Such is MMA that one year you’re the “Knockout of the Year” winner, and the next, you’re the victim.
This wasn’t supposed to happen to Jorge Masvidal. If you beat “Gamebred” in the past, it was usually on points. It was because you were better at playing the game, not because you put him out. At heart, he fought with the philosophy of a Diaz — ready to throw down, disappointed at tentative opponents, and, save for a few who caught him, tougher than a tank.
Eventually in this game, everyone gets got, and two years after Masvidal won the award for his knee-KO of Ben Askren, he was lying on the canvas, out cold after Kamaru Usman’s right hand beat his left hook to the target, sending spit and sweat flying through the air. Bouncing off Usman’s shoulder, Masvidal was woken up, then put back to sleep with hammerfists.
In the octagon, your greatest accomplishments often set the table for your most precipitous downfall. Had Masvidal not landed that flying knee in 2019, he might not have found himself in the octagon a second time against the UFC welterweight champ. The eye-popping stoppage of Askren had transformed him from tough journeyman to bankable attraction, and it opened the door to a rematch. Masvidal could claim he hadn’t gotten a fair shot with a short-notice five-rounder in July that ended in a lopsided loss, and Usman could say he was settling the score on a mouthy rival.
Really, everyone just wanted the Brinks truck to back up again. But if anyone was going to add to the highlight reel, Masvidal was the historically sound bet. There was Askren and Darren Till and Donald Cerrone on his resume; the latter two had been stopped in part by thudding rights. Usman? He’d recently finished his former teammate Gilbert Burns and his arch-rival Colby Covington. But they didn’t carry quite the same impact, coming from an accumulation of blows. Usman hadn’t quite shucked his reputation as a grinder.
After he dropped Masvidal, no one doubted his striking capabilities.
Some of the credit for the turnaround needs to be given to coach Trevor Wittman, who’s turned several grappling standouts into knockout artists. But the ovation should be directed at Usman for his evolution as a complete fighter. Not only did he pick up one of his most exciting wins, but he did it against a guy who’s extremely difficult to stop. It’s who you win against, not just how.
2. Sergio Pettis vs. Kyoji Horiguchi
Style counts in the knockout debate, of course. We’ve rewarded many a jumping this or a spinning that. But there is something special about a come-from-behind knockout, especially when it involves a champ.
Three rounds into Bellator 272’s headliner, it looked all but certain a new king would be crowned – or in the case of Kyoji Horiguchi, re-crowned. The Japanese vet’s return to the circular cage was going about as well as it could. He was faster than Sergio Pettis. His wrestling was better. Pettis, bloody and out of step, not only looked like he was having a bad night – he was getting outclassed.
Informed by coach Duke Roufus that he was likely down three rounds, Pettis did what any good fighter does and tried to break the pattern. He got more aggressive and threw more punches. He landed more, but he also took more. Halfway through the fourth round, he and Horiguchi were still tied up, which meant he was still losing.
Going into the fight, Pettis had wanted to step out of the shadow of his older brother. He wound up doing the most Pettis thing you could do and tried a low-percentage attack. Momentum made the spinning backfist an easy add-on to the head kick he threw late in the frame. The distance, up close after a missed takedown setup, made it just unconventional enough to catch Horiguchi unprotected. With a fist to the jaw, Horiguchi’s hope of re-taking the title crashed to the canvas with his body, and Pettis stepped toward his own spotlight.
3. Cory Sandhagen vs. Frankie Edgar
These days, it takes an awful lot to stand out in the UFC bantamweight division. Aljamain Sterling, Petr Yan, Jose Aldo, Rob Font, T.J. Dillashaw, Dominick Cruz, Merab Dvalishvili — it’s a true murderer’s row out there, and Cory Sandhagen was right in the middle of it.
A loss to Sterling paused what was otherwise an impressive run for Colorado native Sandhagen. But the young talent got right back into the mix with a wheel kick/punch knockout of one-time title challenger Marlon Moraes (and on to the honorable mention list for MMA Fighting’s 2020 knockout list). One highlight-reel finish would be a lot considering the opposition. But with a flying knee, Sandhagen managed to outdo himself against Edgar, a former champ known for his durability and judge-friendly style.
