It’s a new year, so Combat Press is taking a look back at the best of MMA in 2018. Throughout the next few weeks, Combat Press will announce its award winners in multiple categories, covering everything from the action in the cage to the biggest stories surrounding the sport.
The year 2018 was an unforgettable one for the sport of MMA. In a year that marked the 25th anniversary of the UFC, the most famous MMA promotion led the way by holding highly anticipated events that largely met or exceeded expectations. Several pay-per-views lived up to the hype surrounding them and delivered incredible performances from elite fighters. The Fox era drew to a close with a bang as Al Iaquinta’s headlining bout capped off a breathtaking night of fights to bid farewell to network television in the ever-shifting world of sports broadcasting. There were certainly plenty of worthy candidates for the honor of “Event of the Year.”
UFC 228 took place in September in Dallas and left fans picking their jaws off the floor multiple times. The week did not start off well, with the co-headliner canceled when UFC women’s flyweight champion Nicco Montaño failed to weigh in due to health concerns. She was subsequently stripped of the belt, leaving a vacant title and an angry No. 1 contender in Valentina Shevchenko. Once the card got underway, fans all but forgot about the mishap, as nine of the 13 bouts ended before the judges’ scorecards were necessary. Aljamain Sterling and Zabit Magomedsharipov both won their fights via the rare kneebar/Suloev Stretch. Not to be outdone, Jessica Andrade ended her bout with Karolina Kowalkiewicz by hurting the Polish fighter early in the first round and continuing to win the striking exchanges until a perfectly placed right hand closed the show in a fashion almost never seen at strawweight. The main event had a lot to live up to, not only because of the hype surrounding the challenger Darren Till, but because it would easily have been forgotten given the plethora of exciting finishes earlier on the card. The second-round d’arce choke that Tyron Woodley secured after flattening Till and pounding on the resilient British star ensured that the card was one of the best in 2018.
For months, the lineup for UFC 230 was ever-changing. Fans had no idea what to expect for the UFC’s most recent event at the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. After a “made ya look” women’s flyweight title fight between Sijara Eubanks was announced and scratched, and Dustin Poirier was forced to pull out of his scheduled fight with Nate Diaz, it was going to take a lot to salvage the card. It was a short-notice bout for the heavyweight title between double champ Daniel Cormier and the UFC’s newest darling (and Instagram connoisseur) Derrick Lewis that headlined the card when all was said and done. While “DC” was able to out-wrestle and ultimately submit Lewis as most had predicted, the co-headliner alone made this card one that fans will never forget. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Chris Weidman put on a classic three-round battle. Souza had his hand raised after landing a right hand that floored the former middleweight Champion. Jacare even landed a few shots to close the show while referee Dan Miragliotta watched from a few feet away as if he forgot it was his job to stop the fight if someone got knocked out. Souza is a world-champion jiu-jitsu player and Weidman a multi-time NCAA All-American wrestler, yet the fight took place exclusively on the feet as a high-level striking contest.
People will have differing opinions on the “Fox Era” of the UFC, but one thing that can’t be denied is that the final “big Fox” event, UFC on Fox 31, went off with a bang! The main card started with Charles Oliveira finishing Jim Miller by rear-naked choke just 75 seconds into the first round. Not only did Oliveira extend his record-high submission total to 12, but he also avenged a loss from eight years ago when Miller caught a young Oliveira in a kneebar to give the Brazilian his first professional loss. Fans also saw one of the most elite strikers in the company get back on track when Edson Barboza finished Dan Hooker after bludgeoning him for nearly the entire 15 minutes. Maybe even more impressive than the striking of Barboza was Hooker’s toughness and ability to withstand shot after shot to his legs, body and head. In a sport full of the toughest people on the planet, Hooker stood out in the valiant effort before a left hook to the liver ultimately forced him to hunch over and the referee justifiably called a halt to the fight. Then there was the main event, a rematch between Al Iaquinta and Kevin Lee. Their first fight took place in 2014, when Iaquinta handed Lee his first loss in the “Motown Phenom’s” promotional debut. Since the first meeting, Iaquinta has fought sporadically while also maintaining a successful real-estate business on Long Island. Lee was adamant that he was the much more improved fighter and wanted to send Iaquinta back to the prelims. “Raging Al” largely shook off the trash talk and was confident that the second fight would be more of the same from the first meeting. In the end, Iaquinta came away with the clear victory in a competitive fight and firmly announced himself as the real deal at the top of the lightweight division.
Despite all of these amazing shows, without a doubt the biggest event of the year was UFC 229. The event featured the showdown between former two-division champion Conor McGregor and undefeated reigning champ Khabib Nurmagomedov. The fight marked McGregor’s return to MMA after a nearly two-year layoff from the sport. His boxing outing against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2017 was his only combat-sports experience since he won the lightweight title from Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 in 2016. As if the fight needed any additional buzz, the trash talk became increasingly personal, particularly from the McGregor side. “The Notorious” one took shots at Nurmagomedov’s manager, family, religion and home country. While “The Eagle” was clearly bothered by the insults, he decided to save it all for the fight and dominated McGregor until securing a rear-naked choke/neck crank in the fourth round. The post-fight melee that ensued when Nurmagomedov jumped over the cage to attack members of McGregor’s team was a black eye for the sport in the moment, but it undoubtedly contributed to this being the biggest MMA event of the year.
Lost in the madness of the UFC 229 main event was a “Fight of the Year” contender between Anthony Pettis and Tony Ferguson. Both men were hurt over the course of the contest, with Pettis dropping Ferguson in the second round as a cut opened on Pettis’ face that covered Ferguson with his opponent’s blood. Ferguson was able to recover and dominate the end of the round as the fans stood in appreciation. Unfortunately, Pettis was unable to come out for the third round due to a broken hand that forced his chief corner Duke Roufus to wave off the fight.
Derrick Lewis also made himself a household name at UFC 229 with his comeback knockout over Alexander Volkov with 11 seconds left in the fight. The win was followed by his historic post-fight interview with Joe Rogan where he referenced Donald Trump, smoking marijuana on Rogan’s podcast, and, of course, the temperature of his genitals.
Top to bottom, start to finish, UFC 229 was the 2018 Combat Press “Event of the Year.”
Other finalists: UFC 228, UFC 230, UFC on Fox 31
Make sure you check out the rest of the Combat Press 2018 MMA Award winners.