20 best UFC moments of 2020: Khabib Nurmagomedov's brilliance and Fight Island's roaring success

Abu Dhabi emerged as the premier destination for events during a tumultuous year

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This year was unlike any. The pandemic affected every aspect of life, including sport. Everything was shutting down left, right and centre.

But not UFC. Not entirely, at least. Promotion president Dana White scanned the globe to find a suitable location to continue providing live action to fans. And thus, we got Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.

An extraordinary year saw equally incredible efforts. Here are 20 of the best moments UFC witnessed in 2020.

UFC president Dana White kept the promotion running in 2020.

Fight Island an unqualified success

A strong shout to be the star of the 2020. With the UFC seeking a way for international athletes to compete amid strict pandemic-enforced restrictions, president White teased a faraway tropical island. There'd even be an octagon on the beach. And he delivered, although all fights ended up at Flash Forum, inside a Covid-19 safe zone "bubble" on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island. Eventually, there were two series – July and September/October – boasting four and five events respectively, with seven title fights among the 109 bouts in total. Fight Island delivered on the pre-Fight Island hype, and more. In fact, it's returning next month.

Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje during their pre-fight face-off at Yas Beach ahead of UFC 254. Courtesy UFC

Khabib stars, then shocks

Khabib Nurmagomedov dazzled against Justin Gaethje in the Fight Island 2 curtain-closer at UFC 254 in October. Competing for the first time since his father's death, the unbeaten lightweight champion submitted the interim champion in the second round at Flash Forum. Having remained stoic throughout the build-up, Nurmagomedov feel to his knees and sobbed uncontrollably. He then announced his shock retirement, saying he'd promised his mother he would go out at 29-0. Given everything he'd experienced personally – it also emerged that his training camp was beset with illness and injury – and the calibre of opponent, the victory represented the greatest display of Nurmagomedov's phenomenal career.

Conor McGregor beat Donald Cerrone. AFP

McGregor’s crushes Cowboy in comeback

Having not competed since his infamous defeat to Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018, Conor McGregor ended more than one year of inaction in typically emphatic fashion.

The Irishman, a former two-division champion, took out Donald Cerrone in 40 seconds in the headline bout at UFC 246 at T-Mobile Arena in January, rocking "Cowboy" with a knee before a head kick and a barrage of punches sealed the TKO. Since the fight took place at welterweight, McGregor joined a rarified group who hold knockout finishes in three divisions. His "three-fight" season was off to a flier – although it didn't quite pan out that way.

McGregor retires ... again

Targeting a packed 2020, McGregor stunned the sport in June by announcing his retirement – again. The 31-year-old took to social immediately following the broadcast of UFC 250, posting: “Hey guys I’ve decided to retire from fighting. Thank you all for the amazing memories! What a ride it’s been!”

It was his third retirement in four years. McGregor later said he’d grown frustrated with the lack of appealing fights offered, and in September angered Dana White by releasing private conversations regarding potential opponents. After announcing a boxing match in the Middle East with Manny Pacquiao, McGregor rematches Dustin Poirier next month, at UFC 257 in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JULY 12: (R-L) Jorge Masvidal punches Kamaru Usman of Nigeria in their UFC welterweight championship fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Masvidal flies in to the rescue

Preparing to host the inaugural Fight Island, the UFC announced eight days out from UFC 251 that Gilbert Burns had tested positive for Covid-19 just before leaving for Abu Dhabi, and was thus withdrawn from the headline bout against welterweight champion Kamaru Usman.

So in stepped Jorge Masvidal, on six days' notice. Such was the long-held animosity between the pair, they flew separately to the capital. In the end, Usman dominated an understandably undercooked Masvidal, prevailing by unanimous decision. Still, Fight Island was off to a cracker: UFC 251, featuring three title bouts, reportedly generated around 1.3 million pay-per-view buys – the most successful card in two years.

May 9, 2020; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Justin Gaethje (blue gloves) celebrates after defeating Tony Ferguson (red gloves) during UFC 249 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

UFC returns with Gaethje masterclass

Rocked, like ever other sport, by the pandemic, the UFC snapped a two-month hiatus of live events with a stacked UFC 249 in May. Originally set for April at the Barclays Centre before Disney and ESPN intervened, it eventually took place at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida – without fans. There was a change of headline act, too, with Khabib withdrawing from his lightweight title defence against long-time rival Tony Ferguson. Justin Gaethje jumped in, supplying a career performance to stop his opponent late on and claim the interim belt. It was Ferguson's first defeat in eight years, a run spanning 13 fights.

