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2020 Half-Year Awards: The Fights

In today's edition of the 2020 Half-Year Awards we look at the best fights to date

The highly unofficial UFC.com awards season continues with the best fights of the first-half of 2020 and how we called them on fight night.

5 – Justin Gaethje-Tony Ferguson

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Last month, Justin Gaethje said he likely only had 18 or 19 minutes of “pure hell” to give Tony Ferguson in their UFC 249 main event. He lied, as he gave “El Cucuy” 23:39 of it, stopping Ferguson in the fifth round to win the interim UFC lightweight title.
 
Gaethje, 31, replaced lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in a bout originally scheduled for April 18, and now after snapping Ferguson’s 12-fight winning streak, “The Highlight” will get his crack at “The Eagle.” 
 
But first, Gaethje had to upset Ferguson, and he did just that.
 
Ferguson’s movement and kicks kept Gaethje from getting a read on him in the early going, but two minutes in Gaethje landed a couple hard lefts at close range. Ferguson took the punches well and kept throwing a variety of strikes from a variety of angles, while Gaethje stuck to a more conventional attack that was still working as he tagged his foe with accurate shots to the head. In the final 30 seconds, Gaethje landed a pair of lefts, getting Ferguson’s attention.
 
Both landed as round two opened, and Gaethje followed up with what was rapidly becoming his weapon of choice, a sweeping left hook. Gaethje made sure to toss in some leg kicks too to keep Ferguson guessing, and his confidence was growing by the second. To his credit, Ferguson’s chin was rock solid, but he was taking more and more shots from the Arizonan. It was Ferguson who got the last word for the round, though, as he dropped Gaethje with a right uppercut.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - MAY 09: (L-R) Justin Gaethje punches Tony Ferguson in their UFC interim lightweight championship fight during the UFC 249 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on May 09, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - MAY 09: (L-R) Justin Gaethje punches Tony Ferguson in their UFC interim lightweight championship fight during the UFC 249 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on May 09, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuff

Gaethje kept the heat on in round three, and soon Ferguson was cut over the left eye and under the right eye. Add in a swelling under the right eye and Ferguson had to hope his skin wasn’t going to betray him. With a little under three minutes left, Ferguson got rocked by a right hand, and seconds later he ate another one, as Gaethje was clearly unaffected by the previous round’s knockdown. Ferguson stayed in the pocket with Gaethje, tripping him to the mat briefly in an attempt to turn the tide, but it didn’t happen in the third.
 
Gaethje remained in control in the fourth, and midway through, Ferguson staggered after getting caught with another hard right. A low kick by Ferguson brought a brief halt to the action with a minute left, but Gaethje jumped right back into the fray, and his kicks and punches kept coming.
 
With five minutes left, Gaethje could have sat on his lead, but that’s just not his style, and he kept the compact power shots coming, and few missed. To his credit, Ferguson’s heart and chin were still intact, but he just couldn’t get his offense going against an opponent fighting a perfect fight. And after Ferguson staggered from another flush power shot, referee Herb Dean had seen enough, stopping the bout at 3:39 of the final round.

4 – Josh Emmett-Shane Burgos

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The co-main event between featherweight contenders Josh Emmett and Shane Burgos was expected to deliver fireworks, and it was like the Fourth of July at the Apex, with Emmett using two third-round knockdowns to break open a close fight and win a three-round unanimous decision.

Scores were 29-28 twice and 29-27 for the No. 8-ranked Emmett, now 16-2. The No. 10-ranked Burgos falls to 13-2.

Emmett was swinging his right hand with abandon in the early going, and he threw in the occasional short left hook for good measure. The bigger Burgos took the punches well as he moved forward, but he was taking too many of them, which only made Emmett more confident. Burgos stuck to the game plan, though, landing some hard calf kicks that were getting Emmett’s attention, and by the end of the round, both were trading bombs.

After hurting his left knee in the first frame, Emmett showed a sense of urgency in the second and he landed more flush shots that Burgos took with no issue. And as the New Yorker shook off the blows, he came back with more volume as he kept up a disciplined effort in the midst of an intense scrap.

In the opening minute of the final round, Emmett sat Burgos down with a short left hand, and while he recovered immediately, in a close fight a knockdown is pivotal. After the two rose, an inadvertent low kick by Burgos brought a momentarily halt to the fight, and when the action resumed, there was no let-up to the attacks of Emmett and Burgos. Midway through, another left hand dropped Burgos for the second time, and Emmett got in some ground strikes before Burgos got back to his feet. Looking to turn things around, Burgos went after Emmett, only to get rocked again just before the final horn.

