2018 was another bizarre year in professional fighting. It started with the UFC making up their own measurement of punching power and awarding Francis Ngannou a world record just to hype a title fight, and ended with a doughy Floyd Mayweather beating the snot out of a fresh faced Japanese schoolboy who he outweighed by 20 pounds. In between we had drug scandals, failed weigh ins, heaps of injuries and cancellations, and the usual droning on about “money fights.” Yet for entertainment, MMA in 2018 couldn’t be topped. The fights were terrific and everything else was so ridiculous that you couldn’t help but laugh. So as we start 2019 let us take a short look back and hand out our 2018 Slacky Awards to the men and women who were truly remarkable in MMA in that time.
Gameplan of the Year
Leon Edwards vs. Donald Cerrone
With Gameplan of the Year there is always a tendency to go for the big fights—the McGregor-Nurmagomedovs and so on. But this writer believes that Gameplan of the Year should place more importance on how a fighter adapted specifically to an opponent rather than just how their usual style matched up against them. So this year’s Gameplan of the Year was a quieter one but it summed up perfectly what good game-planning is: getting the read on an opponent and having everything prepared for them before the cage door even closes.
Leon Edwards has been working his way through the welterweight rankings—first he was an explosive knockout artist, and then he was a surprising wrestler, and against the veteran Donald Cerrone he put it all together perfectly. Every familiar Cerrone look had an answer and while Edwards didn’t smoke Cerrone in the first round as Darren Till did last year, there wasn’t a moment where he didn’t seem to know exactly what to expect from Cerrone and have an answer prepared.
Each time Cerrone surged forward, Edwards either angled off the line of attack and broke Cerrone’s charge, or ducked under and returned fire from inside of Cerrone’s favored range. When the Cerrone step up low kick came, it was answered with a counter. When Cerrone ducked for a clinch, as he has done whenever he has run out of ideas at welterweight, Edwards clamped down on the overhook, posted his head underneath Cerrone’s, and began pounding in knees to the solar plexus.
And when Cerrone began to back away from the clinch to avoid further punishment, Edwards broke with the elbow. Every single clinch in the fight—whether it was broken by Edwards or Cerrone—the break was accompanied by an elbow. The scorecards ended up reading 48-47, but the performance was one of the most controlled dismantlings of the year.
But that was just this writer’s favorite from recollection and there are plenty of honorable mentions here too. Daniel Cormier provided two. No longer able to reach out and snatch up a leg as easily against everyone he fights, Cormier has come up with some clever ways to get into his wheelhouse. Against Volkan Oezdemir and Stipe Miocic, Cormier threw his arms out over his opponents’ right shoulder when they punched and drew them into a clinch with dominant position on him. Cormier would then get to work trying to pummel to better clinch position and often his opponent would back out—realizing the mistake they had made. Against Oezdemir, Cormier used the collar tie to pick up his signature high crotch.
Against Stipe Miocic, sneaker punches out of the clinch were the key and a short right hand from one such situation sent Miocic down for the knockout.
In the Miocic fight, Cormier’s use of a "mummy guard"—with his hands out checking Miocic’s—hindered Miocic’s jab and prevented Cormier from being boxed up and confused on the feet like Ngannou was in January.
Miocic’s gameplan against Ngannou can just as readily be included as an honorable mention. The takedowns and the ground control were what garnered attention but—as Curtis Blaydes can attest—that is not enough. What Miocic really did was jab, feint, low kick, and get Ngannou swinging at air. Every time Ngannou was convinced Miocic was after his hips, Miocic jabbed him up or snuck in the right hand. Every time Miocic had Ngannou convinced the two were going to kickbox, he was in on a leg.
Here was a nice look Miocic used throughout: feinting the punch to get Ngannou to set his feet and load up, then punting Ngannou’s lead leg.
Max Holloway provided the perfect answer to Brian Ortega’s big power and crafty counters, using the jab, feints, and the double jab to draw Ortega’s intentions out or make him lean, then cracking him with right hands and body shots while he was out of position. The entire fight was a masterclass in playing with an opponent’s expectations and Holloway never ran into the problem that Frankie Edgar had: second guessing himself after Ortega hit him with a good counter and then making his actual attacks less frequently and subsequently becoming even easier to counter.
And then there were the gameplans that didn’t quite make sense even as you were watching them work. Kevin Belingon dethroned long reigning ONE bantamweight champion, Bibiano Fernandes almost exclusively by intercepting Fernandes with back kicks. If Fernandes took him down, Belingon would scramble up, and then his next move would be a jab or hook to get Fernandes ducking in, and then jumping into another high stakes back kick attempt. It was truly bizarre to watch and yet, crucially, Fernandes seemed even more confused than the viewers.
