What were the best fights of 2019 and how did we call them as they happened? The Highly Unofficial Awards season continues below…
Yair Rodriguez-Jeremy Stephens II
After a controversial no contest in September, Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens ran it back, and instead of 15 seconds, the two featherweight contenders went to war for 15 minutes, with Rodriguez taking a close, but unanimous, decision.
All three judges saw it 29-28 for the No. 7-ranked Rodriguez, now 13-2 with 1 NC. The No. 8-ranked Stephens falls to 28-17 with 1 NC.
Rodriguez flew out of his corner with a kick and the fight was on. Both fighters were looking to end it early, but it was Rodriguez having greater success, mainly with his kicks. With two minutes left, Stephens got close and bulled Rodriguez into the fence, but only for a short spell. With under a minute left, Stephens got too aggressive going after an off-balance Rodriguez and got dropped briefly by a jab, capping off a solid round for “El Pantera.”
Rodriguez dropped Stephens with a body kick early in round two, and while Stephens appeared to be defending himself, Rodriguez emptied his tank in an attempt to finish. When it was clear that Stephens had cleared his head, Rodriguez slowed his attack on the ground, and after looking for a choke, Stephens was able to escape and get to his feet. Soon, it was Rodriguez on his back, and after he sought another submission, the two rose and Stephens surged just before the horn.
With the crowd roaring, Stephens marched forward in an attempt to land a haymaker while Rodriguez kept using his kicks from long range early in round three. As the round progressed, Stephens scored a pair of takedowns, and with the second one he kept Rodriguez grounded to the horn as he fired off strikes from the top position. When it was over, the two heated rivals shook hands and embraced, burying the hatchet after settling their score as sportsmen.
(From October 18)
Tony Ferguson-Donald Cerrone
The lightweight bout between Tony Ferguson and Donald Cerrone had a main event feel, and the two top five contenders delivered on all fronts until a Cerrone eye injury prompted a second-round stoppage win for Ferguson, who extended his current winning streak to 12.
Cerrone got down to business immediately with his striking attack, and Ferguson responded in kind, but it was “Cowboy” landing the better shots in the early going. Ferguson scored with a hard elbow in the third minute, and he was starting to catch a rhythm, but Cerrone drew first blood with a shot that opened a cut over Ferguson’s right eye. Ferguson was unbothered by the cut, and the two continued to take turns landing in an exciting first round.
The pace was fast in the opening round, but Ferguson wanted to take it up another notch in the second. Yet just when it looked like “El Cucuy” might start to pull away, back came Cerrone with flurries that kept him in the fight. Ferguson’s shots were starting to take their toll, though, with a shot to the nose drawing blood bothering “Cowboy.” With two minutes left, Cerrone scored a takedown, only to see Ferguson bounce back to his feet and get back to the business of punishing his foe, with the wear of the battle showing on Cerrone’s face at the end of the round, one punctuated by a late punch by Ferguson.
Between rounds, Cerrone blew his nose and his right eye swelled shut, bringing in the Octagonside physician, who decided to stop the bout, much to the dismay of “Cowboy” and the fans in attendance. The official time of the stoppage was 5:00 of round two.
With the win, the No. 2-ranked Ferguson moves to 26-3. The No. 4-ranked Cerrone falls to 36-12 with 1 NC.
Pedro Munhoz-Cody Garbrandt
Brazil’s Pedro Munhoz made quite the statement in the main card opener, knocking out former bantamweight world champion Cody Garbrandt in the first round.
The first round was fought at a measured pace…at least for a while. Then late in the frame, Munhoz’ leg kicks began taking a toll, and after Munhoz went high with a kick, Garbrandt got rocked and went to the deck. Upon rising, “No Love” went after the knockout recklessly and as Munhoz fired back eagerly, making for plenty of crowd-pleasing exchanges, Garbrandt got caught with a right hand and was dropped. Munhoz followed up, and referee Marc Goddard stepped in, stopping the fight at 4:52 of the opening round.
With the win, the No. 9-ranked Munhoz moves to 18-3 with 1 NC. The No. 2-ranked Garbrandt, who has now lost three straight, falls to 11-3.
