2024 midyear awards: Can anyone top Max Holloway for KO of the year?

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There have been 36 fight cards put on thus far in 2024 by the three biggest MMA promotions — UFC, PFL and Bellator. Across those events, new champions have been crowned, big-name fighters have changed promotions and weight classes, plus a few fight cards have been saved at the last minute by the likes of Alex Pereira and Dan Ige.

With that, there have been highlight reel moments and memorable nights inside the cage, so we tasked our expert panel to pick out the top fighters, finishes, events and other high achievers of the last six months in MMA. Andreas Hale and Brett Okamoto highlight the best of the best at the midpoint of the year.

(Editor’s note: ESPN’s 14-person voting panel is made up of Andreas Hale, Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim, Marc Raimondi, Carlos Contreras Legaspi, Phil Murphy, Air Broom, Dre Waters, Sam Bruce, Sean Cooney, Jake Lebowitz, Elizabeth Baugh, Marcus Vanderberg and Eddie Maisonet III. All votes were cast following UFC 303.)

2024 Men’s Fighter of the Mid-Year: Alex Pereira (100% of votes)

Pereira has arguably had one of the greatest six-month stretches in UFC history. He not only knocked out two former champions in Jamahal Hill and Jiří Procházka, but he did it as a headliner in two landmark events: UFC 300 and UFC 303 during the promotion’s annual International Fight Week. Oh, and he did both on short notice.

For UFC 300, the promotion came up empty-handed on several other main event options and then there was Conor McGregor‘s withdrawal from UFC 303. Pereira is the most reliable champion in the UFC right now, and if he keeps winning, he’ll be looking at a heavyweight opportunity. — Okamoto

Honorable mention: N/A

2024 Women’s Fighter of the Mid-Year: Zhang Weili and Kayla Harrison (tie)

There wasn’t much to chew on for the women’s fighter of the mid-year, considering that the biggest names either fought once or not at all. That being said, Harrison’s dominance in her UFC debut against Holly Holm and the one-sided throttling Weili delivered to fellow countrywoman Yan Xiaonan, certainly stood out. The former showcased what makes her a future champion, while the latter cemented her place as a force to be reckoned with atop the strawweight division. — Hale

Honorable mention: Dakota Ditcheva

2024 Most Improved Fighter of the Mid-Year: Diego Lopes (36% of votes)

Lopes was already considered a promising 145-pound prospect coming into 2024, but the hype has grown exponentially in the last six months. His first-round knockout of Sodiq Yusuff in April truly turned heads and made it clear he’d draw a highly-ranked opponent next.

No one expected that highly ranked opponent to be Brian Ortega on just two weeks’ notice for UFC 303, but Lopes took that fight — and then took it at lightweight, when Ortega struggled to make weight, and then took an entirely new fight altogether at 165 pounds against Dan Ige when Ortega withdrew during the UFC 303 fight card. Lopes will almost certainly get a top-five opponent next, and there’s a chance he could be favored. — Okamoto

Honorable mention: Steve Erceg

2024 Newcomer of the Mid-Year: Kayla Harrison (86% of votes)

As impressive as Harrison was in dispatching Holm with a second-round submission in her highly anticipated UFC debut, the bigger story may have been how she managed to shrink herself down to the women’s bantamweight division and be just as powerful as she was when she competed as a lightweight (155 pounds). Now that she’s proven to make the weight, the rest of the division is formally on notice. — Hale

Honorable mentions: Dakota Ditcheva and Vinicius Oliveira

2024 Coach or Trainer of the Mid-Year: Plinio Cruz and Glover Teixeira (57% of votes)

Pereira’s 2024 has been so impressive, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the work of his team, in addition to the fighter himself. Cruz essentially travels with Pereira at all times, and maintains his year-round training schedule. The pair have identified holes and knockout strategies beautifully in their last two title fights, both of which came on short notice. Pereira’s striking has always been world-class, but his ability to seamlessly work it into MMA at the highest level is a testament to his training. And Teixeira’s guidance, mentorship and grappling instruction have been priceless. — Okamoto

Honorable mentions: Marcos DaMatta and Eric Nicksick

Best Fight of 2024 thus far: Justin Gaethje vs. Max Holloway (57% of votes)

The last 10 seconds alone could have earned Gaethje vs. Holloway the honors for Best Fight of 2024. Still, the fact that the other 24 minutes and 50 seconds ended up being a high-octane striking battle between two of the best to do it only enhanced that buzzer-beater knockout that Holloway delivered. It takes two to tango, and Gaethje-Holloway is a dance that had everyone shaking their heads in disbelief. — Hale

Honorable mentions: Volkanovski vs. Topuria and Makhachev vs. Poirier

Best Knockout of 2024 thus far: Max Holloway def. Justin Gaethje (100% of votes)

There will never be a consensus “greatest knockout in UFC history,” but this one might be the most popular pick. Standing in the center of the Octagon in the final seconds of a five-round fight he was clearly winning and sleeping Gaethje — it was just all Holloway. It defined Holloway as a fighter and a person. The fact it happened up a weight class in a BMF title fight couldn’t have been any more perfect.

Yair Rodriguez‘s last-second, behind-the-back elbow over Korean Zombie comes to mind. Dan Henderson‘s UFC 100 powerbomb against Michael Bisping. Edson Barboza‘s spinning wheel kick. But still, Holloway’s might be in a class of its own. — Okamoto

Honorable mention: N/A

Best Submission of 2024 thus far: Islam Makhachev def. Dustin Poirier via brabo choke (43% of votes)

The brabo choke Makhachev delivered was fantastic. The setup to secure the choke on a resilient Poirier who escaped every scrape with danger to that point? Even better. Makhachev knew he had to get creative and masterfully picked Poirier’s ankle to drag the fight to the canvas, exposing Poirier’s neck. It was a finish few saw coming the way it did, including Poirier. — Hale

Honorable mentions: Brian Ortega def. Yair Rodriguez via arm triangle choke

Best MMA event of 2024 thus far: UFC 300 (79% of votes)

Let the record show, there was a lot of hand-wringing about this event when it was announced. The UFC set extremely high expectations, and some felt the promotion came up short when there was not a marquee name on the main card along the likes of McGregor, Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre or Brock Lesnar — the names this sport has become used to seeing involved in an event like this. But by the time the night ended, the sport showed it did not need a “superstar” name to make a blockbuster card.

Individual performances like that of Pereira, Holloway, Weili and Harrison carried the bill. These were already established names but they all had star-making performances. Ironic actually, that if you compared the actual fights of UFC 100, UFC 200 and UFC 300 — UFC 300 would likely be considered the best overall event top to bottom. — Okamoto

Honorable mentions: PFL vs. Bellator champions and UFC 299

Best On-The-Mic Moment of 2024 thus far: Derrick Lewis post-fight w/ Michael Bisping (43% of votes)

It’s a roller coaster whenever Lewis wins a fight and his antics following his third-round stoppage of Rodrigo Nascimento were right on par with some of his legendary post-fight moments. He removed his shorts, tossed his cup into the crowd and exposed his bare buttocks to the St. Louis crowd.

“I appreciate St. Louis for letting me show my naked ass tonight.”

Vintage Derrick Lewis. It never gets old. — Hale

Honorable mention: Bruce Buffer’s mix-up after Anthony Smith’s win at UFC 301

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