Every year around this time fans and media start buzzing about the year-end awards. Who had the KO of the year? What was the best fight? What bout produced the biggest upset?
Of course, these accolades are subjective. There are no concrete criteria for such honors. There are guidelines such as star power, level of competition and overall accomplishments that we can use to attempt some sort of meaningful deduction, but determining how much stock to put into each of those is tricky in itself.
With that being said, there are two fighters who seemed to truly rise above the crop in 2019. Breakout stars born from their performances, promotional pushes, and auras.
Jorge Masvidal (35-13 MMA, 3-0 in 2019)
After going 1-2 in 2017, Jorge Masvidal took the entirety of 2018 off. When it was announced he would return in 2019 against Darren Till, oddsmakers didn’t like his chances. Masvidal has always been a strange case. Throughout his career, he has shown great boxing, solid takedown defense and all-around skills, but he often seemed to be his own worse enemy. “Gamebred” was often content with what was happening in the cage even if he was losing. This lack of urgency led to him being generally being out-worked and losing some close decisions.
So it made sense he was an underdog against the much bigger and more active Till. Till was fighting on home turf, had the hype, and a guy like Masvidal was just scrappy enough, but maybe not too dangerous. Masvidal, though, wasn’t there to put anyone over.
After a wild first-round that saw both men land bombs on each other, Masvidal emphatically knocked out Till in the second round. During his post-fight interview, Masvidal got into a scrap with Leon Edwards backstage. Masvidal joked that he had to hit Edwards with a “three-piece and a soda” and a meme was born.
As Masvidal’s popularity grew, the UFC matched him against another man who was crushing social media and interviews. The undefeated Ben Askren was again the favorite to beat Masvidal when the pair met at UFC 235 in July. There, Masvidal landed the fastest KO in UFC history and finished a fighter many felt would be a future champion in just five seconds.
— Faceman (@haIfwaycrook) July 7, 2019
Masvidal’s stocks were at an all-time high when a returning Nate Diaz called him out after his bout with Anthony Pettis over the summer. Everyone involved saw dollar signs and the UFC brass jumped at signing the fight. They made a fake title for the matchup, which was meh, but the fact remained that Masvidal —once a middling undercard fighter— was headlining a Madison Square Garden PPV.
And at that event, Masvidal put the screws to Diaz. The fight wasn’t close for the three rounds it lasted and despite what fans say about “championship-round Diaz”, there’s no reason for us to believe it was ever going to go a different way given the 15 minutes we got.
Jorge Masvidal was crowned the “Baddest Mother F*cker.”
Israel Adesanya ( 18-0 MMA, 3-0 in 2019)
Israel Adesanya met his idol, Anderson Silva, in the Octagon in February. Some gave Adesanya a hard time for that bout as they felt “The Last Stylebender” should’ve run through the former middleweight great. And maybe he should’ve. The fight looked more like an exhibition match up and saw the pair go all three rounds. Yet, what the fight was was fun. It was nice to see the utmost respect sprinkled in with feints, taunts and other ninja sh*t between martial artists.
Next up for Adesanya was a “Fight of the Year” contender with Kelvin Gastelum. We saw Adesayna in trouble for the first time in his MMA career and witnessed him digging deep to overcome and almost finish Gastelum in the fifth round. The brawl won Adesanya the interim title and set up the biggest MMA fight in Oceania’s history.
The title unification would take place at the Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia. it was there that Adesayna met Robert Whittaker. Whittaker was coming off a “Fight of the Decade” contender with Yoel Romero in 2018. Injuries had lead to the Aussie being shelved for over a year, but he still came in as the favorite.
“The Reaper” was the aggressor throughout and Adesayana laid in the wait; masterfully timing his counters. Adesanya would need just a round and a half to finish Whittaker.
Adesanya had become the undisputed middleweight champion.
So who is the fighter of the year?
While both men had an impressive 2019, the distinguishing factor for this writer is the expectations we had for each fighter heading into 2019.
Adesanya was and still is undefeated. Masvidal has been fighting professionally for 15 years and lost nearly a third of his 48 professional fights. He had gone 10-6 since joining the UFC; which isn’t terrible, but it also isn’t as pretty as others in the organization.
So, while Adesayna was seen as a rising star and given main events early in his UFC tenure, Masvidal had been relegated to a guy with all the skills in the world, but someone we would never see challenge for a title or headline a PPV. He seemed cemented as a good fighter, but as a good fighter who would always lose to a great fighter.
It’s this resurrection of Masvidal that puts him over in a year full of outstanding performances from both men. This is why, for this writer’s money, Jorge Masvidal deserves the title of “Fighter of the Year” for 2019.
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Brandon is a long-time combat sports fan who has covered fights since 2017. His work can be found at The Scrap News and The Body Lock. Follow Brandon on Twitter (@B_S_Sibcy).