(From March 2)
Justin Gaethje-Edson Barboza
Lightweight action heroes Justin Gaethje and Edson Barboza delivered the expected fireworks in their UFC Fight Night main event at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, but it was Gaethje landing the bomb that finished the fight before the horn marking the end of the first round.
Gaethje landed the first two leg kicks of the fight, but Barboza wasn’t far behind. Yet when Barboza focused on the kicks, Gaethje went upstairs with his punches and rocked the Brazilian before the two tied up against the fence. Ninety seconds in, the fighters separated and went back to the middle of Octagon and traded punches, Barboza getting briefly rattled again. Moments later, a single right hand sent Barboza hard to the canvas, and that was it, with referee Keith Peterson halting the bout at 2:30 of round one.
With the win, the No. 8-ranked Gaethje moves to 20-2. The No. 6-ranked Barboza falls to 20-7.
(From March 30)
Henry Cejudo-Marlon Moraes
Add another chapter to the remarkable story of Henry Cejudo, the Olympic gold medalist and UFC flyweight champion who added a second world title belt to his collection Saturday night in Chicago, as he stopped Marlon Moraes in the third round to win the vacant UFC bantamweight championship.
The 32-year-old Cejudo joins Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier and Amanda Nunes as the only fighters to hold two UFC titles simultaneously.
It wasn’t an easy road to history, though, as Moraes was all offense from the start, unworried with anything that was coming back at him. Soon, Cejudo’s left leg was marked up, prompting him to look for a takedown. Moraes eluded the attempt and kept the heat on, switching up his attacks as he piled up the points.
Keeping to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” strategy, Moraes’ kicks allowed him to control the action through much of round two, but with under two minutes left, Cejudo crashed into gear with his punches and several hard knees, and though Moraes stunned “The Messenger” just before the horn, it appeared that Cejudo had turned the corner in the fight.
With Moraes winded, Cejudo pushed the pace in the third, nearly catching the Brazilian in a choke. When that came up short, Cejudo moved to a ground-and-pound attack, and after a series of unanswered strikes, referee Marc Goddard intervened, stopping the fight at 4:51 of the third round.
With the win, Phoenix’ Cejudo moves to 15-2. Nova Friburgo’s Moraes falls to 22-6-1.
(From June 8)
Vicente Luque-Bryan Barberena
Vicente Luque has been flying under the radar for far too long, but that situation should change after the Brazilian’s fourth consecutive win and finish, a third-round stoppage of Bryan Barberena in an action-packed welterweight war.
There was no shortage of compelling action in the opening round, with Luque leading the way behind a series of stiff right and left hands that landed flush on the steel-chinned Barberena. With a little over a minute left, though, Barberena landed a left hand that dropped Luque. Luque recovered instantly, nearly finishing Barberena with rear naked and D’Arce chokes. But after his second escape, Barberena got the crowd roaring with a series of elbows on the mat.
There was no let-up from either man in the second round, and while Luque remained in the lead, Barberena’s durability was the story of the night, as he marched through bomb after bomb, with only a knee late in the round briefly putting him on the deck.
Yet just when it was expected that the fight would go the full 15 minutes as the two warriors emptied their tanks, a late third-round surge from Luque started by another knee dropped Barberena, with a follow-up barrage of strikes bringing in referee Jason Herzog to stop the bout at 4:54 of the final frame.
With the win, Luque moves to 15-6-1. Barberena falls to 14-6.
(From February 17)
Dustin Poirier-Max Holloway II
It wasn’t the same fight as it was in 2012, but Dustin Poirier repeated his victory over Max Holloway in the main event of UFC 236 in Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, this time earning the interim UFC lightweight title via five-round unanimous decision after a performance built by years of blood, sweat and tears.
“I feel like I’m in a dream right now,” said Poirier, who will now get a crack at 155-pound champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. “It’s been a long time.”
Scores were 49-46 across the board for Poirier, now 25-5 with 1 NC. Holloway, the UFC featherweight champion, falls to 20-4.
