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Top 5 breakout UFC stars of the year 2020

L - R: Deiveson Figueiredo, Kevin Holland and Marvin Vettori
L - R: Deiveson Figueiredo, Kevin Holland and Marvin Vettori
Dhruv Sharma
TOP CONTRIBUTOR
Modified 30 Dec 2020, 15:58 IST
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As 2020 comes to a close, the UFC rounded out their lineup of events with one last Fight Night card. The final UFC event of 2020 saw Stephen Thompson beat Geoff Neal in a five-round war that served as the main event of UFC Vegas 17.

As the promotions' employees take a well-deserved break to enjoy the holiday season with their loved ones, perhaps it's time now for retrospection.

The UFC led the way and showed how to safely host events amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. However, at the core, it was the fighters who were willing to risk it all for the fans that made it all possible. Every single UFC fighter who stepped inside the octagon, even without live crowds in attendance, deserve to be thanked for their commitment to the sport and fans.

As is the case in every year in the UFC, some stars shined brighter than the others.

A select group of UFC fighters made 2020 their own year, and will be expected to deliver bigger and better things in 2021.

UFC’s top 5 breakout stars of 2020

#5 Joaquin Buckley

UFC Fight Night: Kasanganay v Buckley
UFC Fight Night: Kasanganay v Buckley

Joaquin Buckley didn't even start the 2020 in the UFC. That's why his inclusion on this list speaks volumes about his performances inside the octagon.

Buckley kicked off 2020 with a win against Jackie Gosh at LFA 87 in July. UFC Presient Dana White then signed the young St. Louis, Missouri native to a contract. He suffered a knockout loss at the hands of Kevin Holland at UFC Vegas 6 to start his stint with the promotion.

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In his second UFC appearance however, Buckley became an overnight sensation when he knocked out Impa Kasanganay with a reverse spinning kick at UFC Fight Island 5. His efforts earned him a nomination in UFC’s list of Knockout of The Year candidates for 2020.

Buckley would prove that his performance was not a fluke, as he delivered another spectacular knockout, flattening Jordan Wright at UFC 255. Both his wins have earned him Performance of The Night bonuses.

He hopes continue this streak in 2021, and already has an opponent in mind in the form of veteran James Krause. 

#4 Marvin Vettori 

UFC Fight Night Hermansson v Vettori: Weigh-Ins
UFC Fight Night Hermansson v Vettori: Weigh-Ins

Luck might just be defined as the intersection where opportunity meets talent.

Marvin Vettori was never short on talent, having given Israel Adesanya his toughest fight before the middleweight champion fought Kelvin Gastelum.

The Italian was already on a two-fight win streak heading into 2020, and was slowly climbing up the ladder of the middleweight division. In July, he was called on to face Karl Roberson. He finished ‘Baby K’ in the first round via submission, and was already looking for his next victim.

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In a strange turn of events, Jack Hermansson, who was scheduled to take on Kevin Holland at UFC Vegas 16, found himself without an opponent after the latter tested positive for COVID-19.

Vettori stepped in on shot notice and dominated Hermansson in a war of attrition to earn a unanimous decision victory. In the process, the Italian made it into the top-5 of the UFC middleweight rankings.

From just another prospect to a legitimate title challenger, 2020 was indeed ‘Lucky’ for ‘The Italian Dream’.

#3 Khamzat Chimaev

UFC Fight Night: Whittaker v Till Weigh-in
UFC Fight Night: Whittaker v Till Weigh-in

The phrase ‘Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere’ is often thrown around by various UFC fighters, but seldom acted upon.

Khamzat Chimaev lives by it.

The Swedish prospect was signed by the UFC on the back of an impressive 6-0 start to his MMA career, all by finishes.

‘Borz’ did not disappoint in his debut, as he finished John Philips by submission at UFC Fight Island 1. He then expressed his desire to fight again on the UFC's next Fight Island card.

Chimaev got his wish when the promotion offered him a fight just ten days later against Rhys McKee. Chimaev went on to TKO McKee in the first round. In the process, he became the fighter with the least turnaround time between two UFC wins.

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Khamzat Chimaev had arrived.

However, there was more in store for the fans. Chimaev was offered a fight at middleweight against veteran Gerald Meerschaert at UFC Vegas 11.

Chimaev needed just 17 seconds to dispose of Meerschaert by KO and keep his hype train going.

His impressive performances landed him a main event slot against Leon Edwards at UFC Fight Night 185. In an unfortunate turn of events however, it was announced that Chimaev has been forced to withdraw from the bout.

#2 Deiveson Figueiredo 

UFC Fight Night: Figueredo v Benavidez 2
UFC Fight Night: Figueredo v Benavidez 2

The exit of Demetrious Johnson from the UFC left a void at the top of the flyweight division.‘Mighty Mouse’s’ usurper Henry Cejudo left the 125-pound division as well, to concentrate on his 135-pound title run.

The flyweights needed a shot in the arm to disprove Dana White’s theory of the 125-pound division being 'stale'.

Enter: Deiveson Figueiredo.

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The Brazilian entered the pandemic-hit year on the back of wins against Alexander Pantoja and Tim Elliott.

He wasted no time in setting the division on fire and disposing of veteran flyweight Joseph Benavidez. Many believed that Benavidez was the best flyweight in the world not named Demetrious Johnson. In violent fashion, Figueiredo put a stop to that conversation.

However, the Brazilian could not win the vacant strap in his first try due to missing weight.

Figueiredo made good on his second opportunity to grab the flyweight title, as he stopped Benavidez again, this time by first round submission in the main event of UFC Fight Island 2.

He then defended the title against Alex Perez at UFC 255, finishing the contender in the first round via guillotine choke. Before leaving the UFC Apex that night, he had already agreed to defend his belt again at UFC 256, just two weeks later.

The champion faced off against top contender Brandon Moreno in what is now a record for the least turnaround time between title defenses in UFC history. While the fight ended in a draw, it could have been a hard-fought win for the champ, had he not been deducted a point for a low blow.

While many fighters win belts, not every champion gets to reinvigorate a division the way Figueiredo did.

‘Deus Da Guerra’ is surely one of the few things to be thankful for in 2020.

#1 Kevin Holland

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UFC 256: Holland v Souza
UFC 256: Holland v Souza

If there is one thing that UFC fans heard more than COVID-19 or Coronavirus in 2020, it had to be the name Kevin Holland.

The middleweight fought five times in the year, winning all of his octagon outings. This has put Holland in elite company as one of the few fighters with five wins in a calendar year.

What’s even more impressive is that there could have been more fights for the Californian, had he not contracted the COVID-19 and subsequently get pulled from his bout against Jack Hermansson at UFC Vegas 16.

Holland came into 2020 on the back of a loss against Brendan Allen, but he started the year in style, knocking out Alexander Hernandez in the first round in May.

Subsequent wins over Joaquin Buckley, Darren Stewart, and Charlie Ontiveros earned him the main event slot against Jack Hermansson when Darren Till pulled out of the fight. However, Holland had to pull out of the fight as well after also testing positive for COVID-19.

He was instead booked to face Jacare Souza at UFC 256 – the last PPV of the year. In a performance that earned him a nomination for Knockout of The Year, Holland caught Jacare with a punch on the jaw as he was scrambling to get back on his feet. The punch stunned Jacare, and Holland went in for the finish.

From middleweight wilderness to top-10 in the 185-pound division, 2020 has indeed been the year of Kevin Holland.

Published 30 Dec 2020, 15:58 IST
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