The Great Divide: Which division was the toughest in 2020?


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

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

The UFC hit the ground running when it returned to action following the coronavirus outbreak in March. But rather than seeing the promotion’s rankings come to a halt, we instead saw a flurry of activity this year across all divisions, especially over the past 24 months. New champions were crowned, contenders rose and fell, and fresh names made an immediate impact on the scene (*cough* Khamzat *cough*).

Eventually, promotions across the globe got fights going again with Bellator, ONE Championship, RIZIN and others hosting some of the best talent outside of the UFC. So given that 2020 was as busy a year as any for the MMA world, which division proved to be the best, deepest, and most entertaining over the past 12 months?

MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee and Jed Meshew are here to help you decide which division’s talent reigns supreme.

BANTAMWEIGHTS RULE THE ROOST NOW

Lee: As much as we harp about the flyweight division deserving more respect, the bantamweights have also been overlooked for too long, and not only is 135 under-appreciated, it’s actually the best division in all of MMA right now.

Petr Yan sits at the top of the mountain, and while he did much of the work this past year to get there, a bout with the legendary Jose Aldo for a vacant title proved to be as challenging as Aldo’s reputation would suggest. Aljamain Sterling, Cory Sandhagen, Rob Font, Marlon Moraes, Pedro Munhoz, Frankie Edgar, Marlon Vera, and Cody Garbrandt are just a few of the names that jockeyed for position in the contenders’ rankings to varying levels of success in 2020. All found themselves in compelling matchups, and they’re either set to contend for a title next year, or serve as a litmus test for a long line of blue-chip prospects waiting for their shot.

Beyond the top-10, we had said blue-chippers Merab Dvalishvili, Raoni Barcelos, Casey Kenney, and Song Yadong living up to the hype, with others like Cody Stamann, Ricky Simon, Nathaniel Wood, and Brian Kelleher just a step behind.

And the fights of 2020 were great! Yan vs. Aldo proved to be a worthy title tilt despite its questionable booking, Edgar vs. Munhoz was one of the year’s best (and a welcome return to form for the former lightweight champion) and Garbrandt, O’Malley, and Sandhagen gave us three of the year’s most thrilling KOs. That’s not even mentioning the multitude of awesome fights featuring lesser known bantamweights that popped up on every card.

Here’s a list of bantamweight matchups that won “Fight of the Night” awards this year (in chronological order): Brett Johns vs. Tony Gravely, Kyler Phillips vs. Gabriel Silva, Kelleher vs. Hunter Azure, Kai Kamaka III vs. Tony Kelley, Edgar vs. Munhoz, Kenney vs. Wood, and Barcelos vs. Khalid Taha. For pandemic-related reasons, a few of those took place at featherweight or catchweight, but they were bantamweight fights in all but name.

There were 29 “Fight of the Night” awards handed out in 2020, and about one in four went to a bantamweight fight. And this is not including the “Performance of the Night” bonuses that went to bantamweights. The division kicked ass this year, plain and simple.

It wasn’t always like this. In the first couple of years following the bantamweights and featherweights being brought over from the WEC, it was a struggle for bantamweights to gain traction. Cruz was a star, but he couldn’t stay healthy. Renan Barao was great, but he never clicked with fans. When the flyweight division introduced two of the best 135ers, Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez, the chose to leave the division and head to 125 pounds, where they belonged.

The Cruz-Dillashaw-Garbrandt trio did a lot to draw eyeballs to the division, and Henry Cejudo came along to establish a top-four that stacked up with the elite of any weight class. All the while, the roster chasing them grew deeper, stronger and hungrier.

As Mike Heck and I have remarked several times on our weekly matchmaking show On to the Next One, you’d be hard-pressed to find a matchup at 135 pounds that isn’t compelling. There’s just so much talent and versatility there. The fighters have made the matchmakers lives easy, even if they’ve made each other’s lives hell for the past 12 months (and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future).

Want to see Dvalishvili put up his wrestling against Urijah Faber? You can. How about O’Malley running his mouth ahead of a matchup with Aldo? It’s right there. Edgar vs. Cruz has to happen someday, and any combination of Kenney, Song, Chito, Moraes, Munhoz, Barcelos, Stamann, Simon, Wood, Kelleher, Said Nurmagomedov, and Andre Ewell could produce fireworks. I’m definitely forgetting someone – maybe a bunch of someones. That’s how deep this division is.

This probably won’t be the case once the dust settles at the end of December. But as of now, the UFC has about 80 contracted bantamweights, and even the bottom rung gave us some true delights. Remember Irwin Rivera’s spirited debut at 145 pounds against Giga Chikadze? How about Mario Bautista’s flying knee against Miles Johns? Adrian Yanez’s spectacular head kick KO of a Victor Rodriguez happened less than 60 days ago, and it’s already being overlooked. A great division isn’t just defined by the performances of its stars, but by how consistently it can deliver across the board. No division is doing it all better than bantamweight.

Let’s not forget that Bellator recently crowned a new 135-pound champion after a dramatic five-round battle between Juan Archuleta and Patchy Mix. Archuleta won, but he shouldn’t get too comfortable with names like Sergio Pettis, James Gallagher, Raufeon Stots, and the recently signed Brett Johns in the picture. RIZIN closes out 2020 with a must-see bantamweight title fight between Kai Asakura and Kyoji Horiguchi on New Year’s Eve. And if you want to cheat (which I love to do), you can even throw ONE Championship’s Demetrious Johnson and Adriano Moraes in the mix since they’re technically competing at 135 pounds (fine, I’ll settle for Bibiano Fernandes and John Lineker).

