MMA Fighting’s 2019 Fighter of the Year: Israel Adesanya

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

1. ISRAEL ADESANYA

Israel Adesanya will not be denied.

He was the clear-cut top UFC debutant last year, and 12 months later, he has established himself as not just the best in the world at 185 pounds, but a star shining as bright as any name in MMA. “The Last Stylebender” he calls himself, a reference not just to his love of anime but to the very substantial way that he imposes his one-of-a-kind personality onto everything he touches.

Part Bruce Lee, part Anderson Silva, part Jabbawockee, part Banksy, there are probably a dozen different influences that come to mind when watching Adesanya, and yet somehow when it all comes together it produces a fighter like none we’ve ever seen before. Adesanya entered 2019 as a cocky, confident contender with an unbeaten record and charisma to spare. He ends it as a UFC champion.

The journey was far from easy. He defeated Silva to start off the year, putting on a show of flashy striking opposite a man who he’d been compared to ad nauseum; however, he couldn’t put “The Spider” and while the all-time great’s name resonated on his resume, there was the question of why Adesanya wasn’t able to finish a man 14 years his senior. The performance left just enough room for the doubters to stay firmly rooted in their skepticism:

“He still hasn’t faced adversity. Wait until he faces adversity, then he’ll be exposed.”

With undisputed champion Robert Whittaker on the shelf, Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum were booked for an interim title bout at UFC 236 and what occurred was one of the greatest fights in MMA history. Adesanya won and it wasn’t pretty. Beaten, bloodied, and bruised to a degree beyond anything we’d seen in his previous UFC fights, Adesanya looked like more than just a champion, he looked like a survivor. It was impossible to imagine him fighting any harder and becoming increasingly difficult to imagine anyone beating him.

So far, no one has in MMA and that includes Robert Whittaker, who was on a nine-fight, five-year unbeaten streak before crossing paths with Adesanya. The stage was set for Adesanya to complete his rise and he captured the moment in a way that only future legends can.

Think Conor McGregor knocking out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds. Think Ronda Rousey defeating Liz Carmouche in the first women’s fight in UFC history. Think Jon Jones out-striking Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to capture his first light heavyweight title.

Think about how small that margin of error is to create that perfect, instantly meme-able, forever replayable moment. And then think about how Adesanya absolutely freakin’ nailed it.

He came out with an elaborate dance routine that—love it or hate it—nobody else would even think of trying to pull off with the stakes that high. Then he stood his ground with a wildly aggressive Whittaker and made the champion pay, finishing with strikes in the second round. This wasn’t a star being born, this was a star going supernova.

The question now: how can Adesanya possibly top himself next year?


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2. JORGE MASVIDAL


Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It sounds funny to talk about how Adesanya boosted his star power because nobody’s mainstream profile saw a more dramatic upgrade than that of Jorge Masvidal.

To say Masvidal’s Q-Rating increased in 2019 would be the understatement of… well, 2019. It would be more accurate to say that it was multiplied by a factor of infinity since he really didn’t have any mainstream recognition to speak of before this year. If anything, Masvidal was known as a hero for the hardcores, a backyard brawling legend, and to some—even before he looked the part—a veritable “street Jesus” (I’m partial to “Miami Christ,” but do as you please). Masvidal and his fans didn’t need ESPN or The Rock or whoever to “validate” him and he certainly didn’t need the fame.

But when it came, you better believe he ran with it.

After a highly respected but inconsistent UFC career, Masvidal picked up an unexpected knockout of Darren Till and then ended a months-long war of words with Ben Askren in five seconds with a flying knee. Just like that, Masvidal was immortal. He wasn’t done yet.

Nate Diaz did him the favor of calling him out for the unofficial title of baddest motherf*cker in the UFC and while corporate eventually stepped in and made an official belt to commemorate the matchup, the spotlight was still entirely on the two cult heroes who had somehow landed themselves center stage at Madison Square Garden. Masvidal won, not only claiming the “BMF” title but possibly the people’s choice award for best fighter of 2019.


