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
Of all the divisions in MMA, the middleweight division was probably the most interesting in 2020. At the top of the rankings, champions and contenders alike fought frequently and, more often than not, delivered excellent performances.
UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya fought twice in 2020, delivering a dud against Yoel Romero but putting on a classic performance against bitter rival Paulo Costa; former champion Robert Whittaker rebounded from his devastating loss to Adesanya with two marquee wins in 2020; and Marvin Vettori finally delivered on his potential, picking up two wins to jump into the top-five of the division. Lower down the rankings, a number of rising stars took advantage of the chaotic coronavirus atmosphere to surge upward and make names for themselves, with middleweight playing host to the top three finishers for Breakout Fighter of the Year in 2020 (Khamzat Chimaev, Kevin Holland, and Joaquin Buckley).
Add in that middleweight also featured the two best Knockouts of the Year (and the fifth as well!), and in 2020, the UFC’s middleweight division was phenomenal.
Outside the UFC, things were a little less brilliant but certainly nothing to sneeze at. Most notably in Bellator, Gegard Mousasi retained his title with a clear decision in a champion vs. champion superfight against welterweight champion Douglas Lima in October.
Of all the things that happened in the middleweight division in 2020, by far the worst was the UFC title fight between Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero at UFC 248. Much hyped coming into it, the UFC 248 main event was widely panned as the worst fight of the year. For 25 minutes, Adesanya and Romero engaged in little more than a staring contest (in the first round, Adesanya literally landed two strikes and Romero only four) that left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouths and harkened back to the darkest days of Anderson Silva’s title reign. The less said about the UFC 248 main event, the better.
At the end of the year, UFC President Dana White announced that the organization would be parting ways with a number of big names and middleweight felt that the most. In November, the UFC parted ways with two of the biggest names in the division - Anderson Silva and Yoel Romero.
At the time Romero was let go from the organization, “The Soldier of God” was the fifth-ranked middleweight in the organization and coming off a closely contested title fight with current champion Israel Adesanya. By any possible metric you want to use, Romero was still one of the top middleweights in the world and the UFC willingly chose to part ways with him, despite there still being three fights left on Romero’s contract.
In Silva’s case, there was a least logic to it. The former champion was on a three-fight losing streak, and had lost seven of his last nine, and the UFC was not so subtly attempting to force Silva into retirement. However, a deeper look at Silva’s record reveals that though Silva is clearly no longer an elite middleweight, he still has a lot to offer from a fighting perspective, if only the UFC wanted to.
In both instances, the UFC chose to let go of good middleweights that fans still care about for reasons that remain unclear. Even more puzzling though is the reticence of other promotions to pick up these high-profile castoffs. Anderson Silva has been publicly rebuffed by Bellator, PFL, and even the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, and Bellator also originally shot down any interest in Romero, before ultimately pulling a 180 and signing him to compete primarily at light heavyweight.
In 2020, the promotional choices of the biggest organizations in the world were not the best.
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.
In most of the divisions, choosing an MVP is difficult. There are usually a number of contenders who have fought multiple times and delivered stellar performances and are worthy of the honor. Not so for middleweight this year. Sure, there were plenty of middleweights who had excellent years, but no one touched the heights or the sheer volume of performances that Kevin Holland delivered.
Holland fought FIVE times in 2020 and he could have fought a great many more had things broken a different way. Holland didn’t have his first bout until May after a planned bout against Jack Marshman in March was cancelled due to COVID-19. Instead, Holland fought Anthony Hernandez when the UFC got back to business, running through him in just 39 seconds. He then had fights booked against Daniel Rodriguez and Trevin Giles but both fell through, before he eventually returned in August, knocking out breakout fighter Joaquin Buckley. A split decision win over Darren Stewart in September followed (hey, they can’t all be winners) and then a slam KO of Charlie Ontiveros in October. Holland then had a bout with Jack Hermansson cancelled due to COVID so instead he closed out 2020 with a Knockout of the Year contender over Ronaldo Souza.
All told, that’s five wins for Holland in 2020 with four Performance of the Night bonuses and the runner up for Knockout of the Year. That’s a hell of a year in anyone’s book.
Honorable Mentions: Joaquin Buckley, Robert Whittaker, Israel Adesanya, Marvin Vettori, Khamzat Chimaev
Highlights to Watch
Kevin Holland destroys Anthony Hernandez with a knee to the body, UFC on ESPN 8
Kevin Holland knocks out Joaquin Buckley, UFC Vegas 6
Kevin Holland stops Charlie Ontiveros with first-round slam, UFC Vegas 12
Gegard Mousasi wins a decision over Douglas Lima, Bellator 250
Looking Ahead to 2021
Given how exemplary 2020 was for the middleweight division, there’s little hope that it can repeat the feat in 2021. It’s incredibly unlikely that another three breakout fighters will arise from the middleweight ranks this year and even less likely that middleweight will be responsible for most of the top highlights of the year. Adding to the problem for the middleweight division is that, at least in the UFC’s case, the champion won’t be defending his title for some time.
Israel Adesanya is set to challenge Jan Blachowicz for the light heavyweight title in March, and should he be successful, it’s seems likely that the UFC will pursue a superfight between Adesanya and former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. If that happens, that doesn’t leave much room for middleweight title defenses for “The Last Stylebender” meaning the 185 division will fall prey to at least some minor stagnation at the top.
In short, there’s nowhere for the division to go but down.