2020 was a year that a lot of folks would rather forget about. The COVID-19 pandemic changed life as everyone knows it and it is hard to pull anything positive out of what happened but when looking at the athletes that chose the fighting life, one thing that is hard for them not to do is fight. Martial arts teaches those that practice how to adapt to difficult situations and while the sport of mixed martial arts only paused for a moment, once it got going there were fighters that took a shot at being great and won in more ways than fans expected them to.
In no particular order, here are some fighters that shined when arenas went dark.
- Justin Gaethje
UFC 249 was the first UFC pay-per-view event affected by the pandemic. Originally, it was supposed to bring the UFC back to Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York but as COVID-19 forced restrictions and lockdowns, everyone just wanted to get home, including the lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. Enter Justin Gaethje who got tapped to face title challenger and former interim champ, Tony Ferguson.
Gaethje was the underdog, as he seems to have always been since entering the UFC, but the former WSOF lightweight champion looked the best he has ever looked against Ferguson at UFC 249. Gaethje took Ferguson into the final round before earning a TKO victory that would earn him a shot at the lightweight title later in the year. Gaethje would eventually fall short against Nurmagmodeov, but with Nurmagomedov stepping away from fighting, that leaves Gaethje as a top contender.
- Khamzat Chimaev
The 9-0 welterweight/middleweight made his UFC debut this year from Brave CF at the UFC’s Fight Island. Then, at 6-0, not a lot was known about the 26-year-old fighting out of Stockholm, Sweden. He made his debut on short notice at middleweight (185 pounds) as a short-notice opponent against John Philips where he won via second-round submission earning a performance of the night bonus. Then, 10 days later he would drop down to welterweight and face Rhys McGee to earn a first-round TKO.
Later, Chimaev would face the fighter many thought would test his hype against Gerald Meerschaert. The fight had Chimaev return to middleweight and again, he would get another first-round finish against Meerschaert who he finished in 17 seconds. Fighters before COVID-19 usually try to fight three times a year, Chimaev did that in 66 days and is currently ranked 15 in the UFC welterweight rankings. That’s a fast track in the UFC.
- Lauren Murphy
Lauren Murphy has been in the UFC since 2014 and she did not have an easy start. She lost her first two bouts and when she was The Ultimate Fighter 26, she had a hard time all around but got through it. Murphy didn’t seem like she would fit in the UFC’s model of the women’s flyweight division before 2020.
Then, she picked up a win against Andrea Lee at UFC 247, the month before the pandemic began and matchmaking and training would be a lot harder. After that, she would score a decision win against Roxanne Modafferi and at UFC 254, submitting Liliya Shakirova putting her at number three in the women’s flyweight rankings in the UFC.
When the UFC was done for the year, Dana White put out a video attacking certain media members that doubted him with wanting to move forward with holding events. While the focus was put on White seemingly patting himself on the back and flipping the bird to media that he felt was against him, Murphy showed that she was grateful to be able to compete and work in a time where a lot of things in life were put on hold. “I fought more this year than any other,” Murphy said in a Tweet sharing White’s video. She seemed aware things could have been different but said it has been one of “the best years of my life.”
- Joaquin Buckley
Buckley fought four times in 2020 and the first two fights had him at 1-1 for the year before he met Impa Kasangany in his third bout of the year. He was the underdog coming off of a loss to Kevin Holland so he sought out to correct that with a win over Kasangany, you might have seen it.
Who remembers this INSANE KO?! Well… Joaquin Buckley fights again tonight 🔥
— FanDuel Sportsbook (@FDSportsbook) November 21, 2020
The KO changed his path and earned him many KO of the year nods from multiple media outlets as well as earning a bonus for the win the night of the event. Buckley is looking to keep the momentum going on January 16 when the UFC makes their debut on ABC in his bout against Alessio Di Cherico.
- A.J. McKee
McKee is a second-generation mixed martial artist and his undefeated record of 17-0 is proof the apple does not fall far from the tree. The 25-year-old son of Antonio McKee advanced through the semifinals of the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix at the close of 2020 by submitting former bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell with a rarely seen submission that had him as many submission of the year accolades as the above mentioned Buckley. The Grand Prix will continue into 2021 so expect to see more from McKee.
- Kyoji Horiguchi
Coincidentally, former Bellator and RIZIN bantamweight champ made his triumphant return to MMA on New Year’s Eve. Horiguchi had to relinquish both titles in October of 2019 due to a knee injury that would take some time to recuperate from. The timing may have been good for Horiguchi since the pandemic made sports hard to move forward and he was able to come back in full force at the end of the year and avenge his loss to Kai Asakura in RIZIN. Since RIZIN and Bellator have co-promoted before, maybe he can make a run at double gold again.
A lot of MMA was able to move forward later in the year and there are probably fighters from other organizations that were left out. Who else should fans watch out for in 2021?
Edward holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Bachelor’s degree in Communications. Along with over 20 years martial arts experience, he co-hosts The Coast-2-Coast Combat Hour, and also writes for Sherdog while maintaining his own site, The Blogboard Jungle. You can follow him on Twitter @Carbazel