Happy Olympic year!
It’s been an incredible year of both wrestling and mixed martial arts, and my first writing for Bloody Elbow. A huge thank you to those who brought me on, and those who consistently comment and share my work, the rest of you are dead to me.
There are awards articles coming out left and right, no need for more exposition. These awards are specific to wrestling that occurs in MMA, not to be confused with awards for the wrestlers themselves in MMA. There will be no “MMA Wrestler of the Year” award, largely because there were not many great repeat wrestling performances in 2019.
While there are only two categories, there are many worthy nominees, let’s dive in.
Wrestling for MMA - 2019 Awards
Takedown of the Year
More of a novelty award, “Takedown of the Year” tries to find a proper combination of rarity, aesthetics, and contextual importance.
It had next to zero appeal to me from a technical perspective, but Robbie Lawler’s opening head-inside single slam on Ben Askren was as aesthetic and contextually significant as it gets in 2019.
Winner: Robbie Lawler vs. Ben Askren (UFC 235)
Askren’s debut was one of the most anticipated in UFC history, regardless of whether or not you think that was justified. A smug, credentialed wrestler set to prove himself against a man some worship as some sort of violence deity, the emotional stakes were dire.
The two-time Hodge Trophy winner and Olympian got to the legs immediately, trying his best to force a wrestling situation early. He got one.
Askren would live, and even go on to convince Herb Dean to stop the fight in his favor. But if there was only one wrestling moment in 2019 that had anyone watching losing their minds, it belonged to Robbie Lawler. The overall top MMA moment of 2019 also involved Ben Askren looking to wrestle. If you’re interested in my thoughts on Askren’s career, read on.
Runner-Up: Kamaru Usman vs. Tyron Woodley (UFC 235)
How nice that these fights were back-to-back. It was only Usman’s first emphatic victory over a former Division 1 All-American in 2019, but Usman-Woodley was one of the most undeniably dominant title-winning efforts in UFC history.
To start, the closed-stance matchup obscured the window for Woodley’s rear hand counter, a weapon he relies almost exclusively on. Usman was able to take ground jabbing in, and once they hit the cage, it was Usman’s world.
I touched on Usman’s clinch wrestling in this breakdown before his fight with Colby Covington.
While Usman convinced Tyron Woodley he was having a nightmare for a full five rounds, two moments stood out as defining the physical and strategic blowout we were witnessing.
The first was Usman making a firm commitment to assaulting Woodley’s ribcage.
The second was a shocking bodylock off the cage in round 2.
Usman looked to enter on his jab with Woodley’s back to the cage. Woodley changed levels to intercept Usman’s entry, but had his reaching arms caught with underhooks.
Digging in for a bodylock, Usman stepped in front of Woodley’s hips, dragged his weight forward, blocked the rear leg, lifted and returned Woodley back the other way. At one point, Woodley was completely horizontal in the air.
For manhandling a prominent champion, a powerful wrestler at that, Kamaru Usman deserves a shout.
Honorable Mention, in no particular order:
Petr Yan vs. Urijah Faber (UFC 245) - Tiger Muay Thai’s star pupil used his incredible agility and head movement to slip himself into position to hit several clean duck-unders on the former WEC champion and Division 1 wrestler.
Raphael Assuncao vs. Cory Sandhagen (UFC 241) - My pal Sriram Muralidaran’s favorite bantamweight gave a valiant effort against one of his toughest style matchups in the division, a future divisional contender. It was important for Assuncao to enforce his grappling on the rangy volume striker, but Sandhagen’s scrambling and bottom game made him difficult to hold down.
Assuncao had no issues getting to his entries, but he continuously found Sandhagen in a position to escape on every finish. In a close fight, late, Assuncao changed tactics, hitting a huge high-c lift to plant Sandhagen flat on his back, finally. Sandhagen rolled through and popped right back up. Frustrating, but a hoss move by Raphael Assuncao.
Maikel Perez vs. Brandon Moreno (LFA 69) - The former Cuban freestyle Olympian pulled off a ton of nifty wrestling maneuvers against the now-streaking Moreno, before sadly fading and being finished late in the fight.
Marlon Moraes vs. Jose Aldo (UFC 245) - Once the most reliable defensive wrestlers in MMA history (my article on that subject), Jose Aldo was lateral dropped by Marlon Moraes of all people. Incredibly depressing, but historically impressive.
Wrestling Performance of the Year
An award for both individuals and fights, Wrestling Performance of the Year honors the best wrestling-heavy action of 2019.
Winner: Joseph Benavidez vs. Dustin Ortiz 2 (UFC on ESPN+ 1)
It’s probably no secret that I love both of these men, and this fight.
There was enough material that my “Wrestling for MMA: Joseph Benavidez article was comprised entirely of sequences from this bout alone. (Please read it.)
Two of MMA’s best-ever scramblers almost exclusively wrestled for three rounds to ring in the new year. From Benavidez’s back control escapes to Ortiz channeling Coach Tim Flynn to hit headlocks from bottom, it was a folkstyle delight.
Runner-Up: Rafael dos Anjos vs. Kevin Lee (UFC on ESPN+10)
The original subject of “Wrestling for MMA”, Kevin Lee was in decent form for his welterweight debut against an all-time great in Rafael dos Anjos. He was able to pressure to the cage and get to his double leg entries, his strongest position by far.
