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Ariel Helwani's Nose Awards: Which fighters, bouts shined brightest in 2020?

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Helwani looks back at the best fights of 2020 (2:59)

Ariel Helwani recaps the best fights from the UFC in 2020 and ultimately makes his pick for the best of them all. (2:59)

Remember how exciting the beginning of 2020 felt? The return of Conor McGregor? The buzz in Las Vegas reminiscent of his early rise in the UFC? What a way to start a new decade.

Heck, the first quarter of 2020 was phenomenal too. We got a classic from Jon Jones and Dominick Reyes in February then an all-timer from Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk the following month, in addition to many other great fights.

Of course, you know what happened in March and, lest we forget, there was a chance that would have been the end of MMA's 2020 campaign.

But the sport returned in a big way in May, and it pretty much never stopped until the end of the year. The crowds were missed, but we still got amazing fights, performances and moments each and every week.

It was a year we'll never forget in more ways than one, but as far as MMA action goes, it was one to celebrate.

With that in mind, behold the 2020 Helwani Nose Award winners. These, if I do say so myself, are the most prestigious and comprehensive awards in MMA. This marks the eighth year in a row that I have done this, and it's something I look forward to. And yes, the winners were selected by a panel of one.

Enjoy.

Male fighter of the year: Deiveson Figueiredo

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Helwani's male fighter of the year

Ariel Helwani makes his pick for male MMA fighter of the year during the 2020 Helwani Nose Awards.

Sure, he missed weight in February. And sure, he fought to a draw in December. But no champion was more active (four fights), and no one made a division relevant again on his own more than Figueiredo. Fantastic year for a fighter few even knew 12 months ago.

Female fighter of the year: Valentina Shevchenko

Truth be told, this was one of the more difficult picks to make because no one really stood out above the rest. In the end, I went with Shevchenko, who twice defended her title in dominant fashion and also overcame a midyear knee injury.

Fight of the year: Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk

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Weili, Joanna scrap in fight for the ages

Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk trade blows throughout their championship bout at UFC 248.

I think we all knew in March that it would take an incredible fight to outdo what these two women did on the last fight card before the pandemic started in America. Some came close -- namely Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno -- but I had to go with arguably one of the great women's MMA bouts ever.

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Round of the year: Dustin Poirier vs. Dan Hooker, Round 2

I remember thinking at the end of this round, how is Poirier still standing? The entire fight was phenomenal, but what these two did in that second stanza in particular was Hagler-Hearns-esque, which is pretty much the highest compliment I can pay to any round.

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Knockout of the year: Joaquin Buckley's spinning back kick KO of Impa Kasanganay

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This spinning-knockout kick is must-see

Joaquin Buckley might have just secured the best knockout of 2020 as he drops Impa Kasanganay with a spinning kick at UFC Fight Night.

We have never seen a finish like this before. The athleticism, speed, force and power involved was jaw-dropping, not to mention the way Kasanganay fell to the ground. So amazing, even Kanye West featured it in a music video. Unique stuff.

Submission of the year: Khabib Nurmagomedov's mounted triangle versus Justin Gaethje

This one was special for numerous reasons: Nurmagomedov started his career with a mounted triangle win and (for now) ended it with one too. It was apparently his late father's favorite submission, and when you consider how he set it up against someone as good as Gaethje, on the highest stage possible, it gets my vote over A.J. McKee's unique sub of Darrion Caldwell in November.

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Breakout fighter of the year: Khamzat Chimaev

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Chimaev needs only one punch to knock out Meerschaert

Khamzat Chimaev needs 17 seconds and one punch to knock out Gerald Meerschaert at UFC Fight Night.

Chimaev, in many respects, was the story of the summer/early fall for the UFC. Did he beat lesser talent? Yes. Has his momentum slowed down as of late? Yes. But when considering only the hardest of hardcore fans knew of him to start the year and his popularity heading into the new year, no one broke through quite like him.

Most improved fighter of the year: Kevin Holland

Holland ended 2019 with a submission loss to Brendan Allen, a mediocre 3-2 record in the UFC and with only one finish inside the Octagon. In 2020, Holland went 5-0 with (four finishes) in the span of seven months, and he is now one of the hottest fighters in the sport. No one made greater strides than Holland.