Sandhagen wasn’t the first to crack the code and finish Edgar. But up to that point, no one had been able to pull off something so spectacular. One of Edgar’s most enduring traits was his elusiveness; jumping and spinning stuff didn’t work on him. Sandhagen, though, expertly drew his opponent into range and then leaped into the air, cracking Edgar’s chin. The former champ froze in place and fell to the canvas, with Sandhagen scoring the equivalent to a walk-off homer.
Sandhagen wasn’t done impressing us in 2021. He went on to deliver a pair of “Fight of the Year” contenders against Dillashaw and Yan, respectively, and while he came up short on the scorecards, he proved he was one of the best in the world at 135 pounds.
4. Jiri Prochazka vs. Dominick Reyes
Sometimes, it seems like Jiri Prochazka conditions his face as well as his fists. How else to explain the way he systematically walked through from two-time title challenger Dominick Reyes in their May meeting? Then, he just introduces Reyes over and over to the knuckles made knotty by 500 daily shots to an unsuspecting tree. Reyes is reduced to covering up for dear life, hoping the punishment ends. Hands low, beard out, ponytail perked, Prochazka is a modern samurai.
After his spinning-elbow knockout, it figured that he was going to be a problem for the champ, whomever that might be.
There was a small chink revealed in his armor that night when Reyes landed a left hand that visibly wobbled him in the second round. Reyes nearly capitalized with a guillotine choke. He just didn’t have the stamina to finish after getting pounded so much. This was the scenario he feared — and fans in the know celebrated — in facing the wild man Prochazka. No longer was the Czech fighter a title threat in theory. In just two fights, he was a legitimate contender, and a very frightening one.
Unfortunately for Reyes, there was plenty of energy and minutes in reserve as he cowered from the onslaught, and a series of elbows would soon come smashing into his head. After one, Prochazka had crossed his opponent’s body, so he elevated his left elbow and sent it slashing into Reyes’ temple. The once red-hot contender was reduced to a chalk outline as he pitched face-first onto the canvas, unconscious.
The knockout put Prochazka on the list for “Fight of the Year,” and on the short list for a title shot less than one year into his UFC run. That’s really not something that happens often at light heavyweight, or for that matter any division. And yet, it’s hard to see any other outcome the way this barbarian is headed.
5. Francis Ngannou vs. Stipe Miocic II
The first time Francis Ngannou had met Stipe Miocic, he’d been humbled by a glaring weakness in his skill set. Miocic didn’t have to prove he was capable of withstanding the knockout artist’s power, because he could simply put his opponent where power was not in his favor. Better luck next time, kid.
When Ngannou ripped his leg away from Miocic, tripped him to the canvas and whipped around to the back, you could just about hear the record-breaking UFC champ say, “Ohhhh, no.” There would be no safe harbor in grappling. He would have to stand with the man whose punches were once compared to getting hit by a Ford Escort.
Along with his newfound sprawl, Ngannou also got another assist from a smaller cage. With 30 percent less space to work, Miocic’s movement had to be very on point. And instead, he cut an almost stationary figure at times, flat-footed and stiff-necked as he stood in the pocket with the anvil. The left hand that smashed into his face looked more like a battering ram than a jab or cross, and it took him off his feet.
Miocic’s last gasp was a right hand landed as he righted himself and Ngannou closed in for the kill. We might have seen one of those sudden momentum shifts that make heavyweight great. Ngannou wobbled. But it was a new sensation, being one he hadn’t really experienced as the constant nail rather than the hammer. Thus, it was survivable. He regained his bearings, popped out a left hook and caught Miocic’s chin.
The two-time heavyweight champ froze in place, his legs bending awkwardly behind him. He was out, but a hammerfist sealed the brutal deal. Ngannou was the champ, and no longer a one-note song.
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