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2020 Year in Review: The light heavyweight division

UFC 253 Reyes v Blachowicz
Jan Blachowicz
Photo by Josh Hedges/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 the best year for the light heavyweight division in years for one simple reason: Jon Jones vacated the belt to move up to heavyweight.

For the better part of a decade, Jones and Daniel Cormier were the twin kings of 205, and while the prolonged reign certainly had its benefits, the division stagnated under the yoke of their dominance. Jones’ decision to willingly vacate the title immediately made the weight class the most interesting it has been in years. It also eventually led to the coronation of Jan Blachowicz and the Legendary Polish Power – possibly the least expected, most likable champion in recent memory.

It was also a big year for the 205ers outside of the UFC. Over in Bellator they crowned a new champion, Vadim Nemkov, but more importantly, they bolstered their division in a major way. Bellator signed Corey Anderson, Anthony Johnson, and Yoel Romero to compete in the weight class. Those additions to the existing roster, plus the arrival of Nemkov, created a division that actually rivals the UFC.

The Bad

As far as light heavyweight is concerned, no one had a worse year than Dominick Reyes. In February, he fought Jon Jones to a decision that most believe he deserved to win. “Most” didn’t include the judges though who awarded the victory to Jones, who then abandoned the division instead of rematching Reyes. Things didn’t get any better for Reyes when he fought for the vacant title against Blachowicz. A solid favorite, Reyes was then thoroughly outclassed.

The light heavyweight division is littered with the careers of men who almost became champion, and Reyes may well have added his name to that ignominious list.

The Ugly

Given all that’s transpired over his career, this section could well be titled “The Jon Jones Section,” and 2020 was no exception. After winning a highly controversial decision over Dominick Reyes in February, the long-reigning champ spent the next several months blatantly showing no interest in a rematch. Instead, he continually tried to pick a fight with middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, literally picking on a demonstrably smaller man. Jones then vacated then vacated the light heavyweight title and – on the very same night Blachowicz won it by knocking out Reyes – immediately suggested he might return to the division. On top of that, Jones also went crazy at the mere suggestion that Khabib Nurmagomedov, fresh off the best performance of his career and the death of his father, might be the greatest fighter of all time. In a sport that is often ugly, Jones pitching a fit over the idea that someone thought to be one of the GOATs was better than him was among the worst looks.

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.

UFC 253 Reyes v Blachowicz Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

A number of light heavyweights had good years in 2020. But only one of them had the best year, because only one of them won the UFC light heavyweight championship.

Jan Blachowicz was the KSW light heavyweight champion who made his UFC debut in 2014. It was a rough start for Blachowicz. He went 2-4 to start his career in the organization, and it seemed certain that he would end up being a solid but uninspired light heavyweight for his tenure with the UFC. But this year, something changed. Blachowicz rebranded himself as a knockout artist with Legendary Polish Power (despite having mostly submission victories before 2020), avenged an early loss to Corey Anderson and then ran through Dominick Reyes to become the new champ. Those two performances were among the best knockouts of the year, and as such, Blachowicz was the MVP of the division.

Honorable Mentions: Glover Teixeira, Jamahal Hill, Jimmy Crute, Paul Craig

Highlights to Watch

Jon Jones wins controversial decision over Dominick Reyes, UFC 247

Jan Blachowicz knocks out Corey Anderson with a right hook, UFC Rio Rancho

Jan Blachowicz knocks out Dominick Reyes to win the light heavyweight title, UFC 253

Glover Teixeira stops Anthony Smith with ground-and-pound, UFC Jacksonville

Glover Teixeira submits Thiago Santos with a rear-naked choke, UFC Vegas 13

Jiri Prochazka knocks out Volkan Oezdemir with a right hand, UFC 251

Anthony Smith submits Devin Clark with a triangle choke, UFC Vegas 15

Johnny Walker knocks out Ryan Spann with elbows, UFC Vegas 11

Jimmy Crute submits Michal Oleksiejczuk with a kimura, UFC on ESPN+ 26

Jimmy Crute knocks out Modestas Bukauskas with punches, UFC Fight Island 6

Jamahal Hill crushes Klidson Abreu with a knee to the body, UFC on ESPN 9

Jamahal Hill stops Ovince Saint Preux with punches, UFC Vegas 16

Paul Craig submits Gadzhimurad Antigulov with a triangle choke, UFC on ESPN 14

Ovince Saint Preux face-plants Alonzo Menifield, UFC Vegas 9

Vadim Nemkov stops Ryan Bader with a head kick and punches, Bellator 244

Ed Herman submits Mike Rodriguez with a kimura, UFC Vegas 10

Roman Dolidze demolishes Khadis Ibragimov with a knee and punches, UFC Fight Island 2

Reiner de Ridder submits Aung La Nsang with a rear-naked choke, ONE Championship: Inside the Matrix

Magomed Ankalaev knocks out Ion Cutelaba in their rematch, UFC 254

Looking Ahead to 2021

As mentioned above, Jones vacating the light heavyweight title is the best thing to happen to the division in some time. Blachowicz has a number of viable contenders ready to go. But first there’s the matter of his superfight with middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. If Blachowicz defeats Izzy, that will be huge for him and make his subsequent fight against Glover Teixeira that much bigger. And if Adesanya wins, then the division is suddenly spearheaded by one of the UFC’s brightest stars with all the opportunity that comes with it.

As for Bellator, 2021 projects to be one of the best years ever for its light heavyweight division. Their new champion Vadim Nemkov is young and among the best prospects in the sport. On top of that, Bellator is already targeting a bout between new signees Yoel Romero and Anthony Johnson, which aside from being a good fight on its own merits, also sets up a major contender for Nemkov. And none of that is to mention Corey Anderson or Phil Davis, who are very much in the mix as well. Bellator is going to have a great 2021.