Zhang Weili celebrates her win by decision over Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the women's strawweight championship mixed martial arts bout at UFC 248 on Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)

Strawweight title fight for the ages

The co-main event at UFC 248 in February stole the show, and arguably 2020. Women's strawweight champion Zhang Weili and former title-holder Joanna Jedrzejczyk battled and bludgeoned through five full rounds at T-Mobile Arena, offering one of the greatest championship clashes in history. The pace was relentless from the off, with China’s Zhang bloodied and bruised, and Poland's Jedrzejczyk suffering a huge hematoma on her forehead. A seesaw encounter, with an incredible final round, it went to the scorecards, where Weili triumphed by split decision. An instant Fight of the Year contender, it ranks as probably the greatest female bout the UFC has seen.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JULY 26: Khamzat Chimaev of Czechia celebrates after his TKO victory over Rhys McKee of Northern Ireland in their welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 26, 2020 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Chimaev’s star is born

Undeniably breakthrough fighter of the year, Khamzat Chimaev arrived at Fight Island in July with a burgeoning reputation and unbeaten through six professional outings. Then, on promotional debut at UFC Fight Night 1, he dispatched middleweight John Phillips by second-round TKO, returning 10 days later to thrash welterweight Rhys McKee in Round 1.

A UFC record for fastest consecutive victories was set. The Khabib Nurmagomedov comparisons intensified, aided by Chimaev’s “smesh” shtick. He wowed again on US debut in September, taking 17 seconds to beat Gerald Meerscheart in Las Vegas. Next up? No 3-welterweight challenger Leon Edwards; a remarkable rise for someone not ranked a few months ago.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - SEPTEMBER 27:  (L-R) Israel Adesanya of Nigeria kicks the head of Paulo Costa of Brazil in their middleweight championship bout during UFC 253 inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on September 27, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Adesanya pricks “overly inflated balloon animal”

September's “Return to Fight Island” raced out of the blocks with Israel Adesanya's middleweight-title defence against Paulo Costa at UFC 253. Famously, the pair disliked one another, the build-up often heated and at times hotheaded. Both undefeated, their hotel run-in upon landing inside the Abu Dhabi bubble went viral, while the two had to be held apart at the official face-off after Costa attempted to hand the Adesayna a white belt. The video went viral, breaking numerous UFC records, including its most-shared video on Instagram (26 million-plus). Come fight night, though, Adesanya cruised to a second-round TKO to cement his place as undeniably the world’s best middleweight, now 20-0.

Buckley KO heard around the world

The UFC labelled it the “most unbelievable KO” in its history. Midway through the second round of their October encounter in Abu Dhabi, middleweight Joaquin Buckley connected with an incredible spinning kick on Impa Kasanganay after his initial kick was caught. His opponent was out before he hit the canvas, an amazing picture capturing the commentators' reactions octagon-side as it happened. It was only the fourth time in UFC history that a win stemmed from a spinning back-kick to the head. Before long, a video of the knockout on the official UFC twitter account became the most retweeted and liked in the promotion's history.

Jon Jones. AP

Jones vacates to move up

For many the greatest UFC athlete of all time, Jon Jones had for years reigned supreme at the summit of the light-heavyweight division. His tenure, albeit interrupted because of multiple violations, extended back to 2011. However, Jones confirmed in August that he was vacating the title to move to heavyweight, setting up the possibility of a championship clash against belt-holder Stipe Miocic. Jones, who’d been involved in a high-profile pay dispute with the promotion and has previously threatened to walk away, tweeted the news immediately following Miocic’s trilogy victory against Daniel Cormier. Jones fought once in 2020, February’s hugely controversial points victory against Dominick Reyes at UFC 247.

Kamaru Usman, left, Henry Cejudo, second left, and Khabib Nurmagomedov, right. Courtesy Ali Abdelaziz

"Triple C" bows out

Conor McGregor wasn’t the first high-profile retirement this year. In May, as the UFC celebrated its return with UFC 249, Henry Cejudo shocked the sport by waving goodbye. The two-weight champion and former Olympic gold medallist wrestler – hence the “Triple C” – had just dispatched Dominick Cruz in less than five minutes in Jacksonville to successfully defend his bantamweight crown. Cue the in-octagon announcement, and the proclamation that he was the best combat-sports athlete of all time. Dana White later questioned whether the 33-year-old would stay away for long. Whatever the case, Cejudo is one of only four athletes in UFC history to hold two championships simultaneously.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JULY 19: Deiveson Figueiredo of Brazil celebrates after defeating Joseph Benavidez in their UFC flyweight championship bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 19, 2020 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JULY 19: Deiveson Figueiredo of Brazil celebrates after defeating Joseph Benavidez in their UFC flyweight championship bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 19, 2020 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Fab flyweights offer instant classic

Deiveson Figueiredo is most probably the UFC’s athlete of the year. The Brazilian fought four times – all championship bouts, although criminally he missed weight for the first – and won the flyweight crown at UFC Fight Night 2 in Abu Dhabi in July. Figueiredo fought twice more, separated by three weeks, the second of which headlining this month’s UFC 256 in Las Vegas. There, he and No 1 contender Brandon Moreno scrapped their way to an explosive majority draw, offering another Fight of the Year contender. Proving the division on verge of elimination earlier this year was here to stay, Dana White called it the best-ever flyweight fight.

