UFC Year in Review: Each Division's Fighter of the Year
- The UFC schedule for 2020 has come to a close and it’s time to see which fighter shined above the rest in each of the UFC weight classes
- We also take a look at what is potentially on the horizon for each of those fighters within their respective divisions
- Stay tuned for our piece that will look at the biggest potential breakout stars for 2021 in each UFC weight class
Yan Xiaonan – Women’s Strawweight Division
Yan Xiaonan, the 31-year-old Chinese fighter known as “Fury” had, arguably, the best 2020 of all female strawweights. Joining the UFC in 2017, Xiaonan was undefeated in the promotion and that trend continued into 2020, where she was the only woman in the division’s top-5 to boast a winning streak this year.
Xiaonan fought twice in 2020. He first bout of the year came back in February where she took on former strawweight title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz. She dominated the Polish fighter and secured an easy unanimous decision victory. She followed that performance with a bout against another former title challenger in Claudia Gadelha in November. Once again, Xiaonan walked away with the win on all of the judge’s scorecards.
Xiaonan is now ranked in the top-5 of the division, sitting at number-four with a professional record of 13-1 with one no-contest. The only fighters ahead of her in the rankings are Nina Ansaroff (the fiancee of double-champion Amanda Nunes), two former champions in Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Rose Namajunas, and the champion herself, fellow countrywoman Weili Zhang.
Who would we like to see Xiaonan fight next? Any of those top-three competitors would make for an exciting fight and would further elevate the status of the Chinese strawweight. Rose Namajunas is most likely next in line for a title shot but many also want to see a rematch of 2020’s Fight of the Year between the champion Zhang and Joanna. Nina Ansaroff will be making a comeback to the division following the birth of her child and that fight could make the most sense for both competitors.
Deiveson Figueiredo – Men’s Flyweight Division
There is no doubt whatsoever that flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo was the fighter of the year for the flyweight division. In fact, many pegged him as the overall fighter of the year across all weight classes in 2020. Not only did Figueiredo participate in more fights this year than any other flyweight, but he also set the record for the fastest turnaround for a champion between title defenses – just 21 days.
Figueiredo started the year by earning a TKO victory over Joseph Benavidez for the vacant flyweight title. Unfortunately for Figueiredo, he missed weight and was ineligible to win the title. The UFC set-up a rematch and this time Figueiredo would make weight. And he would once again defeat Benavidez – this time by the first-round submission. He was now the undisputed champion.
He had his first title defense at UFC 255 in November, where he choked-out Alex Perez in under two minutes. Then, as mentioned earlier, he returned to the octagon to defend his title once more just 21 days later against Brandon Moreno at UFC 256. In what many believed to be one of the top three fights of the year, Figueiredo and Moreno fought to a majority draw.
So what would we like to see next from Figueiredo? We believe that a rematch with Moreno is inevitable. Most other fighters in the division have already lost to Figueiredo or are one or two fights away from establishing themselves as a title contender. If not a rematch with Moreno, then a superfight with a champion from another weight class would be more than welcome.
Lauren Murphy – Women’s Flyweight Division
It’s hard to stand-out in a division that has, arguably, the most dominant champion in the UFC and makes yourself look like a viable contender. Lauren Murphy did just that in 2020. Murphy went undefeated in 2020, fighting three times. The only fighter in the top-5 with more fights in 2020 was Katlyn Chookagian who had four but went 2-2.
Murphy made a change to her training, joining a new gym (Grindhouse MMA) and praising the work they were doing with her. The change of scenery worked as Murphy had the best year of her UFC career. She had already beaten Mara Romero Borella to close out her 2019 and in 2020 she defeated Andrea Lee by split-decision, Roxanne Modafferi by unanimous decision, and most recently Liliya Shakirova via second-round submission. That last fight was scheduled to come against Cynthia Calvillo, who was forced to pull out due to COVID.
Murphy now finds herself ranked as the number-four women’s flyweight in the UFC and she looks stronger than ever. The 37-year-old seems to be improving with age and is now the closest that she’s ever been to a UFC title shot.
