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Masvidal? Adesanya? Cejudo? Zhang? Who is 2019’s Fighter of the Year?

2019 has produced some of the most legendary fights and finishes the Octagon has ever played host to, thus contributing to the idea that MMA does continue to grow and get better through the years. As 2019 has progressed onward, a number of fighters have made an indelible mark on the sport, both from an excitement and an impactful standpoint. We currently sit only in November, still with five UFC events to go, but some usual suspects consistently appear in headlines mentioning “fighter of the year” considerations, which prompted me to analyze and try to figure out, who is 2019’s fighter of the year?

For this article, I’ll be grouping both men and women together in the conversation. In reality, men and women are given the designation in two separate categories altogether.

Israel Adesanya

A post shared by Israel Adesanya (@stylebender) on Oct 5, 2019 at 6:06pm PDT

For my money, the pick can be from one of three favorites amongst the men. Few fighters could have a better year than Israel Adesanya has had in 2019. He opened up the year headlining the first ESPN-era pay-per-view against his perceived idol Anderson Silva, and proceeded to put on one of the most unique and entertaining fights in the earlier part of the year. How did he follow that up? He only won the interim middleweight championship over Kelvin Gastelum in a fight that many people now consider to be the greatest middleweight fight of all time, if not one of the very best in MMA history. And to punctuate the year, Adesanya won the undisputed title by defeating Robert Whittaker in one of the more one-sided title captures in recent memory. Now, heading into 2020, Adesanya has all the momentum in the world, and has a long list of contenders who will provide more great fights and challenges- as well as a potential pound-for-pound number one title bout against Jon Jones sometime later in the year or early in 2021. Adesanya should rightfully be among the favorites in the conversation.

Jorge Masvidal

A post shared by Jorge Masvidal (@gamebredfighter) on Nov 5, 2019 at 6:40am PST

To call Masvidal’s rise meteoric in nature would be a vast understatement. A year ago, Masvidal was in the midst of a prolonged layoff after two straight decision defeats in 2017 that almost knocked him completely out of welterweight title contention, given the trajectory of his career- and the division- at that point. Then 2019 came, and the name Jorge Masvidal is being echoed in the same sentence of star potential as Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. While it certainly seems to be a stretch to put him in that lofty attitude (right now, at least), it wouldn’t be possible to not have this discussion about Masvidal after a year that’s seen him collect three stoppage wins over three of the most prominent names in the UFC today. A March knockout in London of Englishman Darren Till, followed by the most crisply timed flying knee on Ben Askren at UFC 239 in July, and capped with a third stoppage win, whether controversial or not, over Nate Diaz at UFC 244 to win the “BMF title” in front of U.S. President Donald Trump on what has been the biggest pay-per-view of 2019 yet, Masvidal could very well have gained more exposure than any other mixed martial artist on planet Earth in 2019. While he may not have won an official title in 2019, his “BMF” win over Diaz has all but solidified his status as the next welterweight title contender early in 2020, and it seems that his stardom is only growing by the day.

Henry Cejudo

A post shared by Henry Cejudo (@henry_cejudo) on Jun 9, 2019 at 11:11am PDT

After big wins by Adesanya and Masvidal in late 2019, Henry Cejudo has become overlooked in the fighter of the year conversation. But whether you like the cringe king or not, you can’t deny the impact he’s made in 2019. Cejudo was 2019’s newest double champion in June at UFC 238 after defeating Marlon Moraes to capture the bantamweight title vacated by TJ Dillashaw, whom Cejudo beat in January to make the first defense of his flyweight title. Cejudo enters 2020 with options galore for his next Octagon appearance. UFC President Dana White has stated numerous times that he wants Cejudo to defend his flyweight title against Joseph Benavidez as soon as possible, while Cejudo has indicated he wants to fight Dominick Cruz or Frankie Edgar upon his long awaited return. It remains to be seen what will actually happen with “Triple C,” but he can’t be discounted for his amazing 2019 which saw him defeat two top pound-for-pound bantamweights en route to his ascension up the pound-for-pound ranks himself.

Others in the conversation…

Jon Jones – The GOAT isn’t going away that easily. Defending the light heavyweight crown twice in 2019, the only thing keeping him from a top this list is that he wasn’t dominant enough in either win.

Stipe Miocic – He avenged his loss against Daniel Cormier and recaptured the heavyweight championship to reclaim his title as not only heavyweight champ, but also heavyweight GOAT.

Khabib Nurmagomedov – He’s inhibited by the fact he only fought once in 2019, but Khabib still proved himself as the best lightweight in the world, and with a fight and potential win over Tony Ferguson early in 2020, he would establish himself as the undisputed greatest lightweight of all-time.

Patricio Friere – Bellator’s second double champion won the lightweight title in under a minute against a difficult puzzle in the form of Michael Chandler in June, and subsequently defended his featherweight title by defeating hard hitter Juan Archuleta in September. He’s very much a wild card in the entire conversation.

And now…for the ladies.

Amanda Nunes

A post shared by ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Amanda Nunes🦁 (@amanda_leoa) on Aug 28, 2019 at 7:55am PDT

Of course, presuming she’s able to defeat Germaine de Randamie at UFC 245, keeping Nunes off of a women’s fighter of the year list would be an insult. She is the number one ranked female fighter pound-for-pound wise, and considering a resume that’s included every champion from 125lbs and above, minus Nicco Montaño, it would be moot to think of her as anything less than the female GOAT. Nunes continues to transcend in the moment, featuring on some of the UFC’s biggest pay-per-view events in recent memory, with her most recent appearance at UFC 239, where she finished Holly Holm with Holm’s signature head kick. Even then with only one, and likely two, wins under her belt in 2019, it’s still hard to envision her as anything less than the favorite for female fighter of the year.