Event of the Year
This one seems fairly obvious. The UFC has been guilty of using its mega-stars to prop up some straight up appalling cards in the past and hoping that name power sells it anyway—UFC 190 containing Ronda Rousey versus Bethe Correia and then a load of Brazilian old man fights is the greatest example of this. But when Conor McGregor came back from two years away from MMA, to fight the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov, the UFC actually stacked the card with quality fights and it paid off in a big way.
In the co-main event Tony Ferguson actually got the shine he deserved and likely won over many of the casual fans who would have been tuning in to see McGregor but had little idea of what was going on in the rest of the division. Derrick Lewis and Alexander Volkov provided a decent scrap, a surprising finish, and a meme so good that it bumped Lewis right into the UFC’s most underwhelming title shot of 2018. Dominick Reyes also proved that there is some life left in the UFC light heavyweight division as he took a huge step up in competition and outclassed Ovince Saint Preux. Add to that great performances from Aspen Ladd and Vincente Luque on the undercard and it was a pretty great night of fights topped off by a main event that lived up to the hype.
Three-way tie: Dustin Poirier, Henry Cejudo, Jan Blachowicz
Every previous year I have come into the Slacky Awards with a very clear idea of who I consider the most improved technician in MMA. In fact in 2017, the three previous winners of this award all won a UFC belt. This year the field is a little more hazy. One notable name who has consistently improved over the last couple of years is Dustin Poirier. A simple slugger when he started out, Poirier chased knockouts and got hurt doing it even against much worse opponents. Since his knockout loss to Michael Johnson in late 2016, Poirier has calmed down a little and added some nicer wrinkles to his striking.
After a No Contest against Eddie Alvarez in 2017, Dustin rattled off three wins back to back against Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, and finally Alvarez. In all three he showed his vaunted punching power but also did a great job of staying safe against a faster opponent in Pettis, a strong wrestler and bigger punching pressure fighter in Gaethje, and a tough old foe in Alvarez. While adding a good shoulder roll, sharpening up a check hook and using the jab a little more are all great things, I don’t know if it can be said that Poirier has managed the complete reinvention that the other winners of this award did. The word is that the UFC are trying to set Poirier up as Conor McGregor’s return match, which suggests they might feel the same way.
Henry Cejudo is also deserving of a mention here. Whether you believe he beat Demetrious Johnson or not, you cannot argue with the fact that Cejudo went from getting smoked by Johnson in the first round, to taking him the full five rounds in a competitive fight, in just a couple of years. A man who used to be all superman punches and takedowns is suddenly a measured counter puncher and ring general. Circling to the inside of Johnson’s lead leg and searching for counter punches, Cejudo had Johnson low on ideas early before Johnson realized that Cejudo would do nothing to defend his low kicks. When the two hit the clinch that signature Cejudo inside trip was still there, but this time it was just a part of a larger fight and not something Henry desperately chased as he did in the first fight.
A final mention here—and the three can share the award—is Jan Blachowicz. Blachowicz didn’t seem like anything special in 2015 when he lost to Jimi Manuwa and Corey Anderson, but when he was matched with Alexander Gustafsson as an obvious tune up he seemed to have the Swede a little confused on the feet with his big swinging check hooks and his counter punches. Against Devin Clark, Blachowicz fought an ugly fight wherein Clark managed to swing himself into a standing rear naked choke like a bad guy in a Steven Seagal movie.
Yet as 2017 turned into 2018, folks in the MMA media were forced to begrudgingly acknowledge that Blachowicz—while ugly to watch—is getting better. Going the distance with Jimi Manuwa a second time in March, Blachowicz didn’t crack Manuwa’s chin early and overwhelm him as others have. Instead he gave Manuwa exactly the sort of prolonged fight in kickboxing range, that Manuwa tends to want. And yet the awkward herky-jerk striking of Blachowicz carried him to victory. Most recently, when Nikita Krylov returned to the UFC, high on a streak of wins in Russian promotions, Blachowicz strangled him. I don’t think Jan Blachowicz will ever be a fighter I’m downright excited to watch, but the way he keeps winning and making other good fighters look sloppy with him certainly has me intrigued in anything he does.
Breakout Technique of the Year
The Suloev Stretch
This has always been a hit and miss category. We heralded the arrival of the electric chair sweep and hoped for its widespread use in MMA when Eddie Bravo and Garry Tonon stormed through Metamoris using them in 2014, but sadly it is still absent in high level MMA. Snap kicks were a better shout, they have been a game changer for years and are steadily becoming more and more popular. And the Imanari roll and various upside down shots into leg entanglements were, until the last UFC event of this year, largely a bust in high level MMA and indeed, Rory MacDonald managed to get himself smashed this year by rolling unsuccessfully under the larger Gegard Mousasi.