So what should come next for Murphy? Well, rescheduling the bout with Cynthia Calvillo would make sense to a degree, but with both coming off of big wins, we’d like to see Murphy fight Chookagian. It would give Murphy the chance to take on a former title challenger who has regained her confidence. Fighting Jennifer Maia, the latest of champion Shevchenko’s victims, wouldn’t make much sense and number-one contender Jessica Andrade is scheduled to take on the champion next. Murphy fighting Chookagian is the most interesting and exciting option.
Petr Yan/Aljamain Sterling – Men’s Bantamweight Division
A bit of a wildcard entry here as the men’s bantamweight division didn’t see a whole lot of action this year when it came to the top of the division. Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling both fought only once in 2020 but both of them had the biggest wins of their careers this year.
Yan, of course, fought and defeated UFC legend Jose Aldo in July at UFC 251. The bout, which was for the vacant bantamweight title, was a five-round battle that saw Yan TKO the former featherweight king. It was his seventh UFC win in a row and 10th professional win in a row overall.
Aljamain Sterling also had his only fight of the year happen in the summer at UFC 250. In what was seen as a ‘title eliminator’, Sterling took on Cory Sandhagen to see who would get the next crack at the bantamweight title. In one of the most impressive performances all year in the division, Sterling choked out Sandhagen in under two minutes, earning him a performance of the night bonus.
These two were, in fact, scheduled to close out the year as the headline fight of UFC 256 but the fight was called off due to ‘undisclosed reasons’ most likely pertaining to champion Petr Yan’s struggles to receive a traveling visa. The bout has yet to be rescheduled.
So what’s next for these two in 2021? Obviously each other. As mentioned above, they have already been scheduled to fight once before and it is almost a certainty that they will be each other’s, next opponent.
Holly Holm/Pannie Kianzad – Women’s Bantamweight Division
Like the men’s bantamweight division, the women’s bantamweight division didn’t see a lot of action in 2020 either – especially within the top-5. In fact, within the top-13, Holly Holm and Pannie Kianzad are the only two women to have a winning streak in 2020 as both fought twice and went 2-0.
Holm, a former bantamweight champion, fought for the title against champion Amanda Nunes in 2019 but lost via TKO in the first round. In 2020, she has maintained her status as a top-contender by defeating both Raquel Pennington and Irene Aldana by unanimous decision. At the time of this writing, Holm is ranked as the number-one contender in the division but we would be surprised to see her get another shot at the title in 2021.
Pannie Kianzad hasn’t quite broken into the top-10 of the division but her 2020 got her a lot closer to that goal. Currently sitting as the 13th-best bantamweight in the division, Kinazad defeated both former title challenger Bethe Correia and Sijara Eubanks in 2020 – both by unanimous decision. She is now 3-1 in the UFC with her three wins coming back-to-back-to-back.
So what’s next for these fighters? As mentioned, Holm is unlikely to meet Amanda Nunes again in 2021 so she’ll need to stay active and keep her name at the top. The most interesting bout out there would be a rematch against Germaine de Randamie. Holm and de Randamie fought for the inaugural women’s featherweight title (which de Randamie won) but have never faced off in the bantamweight division. Both are coming off of wins and are ranked 1 and 2 in the division.
Kianzad should see a huge step-up in competition for her next fight and we would be most curious to see how she would fare against the number-seven ranked rising star Aspen Ladd. Ladd did not fight in 2020 but is coming off a win over Yana Kunitskaya. Of course, this fight would depend if Ladd is able to return from injury in the near future.
Calvin Kattar – Men’s Featherweight Division
Calvin Kattar’s name definitely jumps off the page when it comes to the featherweight division. There were exciting fights in the division but no one in the top-5 other than Kattar fought more than once in 2020 – let alone win multiple bouts. Even the champion, Alex Volkanovski, only fought once this year.
Kattar’s first fight of 2020 came against Jeremy Stephens at UFC 249. Stephens, although on a three-fight losing streak, was still known for his toughness and durability in fights. Kattar knocked him out in the second round. He followed that up with what has been his best performance to date, we think. Kattar headlined an event in July against Dan Ige, who came into the fight riding an impressive six-fight winning streak. Kattar won the five-round battle via unanimous decision. Kattar now rounds out the top-5 of the division.
Calvin Kattar is a fighter we don’t have to speculate about as we already know what’s next for the 32-year-old. In what will be his biggest test to date, Kattar kicks off the 2021 year for the UFC as he headlines the first card of the year against the former featherweight champion Max Holloway. The fight takes place on January 16 on Fight Island. Holloway is still ranked as the number-one contender in the division.
