2020 was a wild year for MMA, that feels like it lasted a lifetime. With all the action that took place over the year, it’s hard to remember what took place. This series looks to help out with that, providing an overview on what happened in each weight class, and a look at what we can expect to come in 2021.
Year in Review
Coming off a down year in 2019, things certainly improved in the heavyweight division in 2020, if for no other reason than the trilogy between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier was finally resolved and—at least as far as the UFC is concerned—the right guy won (Cormier winning and retiring is not as good as Stipe retaining the belt and defending it).
Beyond that though, 2020 saw arguably the biggest growth in new heavyweight talent in years. Alexander Romanov and Tom Aspinall both made their UFC debuts, Tanner Boser continued to pick up wins, and Ciryl Gane announced himself as a true threat for the title with a win over former champion Junior dos Santos. For a division where past-their-prime fighters can hang around near the top-15 for years, an influx of young talent like that is huge.
Speaking of past-their-prime fighters, 2020 was also a feel-good year for a couple of MMA legends. Both Alistair Overeem and Andrei Arlovski went 2-0 and 2020. For Arlovski, those wins add to his legacy of remarkable longevity in the division, despite looking completely shot a few years ago; for Overeem, those wins have served as the foundation for a newly-branded title run, one last time for the old war horse that, if it works, is the stuff Disney movies are made of.
Across the entire sport of MMA, there is not a single fighter who had a worse professional year than Junior dos Santos. The former heavyweight champion fought three times in 2020 and all three times he was brutally knocked out.
It began in January, when JDS was knocked out with a knee and punches by Curtis Blaydes, an elite grappler not exactly known as a knockout artist. Then dos Santos was knocked out by Jairzinho Rozenstruik in August and he finished the year by getting knocked out by Ciryl Gane, who only had six MMA fights at the time.
Perhaps worst of all though, dos Santos has been vocally upset by the Gane loss, claiming the strike was illegal, and though it certainly was close, the elbow that finished him off was legal and, really, incidental to the outcome anyway. JDS was on his way out and the elbow just finished the job. Losing three times in a year is bad, getting knocked out three times in a year is worse, and refusing to accept your legitimate losses is the cherry on top. Here’s to a better 2021 for “Cigano.”
2019 was a mediocre year for the heavyweight division and in the 2019 Year in Review, I warned that 2020 could be more of the same, given that the Stipe Miocic-Daniel Cormier trilogy would take up much of the title picture. Unfortunately, those words proved to be more prescient than anyone could have guessed as it took until August for the two of them to settle up and since then Miocic has been quiet on defending the belt again. That’s a problem as, somehow, the UFC’s heavyweight division is currently rife with legitimate contenders.
Though Miocic has been publicly against it, Francis Ngannou has clearly earned another shot at the heavyweight title. Then there’s Curtis Blaydes who also clearly deserves a title shot, and Alistair Overeem, who doesn’t need a title shot but could easily be given one were there not a logjam ahead of him. Not to mention the impending presence of Jon Jones in the division. Simply put, the heavyweight division continues to feel stagnant because things at the top just aren’t moving.
The MVP of a division is not just a question of “Who is the best fighter in the division?” Instead, it looks at who provided the most entertainment in the division over the course of the year, win or lose.
2020 was obviously a weird year but perhaps nothing was stranger than the emergence of Timothy Johnson as a bona fide heavyweight contender in Bellator.
In February, Johnson authored one of the biggest upsets of the year, knocking out highly-regarded prospect and former NCAA Division-II national champion Tyrell Fortune in the first round. Johnson followed that up by stopping division stalwart Matt Mittrione in August with some ferocious ground-and-pound. Then to cap off his year, in October Johnson headlined the first-ever major promotion MMA card in France, taking on Cheick Kongo at Bellator Paris and though he wasn’t able to deliver another first-round stoppage, Johnson did avenge a 2018 loss to Kongo in a surprisingly fun scrap. It was the biggest year of Johnson’s career and one of the major bright spots in an otherwise ho-hum division.
Also, shout-out to Marcin Tybura, who made this razor-close by going 4-0 in 2020, culminating in his comeback win over Greg Hardy in December. The workmanlike nature of Johnson’s wins ultimately gave him the edge, but Tybura had an excellent 2020.
Highlights to Watch
Jairzinho Rozenstruik knocks out Junior dos Santos, UFC 252
Curtis Blaydes knocks out Junior dos Santos with knees and punches, UFC Raleigh
Timothy Johnson knocks out Matt Mittrione with ground and pound, Bellator 243
Looking Ahead to 2021
As mentioned above, 2020 in the heavyweight division was largely defined by stagnation at the top. Fortunately, 2021 should be better in that regard. For one thing, Daniel Cormier has retired from the sport, meaning the division can finally move on from the Miocic-Cormier rivalry. For another, after years and years of fans clamoring for it, it appears that Jon Jones is finally set to make his move up to heavyweight. At some point early in 2021, Stipe Miocic will defend his title in a rematch with Francis Ngannou and whoever wins, will almost assuredly face Jones later in 2021. Jones’ presence in the division immediately ratchets up the interest level and his pursuit of the heavyweight title will likely be one of the biggest stories in the sport this year.
Outside of the UFC, heavyweight is also on the move elsewhere in 2021. The PFL signed former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum to compete in their upcoming season and Bellator has the next title challenger for champion Ryan Bader lined up in Timothy Johnson. On top of that, one of the great legends of the sport, Fedor Emelianenko, is intending to embark on some sort of retirement tour this year and whether that’s one fight or multiple, it will certainly be worth watching.