As the giant screens hanging from the roof of the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas went from blank to an Irish flag, and Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Foggy Dew” played over the house system, it was obvious 2020 would be a memorable year for the UFC with the return of Conor McGregor on Jan. 18.
But nobody could have expected what the next six months would hold for the promotion. A global pandemic forced cancellations and scheduling nightmares for Dana White, who said it was the toughest challenge he ever faced as president of the UFC.
There were positive tests for the coronavirus, unexpected retirements and a threat to vacate a belt amid contract disputes. There was a near upset of the GOAT and the arrival of a lightweight star who might end up being the one to hand Khabib Nurmagomedov his first loss.
There was one fighter who didn’t want to quit despite saying his teeth were falling out, and another fighter whose pleas to end his fight were initially ignored by a coach trying to encourage him to continue.
And there was heartbreak and inspiration. Walt Harris returned to the Octagon on May 16 for the first time since his stepdaughter Aniah Blanchard went missing last October and was found dead of a gunshot wound the following month. Cody Stamann fought just a week after his 18-year-old brother, Jacob, died. The emotional tolls the fighters faced were evident as soon as the bouts ended.
If it seems like McGregor’s 40-second win over Donald Cerrone happened six years ago instead of six months, it’s understandable. Here are the moments that stood out for several ESPN writers and editors during the first half of 2020.
Jan. 18: Conor McGregor returns to the Octagon
Nothing comes close to this moment, to be honest. There was so much intrigue, so much interest in the long-awaited return of Conor McGregor.
Remember, going into the Donald Cerrone fight, McGregor had not fought since October 2018 and had not won since November 2016. In addition, 2019 was a year to forget for McGregor as he found himself in trouble with the law and at the center of multiple criminal allegations.
So, not only was everyone wondering how he would perform in his much-hyped return fight, but they wondered what he would be like leading up to the bout, as well.
What we got was an extremely well-behaved McGregor who seemed to be in a Zen-like state all week long in Las Vegas. He seemed extremely happy to be back and appreciative of the moment. He seemed genuine in his responses and hit all the right marks with his answers. It was a breath of fresh air from the nastiness spewed in the lead-up to the Khabib Nurmagomedov grudge match two years ago.
And then came the fight, the shoulder strikes, the 40-second knockout, the postfight interview … you know, from beginning to end, the week could not have gone any better for McGregor. It was just what he needed, and it stands to me as the most memorable moment of the year, so far.
— Ariel Helwani
Feb. 29: Luis Peña meets biological family before UFC Norfolk
Yes, “Violent Bob Ross” lived up to his moniker, sweeping the scorecards against Steve Garcia with artistic brutality. But it was an introduction to his biological family that made it a particularly unforgettable event.
Peña was adopted at a young age. His biological father, with whom Peña had reconnected in September 2018, is a Navy captain stationed in Norfolk. During fight week, Peña was introduced to his biological brother for the first time. Though Peña tweeted that a Tuesday dinner felt pretty awkward, their Saturday postfight embrace seemed far more fulfilling.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) March 1, 2020
“I want to give a big shoutout to everybody who’s reached out to me that’s told me how me sharing my story about how finding my family has inspired them to go out there and reach their family,” Peña said postfight. “I’m trying to find a bigger purpose in my life, and I think I found it. I just want to inspire everybody. If you’re out there, and you’re looking for your family, look at me.”
— Phil Murphy
April 6: Dana White reveals concept of Fight Island
UFC president Dana White explains to Brett Okamoto how he got the idea for buying a private island to host international UFC fights.
For me, the most memorable moment of the year has to be linked to what’s happened to the world in 2020. I mean, this is likely to be the most extraordinary year of our lifetimes, right?
How on earth could I say that a particular fight, controversy or retirement from the sport could be more memorable than a pandemic that shut the entire world down? So, for me, Dana White’s revelation of “I’ve secured an island, I’ve got an island” to host international events during the coronavirus pandemic — that’s the most memorable moment of the year.
And yes, Fight Island turning out to be Yas Island in Abu Dhabi did not exactly live up to the vision in our heads, but still — the UFC’s bullish approach to continue to promote events in unprecedented circumstances is what I believe I’ll remember most about MMA in 2020.