Amanda Nunes – Women’s Featherweight Division
Unfortunately, this one is a little bit of a default. The women’s featherweight division in the UFC is, without a doubt, the most shallow pool of talent in the organization. In fact, the rankings on the UFC website include only Amanda Nunes’s name.
The double-champion defended her title once this year against Felicia Spencer at UFC 250. She dominated her challenger one the way to a unanimous decision victory.
The only other women’s featherweight to fight and win in 2020 was Megan Anderson. And, wouldn’t you know it – these two are now set to face one another. The two women were already scheduled to face each other as part of the UFC 256 card to close the year but Nunes had to pull out due to an injury. The fight has been rescheduled for UFC 259 on March 6, 2021.
Charles Oliveira – Lightweight Division
In what is arguably the toughest division in the UFC that has put of some of the most exciting fights of 2020, Charles Oliveira still managed to stand out in a massive way. Oliveria entered 2020 riding a six-fight winning streak and he added to that impressive run by winning two more fights in 2020 – one of which was the biggest win of his MMA career.
Oliveria started his year in March, headlining a Fight Night event in his home country of Brazil against Kevin Lee. Lee came in heavy for the bout but that didn’t phase Oliveria whatsoever as he went on to win the bout via guillotine choke 30-seconds into the third round. He was awarded performance of the night bonus for his effort.
He then closed his year with one more fight, taking on lightweight legend Tony Ferguson just weeks ago in the co-main event of UFC 256. Ferguson was coming off of his first loss in years and many thought he would bounce back into the win column in a big way against Oliveria. That’s not what happened, as Oliveria absolutely dominated the former interim champion for all five rounds of their fight, earning score of 30-26 from all three judges.
The lightweight division is in somewhat of a state of disarray at the moment as we aren’t sure if champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is truly retired or not. Top contender Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor are scheduled to face each other in January 2021. So where does that leave Oliveira?
There are three viable options. First, he could hold out for the winner of Poirier/McGregor 2 for a potential title fight if Khabib does not return. Secondly, he could take on Justin Gaethje – the last man to defeat Ferguson before Oliveira and another former interim champion. Lastly, he could welcome UFC newcomer Michael Chandler to the octagon (however it seems to be rumored that Chandler will debut against Dan Hooker in 2021). The Gaethje fight seems the most fun and the most interesting.
Gilbert Burns – Welterweight Division
This selection was a no-brainer. The welterweight division had a lot of great fights in 2020 but no fighter stood out more than former lightweight Gilbert Burns. Lightweight fighters have moved up to the welterweight division in the past but none saw more success than Gilbert Burns – who now sees himself as the next in line for a shot at champion Kamaru Usman.
Burns was already riding a four-fight winning streak (with two welterweight wins) heading into 2020. But this past year really saw him shine when he finally got a crack at the elite competition. On March 14, 2020, Burns took on elite grappler and former middleweight title challenger Demian Maia. Known as one of the best jiu-jitsu practitioners the sport has ever seen and as one of the most durable fighters in the UFC, Maia hadn’t been finished in a fight since 2009 at UFC 102. Gilbert Burns would defeat Maia via first-round TKO, becoming the first man in 11-years and the first man at welterweight to knock Maia out. Unsurprisingly, Burns was awarded performance of the night bonus for his efforts.
He followed the Maia fight with what was not only one of the most impressive efforts of Burns’ career but one of the most impressive performances the UFC had seen all year. Burns took on former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley this past May in what was Woodley’s first fight back since losing the UFC welterweight title. He was expected to come out guns blazing.
What ended up happening was that Burns outclassed the former champion in every aspect of the fight. On the feet. On the ground. In the clinch. Woodley performed little to no offense over the five-round fight that Burns went on to win by unanimous decision.
These two huge wins of 2020 (and his overall six-fight winning streak) were enough to secure a shot at welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. The fight was set to take place this past summer on Fight Island but, unfortunately for Burns, he contracted the COVID-19 virus and was replaced at the last minute by Jorge Masvidal. Usman defeated Masvidal and was scheduled up against Burns once again for October. However, it would be Usman that pulled out of the second potential meeting citing his need for more recovery time.
