Carla Esparza put together a run that has her on the cusp of another title shot, and Angela Hill continued to build on her reputation as the female Donald Cerrone, fighting another four times in 2020, giving her eight fights over the last two years (and would have been nine but for a positive COVID test in December). All in all, though the division peaked in March, the rest of the year was still very much worth watching.
Outside of the UFC the strawweight division had a quiet 2020. Invicta champion Kanako Murata vacated her title in September to sign with the UFC (where she then made a successful debut over Randa Markos) and Xiong Jing Nan retained her ONE Championship title in a rematch with the woman she won the inaugural belt over, Tiffany Teo. Beyond that, there were a few solid highlights but nothing major to speak of.
It’s not uncommon for fighters to have a bad year but it is pretty rare for any fighter to have a year as bad as Hannah Cifers had. Cifers entered 2020 on a two-fight win streak but things quickly went south for her. In January, Cifers lost via ground strikes to Angela Hill. In May, Cifers then garnered the ignominious distinction of becoming the first woman in the UFC to lose via leglock when Mackenzie Dern tapped her with a kneebar. Just two weeks later, Cifers stepped in on short notice against Mariya Agipova and was once again submitted, this time with a rear-naked choke, and she rounded out the year with another rear-naked choke loss in August.
Like a gambler who gets behind and then starts chasing, Cifers kept taking fights in 2020 and only dug herself further in the hole. All told, Cifers fought four times in 2020 and in each outing, “Shockwave” was stopped before the third round.
2020 was objectively a great year for the strawweight division as a whole, with the biggest problem being that following the championship fight between Weili Zhang and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the UFC didn’t capitalize on that energy. Since that fight, Weili has been sitting on the sidelines, in large part because the UFC is once again having negotiation issues with their anointed challenger.
Former champion Rose Namajunas squeaked out a win over Jessica Andrade in 2020 and was declared to be the next challenger for Weili. It makes sense. Namajunas is a former champion still in her prime and an interesting matchup for Zhang. However, though everyone knows that is the fight to make, it still hasn’t been made official, according to UFC President Dana White because “Rose doesn’t want to fight for the title.” That is obviously a ridiculous statement and one that Rose and her team have whole-heartedly rejected but White continues to throw it out there and suggest that if the UFC cannot come to terms with Namajunas that Carla Esparza is next in line for Zhang.
While a fight between Esparza and Weili is perfectly fine, the fight to make is Weili vs. Namajunas and the UFC continuing to negotiate fighters out of the fights the fans want to see is a terrible look.
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.
When Mackenzie Dern entered MMA, many people thought she was a future champion. The multiple time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion had the pedigree to make her an immediate threat to legitimately world-class fighters and if she could ever add to her game, it was envisioned that Dern would be a real threat. But after an uninspiring beginning to her MMA career, where she had difficulty making weight, Dern ended up taking her first loss in 2019. And it seems that loss was the catalyst for change as in 2020, Dern began to make good on all that promise.
It began in May when Dern became the first woman to win a fight in the UFC by leglock, kneebarring Hannah Cifers. Dern then built on that win with another submission, this time an armbar of divisional stalwart Randa Markos. Finally, Dern closed out 2020 with back-and-forth scrap with fellow BJJ black belt and former Invicta champion Virna Jandiroba. The bout with Jandiroba was arguably the most impressive for Dern who won largely on the back of a vastly improved striking game. There’s obviously still room for improvement for Dern but given her pedigree, her marketability, and her recent improvements, 2020 might be the year we look back on as when she started her title run.
Honorable Mentions: Xiaonan Yan, Carla Esparza, Angela Hill
Highlights to Watch
Weili Zhang wins decision over Joanna Jedrzejczyk in Fight of the Year, UFC 248
Rose Namajunas wins close split decision over Jessica Andrade in rematch, UFC 251
Mackenzie Dern submits Hannah Cifers with a kneebar, UFC Vegas 1
Mallory Martin stages crazy comeback to choke out Hannah Cifers, UFC Vegas 8
WHAT A COMEBACK.@MalloryyMartin with resilience of an Octagon vet in her first bout!— UFC (@ufc) August 29, 2020
Tune in now on @ESPN & ESPN+ pic.twitter.com/t6yAyDaQ0G
Polyana Viana submits Emily Whitmire in under two minutes, UFC Vegas 8
Michelle Waterson wins close decision against Angela Hill, UFC Vegas 10
Mackenzie Dern submits Randa Markos with an armbar, UFC Vegas 11
SIMPLY UNSTOPPABLE.— UFC (@ufc) September 20, 2020
Never, ever go to the ground with @MackenzieDern
[ #UFCVegas11 - LIVE on #ESPNPlus ] pic.twitter.com/pMN6F4Udv4
Angela Hill finishes Hannah Cifers with strikes, UFC Raleigh
Virna Jandiroba steamrolls Felice Herrig in under two minutes with armbar, UFC 252
Claudia Gadelha wins controversial decision over Angela Hill, ufc on ESPN 8
Mariya Agapova head kicks Hannah Cifers, finishes with rear naked choke, UFC on ESPN 10
Kay Hansen taps out Jinh Yu Frey with armbar in her octagon debut, UFC on ESPN 12
Keri Taylor Melendez dismantles Emilee King with rear-naked choke, Bellator 252
Montserrat Ruiz taps Janaisa Morandin with first round scarf hold keylock, Invicta 41
Ayaka Miura submits Maira Mazar with an American from scarf position, ONE Championship: A New Tomorrow
Looking Ahead to 2021
Any year where you have the Fight of the Year is going to be a tough act to follow but the strawweight division is actually in a good place to do so admirably. Assuming the UFC can get their ducks in a row, a fight between Weili Zhang and Rose Namajunas has all the potential to be just as good as this year’s title fight, and after that, there is no shortage of potential challengers for the champion. On top of that, the strawweight division has a number of young contenders rising through the ranks to keep stocking the pond for title fights and meaningful match ups down the road as well. Add in that Invicta will likely crown a new champion and that there a rumbling of Bellator reconstituting their 115-pound division as well and 2021 could be nearly as good as 2020 was for the strawweights.