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Midyear MMA awards: A stunning KO and a big surprise top 2019 so far

Henry Cejudo, left, and Amanda Nunes, right, continued their dominance in 2019 while TJ Dillashaw, center, was stripped of his belt. ESPN Illustration

It was an eventful first half of 2019 in mixed martial arts. New stars like Jorge Masvidal and Israel Adesanya have emerged, new champions have been crowned and a titleholder has been stripped of a belt. We've seen some of the best knockouts in the history of the sport and some of the best fights. There has been adulation and heartache.

Looking back on the first six months of 2019 in MMA, we've landed on awards in seven categories. Have an issue with the results? Take it up with the voters: Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Greg Rosenstein, Andrew Davis, Alisa Harrison, Jeff Wagenheim and Eric Jackman.


Fight of the half-year

Winner: Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum, UFC 236 (April 13)

This fight will be hard to top. Adesanya vs. Gastelum got as many votes from our panel as any other selection in any other category. The interim middleweight title fight in Atlanta had just about everything you'd want in a fight -- both men had their moments, both had to battle back from adversity and the stakes were high with a belt on the line. Adesanya needed a big fifth round to seal the victory in the co-main event matchup, and he did it.

Gastelum rocked Adesanya and put him in big trouble in the middle rounds. Adesanya dropped Gastelum multiple times in the fifth, eventually gutting it out to stay undefeated. There were big blows on the feet and some good ground work to boot. Adesanya vs. Gastelum was a masterpiece, one of the best UFC title fights in years and a testament to the skill and guts of both men. Adesanya won, but Gastelum's stock went up in defeat.

Runner-up (tied): Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway, UFC 236 (April 13) and Vicente Luque vs. Bryan Barberena, UFC Phoenix (Feb. 17)

Poirier vs. Holloway was the main event following Adesanya vs. Gastelum, making UFC 236 far and away the best card of the year in MMA. The interim lightweight title fight was a story of Poirier's boxing skills and power against the relentless will of Holloway, the UFC's featherweight champion who moved up in weight for a chance at two belts. Poirier won by unanimous decision, doing major damage to Holloway throughout, but Holloway never quit.

Luque vs. Barberena was a wild, all-action welterweight brawl from bell to bell. Luque eventually won via TKO -- with six seconds left in the fight.


Female fighter of the half-year

Winner: Amanda Nunes

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Nunes knocks out Holm to defend bantamweight belt

Amanda Nunes retains her 135-pound title by knocking out Holly Holm at UFC 239. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

Days before the start of 2019, Nunes became the UFC women's featherweight champion by knocking out Cris Cyborg in the first round at UFC 232. Nunes already held the women's bantamweight title and the victory put her on the short list of UFC athletes who concurrently held two belts. At UFC 239 on July 6, Nunes became the first of those fighters to go back down to the lighter division and defend the title. "The Lioness" knocked out Holly Holm with a head kick at 4:10 of the first round. Holm had never been knocked out prior.

Nunes has now beaten every single woman to have ever held the UFC's featherweight or bantamweight titles -- an incredible accomplishment. The Brazilian slugger is not just the best women's fighter of the half-year in 2019; she's very likely the best women's fighter to ever do it.

Runner-up: Jessica Andrade

Rose Namajunas was piecing Andrade up for the better part of two rounds at UFC 237 on May 11 when Andrade hoisted Namajunas up over her head and slammed her down, neck first, into the mat. Namajunas was going for a Kimura submission and held on far too long. On impact, she was knocked out and Andrade became the UFC women's strawweight champion. It was just the fourth slam knockout in UFC title fight history.

Honorable mention: Valentina Shevchenko


Male fighter of the half-year

Winner: Henry Cejudo

Over the last six months, Cejudo has emerged as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. The former Olympic gold medalist kicked off the UFC's ESPN era on Jan. 19 with a 32-second TKO of TJ Dillashaw to retain the flyweight title in Brooklyn, New York. With Dillashaw suspended by USADA for taking the banned drug recombinant human erythropoietin (EPO), Cejudo moved up in weight and fought Marlon Moraes for the vacant bantamweight title at UFC 238 on June 8 in Chicago. Cejudo battled back after losing the first round to finish the bigger Moraes by TKO in the third.

Cejudo injured his shoulder and had surgery after UFC 238 and he is out for the rest of 2019. He might have already locked up Fighter of the Year honors, though. "Triple C" -- for Olympic champion, UFC bantamweight champion and UFC flyweight champion -- lost two straight in 2016 and his future greatness was unclear at the time. But since snapping Demetrious Johnson's UFC title-defense streak (11) last August, Cejudo has been on another level. This year, the Arizona resident has put himself on a list with the all-time greats.

Runner-up: Israel Adesanya

Adesanya defeated his idol, Anderson Silva, at UFC 234 on Feb. 10 in Melbourne, Australia. It was an emotional moment for "The Last Stylebender" and set up the rest of his year. The Nigerian-born New Zealand resident then defeated Gastelum in the aforementioned fight at UFC 236. That victory earned him the interim middleweight title. Everyone knew how skilled Adesanya was -- he's one of the best strikers in the UFC -- but against Gastelum, we found out about his toughness and determination.

Adesanya will fight Australian champion Robert Whittaker to unify the middleweight titles at UFC 243 on Oct. 5. A win there might lock up Fighter of the Year honors for him, though the competition is steep. Adesanya has certainly made himself a huge name in MMA this year after nearly a decade in kickboxing. It's hard to believe he only debuted in the UFC in 2018. Very few have done as much in the UFC in that short amount of time.