2018 was a good year for the Suloev stretch, with two thirds of all Suloev victories recorded in the UFC coming this year, in one night. Of course, that is in the same way that it was a big year for the no-gi ezekiel because Alexey Oleynik wrapped his freakish arms around Junior Albini’s head, jumped to his back and forced a tap. It might seem a bold prediction, but the ezekiel is never going to be a major trend in MMA. That being said, the two Suloev stretch submissions this year—by Zabit Magomedsharipov and Aljamain Sterling—came as a byproduct of fighters grabbing the standing leg to topple their opponent while their opponent attempted to stand and shake them off back control. If the tripod-and-shake remains a fairly common answer to backpacking, that toppling will remain a valuable option, and the Suloev stretch will always be a possible outcome of it.
Another mention is the continued use of the calf kick. Kicking low on the leg does much to mitigate the threat of a check. The opponent cannot drop his knee, a check only involves lifting the leg up or turning it out. Kick for the thigh and the opponent checks, you might kick a knee or the top of the shin. Kick for the calf and if the opponent checks you smack into their ankle or tender lower shin as it flaps in the air and they stand on one leg. This has been slowly catching on for years in MMA but there were a number of good showings for it this year, notably any time Jeremy Stephens fought, and during Amanda Nunes’s decimation of Raquel Pennington.
It was also a stonkingly good year for elbows. From the showstopping overhead back elbow that Yair Rodriguez landed on Chan Sung Jung, to Johnny Walker knocking out Khalil Rountree with short elbows from the double collar tie, there were plenty of high profile elbow stoppages. But more impressive was fighters using them consistently in fights that weren’t ended by a highlight reel elbow. Consistency is the key with elbows and for the longest time we have had only a few fighters, occasionally attempting elbows, and very occasionally knockouts coming from that. With men like Tony Ferguson and Leon Edwards attempting quick elbows to cut their opponents constantly we are readily seeing the value of the quick elbow and the cuts it produces. We will probably never be able to call elbows our break out technique of the year for the same reason we will never award the title to the jab: we moan about them because everyone can benefit from using these techniques, but enough fighters use both that they aren’t some largely untested or unappreciated method coming in and taking MMA by surprise.
In the grappling world—which we tend to look to as the research and development part of MMA—the saddle/inside sankaku/honey hole/leg knot position continued to reign supreme as everyone and their mum hunts for inside heel hooks.
John Danaher demonstrating the inside sankaku/saddle position on his opponent’s right leg. When controlling both legs Danaher refers to this position as “double trouble.”
Gordon Ryan has been testing the IBJJF’s understanding of its own rules as he uses the saddle to sweep in competitions that don’t allow heel hooks. Try this in a regional tournament and you will probably get submitted, but provided you aren’t attacking the "reaped" leg, it is technically legal. Ryan has also been gravitating towards his rival Craig Jones’s underhook and single butterfly hook entry—something you could definitely see coming to MMA with more ease than the usual X-guard far-leg entries.
Ryan Hall is already carrying the banner for leg attacks in MMA and his submission of B.J. Penn at the weekend was a big victory for the leg lock crowd. Garry Tonon is not fighting at anywhere near the same level in MMA yet, but has also been showing some fantastic entries on legs in ONE, such as a roll through to the saddle from a position where his opponent had the underhook and was about to circle off the cage.
The “...But Why?” Award for Piss Poor fight IQ
A heavy favorite for this award was poor Andre Soukhamthath, who fought Sean O’Malley, lost most of the fight, and then failed to capitalize when O’Malley severely injured his foot in the third round. Had Soukhamthath stood back and simply low kicked, or continued striking with the hampered O’Malley, he likely could have won. Instead Soukhamthath held O’Malley down, doing little, until the fight ended and it was revealed that O’Malley couldn’t actually stand, and had his arm raised in victory while still in agony on the floor. In Soukhamthath’s defense, he had his bell rung a good few times by O’Malley up to that point and might not have been fully with it.
O’Malley being interviewed after winning the fight.
Similarly Mark Hunt had Alexey Oleinik almost unable to stand after a few good low kicks, and still somehow waded in and got taken down and submitted.
Tyson Pedro has made a name for himself by losing fights that he should win after starting strong—but it doesn’t always seem to be down to any single tactical decision, he just seems like a guy who chokes under the bright lights.
Derek Brunson continued his strategy of trying to overwhelm opponents by running face first into clinches and doggedly pursuing takedowns, and Israel Adesanya knocked him out for it. But Brunson has done worse in previous years, so giving him the award here would be like giving Al Pacino the Oscar for Scent of a Woman after snubbing him for The Godfather Part II.
