Mixed martial arts is a fast-moving sport that can see a fighter on top of the game one day and out of the sport just a couple of years later. If you need proof of this, you only need to look back atlist.
In just a five-year span, four of the five fighters who appeared on our list entered retirement and one has fallen into a position where it is seemingly impossible for him to recapture a world championship. CBS Sports analyst Luke Thomas described why it is so hard for many fighters to even become relevant pieces of the larger puzzle in the sport, much less become a champion with a lasting legacy like the athletes on this list.
“This is what we talk about when we talk about turn around and turn over. These guys that fans fall in love with take a long time to become stars then they finally hit for a little bit, then they lose and when they start losing, often they can’t get it back,” Thomas said. “Then when the fanbase just turns over because their guys just aren’t on top very long. It’s very, very difficult and exceedingly rare to — forget being a champion — stay relevant in MMA over the course of five years. You can get a good sense of evaluating MMA in five-year increments because the beginning and end of them are radically different.”
Let’s take a look back at those five fighters, what they accomplished in 2018 and where they are five years later.
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1 — Amanda Nunes
Nunes had already positioned herself as possibly the women’s MMA G.O.A.T. in the two years prior to 2018, having twice defeated Valentina Shevchenko, submitting Miesha Tate and knocking out Ronda Rousey. But 2018 cemented her place in the sport’s history with a dominant TKO of Raquel Pennington and then a 51-second knockout of Cris Cyborg to win the featherweight crown and become a two-division champion.
What happened after 2018? Nunes went 6-1 over the next five years, the lone loss coming to Julianna Pena, which Nunes avenged in the rematch. After defeating Irene Aldana this past June, Nunes announced her retirement from the sport, effectively ending the entire women’s featherweight division while closing out the greatest career in the history of women’s MMA.
2 — Daniel Cormier
Nunes wasn’t the only fighter who achieved “champ champ” status in 2018. Cormier entered the year as light heavyweight champion thanks to a Jon Jones failed drug test overturning the result of their 2017 clash for the title. Cormier kicked off 2018 by defending that belt with a second-round TKO of Volkan Oezdemir. He then picked up with the biggest win of his career, knocking out Stipe Miocic in the first round to win the UFC heavyweight title. He closed out a perfect campaign in November by defending the heavyweight crown against Derrick Lewis by submission.
What happened after 2018? The best year of his career really was the peak as Cormier proceeded to lose his next two fights with Miocic for the heavyweight crown in 2019 and 2020 before retiring form active competition and turning full-time to the UFC commentary desk.
3 — Khabib Nurmagomedov
2018 wasn’t only the year Nurmagomedov beat Conor McGregor and engaged in a wild post-fight brawl, it was the year he became UFC champion. Nurmagomedov was set to face Tony Ferguson for the vacant title at UFC 223 when that cursed bout was canceled for a fourth time. The promotion tried to slot in Max Holloway only for the athletic commission to shoot down Holloway’s inclusion due to the amount of weight he would have to cut on short notice. Anthony Pettis was the next man up but missed weight. Paul Felder was slotted in only to suffer a similar fate to Holloway, with the New York commission shooting him down due to not being in the UFC’s official rankings. Finally, Al Iaquinta got the call and — wait for it — also missed weight, leaving Nurmagomedov the only man eligible to win the title in their fight, which he did convincingly. As noted above, Nurmagomedov then defended his newly won title against McGregor in October, ending their bitter rivalry with a submission win and one of the wildest post-fight scenes in combat sports history.
What happened after 2018? Nurmagomedov would only step into the Octagon two more times as a competitor, both times unifying the title against an interim champion. First, Nurmagomedov knocked off Dustin Poirier in 2019 and then Justin Gaethje in 2020. After the Gaethje win, Nurmagomedov shockingly announced his retirement. Nurmagomedov’s father and trainer Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov died in May 2020 after contracting COVID-19, which pushed Nurmagomedov into retirement one fight before reaching his father’s long-stated goal of Khabib reaching 30-0 and walking away from the sport. Dana White tried several times to convince Nurmagomedov to return, but “The Eagle” stayed true to his word and honored his mother’s wishes for him not to fight without his father.
4 — Henry Cejudo
Cejudo only fought once in 2018 but by beating Demetrious Johnson, he ended an incredible title reign. Johnson had dominated the flyweight division, defending the championship 11 times and seemingly doing whatever he wanted to his challengers. Those challengers included Cejudo, whom Johnson defeated in 2016 with a first-round TKO. The rematch was a highly competitive bout, with Cejudo edging out a split decision. The media was also split on who won the fight. MMADecisions.com recorded 13 media members scoring the fight for Cejudo and 12 for Johnson.
What happened after 2018? Cejudo defended the flyweight title one time, taking just 32 seconds to knock out TJ Dillashaw. Cejudo then moved up to bantamweight and stopped Marlon Moraes to win the vacant title. In May 2020, Cejudo scored an impressive stoppage win over returning longtime former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. During his post-fight interview, Cejudo announced his own shocking retirement. Cejudo had expressed some concerns over his pay but the retirement stuck until Cejudo decided to unretire and challenge Aljamain Sterling for the bantamweight title this past May, losing a split decision. Cejudo is still an active fighter.
5 — Max Holloway
Like, Cejudo, Holloway entered the 2018 list on the strength of a single performance. 2018 was a strange year for Holloway. A leg injury forced him out of a UFC 222 fight with Frankie Edgar, he was prevented from participating in the vacant lightweight title fight with Nurmagomedov as described above and then he pulled out of a UFC 226 fight with Brian Ortega due to “concussion-like symptoms.” The fight with Ortega finally happened at UFC 231 in December. Holloway won the Fight of the Night-winning clash by doctor’s stoppage after four rounds. The fight was the second of Holloway’s title reign as he worked to establish himself as one of the top featherweights in history.
What happened after 2018? It seems crazy given how talented Holloway is, but he followed up the win over Ortega with a 1-3 stretch that saw him lose a fight with Dustin Poirier for the interim lightweight title and drop back-to-back featherweight title fights against Alexander Volkanovski. Holloway has settled into a rough spot as the second-best 145-pound fighter in the world, with a third loss to Volkanovski also now on his record. Holloway still outclasses every featherweight he steps in the Octagon with other than Volkanovski, but there seems to be no path back to the title. Still, Holloway is the only fighter to appear on the 2018 Fighter of the Year list who has not retired.