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.
Every year, the combat-sports world is filled with upsets. It’s the nature of the business. However, the year 2018 was special due to the sheer number of high-profile fighters who were beaten.
How about former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields? The grappling specialist entered his Professional Fighters League 3 match-up with Hawaiian Ray Cooper III as a -1400 betting favorite. Midway through the second round, Cooper had battered Shields enough for the referee to intervene. Then, to add insult to injury, Cooper did it again in the promotion’s playoffs, stopping Shields a second time at PFL 10.
Then there was long-reigning ONE titleholder Bibiano Fernandes. The Brazilian has dominated the lighter weight classes outside of the UFC for the last decade. Competing in his 10th straight title fight under the ONE banner, Fernandes suffered his first defeat since 2010. He dropped a split decision to Kevin Belingon and relinquished his belt in the process.
August produced what most thought would be the year’s biggest surprise, as Henry Cejudo dethroned Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson from the flyweight throne at UFC 227. Johnson, who was long considered the sport’s pound-for-pound best, had not tasted defeat since 2011 and owns the record for most consecutive title defenses in promotional history. Perhaps even more surprising? The UFC jettisoned Johnson to ONE Championship following the split-decision loss, rather than give him a rematch with Cejudo.
Despite all of these tremendous upsets, the MMA gods were not done causing chaos in 2018.
At the UFC’s final event of the year, women’s featherweight champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino put her belt on the line against women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes. The two power-punching Brazilians were tabbed as the co-main event for the UFC 232 pay-per-view card, with Cyborg entering as a two-to-one favorite at most sportsbooks.
Cyborg’s legacy in MMA has rarely been disputed. After losing her professional debut in 2005, she lived up to her moniker, demolishing everyone put in her path. After capturing belts in Strikeforce and Invicta FC, she was signed to the UFC in 2016. Four of her five Octagon wins had come via strikes, but it was her title defense against Holly Holm at UFC 219 that had many believing that she had the patience and technical skills to best Nunes.
The resume of Nunes is littered with a who’s who of the sport’s best. She’s demolished current Bellator champion Julia Budd, former UFC champions Germaine de Randamie, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, and has twice defeated current UFC flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko. However, it was the close nature of her fights with Shevchenko, as well as losses to Cat Zingano and Sarah D’Alelio, that planted seeds of doubt in the ability of Nunes to handle someone like Cyborg.
What took place in the cage on Saturday, Dec. 29, lasted a mere 51 seconds. Every great fighter falls at some point, but few expected what transpired that night. Cyborg was extremely aggressive, showing Nunes little or no respect. Nunes responded with crisp, pinpoint striking that quickly rocked Cyborg. As Cyborg tried to brawl her way back into the fight, Nunes continued to deliver clean power shots to the jaw of the champion. A final flurry along the fence left Cyborg unconscious. Nunes became the first woman to hold two UFC belts simultaneously.
Although Nunes may not have been the biggest underdog of this year’s nominees, the sudden and violent nature of her knockout victory made it the easy choice for this year’s “Upset of the Year” award.
Other finalists: Henry Cejudo vs. Demetrious Johnson, Kevin Belingon vs. Bibiano Fernandes, Ray Cooper vs. Jake Shields I
Make sure you check out the rest of the Combat Press 2018 MMA Award winners.