2020 was a wild year for MMA that feels like it lasted a lifetime. With all the action that took place over the year, it’s hard to remember what took place. This series looks to help out with that, providing an overview on what happened in each weight class and a look at what we can expect for 2021.
For the UFC, 2020 was a curious year in the featherweight division. However, a lack of activity among the big-name fighters in no way diminished the volume of quality fights and performances in the division. Alexander Volkanovski and Max Holloway had the kind of world class rematch that we can only hope for in MMA, Josh Emmett and Shane Burgos put on one of the very best fights this year, and a number of rising prospects like Bryce Mitchell, Gavin Tucker, and Ilia Topuria established themselves as names to watch for. Perhaps most notably though, the featherweight division played host to a number of fighters who took advantage of the uncertain circumstances to get in as many fights as possible, including Giga Chikadze, who racked up four wins this year. Though the big names weren’t in action often, the rest of the division more than made up for it.
In Bellator, the Featherweight Grand Prix was derailed slightly by COVID-19 but ultimately got back on track and continued to deliver high quality fights with a straightforward narrative. Moreover, the “right” people kept winning in the Grand Prix, with champion Patricio Pitbull and uber-prospect A.J. McKee on the way to collide for the title. Add in McKee’s Submission of the Year over Darrion Caldwell and the resurgence of Aaron Pico (who had three stoppage wins), and Bellator’s featherweight division had a highly successful 2020.
Finally, over in Singapore, ONE Championship crowned a new and definitively exciting champion in Thanh Le. Le has had one of the most interesting journeys in MMA, having done a run on The Ultimate Fighter (losing in the second round), then showing up on the Contender Series where he delivered head kick KO but didn’t get signed by the UFC. Following that, Le went to the LFA, lost a featherweight title shot, and wound up in ONE. Since then, he’s won four in a row by violent stoppage, including two this year. The second of which, a clobbering of Martin Nguyen, earned him the featherweight belt. Not bad for a 35-year-old.
At this point, what can be said about Mirsad Bektic that hasn’t already? Bektic was once one of the most touted prospects in the entire sport, a guy for whom multiple title shots/an eventual championship seemed all but assured. Then Darren Elkins and his unbreakable resolve came and upended Bektic’s career. Since then, Bektic has struggled to regain his form. In 2020, he lost twice more (upping his current skid to three fights) including a loss to Damon Jackson, who took the bout on three days’ notice. Any way you slice it, Bektic’s 2020 was awful, and given the way things have been going for him, 2021 might not be too hot either.
Chase Hooper also deserves a mention here. The 21-year old prospect fought twice in 2020, and though he pulled the second one out with a miracle comeback submission, the reality is that for the 28 minutes he spent in a cage in 2020, he got his ass kicked for 27 of them. Hooper is young and has plenty of upside, but his striking and wrestling need a substantial amount of work, the kind that should most likely not be happening on UFC undercards, but on the regional scene.
2020 was a rough year for all of MMA, but perhaps no division was as listless as men’s featherweight. Despite being filled with young talent, the division has felt somewhat stale for a while now, and this year kept that trend up with only four fighters in the UFC rankings competing more than once in 2020, with three not competing at all.
The lack of activity among the top contenders in the division has only been exacerbated by the rivalry between champion Alexander Volkanovski and former champion Max Holloway. Contenders have been dropping out of fights, seemingly with the hope that they will get their name called for the next title fight if they just wait (here’s looking at you, Zabit Magomedsharipov). Overall, it’s made the division the least interesting it has been in years. The division is in desperate need of someone new for Volko to defend against, if only to get it moving again.
The MVP of a division is not just a question of “Who is the best fighter in the division?” Instead, it looks at who provided the most entertainment in the division over the course of the year, win or lose.
2020 was a big year for Herbert Burns. The younger brother of top welterweight contender Gilbert, “The Blaze” made his UFC debut in January and did so in style, knocking out the extremely durable Nate Landwehr with a knee. The win got him his first “Performance of the Night” bonus, an even more impressive feat when you consider that he’d never knocked anyone out. Burns followed that up in June with an 80-second rear-naked choke submission of Evan Dunham, which earned him another “Performance of the Night” bonus. Burns then wrapped up his 2020 by having a good, old-fashioned rock fight with Daniel Pineda before eventually gassing out and getting elbowed into oblivion from the top crucifix position.
Sure, other featherweights in 2020 had better years. Calvin Kattar had one of the best KOs of the year and a great fight with Dan Ige, Giga Chikadze went 4-0, and Aaron Pico had three impressive stoppage wins. All of those men had big 2020s with bigger things in store for them next year, but none offered the same excitement that “The Blaze” Burns did. In his debut year for the UFC, he gave us one of the best knockouts and one of the best submissions of the year. Then he added in another great fight with a thrilling ending to boot.
Herbert Burns KOs Nate Landwehr with a knee, UFC Raleigh
Josh Emmett and Shane Burgos put on a Fight of the Year contender, UFC on ESPN 11
A.J. McKee submits Darrion Caldwell with a neck crank, Bellator 253
Thanh Le KOs Martin Nguyen with hooks, ONE Championship: A New Tomorrow
Though 2020 was most assuredly a down year for the featherweight division, 145 has the potential to rebound strongly in 2021. Brian Ortega presents a fresh challenger for Alexander Volkanovski, which should provide new interest a the top of the division, and 145 still plays host to one of the deepest rosters of young contenders in the sport. The question, though, is will these fighters get back to being active and earn title shots, or will Holloway find himself with a third crack at Volko? If it’s the former, the division will thrive. If it’s the latter, we’re looking at yet another lackluster year.
Outside of the UFC, however, things should be spectacular. Bellator’s Featherweight Grand Prix will wrap up with (presumably) one of the best non-UFC fights possible in A.J. McKee vs. Patricio Pitbull. That’s the kind of fight that should make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. So with that, and the prospect of at least one more fight for both men inside the Bellator cage, 2021 is looking bright.