Valentina Shevchenko

A post shared by Valentina Shevchenko (@bulletvalentina) on Jun 13, 2019 at 12:16am PDT

After capturing the title in late 2018, Shevchenko has defended the title twice. And both performances have been enough for many fans, yours truly included, pinning her as the next Demetrious Johnson-type of champion, one who will defend the title many times with very little feasible competition in her way. Valentina dispatched Jessica Eye at UFC 238 in June and then turned quickly around to dominate Liz Carmouche at UFC Uruguay in August. Shevchenko’s perceived dominance through less than a year already has some fans calling for either a trilogy fight with Amanda Nunes, or a flyweight super fight against Zhang Weili. Regardless of what happens, Shevchenko is inarguably one of the sport’s premier and most dominant champions, and anyone fighting her at flyweight is in for a rough night with the Queen of Kyrgyzstan.

Zhang Weili

A post shared by Weili Zhang 张伟丽 (@zhangweilimma) on Sep 29, 2019 at 7:57pm PDT

This one, as a lot of you know, truly warms my heart. Zhang started 2019 as a relative unknown, only known to hardcore MMA fans as a dangerous strawweight capable of potentially becoming the UFC’s first Chinese champion. A dominant decision win over Tecia Torres at UFC 235, paired with a timing break having an event in China within a great turnaround time, and Zhang got her opportunity to wrest the title away from the very dangerous Jessica Andrade, which Zhang, of course, won via first minute knockout to claim the title on home soil. As we approach the end of 2019, Zhang now has options galore for her next fight. Some, including Zhang herself, are pushing for a superfight between she and Valentina Shevchenko for the flyweight belt, but even if that doesn’t come to fruition. Zhang has numerous possibilities awaiting at strawweight. The Chinese champion became a major star in the MMA world in 2019, and the trajectory is only looking up for Magnum.

Other females in the conversation…

Jessica Andrade – Won the title… and then lost the title. Good year overall for Andrade, but realistically not really in the conversation having lost her title.

Germaine de Randamie – She knocked out the undefeated Aspen Ladd in 16 seconds back in July, and if she can find a way to overcome the wall that is Amanda Nunes, she’ll not only be in the conversation, she’ll likely be the favorite to win.

Ilima-Lei Macfarlane – A win over Veta Artega in August earned Macfarlane her third title defense, and she’s being pushed as Bellator’s biggest female superstar.

Cris Cyborg – In her only fight of 2019, she dominated the undefeated Felicia Spencer and solidified her status as the second best featherweight in the world, and put to rest any doubts of her having lost a step after the Nunes knockout loss. A move over to Bellator has set her up to capture yet another major MMA title in early 2020, when she faces Julia Budd in January.

And the winners are…

Israel Adesanya and Zhang Weili

Tough decision but if I had to make my picks right now, Adesanya and Zhang would be the two.

A post shared by Israel Adesanya (@stylebender) on Oct 9, 2019 at 9:48pm PDT

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t know how Adesanya would fair against someone as well rounded as Robert Whittaker. Not only did he prove me wrong, but he reminded me very much of a generational version of Anderson Silva. I sincerely believe that he will keep the middleweight title for the foreseeable future, and a fight with Jon Jones seems more imminent than not. Whether it will happen in 2020 remains to be seen, but Adesanya’s amazing, earth-shattering 2019 will go down in legends, similar to Conor McGregor’s 2016 or Daniel Cormier’s 2018.

In my professional MMA life it has always been a dream to enter the cage of masters in the UFC. Under the guidance of my agent Mr. Brian, I was able to enter the real international MMA stage. I got my instagram account for the first time 🤓. Here I met all of you, my current instagram friends ☺️. You have been very helpful to me and it gives me a lot of positive energy! I've learned a lot and I want to thank you. You all are real MMA fanatics like me! But my mother tongue is not English and many of my new friends are leaving messages for me and I am afraid I can not answer them with the proper gratitude they deserve. I don’t want you to think I don’t see them or appreciate them. I am working hard to learn my English so I can interact more with all of you. So I have to say sorry to my friends that I haven’t been able to reply to everyone. But I feel like I'm in a big family with all my friends here and I want to thank all of you for being here. It's good to have you! 🙏🏼 #rememberme#mma#wmma#ufc#mmafight #mmafights #wmmafighter #ufcfights #ufcfighter #ufcgirl

A post shared by Weili Zhang 张伟丽 (@zhangweilimma) on Sep 1, 2019 at 7:30pm PDT

I knew Zhang Weili was special when I watched her debut at UFC 227. She was troubled briefly in that fight against Danielle Taylor, but the speed and crispness of her striking stood out. Pair that with her two dominant grappling clinics against Jessica Aguilar, a crafty pioneer of WMMA, and Tecia Torres, a woman as tough as they come. I didn’t expect her to finish Andrade back in August, at least not as dynamically as she did. And now, as we enter 2020, Zhang is in the perfect position to not only continue her reign, but continue to further China as an MMA hotbed and continue to build on this new audience to the UFC.

Both Adesanya and Zhang are superstars, whether you like them or not.

There are still five UFC events left in 2019, as well as a number of Bellator, ONE, RIZIN, etc. events as well. But at this point, in November, these awards are likely set in stone. It’ll be exciting to see what 2020 brings for the UFC, and MMA in general. 2019 has been one of the most entertaining years I can remember. And it’s not even over just yet…■

Follow Johann on Twitter: @thejohanncastro

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