It didn’t take long for the former foes to get reacquainted, Poirier first rocking Holloway, and Holloway then returning the favor. And while Holloway landed some hard shots on his opponent, Poirier drilled the Hawaiian with a right hand with a little over three minutes left, putting Holloway in deep trouble. Poirier emptied his arsenal on Holloway, and while the featherweight champ survived, Poirier’s power was rapidly becoming an issue.
Holloway bounced back in the second round and began to pepper Poirier with shots as the two stood in the pocket, but late in the frame, Poirier’s power again made an appearance as he knocked Holloway into the fence after one exchange and then rocked him again just before the end of the stanza.
Holloway’s face was busted up from the punishment of the previous two rounds, but “Blessed” kept throwing, and in the late stages of round three, his volume punching attack wasn’t being responded to by Poirier, allowing the Hawaiian to take the frame.
Poirier got a takedown to begin round four, but he wasn’t able to keep his opponent there long, and when they rose, it was Poirier emerging with a cut and Holloway continuing to throw punches in bunches. Poirier soon got his second wind, and he opened up a nasty cut on Holloway’s forehead, but there was no quit in Waianae’s finest.
The pace didn’t dip as round five began, with Holloway throwing at a greater clip while Poirier countered with pinpoint accuracy. Late in the frame, Poirier controlled matters in the clinch, with Holloway unable to break free, having given everything he had in search of victory. That desire was just as strong in Louisiana’s Poirier, and when it was over, he had done enough to finally put championship gold around his waist.
(From April 13)
Paulo Costa-Yoel Romero
As expected, middleweight contenders Paulo Costa and Yoel Romero threw bomb after bomb in their highly anticipated showdown. What wasn’t expected was that the two would go three rounds in the process, but that’s just what they did, with Costa emerging victorious via unanimous decision in a memorable bout.
Scores were 29-28 across the board for the No. 7-ranked Costa, who ups his record to 13-0. The No. 2-ranked Romero falls to 13-4.
More active than he has been in the early going, Cuba’s Romero was on the offensive from the start, landing a kick to the head before getting turned away on a takedown attempt. Moments later, Brazil’s Costa dropped Romero with a left punch upstairs before Romero returned the favor by scoring a flash knockdown of his own. Costa rose and smiled, going back on the offensive as Romero took shots against the fence. A Romero knee drilled Costa, but a return knee from “The Eraser” put the Cuban down and brought a momentary stop to the action. When the bout resumed, the wild exchanges kept coming, with Romero firing back just when it seemed that Costa was taking over.
Throwing everything with bad intentions, Costa continued to pressure Romero in round two, with the Cuban appearing to have difficulty dealing with the work rate of his opponent. Yet as the pace dipped, it allowed Romero to jump back into the fray, and with Costa tiring, it was “The Soldier of God” rallying with his strikes and finishing the round with a takedown.
Even though it was late in the fight, Costa was still investing in body work, with several hard kicks landing to the midsection of Romero, who took the shots well and began landing with more punches upstairs down the stretch. A takedown by Romero in the closing minute was an important one, but it wasn’t enough to get him the win, as the decision went to Costa, a verdict unpopular with the fans in attendance.
(From August 17)
Kamaru Usman-Colby Covington
UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman successfully defended his crown for the first time in spectacular fashion, breaking open a razor-close fight with Colby Covington with a fifth-round stoppage that may not have put an end to their rivalry, but that certainly cemented Usman’s place as the top 170-pounder in the world.
The combatants traded kicks to begin the bout and then started throwing hands, each having success. Usman began landing more effective blows, but Covington would try to answer every landed blow with one of his own, and it was hard to imagine the two would keep this pace up for five rounds. With 90 seconds left, both took turns rocking each other, and as the round ended, neither wrestler looked for a takedown.
Usman’s jab was sharp in round two, and as he switched stances he kept Covington off-balance. In the second minute, Covington was finding his range again, though, and he got Usman’s attention with a couple well-placed shots. A borderline low kick by Covington with two minutes left brought a brief halt to the action, but it was right back to work as soon as referee Marc Goddard waved them back into the battle, and each had their moments before the horn sounded.