Honorable mention: Jorge Masvidal


Best finish of the half-year

Winner: Jorge Masvidal flying knee KO, UFC 239 (July 6)

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White's reaction to Masvidal's flying knee: 'Wow'

Dana White calls Jorge Masvidal's flying knee on Ben Askren "one of the most vicious knockouts" he's ever seen in his life. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

After all that buildup, after all the trash talk between Masvidal and Askren leading into UFC 239 in Las Vegas, it was over in just five seconds. That's it. Masvidal, hands crossed behind his back, smile on his face, raced right off the cage at the opening bell, met Askren in the center and landed a picture-perfect flying knee. Askren was out on impact. Masvidal landed two more punches on the ground with Askren unconscious ("super necessary," he said afterward), then taunted his rival. The victory was the fastest knockout in UFC history and perhaps the best -- and most shocking -- the promotion has ever seen.

Runner-up: Anthony Pettis Superman punch, UFC Nashville (March 23)

Pettis moving up to welterweight seemed like a curious move for most of his fight against Stephen Thompson. "Wonderboy," the longer, rangier fighter, was landing seemingly at will for a majority of the first two rounds on Pettis, who was cut and busted up. Here's the thing with Pettis, though: Like a snake, he can recoil and strike at any moment. "Showtime" did just that, springing off the base of the cage with five seconds left in the second round and starching Thompson with a right-handed Superman punch. Thompson was out cold and Pettis had another in a career of highlight-reel finishes.

Honorable mention: Jessica Andrade slam, UFC 237 (May 11)


Biggest surprise of the half-year

Winner: Jorge Masvidal's finishes of Darren Till, Ben Askren

We are halfway through the year and one of the most talked about, most headline-grabbing fighters in the world is Jorge Masvidal. That was certainly not anticipated. The Miami native has been a pro MMA fighter for 16 years. He has fought for BoDog Fight, Sengoku, Bellator and Strikeforce. He has 13 losses in his career. But first-round, vicious knockouts of Till and Askren has made casual fans finally take notice. They have found out what hardcore fans already knew -- Masvidal is one of the most fascinating, entertaining fighters in the world, on top of being extremely talented. Masvidal's star turn after so many years is not unlike what Nate Diaz did in 2016.

Runner-up: TJ Dillashaw fails drug test

When the year started, Dillashaw was the UFC bantamweight champion moving down to fight flyweight champion Henry Cejudo at UFC Brooklyn to try and become a two-division titleholder. Cejudo dispatched Dillashaw in under a minute by TKO. In March, Dillashaw announced that he had failed a USADA drug test and was relinquishing the bantamweight belt. Three weeks later, USADA announced Dillashaw would be suspended two years for testing positive for EPO. It was only the second time a UFC champion had failed a drug test. Josh Barnett was the first in 2002.

Honorable mention: Andrade's slam KO of Rose Namajunas


Biggest disappointment of the half-year

Winner: Dillashaw fails drug test

What a stunning fall from grace. Dillashaw began the year looking to become a double champion against flyweight titleholder Cejudo in the main event of UFC Brooklyn, the promotion's first card on ESPN. Cejudo finished him in 32 seconds. Six weeks later, Dillashaw had no belts at all -- he announced he was relinquishing the bantamweight title due to a failed drug test -- and, as previously mentioned, was suspended for two years.

Once thought to be one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, Dillashaw has a long way to go in order to get his reputation back. He openly admitted to knowingly cheating and injecting EPO; his image and the trust fans showed in him will likely be forever altered.

Runner-up: Tony Ferguson not getting title shot

Ferguson has won 12 in a row in the UFC's toughest division. He has not lost a fight since 2012. And yet, unless something drastic changes, another year will go by without Ferguson getting a title shot. There is something very wrong with that. In his only fight thus far in 2019, Ferguson beat Donald Cerrone at UFC 238 on June 8 by second-round TKO. Another impressive victory, yet no title shot in sight. It's a shame.

Honorable mention (tie): Greg Hardy's promotional push , Robert Whittaker late withdrawal


Best out-of-cage moment of the half-year

Winner: Jorge Masvidal's "three-piece with the soda"

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Masvidal gave Edwards a '3 piece with the soda'

Jorge Masvidal provides his perspective on what caused the backstage fight between himself and Leon Edwards at UFC Fight Night in London.

Masvidal's first-round knockout of Till at UFC London on March 16 was incredible. But the punches that really mattered were the ones he threw afterward, backstage during a scuffle with fellow welterweight Leon Edwards. It happened during an interview on ESPN with Laura Sanko. Masvidal sauntered over to Edwards, who had been taunting him, with his hands behind his back. Tempers flared and Masvidal threw a four-punch combination before people stepped in to separate them.

Afterward, Masvidal spoke with ESPN's Brett Okamoto in a video interview and said he had to hit Edwards with "the three-piece with the soda." And just like that, one of the most legendary catchphrases in MMA history was born. Masvidal's rise has been one of the biggest stories of 2019 and that moment is what initially propelled him.

Runner-up: Tyron Woodley's mother congratulates Kamaru Usman

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Usman has emotional moment with opponent's mother following UFC win

Kamaru Usman is embraced by Tyron Woodley's mother backstage after beating her son for the UFC welterweight title.

Usman had just won the UFC welterweight title, defeating Woodley in a grueling, five-round unanimous decision at UFC 235 on March 2 in Las Vegas. As Usman walked backstage, he was met by Woodley's mother, Deborah. It was all love. Deborah hugged Usman and said, "It's your turn, it ain't his turn. It's your time. Be encouraged. Your hear me? And keep on working, 'cause they gonna come for you. And you take it to 'em."

It's moments like this one that separate MMA from the sports pack. After being in a hard fistfight with her son, Usman was emotionally embraced and congratulated by Woodley's mother. Incredible.

Honorable mention: Israel Adesanya returns to Nigeria, spends time with kids