There have been occasions throughout the first half of 2020 when the thought of voting for midyear awards in any sport appeared ill-conceived, and it was no totally different for the UFC.

Would there even be sufficient occasions from which to garner candidates for the varied classes? The coronavirus pandemic canceled sports activities world wide and though the UFC needed to cancel six playing cards, promotion president Dana White was decided to forge on.

Because it turned out, not solely had been there sufficient candidates to fill a midyear awards poll, there was a combat that registered among the many greatest ever, a knockout that resurrected a profession and a prospect whose colourful hairdo was eclipsed solely by two spectacular finishes.

ESPN’s 12-person panel had loads of performances from which to decide on, together with Dustin Poirier‘s epic win over Dan Hooker on Saturday. Two winners had been unanimous whereas others had been slender winners. However every would have been a powerful contender in any yr.

Editor’s be aware: Polls and an inventory of the panelists are on the backside.

Finest combat

Zhang Weili defeats Joanna Jedrzejczyk through cut up determination on March 7

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Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk commerce blows all through their championship bout at UFC 248.

For 5 rounds, Zhang and Jedrzejczyk threw every thing that they had at one another. There have been big proper arms, left hooks, head kicks, knees and elbows. Each girls had been rocked on a number of events. There was blood. By the tip, Jedrzejczyk had a hematoma that lined her complete brow. “I appeared like a zombie,” she mentioned.

Zhang received by cut up determination to retain her UFC girls’s strawweight title, which adopted a turbulent coaching camp marred by the coronavirus attacking her dwelling nation of China. However the end result nearly did not matter. From the very second the final second ticked off within the fifth spherical, Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk was thought to be among the best fights in UFC historical past. Not among the best girls’s fights. Top-of-the-line fights — interval.

Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk had every thing you can need in a combat. It was all motion from the primary spherical. It was dramatic with the youthful, extra athletic Zhang taking the lead early with exhausting photographs, then former champ Jedrzejczyk mounting a rally within the later rounds. Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk was a struggle of attrition; it was a fight masterpiece. And it will not be quickly forgotten.

Marc Raimondi

Finest male fighter(s)

Gilbert Burns and Justin Gaethje, tie

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Justin Gaethje lands stiff punches all through his interim light-weight title combat vs. Tony Ferguson en path to victory in Spherical 5.

Gilbert Burns, 33, went to mattress on New 12 months’s Eve as a rejuvenated fighter, having received 4 bouts in a row, his final two following a transfer to welterweight. However the native of Brazil could not have dreamed what 2020 would convey.

In March, he confronted fellow jiu-jitsu ace Demian Maia, and what was anticipated to play out as a high-level grappling match was an explosive Burns TKO in simply 2 minutes, 34 seconds.

That boosted Burns right into a matchup with former champion Tyron Woodley, and that one-sided beatdown on Might 30 earned Burns his second straight Efficiency of the Night time bonus and in addition put him in line for one thing greater. When the UFC couldn’t attain an settlement with Jorge Masvidal or Leon Edwards for a title combat, the matchmakers turned to Burns, who will problem Kamaru Usman on July 11. That certain was quick.

Nevertheless, Burns should share this greatest male fighter honor with Gaethje, who has fought simply as soon as in 2020 — however oh, what a combat. Gaethje lived as much as his nickname — “The Spotlight” — by dismantling Tony Ferguson on Might 9 in a fifth-round upset TKO. That one efficiency earned Gaethje an interim light-weight title, a still-to-be-scheduled shot at champ Khabib Nurmagomedov and a cut up of this ESPN award as each fighters had six votes every.

Jeff Wagenheim

Finest feminine fighter

Zhang Weili

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Zhang Weili opens up about her highway to turning into an MMA fighter and explains the position of Chinese language MMA preventing on the earth.

It is easy to neglect this now, however earlier this yr the coronavirus had not but prolonged its attain across the globe. The virus’ impression was initially felt solely in China, and it had an infinite impression on the UFC’s Chinese language champion. Zhang was pressured to interrupt her camp in February and in the end traveled to Thailand after which Abu Dhabi earlier than making it to the US for her first title protection in opposition to Jedrzejczyk on March 7 in Las Vegas. She described the expertise as one thing akin to a “refugee making an attempt to depart.”

Zhang defended her 115-pound championship through cut up determination in opposition to Jedrzejczyk immediately fight-of-the-year candidate. Not solely was the combat itself unbelievable, the opponent Zhang defeated made it that a lot sweeter. Even at this time, Jedrzejczyk is taken into account probably the most dominant champion in UFC strawweight historical past, having defended the title 5 occasions from 2015 to 2017. Though Zhang has fought solely as soon as this yr, she acquired twice as many votes as another feminine from ESPN’s panel.