Covington’s frantic work rate dipped in the third, and Usman took advantage with not only punches upstairs, but kicks and punches to the body that were paying dividends in a big way. A kick to the head in the final minute got Covington back in business, but an eye poke from the challenger halted any momentum he had, as the Octagonside physician checked out Usman’s eye and gave the champion the all clear.
Between round replays showed a right hand from Usman that apparently broke Covington’s job, but “Chaos” answered the call for round four and landed a couple hard shots that produced an equal response from “The Nigerian Nightmare.” Neither man was willing to give an inch, but with the fight possibly on the line, Usman stepped up big time in the fifth round, dropping Covington twice with right hands, and after a barrage of ground strikes, Goddard had seen enough, calling a stop to the fight at 4:10 of the final frame.
With the win, Usman moves to 16-1, extending his winning streak to 15. Covington falls to 15-2.
At the time of the stoppage, the bout was dead even, with Usman ahead 39-37 on one card, Covington up 39-37 on another, and one judge seeing it 38-38 heading into the final round.
(From December 14)
Israel Adesanya-Kelvin Gastelum
UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker has never had an easy road in the Octagon. Saturday night in Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, that road just got tougher, as Israel Adesanya won a five-round war over Kelvin Gastelum by unanimous decision to win the interim 185-pound belt and set up a showdown with Australia’s “Reaper.”
“I was ready for war,” said Adesanya, who got one out of Gastelum, who brought Adesanya to places he had yet to see in his mixed martial arts career. But “The Last Stylebender” answered any doubts with his performance. “I was willing to leave it all and give it all.”
All three judges saw it 48-46 for Adesanya, now 17-0. Gastelum falls to 16-4 with 1 NC.
Gastelum pressed Adesanya to start the bout, but “The Last Stylebender” scored first with a hard kick to the midsection. With a little under three minutes to go, Gastelum knocked Adesanya into the fence with a right punch to the head, and while the Nigeria native recovered well, it was a key moment early in the bout, and Gastelum continued to keep the shots coming as Adesanya’s offensive output dipped.
Adesanya came out throwing kicks to the body in round two, but Gastelum was undeterred as he shot his 1-2s upstairs. With just over two minutes left, though, a right hand stunned Gastelum and put him on the deck. Gastelum rose quickly, but Adesanya had earned his respect and the New Zealander began upping his work rate. A spinning elbow stunned Gastelum, who knew no direction but forward, and he landed a left hand before seeing a takedown attempt thrown aside.
With two rounds in the books, the fighters had gotten acclimated to each other, resulting in some entertaining striking exchanged early in round three. But if there was an edge to be had, it belonged to Adesanya. Just before the final minute, Gastelum scored a takedown, but Adesanya bounced right up, and as the round ended, he appeared to be the fresher of the two.
Gastelum took the fight to Adesanya to kick off the championship rounds, and that aggression worked well for him for a spell before the pace settled into one more to Adesanya’s liking. As the round progressed, Gastelum kept throwing, and while Adesanya’s defense was solid, he did ultimately emerge with a cut, prompting him to go after Gastelum with more bad intentions. With a minute left, Gastelum stunned Adesanya with a left kick to the head, causing the crowd to erupt.
In addition to the cut, Adesanya’s face was swelling, and momentum was on Gastelum’s side heading into the fifth and final round. Gastelum marched forward and Adesanya fired back, ultimately stunning his foe with a right hand. As Gastelum looked for a takedown, Adesanya tried to lock up a guillotine choke and then a triangle as the two scrambled on the mat. After getting back to their feet, Adesanya drilled Gastelum with a right hand, forcing the Arizonan to lock up his opponent. Adesanya pushed him off, though, and went back to work, determined to finish strong. With a little over a minute left, Gastelum was dropped briefly, and when he got up, Adesanya sent him back to the mat with a right hand. Now bloodied, Gastelum refused to give in, but Adesanya sent him down one more time before the final horn sounded, cementing his victory in a title fight that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
(From April 13)