3. HENRY CEJUDO


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Forget the cringe and the intergender nonsense and the shoulder injury that sidelined him for the second half of this year.

Before all that (okay, the cringe has been around for a while and isn’t going anywhere), Henry Cejudo took two of the toughest fights that he possibly could to establish himself as a legitimate champ-champ. You could even call him “Triple C” if you’re counting his oft-neglected Olympic gold medal.

T.J. Dillashaw was on a tear—among other things, apparently—when he declared he was dropping down to 125 pounds for an immediate crack at Cejudo’s flyweight championship. For his part, Cejudo was all for it. Yes, he’d won a UFC title off of Demetrious Johnson, arguably the pound-for-pound best in the world, but a split nod was hardly the stuff of legends and Cejudo knew it was in his best interests to welcome Dillashaw to his weight class.

At the time, Dillashaw was the reigning 135-pound champion and to his credit, he made the flyweight championship limit. But it was Cejudo who made the statement.

Thirty-two seconds, that’s all it took for Cejudo to take Dillashaw out and completely shift the MMA landscape. Five months later, with Dillashaw out of the picture due to a failed drug test, it was Cejudo who would go up to bantamweight to chase a second title. He did, overcoming a slow start against Marlon Moraes before burying the Brazilian with a relentless attack in the third round.

Better start exercising those facial muscles, because in 2020 there will be a lot more cringing to be done if Cejudo continues his winning ways.


4. KAMARU USMAN


Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Colby Covington deserves a lot of credit for building up his feud with Kamaru Usman. But let’s not forget what was at the heart of the conflict to begin with: Usman’s UFC welterweight championship.

That’s the title he won earlier this year, though one couldn’t be blamed for thinking it was ages ago given that Usman’s rivalry with Covington has dominated the headlines and that Tyron Woodley, the man Usman beat for his championship, has been noticeably absent from competition. Make no mistake, Woodley is an all-time great welterweight and Usman completely dominated him for 25 minutes.

After that, a clash with Covington was inevitable and in the lead-up to their encounter at UFC 245, “Chaos” talked and talked and talked and talked and talked. You couldn’t blame him for running his mouth and you couldn’t blame Usman for biding his time and taking the chatter on the chin. It generated plenty of interest in the fight.

Then Usman broke Covington’s jaw.

Faced with one of the few fighters who could match his pace, Usman didn’t panic even as he dropped the opening round. He trusted his power, trusted his plan, trusted in the calmness that won him The Ultimate Fighter and made him one of only four fighters to start his UFC career with 10 consecutive wins. After UFC 245, he turned that streak up to 11.

It may have only been two fights, but when you make a UFC champion look like they don’t belong in the same cage as you and then literally silence your biggest rival, it’s safe to say Usman had himself a year.


5. PATRICIO FREIRE


Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Even in an age of champ-champ inflation, what Patricio Freire pulled off in 2019 was truly exceptional.

In defeating Michael Chandler in just 61 seconds, “Pitbull” not only added the lightweight title to his collection, he also avenged a pair of losses that his brother Patricky had suffered at the hands of Chandler, became just the second fighter in Bellator history to simultaneously hold two titles, and definitively answered the question of who is Bellator’s G.O.A.T. Heading into the fight, Freire and Chandler both owned a long list of company accolades and with one flurry, Freire left Chandler in the dust.

Just the Chandler triumph might have been enough to secure Freire’s spot in this year’s top-5, but he found time for a featherweight title defense too as part of the ongoing World Grand Prix. In the opening round of the tournament, he won a convincing decision against Juan Archuleta to snap Archuleta’s 18-fight win streak.

Though it may seem risky for Pitbull to throw himself into a tournament as opposed to using his leverage as champion to jockey for superfights or specific opponents, that’s never been his style. Besides, winning a Grand Prix? Just one more piece of history for Bellator’s best to collect.


Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2019 Fighter of the Year played out.


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