In 2020, approximately 123 fighters made their UFC debut, many of which entered the promotion with a heap of hype behind them. While those with said hype routinely amass a bright spotlight, some athletes do their best work while under the radar.
For the majority, the Breakthrough Fighter of the Year is undoubtedly Khamzat Chimaev — a Russian-born grappler who has shown his capabilities to both smash opponents and fluctuate between weight classes.
Chimaev took the UFC by storm in July when he demolished John Phillips before mercilessly ending the fight via submission. 10 record-breaking days later he was back — this time at welterweight — needing less than a round to batter promotional newcomer Rhys McKee. People wanted more of the man they call “Borz,” and by September, many had already secured him as their pick for Breakthrough Fighter; a 17-second knockout of Gerald Meerschaert doesn’t go unnoticed.
Although his statistics and all three performances impressed fans, pundits, and the team at The Scrap, it’s important to factor in the level of competition faced and significance of matchups.
Due to this, Brandon Royval (12-5) is The Scrap’s 2020 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year.
Honorable mentions: Khamzat Chimaev, Adrian Yanez and Jiri Prochazka.
Originally scheduled to compete on Dana White’s Contender Series, LFA flyweight champion Brandon Royval — who at the time boasted a record of 10-4 — received a short notice call to the big league. It’s clear that any and all up and comers would accept an offer to compete in the sports premier organization, but doing so on short notice is an entirely different story. Oh, and let’s not forget his opponent was former title contender and ranked flyweight Tim Elliot. For Royval, however, none of these factors had a negative influence on his decision.
— UFC Europe (@UFCEurope) May 30, 2020
The majority of eyes tuning into UFC Vegas 1 were oblivious to Royval and the skills he possessed, but that was about to change. Following an extremely offensive opening round, particularly in the grappling department, Royval would begin the second stanza with many of the same ideas: allow Elliot to introduce the takedown and work from there.
“Raw Dawg” would withstand adversity — a common theme in his fights — and eventually lock in an arm-triangle submission. This Fight of the Night performance granted Royval a number in the rankings and increased his fanbase tremendously.
Just shy of four months later at UFC 253, the Colorado native was assigned yet another rugged task by the name of Kai Kara-France, New Zealand’s top-ranked flyweight. Kara-France owned a promotional record of 4-1 entering the September 27 bout, only dropping a decision to future title challenger Brandon Moreno. It was expected that the two would put on a possible Fight of the Night event, but the back-and-forth that ensued solidified its status as a modern-day classic.
Within the space of ten seconds, both men were knocked down, but it was Royval — in spite of being badly hurt — that stole the attention for his reactive spinning elbow. As the pair engaged on the ground, he took advantage of the situation, initially going for a gogoplata before transitioning to the omoplata position.
Assuming you have watched the fight, you’ll be aware that each man remained competitive for the majority of the round, but just like his UFC debut, Brandon Royval was keen to put an end to things; 48 seconds into the second round, he latched on a guillotine chokehold and never let go. Now 2-0 in the UFC with two bonuses, the 28-year-old had positioned himself for a major step-up.
When a fighter is shortlisted for an end of year award and then lose, many are quick to rule them out as a potential winner. This is understandable, however, context is always important.
In late November at UFC 255, Royval would lose a No. 1 contender fight against the aforementioned Moreno. This marked the first time he had been finished throughout his professional career, yet he left the arena that night with anything but his head held low — losing to a fighter of Moreno’s caliber is nothing to be ashamed of. And, as was mentioned by the commentary team afterward, his unfortunate shoulder injury had played a big role in the defeat.
While he wouldn’t be receiving the next shot at flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo, Royval had done what very few combat sports athletes had. In the span of only six months, he went from a relatively unknown regional fighter to the verge of a world championship fight, all while competing in one of MMA’s most technical weight classes.
Because of the level of competition faced, going from unranked to No. 6 and an endless amount of entertainment gifted to us fans, Brandon Royval is The Scrap’s 2020 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year. His creativity and spontaneity make him one to watch in 2021.