2020 Year in Review: The lightweight division


UFC 254: Khabib v Gaethje
Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje | Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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

The Good

The lightweight division has been the gold standard in MMA for well over a decade, and 2020 was no exception. From a pure numbers standpoint, in the UFC, the lightweight division was responsible for eight of 29 “Fight of the Night” bonuses and 17 of 120 “Performance of the Night” bonuses. Furthermore, most of those occurred despite many of the top contenders not competing very often.

Among the standouts:

  • Justin Gaethje fully turned the corner from action fighter to bonafide contender with a stoppage of Tony Ferguson in one of the best fights of the year.
  • Khabib Nurmagomedov responded to impossible circumstances by delivering the best performance of his career, holding his own with Gaethje on the feet before tapping him with one of the best submissions of the year.
  • Charles Oliveira announced himself as a serious threat to the title with two note-perfect performances.

Outside of the UFC, the lightweight division had a surprisingly down year. Normally, 155 plays host to the deepest talent pool in the sport; in promotions like Bellator and ONE Championship, there are a handful of excellent fights. But with Patricio Freire not defending his title this year, there weren’t a ton of notable fights taking place outside of the octagon. Notable exceptions to this were Christian Lee defending his ONE Championship belt in a wild two-minute battle with Iuri Lapicus, as well as Michael Chandler knocking out Benson Henderson before departing Bellator for the UFC.

The Bad

As the saying goes, Father Time is undefeated, and Tony Ferguson is the latest victim of that indefatigable old bastard.

For nearly a decade, “El Cucuy” ran roughshod over the 155 division, putting together one of the best resumes in history. He fought a who’s who of top lightweights and always got his hand raised. But in 2020, age finally seemed to catch up with Ferguson. In April, the 36-year old veteran was supposed to face Khabib Nurmagomedov for the undisputed lightweight title – until COVID-19 intervened. Instead, he accepted an interim title fight against Justin Gaethje in May, and Gaethje proceeded to beat the tar out of him for 20 minutes before finally getting a fifth-round stoppage. After losing his title shot, Ferguson tried to get back on the horse in December, but he once against got dominated, this time by the grappling chops of Charles Oliveira. The losses effectively ended Ferguson’s time at the head of the lightweight rankings.

For years, every true MMA fan wanted to see Tony settle up with Khabib. Now, that will never happen, and the fact that Tony never fought for an undisputed title during his tenure in the UFC will go down as the single greatest injustice in the history of the sport (at least in terms of fighters and title shots).

So yeah, 2020 was pretty terrible for Tony Ferguson.

The Ugly

Khabib Nurmagomedov is the greatest lightweight who has ever competed in MMA. If there was doubt before – and there shouldn’t have been – there can be none following his submission over Justin Gaethje. So given his greatness, and the fact that he is a huge star in the sport, it’s understandable that the UFC might dislike his decision to retire. However, that doesn’t mean they should just pretend like it’s not going to happen.

Khabib’s father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, passed away this summer from complications arising due to COVID-19. It was a terrible loss for the sport and raised questions about whether Khabib would ever fight again. Ultimately, Khabib did, defending his title with the greatest performance of his career. But before he did that, after mourning and considering his future, Khabib decided he wouldn’t fight anymore, and once the fight was done with, he told the rest of the world.

That should be the end of the story. For the UFC to continue to suggest it might be able to coerce him back for one last fight is wildly disrespectful of a man who has earned his peace. Nurmagomedov has the most understandable reason imaginable for stepping away. He has never once come across as someone who acts blithely or without full agency and understanding of his own actions. The UFC needs to respect Nurmagomedov’s decision and move on.

MVP

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.


Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

As with all things in the lightweight division, competition for the MVP was fierce. There are a half dozen guys at lightweight that were electric every time they stepped in the cage. But no fighter delivered more excitement than Dan Hooker.

In February, Hooker went hammer and tongs with Paul Felder for 25 minutes at UFC Auckland, earning an obvious “Fight of the Night” award and the eighth-best fight of the year by MMAFighting’s rankings. Hooker followed up that stellar performance in June, giving former title challenger Dustin Poirier everything he could handle in another 25-minute rock fight. Hooker lost on the cards, but nonetheless earned a seat at the table of truly elite 155ers in the world.

Like his two fights in 2020, Hooker’s win is not without some controversy. Charles Oliveira had a sensational year, finishing fourth in MMAFighting’s Fighter of the Year rankings with two dominant performances over elite opposition. But when you really boil it down, Hooker delivered 50 minutes of high-octane action, and he was responsible for two of the eight best fights this year. So sure, other people fought more often, won more, and made bigger leaps in the division. But nobody delivered more entertainment this year than Hooker.

Honorable Mentions: Charles Oliveira, Beneil Dariush, Justin Gaethje, Jordan Leavitt, Rafael Fiziev, Bobby Green, Drew Dober

Highlights to Watch

Conor McGregor knocks out Donald Cerrone in 40 seconds, UFC 246

Khabib Nurmagomedov mercy taps Justin Gaethje with a triangle choke, UFC 254

Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson put on a Fight of the Year contender, UFC 249

Drew Dober stops Alexander Hernandez with punches, UFC Jacksonville

Scott Holtzman and Jim Miller put on Fight of the Night, UFC Rio Rancho

Jordan Leavitt knocks out Matt Wiman with a slam, UFC Vegas 16

Dan Hooker and Paul Felder put on a Fight of the Year contender, UFC Auckland

Dustin Poirier and Dan Hooker put on a Fight of the Year contender, UFC Vegas 4

Justin Jaynes knocks out Frank Camacho in 41 seconds, UFC on ESPN 11

Rafael Fiziev entered the Matrix against Marc Diakese, UFC Fight Island 2

Rafael Fiziev knocks out Renato Moicano, UFC 256

Bobby Green goes to war with Lando Vannata, UFC Vegas 5

Ottman Azaitar blitzes Khama Worthy in 93 seconds, UFC Vegas 10

Kevin Croom chokes out Roosevelt Roberts with a guillotine choke, UFC Vegas 10

Alexander Hernandez knocks out Chris Gruetzemacher with punches, UFC Vegas 12

Gabriel Benitez crushes Justin Jaynes with a knee to the body, UFC Vegas 16

Beneil Dariush knocks out Drakkar Klose with an overhand left, UFC 248

Beneil Dariush knocks out Scott Holtzman with a spinning backfist, UFC Vegas 6

Thiago Moises submits Michael Johnson with a heel hook, UFC Jacksonville

Michael Chandler knocks out Benson Henderson in their rematch, Bellator 243

Keoni Diggs scores last-second submission of Derek Campos, Bellator 246

Yves Landu knocks out Terry Brazier with a flying knee, Bellator Paris

Christian Lee knocks out Iuri Lapicus to defend his title, ONE Championship: Inside the Matrix

Looking Ahead to 2021

For over a decade, the lightweight division has been the best division in MMA, and things don’t appear to be changing anytime soon. Regardless of the current uncertainty around the lightweight title, the coming months are sure to be exciting. In just a few weeks, Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor face off in a rematch (for a fight that may end up being for some fashion of belt, interim or undisputed), and that same card is going to feature Michael Chandler vs. Dan Hooker. Justin Gaethje looks to get back in the cage soon, possibly against the winner of either of those fights, or maybe against Charles Oliveira. Like the commercial says, there’s no wrong way to eat this Reese’s. As the lightweight division unfolds over the next 12 months, it’s going to be awesome.

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