So what’s next for Burns? It’s still champion Kamaru Usman. Both men are reportedly fully recovered from their various ailments and injuries and the UFC haven’t backed off from their desire to match these two up against one another. At the time of writing, the two are rumored to be the main event of UFC 258 taking place on February 13, 2021.
Kevin Holland – Middleweight Division
There was no debate about Kevin Holland and his outrageously impressive 2020 year. No one on this list fought more times in 2020 than Kevin Holland (five times!) and he won them all. Yes, Khamzat Chimaev had a hell of a year, but Holland’s was better. He tied the UFC record for most fights in a calendar year.
As mentioned, Holland fought and won five times this year, finishing four of them (three of them in the first round). He started his year by taking on Anthony Hernandez in May. He would TKO Hernandez in 39-seconds. Next, he faced Joaquin Buckley and knocked him out 32-seconds into the third round. His third fight of 2020 was a split-decision victory of Darren Stewart. He wouldn’t let any other fights go to the judges’ scorecards after that as he went on to TKO Charlie Ontiveros in the first round and, most recently, knock out legend Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in the first round from his knees!
Holland’s year ends with him now ranked in the top-10 of the division and without a doubt his next fight will be the biggest challenge of his career. And we don’t have to speculate about it as his next bout was officially announced not long ago. On March 20, 2021, at UFC Fight Night 190, Holland will duke it out with number-7 ranked middleweight Derek Brunson.
Jan Blachowicz – Light Heavyweight Division
The third and final champion on our list, Jan Blachowicz had a stellar year that ended with him becoming the UFC’s first light heavyweight champion not named Jon Jones or Daniel Cormier since 2011. No one really predicted this would happen at the start of the year as Blachowicz’s 2019 saw the UFC scheduling him in more of a gatekeeper role for the division – welcoming former middleweights Luke Rockhold and Ronaldo Souza to the 205-pound division.
But with those back-to-back wins over Rockhold and “Jacare”, the UFC has Blachowicz scheduled to fight rising star Corey Anderson as his first fight of 2020. From a marketing standpoint, it seemed that the UFC was using this as a way to get Anderson into the title picture as he had generated a lot of heat with champion Jon Jones at the time. It would be a marketable fight for Jones – who had few new challengers left in the division. Jan had other plans.
With Jones in attendance for the fight, Blachowicz needed just three minutes to knock Anderson out cold. The next title challenger was obvious.
However, in a strange turn of events, Blachowicz and Jones would not faceoff as Jones vacated his title, stating his desire to move up to the heavyweight division. Blachowicz would be put up against the last man to fight Jones for the title (and who many believe beat Jones), Dominick Reyes. And, again, what came out of the marketing for the bout would have many favoring Reyes in the bout. At UFC 253 in September, Jan would TKO Reyes in the second round. He is now riding a four-fight winning streak.
Strangely, Blachowicz’s first title defense won’t come against a man in his division – probably. Although Glover Teixeira is the top contender in the division, it will most likely be middleweight champion Israel Adesanya who challenges Jan for the light heavyweight gold first. No date has officially been set but it seems that both fighters, as well as the UFC organization, are in favor of this matchup taking place in 2021.
Curtis Blaydes – Heavyweight Division
Curtis Blaydes fought twice in 2020 and won both bouts.
Riding a two-fight winning streak heading into the year, Blaydes’ first fight of 2020 came against the former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos in January. Blaydes would TKO the former champ just one-minute into the second round.
Blaydes next took on top-contender Alexander Volkov in June. He would get the win once again, this time in the form of a unanimous decision.
The wrestling superstar was slated to fight once more in 2020 against heavy hitter and fan-favorite Derrick Lewis. The two were to main event a Fight Night event in late-November but Blaydes, unfortunately, tested positive for COVID-19. The bout was canceled and there has so far been no word on if it will be rescheduled or if the two fighters will face other opponents.
So with that said, what’s next for Blaydes? Well, most likely the Lewis fight will be rescheduled. With Francis Ngannou all but guaranteed the next heavyweight title shot, Blaydes and Lewis are the only other fighters in the top-five of the division who have not faced one another. And both are on winning streaks. A fight between the two could determine the next title contender after Ngannou.
Although there have been some rumors spread that Blaydes could be the man to welcome Jon Jones to the heavyweight division. It’s unlikely, but it’s fun to think about.