It started with a leg kick, as many things in the orbit of Pereira do, and all at once Adesanya appeared to be hurt as he backpedaled to the cage. This was where Adesanya’s revenge tour had come to an abrupt halt five months earlier, when his confident dismantling of the fearsome Brazilian turned on a dime, courtesy of a left hook, as so many Pereira finishes do.
Bettors narrowly favored Adesanya heading into the MMA rematch, buying into the notion that he had merely lost focus and gotten caught by one of the sport’s hardest punchers. When the ex-champ shelled up and took a couple of scary-looking shots, it looked like a similar story to their last fight, with Pereira’s ability to cancel out Adesanya’s technical superiorities with a few well-placed shots. Kryptonite, personified.
Only this time, Adesanya didn’t stay in his shell. Some of the best times to attack in this game are the times when you’re being attacked, and as Pereira threw his deadly left hook, it was just low enough for Adesanya to come over the top at the same time.
The whiplash produced by Adesanya’s right hand set up another one, this time a kill shot that denied Pereira the ability to recover. It took seven years to get to that sequence from the time they first stepped into the kickboxing ring as two of the brightest talents on the international circuit. It had been six since Pereira’s left hook had laid out Adesanya in brutal fashion. To add insult to injury, Pereira’s young son had mocked the Nigeria native.
Adesanya is known for his walkouts and his post-win celebrations; the guy could easily be a professional dancer. Never, though, were they been imbued with so much history and heartache. And so, when Pereira toppled to the canvas, Adesanya did this:
Then, in one of the most ice-cold moments ever caught inside the octagon, he did this:
Adesanya became the eighth UFC fighter to become a two-time champion, and for that, and all the rich tapestry of his rivalry with Pereira, Adesanya vs. Pereira 2 (or 4, if you count the non-mixing of martial arts) is the “Knockout of the Year.”
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2. JOSH EMMETT VS. BRYCE MITCHELL
Knockouts give us an uncomfortable window not into the brain’s response to sudden, violent trauma, but a particular fighter’s response to that shutdown. There are commonalities, of course, but there are so many variables of physics at work that it’s hard to predict. There’s no way of telling exactly how a body will behave when it’s put under that kind of stress — whether or not a fighter goes completely out, for how long, and, perhaps most concerning, how long a knockout reverberates in the brain long-term.
Some manifestations of trauma are just plain scary, and Josh Emmett’s destruction of Bryce Mitchell at UFC 296 is one of the more notable examples in recent years. So violent was the force of Emmett’s right hand, Mitchell suffered a small seizure as he lay on the octagon canvas — and that was after his body reverted to the “fencing response” seen in brutal knockouts. According to one doctor, Emmett’s punch not only short-circuited Mitchell’s brain, it caused a surge of electricity that made his body tremor uncontrollably.
Truth be told, this doesn’t seem like something worth celebrating. Mitchell took the fight on short notice and was clearly ill-prepared for Emmett’s best weapon. Who knows whether he will ever be the same again. So the No. 2 selection for “KO of the Year” is as much as cautionary tale as it is an award: Look what Josh Emmett is capable of doing, and please, for the love of God, don’t stand directly in front of him.
3. ROBBIE LAWLER VS. NIKO PRICE
Lawler was 1-5 in his past six outings and, as one of the longest-tenured fighters in the UFC, appeared to be enrolled in the terrible version of the promotion’s octagon retirement plan, serving as the stepping stone for talents of decreasing acclaim.
A retirement fight at UFC 290 — billed as such almost never for octagon vets — threatened another bummer of a ride into the sunset. Feel-good endings aren’t the UFC’s specialty, and so when Lawler pulled off a vintage performance with a first-round thumping of Price, a heartfelt post-fight speech appeared to be the best it was going to get for one Robert Glenn Lawler.
Instead, the UFC queued up a greatest-hits compilation for Lawler and the rest of the audience to soak in. It wasn’t some great feat of film-making — it was just nice. Really, really nice — a heartwarming expression of care from a group of people that genuinely enjoy a colleague. Even Lawler, a guy not exactly known for his soft spot, couldn’t help but be moved by the gesture.
More fighters should fight retirement fights. Alas, if they would only accept them.
4. PATCHY MIX VS. RAUFEON STOTS
Mix is now the Bellator bantamweight champion after another breakout year in 2023. His performance in the grand prix finals played a large part in that. Stots was a well-rounded threat with an 11-fight winning streak; he’d just dispatched Danny Sabatello and ex-bantamweight champion Juan Archuleta in back-to-back fights.
The matchup figured to be one of Mix’s toughest challenges. But instead, he starched Stots with a knee up the middle, and in 80 seconds, he was $1 million richer and the bantamweight champion.
5. JUSTIN GAETHJE VS. DUSTIN POIRIER
The first time Gaethje and Poirier met, it was the 2018 MMA Fighting “Fight of the Year.” One could be forgiven for expecting another slugfest; both of these guys are hard to put away with fists (chokes, well, that’s a different story).
The reality of the situation was far different. Poirier edged Gaethje on two of three judges’ scorecards in the first round. The fight had really just gotten started, and Gaethje slipped in a head kick that slipped through Poirier’s guard and caught him upside the head. It was revenge on a much smaller scale, for Gaethje’s rivalry with Poirier was more competitive than personal. It was also just another day at the office for bonus-winning machine Gaethje, whose win over Rafael Fiziev also made our 2023 list.