MMA 2020 Year in Review: Submission of the Year

Darrion Caldwell and AJ McKee, Bellator 253
AJ McKee vs Darrion Caldwell, Bellator 253 Credit: Bellator MMA

The closest race in the history of our Year-End awards resulted in a trio of fighters sharing Submission of the Year for 2020.

The Submission of the Year for 2020 was one of the most hotly contested categories in our Year-End MMA awards. There were a lot of strong candidates, from Jack Hermansson’s heel hook submission of Kelvin Gastelum, to Jimmy Flick’s flying triangle. Ariane Lipski got in the running with a nasty kneebar. Violence Queen indeed!

A trio of higher stakes submissions came out on top however. That’s right — we have a three-way tie! Read on to see who shared the honors for Submission of the Year 2020.

Submission of the Year

Gabriel Gonzalez: Vanessa Demopoulos’ reverse triangle on Sam Hughes. The fact that LFA did not have the clip make the rounds on social media is one of the biggest missed opportunities of MMA marketing in 2020 in my opinion. Consider, Demopoulos was likely down three rounds in a title fight when she had the presence of mind from the bottom to secure the submission to win the inaugural strawweight belt. There were several more high profile submissions this year but the degree of difficulty goes to Demopoulos.

Jay Anderson: If 2019 was the year of the Suloev stretch, 2020 was the year of the leg submission. Hermansson vs. Gastelum (heel hook), Dern vs. Cifers (kneebar), Lipsski vs. Carolina (kneebar). While I’m not awarding Submission of the Year to any of those, the one that had the most lasting impact was “The Queen of Violence” Ariane Lipski trapping Luana Carolina in a vicious looking kneebar. I’ve got a bad knee myself. I’m still feeling this one. But despite all that, I have to give Submission of the Year to AJ McKee for his sub of Darrion Caldwell. A maneuver we haven’t really seen before, a mix of neck crank and chin whip.

Joe McDonagh: AJ McKee’s neck crank submission from his back in round one over former champion Darrion Caldwell at Bellator 253. A submission we have rarely ever seen. 

Daniel Vreeland: Jack Hermansson heel hooks Kelvin Gastelum. I’m a sucker for leg submissions, which we were treated to plenty this year (Lipski, Dern, Moises – to name a few). However, this one stands out due to both the level of competition and how quickly he got it done. Add in that this was only the second submission loss in Gastelum’s 22-fight career, and it clinches it for me.

Josh Evanoff: Khabib Nurmagomedov’s submission of Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 may have not been a huge technical masterpiece. However in terms of impact and importance it was likely the best of the year. Khabib dominated Gaethje on the mat, submitted him and promptly retired, and it was that submission that would cap off “The Eagle’s” illustrious career and make him 29-0.

Michael Lynch: Jack Hermansson’s heel hook over Kelvin Gastelum. That came out of nowhere. Everyone expected “The Joker” to keep the fight standing against the wrestler.

Heath Harshman: When a UFC fighter gives a random global birthday shoutout, for no reason, following a crazy flying triangle submission off of a caught kick, it’s going to stand out. Since Jimmy Flick did such a thing on my birthday, I’m spiritually bound to give him this award. The fact that it actually deserves it is just icing on the cake.

Justin Gibbons: My Submission of the Year comes from UFC 250 and it was Aljamain Sterling vs. Cory Sandhagen. These two were fighting for a number one contender’s spot and once Aljamain got Cory’s back, you could see the effort and immense pressure put into going for the submission. You could practically see the drive to get a title shot as Sterling locked the rear-naked choke in and defeated the unbeatable (to that point) Cory Sandhagen.

Bryson Hester: Aljamain Sterling took less than 90 seconds to submit Cory Sandhagen in a title eliminator bout at 135lbs. Coming into the fight, I, like many other fans, was expecting a very measured and slow paced bout as there was a lot at stake. That’s not what we got as Aljo delivered an amazingly slick grappling finish on a huge stage, in order to set up a fight with Petr Yan for the belt, and win himself a Performance of the Night bonus (sorry Queen of Violence, that knee bar was brutal, but not enough).

Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje, UFC 254
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – OCTOBER 25: (L-R) Khabib Nurmagomedov of Russia celebrates his victory over Justin Gaethje in their lightweight title bout during the UFC 254 event on October 25, 2020 on UFC Fight Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Ryan Fortune: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje. What an effortless yet highly-skilled transition from the lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov to submit top-contender Justin Gaethje in the second round to extend his win streak to 29-0. The triangle choke victory for Russia’s Nurmagomedov is my Submission of the Year for 2020.

Dan Doherty: Ariane Lipski vs. Luana Carolina. I know a lot of people will be picking whatever the heck AJ McKee did to Darrion Caldwell, but I have to go with Lipski for the sheer violence factor. They were all sorts of tangled up, when Lipski got a hold of a leg and absolutely cranked it upwards, forcing Carolina to yell out in pain before tapping. Leg submissions are a rarity in MMA so to see one like that was special. She is “The Queen of Violence” after all.

Mike McClory: A.J. McKee is a monster and his neck crank submission of Darrion Caldwell at Bellator 235 is not from this world. The subtlety of the setup and massive torque applied for the finish made me jump from my seat and freak the eff out. A massively impressive finish that I won’t ever forget.

Dave Noseworthy: Aljamain Sterling. The aggressive sequence of grappling started with Sterling catching the kick of Cory Sandhagen, using it as an entry to the clinch, transitioning into taking the back and attempting a rear-naked choke that began as a neck crank, and ultimately became an extremely tight rear-naked choke. It prompted the tap from Sandhagan, who immediately went unconscious after the fact. The high paced, short fight ended in such dramatic fashion. It also looks especially good now in light of Sandhagen’s most recent performance. Submission of the Year for certain.

Shawn Bitter: Sure the Jimmy Flick flying triangle was awesome but the Khabib submission against Gaethje is the best. Flick’s triangle was more of something that just fell into place where as Khabib set everything up. Khabib’s performance that fight and who he fought in Gaethje makes the submission even more special.

End Result: AJ McKee, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Aljamain Sterling each took three votes apiece, in what turned out to be the closest race we’ve ever had. They share the Submission of the Year honors for 2020.