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3 – Dan Hooker-Paul Felder

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Lightweight contenders Dan Hooker and Paul Felder were expected to deliver the goods in the UFC Auckland main event at Spark Arena, and that’s exactly what they did in a memorable five-round war that saw Hooker emerge with a split decision victory that propels him further up the list of elite 155-pounders.
 
As for Hooker’s rival for five rounds, he may have made his last walk to the Octagon.
 
“This might be it for me,” said an emotional Felder, who cited being away from his four-year-old daughter for his leaning towards retirement. That’s a final decision for another day, though. For today, fans will celebrate a fight to remember between two of the best in a stacked division.
 
Scores were 48-47 twice and 47-48 for the No. 7-ranked Hooker, now 21-8. The No. 6-ranked Felder falls to 17-5.
 
After refusing Felder’s offer to touch gloves, Auckland’s own Hooker got right down to business with a series of kicks to the calf as he used movement and range to keep his foe at bay. With two minutes left, Felder landed a hard left hook, putting him on the board, but Hooker took it well and kept using lateral movement to his advantage. As the round wound down, Hooker locked Felder up against the fence briefly, and then it was back to sticking and moving as Felder marched forward.
 
Felder was showing damage to his right eye after the opening frame, prompting him to show even more urgency to get inside on Hooker, who calmly stuck to his game plan in response. In the second minute, Felder did well in exchanges, only to have Hooker lock him up for a spell until the two separated. Felder proceeded to work his kicking game in the closing stages of the round, but Hooker upped his work rate, leading to some more heated exchanges.
 
The already compelling action heated up in the third round, with Felder beginning to land more and more shots to the head and legs while Hooker was now marked up on his face but still throwing and landing as the fight began to approach the championship rounds.
 
Felder was throwing bombs to start the fourth frame, and he landed several on Hooker, rocking him briefly in the second minute. Hooker responded with a takedown attempt, but when that came up short, he settled for a brief clinch against the fence. The two broke briefly, then locked up again, Hooker in control until they separated. Felder went on to land a pair of hard right hands, but Hooker wasn’t budging. Hooker went back to his clinch game in the final minute, but Felder wouldn’t give him the takedown, sending the fight to a fifth round.
 
Starting off strong, Felder continued to tag Hooker in the fifth, prompting another grappling sequence from Hooker, but after they broke, “The Hangman” went back to his striking attack, with every blow pivotal for each man. A takedown by Hooker with a minute left caused the crowd to erupt for their fighter, and as the two scrambled for position, there were more roars from the packed house, and they lasted through the final horn, when the two rivals shared a hug that could only be earned by 25 minutes of battle.

MORE FROM AWARDS SEASON: Newcomers | Upsets | Submissions | Knockouts

2 – Dustin Poirier-Dan Hooker
UFC Vegas 4: Dustin Poirier Post-Fight Interview
UFC Vegas 4: Dustin Poirier Post-Fight Interview
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Everyone expected the UFC Vegas 4 main event between Dustin Poirier and Dan Hooker to be an instant classic. Then the two lightweight contenders went and delivered one, fighting tooth and nail for 25 minutes, with Poirier emerging victorious via unanimous decision in a clear Fight of the Year candidate.

Scores were 48-47 twice and 48-46 for the No. 3-ranked Poirier, now 26-6 with 1 NC. The No. 5-ranked Hooker falls to 20-9.

Hooker took an early lead as he worked his kicks to Poirier’s legs and body. Midway through the round, Poirier was able to negate his opponent’s reach advantage by locking up and taking Hooker to the fence. Hooker didn’t stay there long, but once the two separated, a fight broke out, with both landing hard shots in the pocket. 

The two wasted no time getting back after it in round two, Hooker scoring with kicks and Poirier responding with punches until a brief stay against the fence. At close range, the two traded bombs, Poirier getting the better of it as he bloodied Hooker’s nose. Midway through the frame, the exchanges continued, Poirier now cutting Hooker over the right eye. Hooker returned the favor, neither backing down from the other. With under a minute left, Hooker rocked Poirier briefly, and as the round wore down, he poured it on, landing several shots until the horn intervened.

