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 in 2021.
Year in Review
For all the big names in the welterweight division, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of activity in 2020. However, the notable exception to that was Gilbert Burns. Burns had a year that put him in contention for “Fight of the Year” honors when he earned the two biggest wins of his career in dominant fashion. In March, Burns knocked out Demian Maia and in May outclassed former champion Tyron Woodley over five rounds. Those two performances alone vaulted him up to the top of the welterweight rankings and earned him a crack at champion Kamaru Usman.
Elsewhere in the UFC, a number of other fighters built names for themselves in a major way: Khamzat Chimaev was MMAFighting’s Breakout Fighter of the Year (though he fought primarily as a middleweight); Khaos Williams finished fourth in those rankings on the back of two lightning fast knockouts; and Daniel Rodriguez fought four times and won three bouts. Not to mention, other top-10 fighters like Vicente Luque and Neil Magny continued their climbs toward title contention.
With top names in the division not offering much excitement this year, the rest of the welterweights took full advantage.
Tyron Woodley is one of the greatest welterweights of all time, and for most of the last few years, he was primarily concerned with catching up to Georges St-Pierre’s legacy. After his 2020 campaign, his focus is on simply winning a round.
After losing the belt to Usman in 2019, “The Chosen One” told anyone who would listen that his lackluster performance was a freak occurrence. But in 2020, he did nothing to back that up, losing practically every second of his fights with Gilbert Burns and Colby Covington. That’s 46 total minutes that Woodley fought in 2020 – and 46 minutes that he lost. Perhaps the worst part aside from the precipitous decline is the fact that he was stopped by outspoken rival Colby Covington in a 20-minute ass-beating.
2020 was, by far, the worst year of Tyron Woodley’s career.
In 2020, the UFC’s welterweight division was more chaotic than any other division in the sport.
At the beginning of the year, Kamaru Usman was supposed to face Jorge Masvidal in a hugely marketable title fight. But Masvidal began feuding with the UFC over compensation, and he was replaced with Gilbert Burns for UFC 251. Then Burns contracted COVID-19 and was forced off the card, and none other than Masvidal came in to fight Usman on one weeks’ notice. The UFC dragged its feet in rebooking Usman vs. Burns, and when it was finally set up for December, Usman withdrew due to injury.
These cancellations and re-bookings weren’t just limited to the title picture, though: Breakout star Khamzat Chimaev was forced out of an anticipated fight with Leon Edwards for December (and then again for a scheduled bout at UFC Fight Island 8); Geoff Neal was forced out of a fight with Neil Magny after nearly dying; and dozens of other bouts got booked, rebooked, and cancelled as circumstances shifted constantly due to the coronavirus.
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.
Despite a lack of activity at the top, the welterweight division in 2020 still played host to a number of fighters who rattled off multiple wins, many of them impressive. Vicente Luque put on one of the best fights of the year and had another excellent KO, Gilbert Burns had two dominant wins over top-ranked opponents, Neil Magny had a hat trick of decisions, and Michel Pereira brought his trademark brand of insanity. But as impressive as those fighters were, only one man provided one of the best knockouts of the year AND one of the best submissions of the year.
After washing out of the UFC in 2018, Swedish prospect Oliver Enkamp ended up in Bellator and in 2020, “The Future” showed out. In February, Enkamp knocked out Lewis Long when Bellator returned to Dublin. Then in October when Bellator put on the first sanctioned MMA event in France, Enkamp built one-upped himself by submitting Emmanuel Dawa with a Japanese necktie. Sure neither win is as impressive as Burns dominating Woodley and Maia in the same year, but the performances were unquestionably more entertaining.
Honorable Mentions: Vicente Luque, Gilbert Burns, Neil Magny, Michel Pereira, Daniel Rodriquez, Miguel Baeza
Highlights to Watch
Gilbert Burns stops Demian Maia with punches, UFC Brasilia
Oliver Enkamp knocks out Lewis Long with a spinning backfist, Bellator 240
Oliver Enkamp submits Emmanuel Dawa with a Japanese necktie, Bellator 248
Looking Ahead to 2021
Outside of the UFC, it would be hard for the welterweight division not to have a better year. PFL will resume operations, meaning their welterweight division can get going again, and Bellator champion Douglas Lima, fresh off a failed attempt to claim the middleweight title, will return to his kingdom to defend against any number of marketable challengers. So things are looking up for the welterweights this year.
Inside the UFC, 2020 was a down year for the welterweight division but 2021 will likely be an improvement for the weight class of champions. Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns are set to fight in February and Dana White has stated that the UFC is interested in booking Colby Covington vs. Jorge Masvidal, which would could set up the next title challenger, unless of course Leon Edwards and Khamzat Chimaev actually fight one another. All of those are excellent fights which lead to more excellent fights later in the year, potentially setting up 2021 to be truly spectacular. There’s also the unheralded fight between Neil Magny and Michael Chiesa, and with both men on three-fight win streaks, the winner is certain to be thrust into the title conversation. Then there’s the rumors of a potential return by MMA legend Nick Diaz, who reportedly wants top names at 170.
If even some of these things happen, 2021 will be an improvement on last year and if all of them happen, then it will be a year for the ages. Let’s just hope there aren’t any more foot stomps.