In 2018, Israel Adesanya made his presence felt in the UFC. In 2019, he made the jump from rising star to the sport’s elite class.
For that reason, Adesanya is The Body Lock’s 2019 Fighter of the Year.
Adesanya was coming off of a year that saw him rise from relative unknown in the sport of MMA to UFC contender. Entering the promotion at 11-0 in professional MMA, he strung together four wins in 2018 from February to November, his competition level increasing gradually as each fight passed.
By the end of 2018, Adesanya was viewed as a legitimate contender in the middleweight division. His striking wowed crowds, and his charisma both inside and outside of the cage became a focal point of his being.
Of course, he was subjected to plenty of criticism, largely stemming from those who believed his impressive victories should be attributed to facing lesser competition above all else.
Well, in 2019, Adesanya did his best to silence those doubters.
His year started off in an unlikely and unforeseen pay-per-view main event slot. Then-champion Robert Whittaker was forced out of his title bout with Kelvin Gastelum hours beforehand because of a hernia and collapsed bowel, so Adesanya’s co-main event bout with his idol Anderson Silva served as the main event of UFC 234 in Melbourne, Australia.
In what was viewed as a passing of the torch bout, the two strikers dazzled through three rounds and the youth emerged victorious by unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27 2x).
With Gastelum watching in the crowd — Henry Cejudo’s UFC title belt in hand — Adesanya called his next shot.
“Kelvin, put that belt down. Seriously,” Adesanya said in his post-fight interview with Jon Anik.
Two months later, the two middleweight contenders would enter the Octagon together, vying for the interim middleweight strap in the co-main event of UFC 236.
Adesanya and Gastelum put on a Fight of the Year contender which saw both fighters badly hurt at times in the bout. Ultimately, it was Adesanya who left with the belt and his perfect record intact after earning a unanimous decision victory (48-46 3x), setting up a title unification bout with Whittaker.
For the first time in his UFC career, Adesanya had some time off. After going to war with Gastelum, he had nearly six months before challenging for the undisputed title.
Once he stepped into the cage, though, Adesanya showed no signs of rust.
The interim champion put together one of the most dominant performances of his MMA career against his toughest competition yet. Adesanya wasted no time unloading his offense on Whittaker, and after just one round, it was clear that the champion was in danger.
In the next round, the changing of the guard was solidified.
Adesanya uncorked a left hand that sent Whittaker stumbling to the floor once again, and all it took was two ground and pound strikes for referee Marc Goddard to step in and stop the fight.
The victory capped off a perfect 3-0 year for Adesanya. He now enters 2020 with a role change yet again, becoming the hunted in the 185-pound division.
Alexander Volkanovski (#2)
A teammate of Adesanya’s at City Kickboxing, 2019 was a year to remember for the newly-crowned featherweight champion.
Volkanovski fought twice in the calendar year but managed to knock off two 145-pound legends.
Volkanovski began his 2019 campaign in May at UFC 237 when he traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to take on the King himself, Jose Aldo. What followed was three rounds of Volkanovski neutralizing every facet of Aldo’s game on the way to a unanimous decision win (30-27 3x).
What followed was a title shot for the Australian, and he capitalized on the opportunity.
At UFC 245, Volkanovski became the first fighter since Conor McGregor in 2013 to hand Max Holloway a loss in the featherweight division. Volkanovski’s unanimous decision victory (50-45, 48-47 2x) also earned him UFC gold for the first time in his career.
Henry Cejudo (#T-3)
Like Volkanovski, Cejudo fought twice in 2019. And in both of his Octagon appearances, he dismantled elite opponents.
Cejudo made the first defense of his now-vacated flyweight title in the UFC’s first event of the year. The champion rang in the ESPN era by shocking the fighting world with a first-round TKO win over former bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw after just 32 seconds of fighting.
Cejudo then began his pursuit of two belts after Dillashaw’s 135-pound title was vacated due to his suspension for erythropoietin. He would get his wish when he was scheduled to face a surging Marlon Moraes at UFC 238.
For the second time, Cejudo entered the fight as the betting underdog. And for the second time, he emerged victorious with a TKO win, this time capturing more gold in the third round of the bout.
Cejudo relinquished his flyweight title on Dec. 19 after just one defense, but remains at the top of the bantamweight division in 2020.
Jorge Masvidal (#T-3)
Masvidal’s rise to mainstream stardom has been nothing short of remarkable.
He entered the year on a two-fight skid having last competed in November of 2017, but by the end of 2019, he was, and still is, one of the UFC’s biggest stars.
Masvidal got things started with a second-round knockout win over former welterweight title challenger Darren Till in front of a London crowd in March. He managed to get in a second fight that night when he engaged welterweight contender Leon Edwards backstage, coining the now-famous phrase “three-piece and a soda” in the process.
Masvidal made his biggest wave of the year when he ended his grudge match with Ben Askren by way of five-second knockout via flying knee. The victory became the fastest in the history of the UFC across all weight divisions.
He closed out his year by winning an unconventional strap — the “BMF” title. Masvidal squared off against Nate Diaz in a battle of gritty veterans, and the fight was stopped by doctors after the third round due to a cut over Diaz’s eye that obstructed his vision.
Kamaru Usman (#5)
After beating everyone the UFC put in front of him since winning The Ultimate Fighter in 2015, Usman got his first crack at a UFC title at the start of the year.
He responded by steamrolling champion Tyron Woodley at UFC 235 in March. Usman dominated Woodley on the way to a unanimous decision victory (50-45, 50-44 2x), becoming the first man to defeat Woodley since Rory MacDonald did so in 2014.
Injuries held Usman out of competition for some time, but he returned to the Octagon to close out the year strong.
In his grudge match with former interim welterweight champion Colby Covington, the two earned Fight of the Night in a back-and-forth striking bout that eventually saw Covington dropped and stopped by the champion with less than a minute to go in the fifth and final round.
The TKO win broke Usman’s streak of five-straight decision victories and was his first stoppage victory since his 2017 first-round TKO of Sergio Moraes.
Voting Results for Fighter of the Year
- Israel Adesanya (35)
- Alex Volkanovski (15)
- Henry Cejudo (14)
- Jorge Masvidal (14)
- Kamaru Usman (5)
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.