But ever-wily, Rafael dos Anjos battled tough in the clinch and when Lee was on his legs to draw out a tightly contested, hard-fought affair. Dos Anjos utilized the kimura trap grip the most, keeping Lee from getting a strong grip on his double, allowing dos Anjos to keep his base wide and stave off the finish.
Both men had their moments as wrestlers, but eventually the pace and surprising physicality of RDA took its toll, and a desperate, gassed shot attempt by Lee was punished by dos Anjos, leading to the finishing submission.
RDA has caught a lot of flack over the years for struggling against strong wrestlers, but he proved himself (once again) a crafty, competitive wrestling and grappling force to be reckoned with against a young, game opponent. It was a statement win for dos Anjos to keep his career alive, and a showcase bout for wrestling tactics in MMA.
Honorable Mention, in no particular order:
Kamaru Usman vs. Tyron Woodley (UFC 235) - I couldn’t give him two awards.
Ali Bagov vs. Khusein Khaliev (ACA 99) - One of the most horrifying and physical wrestlers in MMA had to be at his best to contend with striker turned mixed martial artist Khusein Khaliev. It’s no exaggeration to say that the athleticism and technique on display in these exchanges rivals, and likely surpasses Benavidez-Ortiz 2. Watch for yourself.
The key difference is that eventually, Bagov wore his man down and finished him, while Ortiz and Benavidez both refused to give up an inch.
Gregor Gillespie vs. Yancy Medeiros (UFC on ESPN+1) - An absolute folkstyle clinic. Four-time Division 1 All-American and one-time national champion Gregor Gillespie put a ride on Yancy Medeiros. I broke down this fight, and more, here.
Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier 2 (UFC 241) - What a brutal, frustrating battle. There is a narrative that Daniel Cormier stopped trying to wrestle in this fight for no good reason, but this is misleading. In the first wrestling sequence of the fight, former ranked Division 1 wrestler Miocic defends Cormier’s single long enough to get to the cross-face, he’s nearly broken the position. He switches to the chest wrap to get his hips back and possible snap Cormier down, but the second he does - Cormier hits his lift and returns Miocic.
Quite a highlight, but a drawn out exchange that cost Cormier a ton of energy.
With five rounds ahead of him and Miocic not appearing to be going anywhere, Cormier did make a decision to avoid another extended sequence where he’s underneath Miocic’s hips. Instead, he looked for clinch entries, reaching out for the collar off his punching combinations. This is where Stipe’s wrestling performance began. Using frames and deft handfighting against the double-champion, Miocic stifled Cormier’s entries and reversed position repeatedly, even getting to double underhooks and bodylocking the World medalist to his back.
Jussier Formiga vs. Deiveson Figueiredo (UFC on ESPN+6) - Formiga’s masterful performance against current title challenger Figueiredo was a lesson in wrestling entries for MMA. Using his jab and linear footwork, Formiga was able to program reactions from his opponent to open up entries to the hips, as well as to draw Figueiredo into intercepting shots. Here’s my breakdown of Formiga’s performance.
Paulo Costa vs. Yoel Romero (UFC 241) - Paulo Costa is being mentioned soley for his cement hips, which stopped a powerful, well-timed Yoel Romero double leg dead in its tracks. Stunning.
Islam Makhachev vs. Arman Tsarukyan (UFC on ESPN+7) - UFC newcomer Tsarukyan made the potential divisional darkhorse battle for position for 15 minutes. Against one of lightweight’s more dominant wrestlers and grapplers, Tsarukyan proved he was physically and technically prepared for high-level UFC competition.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier (UFC 242) - While I do feel Dustin Poirier fell short tactically and technically in situations he could have improved upon, this utter domination by Khabib Nurmagomedov, doing what he does best, is certainly noteworthy. My pre-fight breakdown of Khabib’s wrestling was followed by a post-fight analysis of the bout.
Ismail Naurdiev vs. Michel Prazeres (UFC on ESPN+3) - While his wrestling has looked, well, worse, since this bout, “Austrian Wonderboy” shut down the wrestling and grappling game of one of the UFC most physically imposing forces in “Trator”. To hold off a hoss like Prazeres, as a striker, in your promotional debut, is worthy of celebration.
Jarred Brooks vs. Haruo Ochi (RIZIN/Bellator 237) - “The Monkey God” is a brave man, and an entertainer. Despite the fact that in every fight, there is a 10% chance he could knock himself out, Brooks continues to enter deep on doubles against the cage, lift, and return his opponents in electric fashion.
Footage of this bout is still hard to come by as Bellator chose to tape-delay and limit access to the postlims containing several high profile bouts, but we do have this clip of someone filming on their phone from the arena...
The win gave Brooks the lineal strawweight (115) title, a huge distinction in a completely unheralded, but talented division.
For more on Brooks and the strawweights, please check out the man Strawweight MMA Rankings, who has been putting out excellent write-ups on the 115-pounders.
I wrote a last-minute preview for the @The_monkeygod vs. @haruoochimma II fight on @FightSitedotcom occurring in a short while on the #BellatorJapan postlims.#Bellator237— STRAWWEIGHT MMA RANKINGS (@sw_mma) December 29, 2019
GIF: Brooks KO'ing Undefeated Jun Nakamura in @_PANCRASE_ in 2016https://t.co/FvuGWUV522 pic.twitter.com/DEXlT1Ps1Q
The “A for Effort” Award:
Paul Daley vs. Michael “Venom” Page (Bellator 216)
It almost worked, to be fair.