Happy Olympic year, for real this time! And what better way to ring it in, than with my second annual Wrestling for MMA Awards.
Despite the pandemic and all that has accompanied it, it’s been a busy year of both wrestling and mixed martial arts. With awards articles coming out left and right to sum up the best of 2020 this article needs little in the way of exposition. These awards are specific to wrestling that occurs in MMA, not to be confused with awards for the wrestlers themselves in MMA.
While there are only two official categories, there are many worthy nominees, let’s dive in.
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. Instead of deciding between those factors and picking one, I split the award in two.
Takedown of the Year (Aesthetic)
Simply put, aesthetic focuses on which takedowns looked the coolest and had a high degree of difficulty.
Winner: Mark O. Madsen’s back arch vs. Austin Hubbard (UFC 248)
Likely the most credentialed Greco-Roman wrestler to ever seriously compete in MMA, Denmark’s Mark O. Madsen has made an immediate splash in the UFC’s lightweight division. Early in his fight with the gritty striker Austin Hubbard, Madsen found himself in the rear-standing position, looking for a mat return.
Instinctively, he angled off to the side, loaded his hips under Hubbard’s, and hit a beautiful turning lift and arch to smack Hubbard off the canvas. Rarely do we see mat returns of that caliber in MMA. For the pure aesthetics and degree of difficulty, I present this award to Madsen.
Takedown of the Year (Importance)
This half of the award reflects more on the contextual significance of the takedown. How important was it to the fight, did it show something significant about either fighter, was it just flatly impressive?
Winner: Khabib Nurmagomedov’s double leg vs. Justin Gaethje (UFC 254)
The buildup to Khabib Nurmagomedov’s final title defense caused many to turn a critical eye toward the mysterious wrestling ability of Justin Gaethje. In all of his UFC bouts, Gaethje had barely had to demonstrate the skills that made him Northern Colorado’s first ever NCAA D1 All-American. The fight that truly provided insight was Gaethje’s WSOF title defense vs. Luis Firmino.
Firmino had some success wrestling with Gaethje, but many, including myself, were incredibly impressed with Gaethje’s ability to shuck off takedown attempts even when he was completely out of position and half-blind. However, there was one clean attempt; Firmino shot a double leg from space, Gaethje sprawled back hard, and Firmino slid his head around and turned the corner to swivel to Gaethje’s back. It was a telling exposure of a defensive hole in Gaethje’s wrestling.
However, Khabib Nurmagomedov had never shot that type of takedown in the UFC. The Dagestani champ has been much better known for shooting doubles against the cage, or with more height out in the open. The likelihood of him hitting his knees on a double in the open like that seemed slim. The champion hadn’t even used his signature diving single leg takedown in several bouts.
Although the fight seemed to be comfortably in Nurmagomedov’s hands already, the bout-sealing takedown was one that changed my view of Nurmagomedov. Like any fighter, he has had his flaws, but he was largely facing opponents who were not well equipped to exploit them. Or so I thought. In the most important fight of his career, Khabib Nurmagomedov showed off opponent-specific adaptations which allowed him to neutralize an enormously dangerous foe.
That moment convinced me of Nurmagomedov’s understanding of strategy and game-planning. He’s followed largely the same approach versus every opponent to that point, but that didn’t mean it was the only approach of which he was capable. When he faced an opponent who may have exploited some of his usual habits, he removed them. Not only that, he clearly studied Justin Gaethje and saw that takedown from Luis Firmino, then replicated it to perfection. For that reason, I award Khabib Nurmagomedov the 2020 Takedown of the Year Award.
Wrestling Performance of the Year
The Wrestling Performance of the Year Award honors fighters and fights that produced impressive and or exciting wrestling-heavy action in 2020. Once again, I have split the award in two, in order to honor a greater range of nominees.
For fight, it’s a mix of dominant performances and back-and-forth exchanges. For fighter, it focuses on athletes who made their mark across multiple fights with their wrestling.
Wrestling Performance of the Year (Fight)
Winner: Yaroslav Amosov vs. Logan Storley (Bellator 252)
I can say I saw this one coming. Heading into welterweight prospect Yaroslav Amosov’s clash with fellow undefeated fighter Logan Storley, I wrote Amosov’s brilliant wrestling performance vs. three-time NCAA champion Ed Ruth.
I believed that four-time All-American Logan Storley’s wrestling game had been better adapted for MMA, and that he would give Amosov and even stiffer challenge than his more credentialed counterpart. As predicted, Amosov and Storley went to war on the mats, both men refusing to let their game be denied. Storley never stopped attacking, wrestling through exhaustion and showing the kind of savvy and composure that only a lifetime of wrestling can provide. Amosov stayed solid fundamentally, attacking the wrists, hiding his hips, and flowing through positions to keep the fight moving against his toughest opponent yet.
For a wrestling fan, the fight was an absolute masterpiece, deserving of the unofficial title, “Wrestliest Fight of the Year”.
Yaroslav Amosov vs. Ed Ruth
Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal
Movsar Evloev vs. Mike Grundy
Rafael dos Anjos vs. Paul Felder
Guram Kutateladze vs. Mateusz Gamrot
Curtis Blaydez vs. Alexander Volkov
Charles Oliveira vs. Tony Ferguson
Gavin Tucker vs. Billy Quarantillo
Wrestling Performance of the Year (Fighter)
Winner: Merab Dvalishvili (vs. Casey Kenny, Gustavo Lopez, John Dodson)
Georgian bantamweight Merab Dvalishvili has quickly become one of the most prolific wrestlers in the UFC. I wrote in-depth about some of the setups he uses for his explosive volume takedown game.
In addition to his three wrestling-heavy victories in 2020, including two over tough wrestlers and grapplers in Kenney and Dodson, Dvalishvili broke the UFC record for takedowns in a single year.
For that reason alone, Merab Dvalishvili seemed like a no-brainer for this award.
That’s all for this year! I cannot possibly watch every promotion or event, so I’m sure there are many fighters and moments that I missed. Please utilize the comments section to tell me about them!