Flying Knee Awards 2020: The best fighter, KO, submission, prospect and fight of the year

Cory McKenna is held aloft by coach Jack Mason after her win at Cage Warriors 105. Picture: BRETT KI

Cory McKenna is my fighter of the year for 2020 Picture: BRETT KING - Credit: Archant

Though the year's MMA calendar was decimated by coronavirus, there have still been some stand-out moments for fighters from this region. Mark Heath hands out his fourth annual Flying Knee awards...

Cory McKenna has her hand raised after beating Vanessa Demopoulos on Dana White's Contender Series i

Cory McKenna has her hand raised after beating Vanessa Demopoulos on Dana White's Contender Series in Las Vegas, earning a UFC contract - Credit: Archant

Fighter of the Year: Cory McKenna

Previous winners: Arnold Allen (2017), James Webb (2018), Steve Aimable (2019)

While many fighters were forced to spend 2020 on the shelf, there were opportunities for those willing to take risks.

And few fighters turned risk into reward better than McKenna this year. The 21-year-old, who started her MMA journey at Colchester's powerhouse BKK Fighters Gym, took a late notice fight against highly-rated Vanessa Demopoulos on Dana White's Contender Series in Las Vegas in August.

While Covid-19 meant that she couldn't prepare as she would normally, McKenna claimed a points win in a gritty, compelling fight - and was promptly given a contract by UFC boss White.

She duly made her UFC debut against another much-hyped prospect, fellow 21-year-old Kay Hansen, last month and triumphed again, in another absorbing fight, despite breaking her ankle.

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McKenna (6-1 MMA, 1-0 UFC) is now living and training full-time at the renowned Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, from where she'll plan her path further up the straweight rankings  in 2021.

Hers is a remarkable story - from quitting education after scoring mostly A's in her GCSE's at the Thomas Lord Audley School in Colchester to becoming one of the best young prospects on the planet. And there's still much more to come - she'll be one of the female faces of the sport in the UK for years.

Jahreau Shepherd has his hand raised after winning the welterweight title at Contenders 29. Picture:

Jahreau Shepherd has his hand raised after winning the welterweight title at Contenders 29. Picture: BRETT KING - Credit: Archant

Fight of the Year: Jahreau Shepherd v Quinten De Vreught, Contenders 29, February

Previous winners: Jake Nichols v Chey Veal (2017), Corrin Eaton v Dean Trueman (2018), James Webb v Nathias Frederick 1 (2019)

Before the Covid-19 madness really hit, ambitious Norfolk promotion Contenders put on one of its best-ever shows in Norwich back in February, ahead of a planned Florida debut in April.

While the American adventure was sadly scuppered by the 'rona, the welterweight title fight between Shepherd and De Vreught - two of the best prospects in Europe - which headlined Contenders 29 was a thriller.

Shepherd put in a career-best display to take the title on points, showcasing a complete range of skills across the MMA spectrum, while De Vreught simply refused to quit and displayed incredible heart to take the fight the distance.

It was to be the final fight of Shepherd's promising career - he was tragically killed in a stabbing in London in July.

'The Nightmare' had the tools to go all the way to the top of the sport - and fittingly he showed just how talented he was in his final performance.

Knockout of the Year: Steve Aimable v Tom Mearns, Cage Warriors 118, December

Previous winners: Johan Segas v Joe Harding (2017), Konrad Jaskiewicz v Baruc Martin (2018), Brent Rose v Daniel Ballard (2019)

The catchweight clash between former number one featherweight contender Aimable and teak tough Mearns was one of the most interesting fights of Cage Warriors' most-recent Trilogy events - and it ended memorably too.

Aimable, one of the stars of the deep BKK Fighters stable, landed a huge elbow on Mearns' temple early in the first round, fracturing his right forearm in the process.

But with Mearns showing his trademark terminator chin, Aimable had to fight on, rocking his foe with a right hand from his injured limb and then following up with a blitzkrieg of punches to force the stoppage half a minute after breaking his arm.

It wasn't a highlight reel 'lights out' moment, but to break your arm and still get a stoppage win is pretty damn impressive in my book.

X-ray showing a broken arm

Steve Aimable suffered a broken forearm in his stoppage win of Tom Mearns at Cage Warriors 118 - Credit: Steve Aimable

It was important for Aimable too - the win halted a three-fight losing skid, and gives him a base on which to build towards another shot at the title in 2021. Once his arm's healed, of course!

James Webb with his Cage Warriors world middleweight title belt. Picture: DOLLY CLEW

Former Cage Warriors champion James Webb won my submission of the year award for his arm triangle choke against Craig White Picture: DOLLY CLEW - Credit: Archant

Submission of the year: James Webb v Craig White, Cage Warriors 115, September

Previous winners: Sigmund Hollerud v Adam Spalding (2017), Muhidin Abubakar v Alex Boyd (2018), Leigh Mitchell v Rico Biggs (2019)

Colchester's Webb scored perhaps the most impressive win of his career against former UFC fighter White back in September, finishing the dispute via a beautiful arm triangle in the first round.

It was the second win in a row for Webb since he lost his Cage Warriors world middleweight title to Nathias Frederick in November 2019, and sets him up perfectly for a big 2021.

The 30-year-old dominated from the opening bell, wasting little time before clinching with White, taking him down and working for the finish, which is becoming something of a trademark technique for him.

Fittingly Webb, who has just opened a new floatation therapy business in Colchester, was awarded his BJJ black belt to end the year.

He'll look for a UFC opportunity in the coming months.

Leigh Mitchell has his hand raised after his main event win over Rico Biggs at Cage Warriors Academy South East 24.

Leigh Mitchell has his hand raised after his main event win over Rico Biggs at Cage Warriors Academy South East 24. Picture: BRETT KING - Credit: Archant

Prospect of the Year (five pro fights or fewer): Leigh Mitchell

Previous winners: Cory McKenna (2017), George Tanasa and Molly Lindsay (2018), Felix Klinkhammer (2019)

There's a lot of talent coming out of the east, but for me 'mini-hulk' bantamweight Mitchell (3-2), another off the BKK production line, tops the lot.

He may have lost his Cage Warriors debut to the excellent, unbeaten talent Nathan Fletcher earlier this month, but everything I hear about Mitchell from those who train alongside him tells me he's headed to the top.

He's a diminutive powerhouse (hence the nickname), who will out-work, out-wrestle and out-grapple you, plus his southpaw striking is improving all the time.

Will get another chance under the bright lights of the big Cage Warriors show next year, and I fully expect him to take it and go on a winning run.