Daniel Cormier. AFP

DC denied fairytale ending

Billed as the contest to decide the greatest heavyweight in UFC history, Stipe Miocic defended his crown against Daniel Cormier at the Apex – the promotion’s own facility – at UFC 252 in August. The duo had met twice before, with Cormier prevailing in 2018 and Miocic gaining revenge the following year. In the decider, the champion knocked down his rival at the conclusion of the second round, although a nasty eye poke later in the fight significantly reduced Cormier’s threat. The judges scored the bout unanimously in Miocic’s favour. Cormier, a former two-division champion, reiterated his decision to retire from the sport.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 16 JUNE 2020. Mounir Lazzez, the: Dubai-based MMA athlete has been confirmed for UFC 251 on FightIsland next monthi Abu Dhabi. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: John Mcauley. Section: Sport.

Dubai resident’s teenage kick

Have you heard the one about the Dubai resident whose UFC debut was arranged when a ballsy 17-year-old ran into Dana White in a Las Vegas restaurant? Well, that's what happened in June, leading to Mounir Lazzez signing with the world's lead mixed martial arts promotion. Within a month, the Tunisian had competed at UFC Fight Night 1 in Abu Dhabi. What's more, Lazzez didn't disappoint. The former Desert Challenge champion thrilled in his unanimous-decision victory against Abdul Razak Alhassan, and even collected a Fight of the Night bonus. White quickly booked Lazzez for another Fight Island appearance in October, although the welterweight contracted Covid-19 and had to withdraw.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 04:  (L-R) Holly Holm takes down Irene Aldana of Mexico in their women's bantamweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on October 04, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Abu Dhabi adds another bit of history

Already a remarkable undertaking, Fight Island continued to notch its name in the record books through a second residency. In October, Holly Holm and Irene Aldana topped the second of the five events on “Return to Fight Island”, the first time women headlined a show in Abu Dhabi. Rather fittingly, Holm provided one of the finest performances of her already-notable career, delivering a clinic to defeat Aldana by unanimous decision. The former bantamweight champion said: “I always like to do something that hasn’t been done before and to be the first female fight to headline out here is great. We’ll go home with happy hearts.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - September 06, 2019: Paul Felder weights in before his fight with Edson Barboza at UFC 242. Friday the 6th of September 2019. Yes Island, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Felder goes from commentator to corner

The second half of 2020 was rather memorable for Paul Felder in particular, and not just for taking last month’s fight against Rafael dos Anjos in Las Vegas on five days’ notice. In July, the UFC's colour analyst left his commentary position octagon-side during UFC Fight Night 1 in Abu Dhabi to corner long-time friend and former teammate Jared Gordon. Covid-19 had forced Gordon to arrive in the capital with none of his corner people. So Felder rushed backstage, changed from his shirt and tie, and emerged in team gear to follow out Gordon to the cage. Gordon won, and Felder promptly returned to commentary duties.

Holland goes 5 & 0

Kevin Holland is another with genuine claim to be the UFC’s fighter of the year. The American worked his way through the middleweight division by competing five times, reeling off a quintet of wins – and all from May. Three of those secured Performance of the Night bonuses. Holland’s victory this month at UFC 256 against sturdy veteran Jacare Souza was the most memorable, when he knocked out his opponent while pinned initially to the mat. It was nominated among the UFC's four best KOs of 2020. “The hype is real,” pronounced the promotion; Holland responded by demanding another fight before the year was out.

O’Malley aura loses shine

Of the real upsets this year, Sean O'Malley's defeat to Marlon Chito Vera at UFC 252 ranks near the very top if not at the summit. The American, to that point unbeaten in 12 professional bouts, was handed his first loss, when he injured his leg in the August fight and subsequently surrendered to a vicious first-round stoppage. The O'Malley hype train was officially derailed. He has since refused to acknowledge the defeat: following Vera's loss to Jose Aldo this month, O'Malley tweeted that he in fact remained undefeated, with that 12-0 record intact. Tipped previously for superstardom, he requires a recalibration.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - SEPTEMBER 27:  Jan Blachowicz of Poland celebrates after defeating Dominick Reyes in their light heavyweight championship bout during UFC 253 inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on September 27, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Blachowicz takes home the gold

Of all the title fights Abu Dhabi hosted, Jan Blachowicz’s victory against Dominick Reyes gave perhaps the most surprising result. The giant Pole, 37, was the underdog coming into the light-heavyweight decider at UFC 253 in September, with Reyes viewed by many as the heir apparent to Jon Jones. However, Blachowicz captured the vacant crown in devastating style, knocking out his younger opponent in the second round at Flash Forum. Reyes was downed with a flurry of blows not long before the bell sounded. In sealing the win, Blachowicz became the first light-heavyweight champion other than Jones and Daniel Cormier since 2011.