Chan Sung Jung and Alexander Volkov both deserve a mention for throwing away fights they had won. Volkov was running away with it against Derrick Lewis, got clipped with a couple of overhands off kicks as Lewis tried to make something happen in the dying minutes, and then decided to try to hit Lewis with an intercepting knee instead of just walking off and taking the win. He wasn’t likely to knock Lewis out with the knee, and the stepping knee done wrong is the plague of big men—Stefan Struve versus Travis Browne being the most hilarious example of that.
Jung, meanwhile, had handily outboxed Yair Rodriguez for most of the fight (though there is a heavy bag in Albuquerque that can claim that honor too, you could remove the bones from Rodriguez’s arms and he’d fight much the same). Rodriguez did that daft “let’s swing wild and hype up the fans in the last seconds” thing and Jung stupidly consented. Rather than simply swanging and banging, Rodriguez broke the gentlemen’s agreement and timed an over the back elbow to pick up a largely unearned knockout of the century over a guy who had him beaten.
But the unquestionable winner of the “...But Why?” award for 2018 is Cody Garbrandt. How did Garbrandt go from winning Gameplan of the Year in 2016 to this? Well, he came into a rematch with T.J. Dillashaw—having lost the first in a wild exchange—and lost by chasing a wild exchange. Garbrandt could have looked to land crisp counter hooks and get out of the way of returns, or draw Dillashaw forward onto counters (as Dominick Cruz did to Dillashaw and as Garbrandt then did to Cruz), or use his excellent jab which almost never sees the light of day. Instead he added a couple of kicks which really didn’t do much to aid his game, and the moment he caught Dillashaw off balance he went wild trying to swing for the finish. Dillashaw ducked down behind his lead shoulder as Garbrandt stood square, throwing right hand after right hand, and when Dillashaw returned with his own it sent Garbrandt to the mat. The rest of the fight was simply Garbrandt trying to survive after making the same mistake as the first fight, even earlier on.
And now Garbrandt is stuck in a fog with nothing to do. The UFC were angling to get a Dillashaw – Cruz rematch together until Cruz got injured again, and even with that out of the way there are plenty of contenders who haven’t lost twice to Dillashaw. What might have been a momentary miscalculation, or just the results of failure to come up with a decent gameplan, now means that Garbrandt is extremely unlikely to get a third go at Dillashaw, and the longer Dillashaw can hold on as champion, the less direction Garbrandt’s bantamweight career now has.
As always, there was plenty of bad stuff to distract you in MMA this year. Just this week a proposed Nick Diaz fight has, once again, turned out to be a work of fiction, and the MMA world is still recovering from the extremely suspect handling of Jon Jones’s Turinabol situation. Yet there is still plenty on the horizon to make the fight fan rub his hands with glee. In February, Robert Whittaker—one of the best technicians in the history of MMA—takes on the relentless and lightning quick Kelvin Gastelum for the UFC’s middleweight title. Ben Askren is set to make his UFC debut, and to take on his first world class opponent in Robbie Lawler, with Kron Gracie making it to the Octagon for the first time on the same card.
And overseas, ONE Championship is proving to be a fascinating oddity: continuing to bring in millions of dollars of investment without a sign they will ever turn a profit, but in the meantime they have acquired a television deal, the UFC flyweight great Demetrious Johnson, and lightweight legend, Eddie Alvarez. Additionally their cards contain Muay Thai legends like Yodsanklai and Muangthai competing in four ounce gloves—which is honestly what a lot of the MMA viewership at any bar would probably prefer.
Rizin had a decent New Years Eve but invested $9 million in having a geriatric Floyd Mayweather come in and embarrass their kickboxing wunderkind, Tenshin Nasukawa in just over a minute. Though that’s pretty merciful compared to the $88 million they were originally alleged to be paying for a full professional boxing match between the two that would have ended exactly the same way. On the same night, Rizin flyweight turned bantamweight champion, Kyoji Horiguchi managed to submit Bellator bantamweight champion and occasional featherweight, Darrion Caldwell. This is undoubtedly the biggest win on Kyoji’s record and—provided Rizin haven’t bankrupted themselves—the next year should provide plenty of opportunities for grand prixs, freak fights, and other assorted fun.
2019 has promise: McGregor will be back but is not holding up a belt, Bellator moves into the meat of its terrific welterweight tournament, and men and women you haven’t yet heard of will explode into the MMA consciousness overnight throughout the year. The best thing about MMA is that your emotions are normally fluctuating between ecstatic enjoyment and incredulous outrage so even when the worst is happening you feel invested—there is seldom a moment to be bored.