1 second left... No better way to go out on the 25th Anniversary! pic.twitter.com/aGg1Z0bAeO— FOX Sports: UFC (@UFCONFOX) November 11, 2018
The past 12 months presented a field crowded with worthy contenders for “Knockout of the Year.” Justin Gaethje felling James Vick like a redwood with a giant overhand right, sending him sprawling facedown at the base of the fence. Brian Ortega launching an uppercut that seemed to originate from somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere to detonate on Frankie Edgar’s jaw, leaving “The Answer” senseless on the canvas and accomplishing what nobody else had managed to do in over a decade of fighting the best in the world. That says nothing of this being an all-time great year for body shot knockouts: Witness Aaron Pico finishing his first two opponents of 2018 by nearly identical left hooks to the liver, hitting the second, Lee Morrison, so hard that he went flying like a cartoon character.
However, in the end there was only one possible winner. Given the stakes of the fight, the dramatic timing, the eye-popping nature of the technique used and the overall “Holy s---” factor, Yair Rodriguez’s knockout of Chan Sung Jung at UFC Fight Night 139 on Nov. 10 is the clear choice.
To begin with, the match was a crucial test for two men eager to reassert themselves as top contenders in the Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight division in the face of long layoffs and serious question marks. “The Korean Zombie” in 2017 had returned from his mandatory military service with an impressive win over Dennis Bermudez but had promptly been sidelined for over a year with an injury. Meanwhile, “Pantera” was attempting to rebound from his first UFC loss -- a demoralizing thrashing by Edgar, also in 2017 -- only to find himself shelved and even briefly released by the promotion in a spat over booking.
The Jung-Rodriguez matchup seemed to promise fireworks, and it did not disappoint. The two put on a memorable back-and-forth battle in one of the best fights of 2018. Each man had moments of success, both took significant damage and the action was nearly non-stop. Going into the fifth round, it felt to most observers that Jung held the slight edge, and in fact, he was ahead on the scorecards 39-37, 39-37 and 38-38, but both men waded in as if it was still anyone’s fight. Rodriguez marched forward, throwing kicks, punches and off-the-wall techniques, including a standing hammerfist, while Jung willingly engaged, demonstrating that one does not earn a nickname that references the undead by getting on one’s bicycle to protect a lead. Halfway through the round, both fighters threw their hands up to the cheers of the crowd, catching their breath and perhaps basking for a moment in what everyone in the building knew was an epic fight.
With less than half a minute left, Jung and Rodriguez threw their arms up once more, this time seemingly more for each other than for the Denver crowd, and slapped hands. Jung charged forward throwing haymakers. Rodriguez ducked down and to his left to avoid a left hook and when he came up, Jung dropped like a marionette whose strings had been cut, face down, arms at his sides. It was so sudden and so violent that from the angle the camera offered, many observers thought at first that it had been an accidental clash of heads.
Of course, it had not been a head butt. While ducking, Rodriguez had thrown a right elbow up and backwards. The no-look technique nailed the onrushing “Zombie” directly under the point of the chin, separating him from his wits so completely that he landed with one arm pinned under his body. Referee Kevin MacDonald rushed in to wave off the fight, and “Pantera,” too exhausted even to celebrate properly, collapsed into the arms of his cornermen.
It was a Capital-M moment. A Pepsi Center crowd that was already on its feet went into full meltdown mode, and plenty of fans at home undoubtedly jumped off their couch and screamed at the television set. The official end came at 4:59 of Round 5, tying for the latest finish in UFC history. However, unlike Demetrious Johnson-Kyoji Horiguchi, Rodriguez’s elbow strike reversed the likely outcome of the fight had it gone one more second. It is a finish the likes of which we will probably never see again, and it is Sherdog.com’s 2018 “Knockout of the Year.”