— Brett Okamoto
May 9: The UFC returns during a pandemic with UFC 249
When we look back on 2020 years from now, one moment will stand out among all others. On May 9, with almost all of the sports world dark, the UFC lit up. UFC 249 took place at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. It was the first major sporting event to be held since the coronavirus outbreak was designated a pandemic.
The UFC drew up a 25-page document of COVID-19 protocols and the provisions were accepted by the state, the city and the Florida State Boxing Commission. There were some holes here and there — fighter Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza tested positive for the coronavirus — but for the first sport marching forward it couldn’t be looked at as anything other than a success.
UFC 249 brought some unforgettable moments not related to the pandemic, too. Justin Gaethje emerged as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet with his upset win over Tony Ferguson, who had been on the longest winning streak in UFC lightweight history with 12. Henry Cejudo successfully defended his bantamweight title against former champion Dominick Cruz, then stunningly retired in the Octagon. Francis Ngannou starched fellow heavyweight bruiser Jairzinho Rozenstruik with a barrage for a 20-second knockout. What an evening. What a way to bring sports back.
— Marc Raimondi
May 13: Anthony Smith loses teeth, corner criticized in lopsided loss to Glover Teixeira
It’s the uplifting moments that usually resonate with me. For example, when Brian Kelleher stopped punching at the final horn on June 6 and grabbed his opponent in a tight hug, and as Kelleher whispered in Cody Stamann’s ear, Stamann broke down into an inconsolable river of tears, his brother having unexpectedly died a week earlier. This brutal sport can sometimes warm the heart.
At other times, though, I find myself feeling not warm and fuzzy but hot under the collar. Such was the case during the May 13 main event between Glover Teixeira and Anthony Smith. We saw the unrelenting beatdown that Smith wore on his face. We heard Teixeira say he was sorry for said beatdown even as he was delivering it. We saw Smith hand something to the referee in the middle of the fight, then heard Smith tell his cornermen what it was he’d handed over: “My teeth are falling out.”
What makes this disheartening moment so memorable is not so much what happened but what did not: Smith’s corner neglected to stop the fight. Yes, Smith later said he had an agreement with his coaches that they should never do that, but if they’re not going to intervene when their fighter is in dire need of protection from his own toughness, what are they there for? This inglorious moment was a black eye for the sport that will not fade away. It was a memorable moment I wish I could forget.
— Jeff Wagenheim
May 16: Walt Harris competes for first time since death of his stepdaughter
The lasting image of the Fight Night main event wasn’t a punch or a kick or a submission. It didn’t even happen during the fight. The bout was called with Alistair Overeem on Harris’ back, a second-round TKO. As soon as it was waved off, Overeem stood up, and then got back on his knees to console Harris.
It was Harris’ first fight since his stepdaughter Aniah Blanchard was found dead of a gunshot wound, and the significance of the moment overshadowed any type of fight analysis. Harris’ emotional interview with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi set the stage for the event, and before he left the Octagon, Harris thanked the UFC for the opportunity and promised a triumphant return.
“You ain’t seen the last of The Big Ticket. I’m going to go home, recover, I’m going to heal emotionally and physically and I promise you I’ll be better,” Harris said before leaving the Octagon.
— Roman Modrowski
June 6: Cody Stamann fights one week after learning of brother’s death
Any fight in the UFC is going to be difficult, but for Cody Stamann, his June 6 bout was agonizing for one very personal reason. On May 27, Stamann learned his 18-year-old brother, Jacob, had died, but he vowed to fight on and compete on the UFC 250 card. Before the fight, Stamann stated, “What else can I do? I’ve just gotta go out there and fight like my life depends on it, because it does.”
Stamann was coming off a disputed draw against Song Yadong in December, when a win could have seen him make his way into contender status at featherweight. On June 6, he was facing Brian Kelleher, a strong underdog coming off a knockout victory over Hunter Azure less than a month earlier.
At the end of 15 minutes, Stamann broke down in tears, finally able to freely wear his emotions. Stamann won the bout by unanimous decision and kept his top-10 ranking, but more importantly, he paid homage to his younger brother by continuing to fight, both physically and emotionally.
— Andrew Davis