Comeback fighter of the year: Robert Whittaker

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Till, Whittaker come out swinging early

Darren Till and Robert Whittaker take turns dropping each other to the mat early in their main event matchup.

Remember Whittaker's final appearance in the cage in 2019? He was thoroughly outclassed by Israel Adesanya. Remember how he started this year? He pulled out of a March fight against Jared Cannonier because he, in his words, felt burnt out. We didn't know what he would look like when he returned in July versus Darren Till. What we got was a patient and on-point Whittaker; and then we got an even better one in October versus Cannonier. And now, Whittaker is right back in the title mix. What a comeback for "Bobby Knuckles."

Upset of the year: Roxanne Modafferi def. Maycee Barber

In hindsight, many people disrespected the veteran Modafferi a little too much going into this fight, but the facts are Barber was as high as a -1000 favorite on fight night. Wild stuff. Modaferri pulled off the win and had Vegas buzzing after she handed Barber her first pro loss.

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Rivalry of the year: Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa

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Tensions rise between Adesanya and Costa ahead of UFC 253

After the UFC 253 weigh-ins, Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa get into a heated altercation ahead of their middleweight title fight on Fight Island.

These two hate each other. Still. Everything about their feud felt real and, unlike other feuds which end in hugs, this ended with Adesanya humiliating Costa after beating him then continuing the trash talk days later online.

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Coach of the year: Trevor Wittman

This was a tough one, as no one truly stood out like in 2019. I went with Wittman, who guided Rose Namajunas and Gaethje to big wins this year and also worked with UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman for the first time prior to his successful title defense in July.

Event of the year: UFC 256

Part of me hates picking the last event of the year as the best, but 256 deserves it. Every fight on the card was exciting, and it ended with a fight of the year contender between Figueiredo and Moreno.

Watch UFC 256

Crowd of the year: UFC 246, Las Vegas

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McGregor stuns Cowboy in opening seconds

Conor McGregor hits Donald Cerrone with several shoulder strikes before landing a head kick in the opening seconds. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

Obviously, I only had three months to choose from due to the pandemic, but I tell ya, even without the pandemic, 246 might have won. This crowd was super hot for the successful return of McGregor. And when he won, it was deafening inside T-Mobile Arena to the point where I couldn't hear what he said on the mic.

Watch UFC 246

Walkout of the year: Darren Till prior to the Robert Whittaker fight

Till was one of the stars of the pandemic in the sense that he kept us thoroughly entertained during some dark days early on. And here he was, man of the people, walking out to ... silence. I loved the symbolism. He told me afterward he did that because his usual walkout, "Sweet Caroline," is for the fans and he didn't want to play that song without them. Beautiful stuff.

Promo of the year: BT Sport's UFC 254 promo

I dare you to watch this and not cry.

Poster of the year: Uriah Hall vs. Anderson Silva

Truth be told, not a ton of great posters in 2020, though the UFC did step up its game, big time, and I applaud it for that. I liked the old-school sketch theme this one had, plus the orange and black nod to Halloween, especially since this was the first UFC event to ever happen on Oct. 31.

Story of the year: The pandemic halts the sport, then the sport resumes

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Dana White defends UFC's protocols during coronavirus pandemic

Despite the scrutiny he's received, Dana White strongly defends how he has handled UFC events during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nothing came close. Sure, there were massive stories all year long -- including McGregor's return (and subsequent falling out with the brass); Jon Jones vacating the 205-pound belt; several fighters openly feuding with the UFC; and Nurmagomedov's sudden retirement -- but they all paled in comparison to how the sport changed in the midst of the pandemic.

Mensch of the year: Dustin Poirier

This award goes to someone in the sport who went above and beyond in his/her community to give back to the less fortunate. I'm proud to say there are many deserving winners of this award, but the Good Fight Foundation, started by Poirier and his wife, Jolie, continues to be one of the best stories in MMA. Honorable Menschen goes to McGregor, who did amazing things for his community during the pandemic and ended the year by single-handedly saving an SBG affiliate that was on the verge of going bankrupt.