It was going to be hard to top the pace of the previous frame, but Hooker and Poirier did their best, each landing shots until a Hooker takedown attempt nearly led to a Poirier guillotine choke finish. Hooker fought his way free, though, and the two proceeded to then trade strikes on the mat. Poirier also looked for a submission from his back and when that came up empty, he made his way to his feet and landed two flush right hands that Hooker remarkably shook off.

Poirier’s southpaw jab was sharp in the early stages of round four, leading to a Hooker takedown. Poirier rose immediately, but Hooker stayed committed and put the Louisiana native twice more. After rising again, it was Poirier with the takedown, and he was able to keep the New Zealander grounded as he fired off a steady stream of strikes. With under two minutes left, Poirier locked up an armbar, but Hooker defended well and eventually pulled free with a little under a minute remaining. As the two rose, Poirier looked for a guillotine, but again, Hooker got loose just before the end of the frame.

With the fight possibly up for grabs, there was a lot on the line in the fifth round, with both trying to wisely pick their shots. Poirier appeared to be the fresher of the two, and after landing several flush punches, Hooker wisely sought out a takedown. Poirier didn’t stay grounded long, yet as they stood, Hooker kept looking to take the fight to the mat. Poirier was determined to stay upright, though, and when the two hit the deck late, it was Poirier with a bunch of punches to the face as the bout ended. If there was a crowd at the UFC Apex, there would have been a standing ovation. And a well-deserved one.

1 – Zhang Weili-Joanna Jedrzejczyk

Watch on UFC FIGHT PASSZhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk delivered the greatest fight in women’s MMA history Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, and when it was over, the result of the UFC 248 co-main event was almost secondary due to the epic nature of the bout, but it was Zhang retaining her UFC strawweight title for the first time via five-round split decision in a fight that raised the stock of both ladies and the sport.
 
Scores were 48-47 twice and 47-48 for Zhang, now 21-1. Jedrzejczyk falls to 16-4.
 
Both fighters were busy to start, but a minute in, Jedrzejczyk landed a hard right hand upstairs and her combinations at close range had the former champ smiling and in the lead. Zhang began to find her rhythm midway through the frame, though, and she was throwing with power every time, clearly getting Jedrzejczyk’s attention.
 
Resuming their high-volume striking battle in round two, Jedrzejczyk was mixing things up nicely, and in the second minute, the two locked up against the fence, taking turns in control, with Zhang landing elbows and Jedrzejczyk responding with knees. With a little over two minutes left, Zhang rattled Jedrzejczyk with a right hand, forcing the Poland native to reset. By the end of the round, the crowd was roaring at the fast-paced action, but Zhang’s eye was rapidly swelling.

Weili Zhang Journey To UFC Champion
Weili Zhang Journey To UFC Champion
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Zhang came out fast for round three and got in some hard shots before Jedrzejczyk settled back in and continued unleashing combinations. And once Jedrzejczyk switched to southpaw, she had more success. With two minutes left, Zhang locked up with Jedrzejczyk briefly, and once they broke, it was Zhang roaring back, raising a welt on the challenger’s head in the process. But Jedrzejczyk finished the round strong, making it another nightmare for the judges to score.
 
The high-level action continued in round four, with neither fighter backing down and each taking turns rocking the other. And while Zhang was in the championship rounds for the first time, she was still swinging for the fences, but it was Jedrzejczyk who was clearly the fresher of the two. With two minutes left, Zhang landed a hard shot to the forehead, but Jedrzejczyk kept moving forward, landing an elbow before the two locked up against the fence. Jedrzejczyk glanced at the clock in the final 30 seconds, but that didn’t stop her from bringing the heat.
 
Both fighters showed the wears of battle on their face, but there would be no let-up once the final round began, and the exchanges were as ferocious in the fifth as they were in the first. A left hook by Zhang briefly rocked Jedrzejczyk in the second minute, and the champion surged forward. But then it was Jedrzejczyk’s turn, and she scored with several hard blows. With a little over two minutes left, Jedrzejczyk clinched to grab a well-deserved second’s rest, but then it was back to work and both fighters were determined to leave nothing left in the tank. And they didn’t, Jedrzejczyk landing a spinning backfist and Zhang responding with a punch of her own just before the horn ending the leading candidate for 2020 Fight of the Year.

Rematch anyone?

Others receiving votes – Jon Jones-Dominick Reyes, Song Yadong-Marlon Vera, Trevin Giles-James Krause

Voters – Jon Gagnon, Thomas Gerbasi, E. Spencer Kyte, Steve Latrell, Zac Pacleb, Gavin Porter