A lot of divisions made major strides in 2020 (the women’s flyweight division is moving! And is light heavyweight fun again?). Once the lightweight title picture is sorted out, it will likely regain its status as the de facto best division in MMA. But this year belonged to the bantamweights, and if the chips continue to fall as they have, it could actually stay that way for a while.

AND STILL

Meshew: Look, I know everyone likes to debate unknowable things endlessly because it’s fun to argue and gives us something to do (it’s me, I’m everyone). But this is not one of those nebulous topics. Anyway you slice it, there is only one reasonable answer to this question, and that answer is lightweight.

From a pure quality standpoint, 155 has been the top of the food chain for nearly a decade, and though you could argue 2020 was “a down year for the division,” it still is better than every other division by miles. And from a difficulty standpoint? Please. Name another division where a 12-fight winning streak doesn’t earn you a true title shot (see Ferguson, Tony). Or hell, just go check the current top-15. Charles Oliveira is on an 8-fight winning streak, with seven by stoppage, and he probably still has to fight one more time before getting a title shot. Diego Ferreira has won six in a row, and he isn’t even sort of in the conversation. Islam Makhachev has also won six in a row and is only ranked No. 13! Even way down the line, you’ve got guys on huge winning streaks that don’t have a ranking.

But there is an even simpler way to end this foolish debate – just check out the UFC’s pound-for-pound rankings. The No. 1 overall fighter is the lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov. The first non-champion to make the list is Dustin Poirier at No. 7. Then Justin Gaethje and Conor McGregor join in at 11 and 12, respectively, (and had we done this column two weeks ago, Tony Ferguson also would have graced the list). That’s four lightweights in the top-15 pound-for-pound fighters in the sport, with two of them ranking above the current bantamweight champion, and all four are slotted ahead of the current light heavyweight champion! Think about that. Of the fifteen best fighters in the world, four of them compete in the same weight class. No other division has more than two fighters making the list. That is categorically absurd.

Now, the natural counter to that argument is that UFC rankings are at best questionable and that those four fighters aren’t actually better than the guys in other divisions. In response, I’d like to offer you the UFC’s welterweight division, which currently features three fighters in the top-10 that were decent but uninspiring lightweight contenders. Michael Chiesa was a borderline top-10 lightweight who moved to 170, won three in a row, and is now ranked No. 8. Jorge Masvidal was a well-respected fringe top-15 lightweight until he moved up to welterweight and became the 2019 Fighter of the Year. And then this year, Gilbert Burns, who as a lightweight had promise but was never viewed as an actual title threat, has now become the top contender in the division. The simple fact is, that of all the UFC rankings, welterweight is the most incorrect because half of the actual top-10 were competing 15 pounds below the 170 limit. And, frankly, the same might be true for middleweight too.

However, the true brilliance of the lightweight division isn’t that its best fighters are better than every other division’s fighters. It’s that the 30th best lightweight in the world is still better than the 10th best fighter in any other division. For instance, remember top-10 featherweight Renato Moicano? The guy who choked out Cub Swanson and beat Calvin Kattar? Since moving to lightweight he’s 1-1, and Tapology currently has him ranked as the 29th best lightweight. Or how about Mark O. Madsen? He’s an Olympic silver medalist wrestler who is undefeated in MMA, and Tapology has him ranked at 50!

And that’s the reason that the best of the best in the division are so much better than everyone else. On any given night, a random mid-level lightweight could come in and blow the doors off one of the top lightweights in the world. It’s not because the entire division is trash, but because the entire division is so damn good that the margins at the top are razor thin. Remember four years ago, when some random kid named Lando Vannata came in on short-notice and almost beat Tony Ferguson? Since then, “Groovy Lando” has mostly alternated wins and losses and draws and is firmly outside the top-20 in the division. To succeed at lightweight, you have to be nearly perfect, and even then, because the division is so damn stacked, you might still have to wait years to get a crack at the title.

(By the way, I’m seven paragraphs in, and I’ve yet to even mention any other organization despite the PFL, Bellator, and ONE Championship all having good lightweight divisions. Fortunately, it really isn’t necessary to expound upon other that other than to say if you made a list of the 20 best MMA fighters not currently in the UFC, roughly 30 percent of it would be lightweights, and the list of top lightweights outside of the UFC is objectively better than the entirety of some divisions in the organization.)

As far as entertainment, you want to talk numbers? Well, the lightweight division was home to EIGHT of this year’s “Fight of the Night” awards. That’s one more than the bantamweight division offered, and all of those were true 155 fights. Further, the lightweight division captured 17 of 120 performance bonuses in 2020. And while this kind of widespread excellence is relatively new to the 135-pound division, this could reasonably be considered a down year for the lightweights. Collectively, the UFC’s ranked lightweights only competed 20 times this year.

Look, I know it’s not fun to call lightweight the best division. It’s been so much better than everyone else for so long that it feels stale. It’s much more fun to hang out with the hot new bantamweight division and pretend it’s really the best. But like with the NBA for the past 15 years, sure we can pretend LeBron isn’t the best player in the world, but July rolls around and he’s in the NBA Finals again.

So yeah, bantamweight is a tough division to make a living in, and the top of the welterweight division has always been a meat-grinder, and even featherweight can be tough sledding. But if you were a good-to-great fighter who had the superpower of being able to fluctuate your weight to compete in whatever division you wanted to, no one would choose the lightweight division, because it takes years of brilliance, a sacrifice to the blood gods, and a minor miracle to even get in the title conversation.

Khabib Nurmagomedov went undefeated for a decade and racked up seven wins in the organization. He had a huge fan base and a dominant win over the guy who was the champion. He still couldn’t get a damn title shot, for no other reason than there were just other people in line in front of him.

Lightweight is the best, most difficult division, and that’s true for this year, and every other year for the foreseeable future.

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