Brett Okamoto

Others receiving votes: Amanda Nunes 3; Angela Hill 2; Valentina Shevchenko 1

Greatest shock

Henry Cejudo’s retirement on Might 9

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Henry Cejudo publicizes his retirement after efficiently defending his bantamweight championship in opposition to Dominick Cruz.

Over the previous yr, Henry Cejudo quietly has informed folks that he could be prepared to stroll away from the game of MMA if he did not receives a commission extra. Heck, he mentioned this to me earlier than his win over Demetrious Johnson two years in the past, in addition to after his bantamweight title win over Marlon Moraes final June. This has been on his thoughts for fairly a while. So, technically, him strolling away from the game following his UFC 249 victory over Dominick Cruz should not have come as an enormous shock.

However nonetheless, it was.

Any time you’ve got somebody on the prime of their sport, at simply 33 years outdated, stroll away, particularly once they appear to be on the verge of constructing extra money than ever, it is stunning. Cejudo is about to get every thing he is ever needed: the cash, the celebrity, the adulation … and he is strolling away from all of that?

It is nonetheless exhausting to imagine and I’ve critical doubts that he sticks with this, however Cejudo, as soon as a UFC double-champion, heads into the midyear belt-less, and that in its personal proper is stunning. The truth that he introduced his retirement seconds after his win over Cruz is stunning, too. He did not even attempt to negotiate a brand new deal. He simply left on prime — for now. In a midyear full of stunning moments, this one takes the cake.

Ariel Helwani

Others receiving votes: Dominick Reyes‘ close to upset of Jon Jones 2; Gilbert Burns’ fast ascension 2; 5 acquired one vote

Finest end

Cody Garbrandt KOs Raphael Assuncao on June 6

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Cody Garbrandt shakes up Raphael Assuncao with a jab to the face within the first spherical.

Time was ticking off the clock. Assuncao had Garbrandt’s again practically up in opposition to the fence, searching for some offense that might maybe sway the judges to offer him the second spherical. Garbrandt ducked and Assuncao landed a leg kick. Then Garbrandt ducked once more and loaded up his proper hand, nearly from the mat. Assuncao tried to time Garbrandt’s ascent together with his personal proper hand that ended up whiffing. Garbrandt, however, didn’t miss. He jolted Assuncao with a whip-like proper hook that despatched him crashing to the mat, face down. Assuncao was unconscious. The combat was over with one second left on the clock.

Garbrandt’s knockout punch did not simply throttle Assuncao. It was a message to the remainder of the UFC bantamweight division. Garbrandt, the previous champion, had been on a three-fight dropping streak with accidents piling up, and it appeared just like the 28-year-old Ohio native wouldn’t comply with by way of together with his huge potential as a doable UFC famous person. However Garbrandt began splitting time between his Crew Alpha Male gymnasium in California and coach Mark Henry in New Jersey. The changes, born out of maturity, manifested themselves within the combat. What appeared like an enormous swing and knockout blow in opposition to Assuncao was way more than that to Garbrandt. It was a profession beginning anew.

Raimondi

Others receiving votes: Francis Ngannou‘s KO of Jairzinho Rozenstruik 3, two others acquired one vote every

Hottest prospect

Sean O’Malley

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After practically two years out of the Octagon, Sean O’Malley made an announcement at UFC 248 and could also be getting ready to UFC stardom.

O’Malley should not even have been up for this honor. If his profession had not been placed on maintain for 2 years, “Suga” may very properly be past the “prospect” stage at this level. However beginning in 2018, he was twice suspended by the U.S. Anti-Doping Company after testing optimistic for the banned substance ostarine — though USADA later acknowledged that O’Malley had popped for hint quantities in step with use of a tainted complement. Regardless, he had been out of the game for 24 months when he entered the Octagon in March to face Jose Alberto Quinonez. O’Malley’s return was transient, as he knocked out Quinonez in simply over two minutes.

Three months later, at UFC 250 on June 6, O’Malley was again within the cage for a high-profile assembly with former WEC bantamweight champion Eddie Wineland. This time it took the 25-year-old simply 1 minute, 54 seconds to get the end and run his file to 12-0 (4-Zero within the UFC). O’Malley’s one-punch knockout of the powerful veteran was eye-opening. The UFC brass actually took discover, awarding him a Efficiency of the Night time bonus. And our ESPN panel was impressed as properly, making O’Malley the unanimous alternative of all 12 voters as the most well liked prospect within the sport. Higher late than by no means.

Wagenheim

The panelists: Andrew Davis, Andrew Feldman, Tim Fiorvanti, Ariel Helwani, Tessa Hursh, Eric Jackman, Roman Modrowski, Phil Murphy, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Steve Takaba, Jeff Wagenheim



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