Mixed martial arts is crossing into the mainstream. 2021 might have been the most significant year for the sport so far on its journey towards acceptance by the masses, with its flagship promotion the UFC putting together match-ups of great intrigue and competitiveness more often than ever while welcoming back full crowds.
Conor McGregor fought more than once within a calendar year for the first time since 2016, helping to ensure at least two seismic events for UFC president Dana White and his team, while Israel Adesanya and Jorge Masvidal – the next biggest stars in the company – also stepped foot in the Octagon. McGregor was twice beaten by Dustin Poirier, knocked out for the first time in his career in January before suffering a horrific leg break in the second of those two contests, while Masvidal was brutally knocked out in his second attempt to dethrone welterweight champion Kamaru Usman.
Adesanya was also defeated – for the first time in his professional MMA career, in fact – as he tried to become a two-weight title holder by challenging then-light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz. He did, however, retain his crown in the middleweight division, overcoming Marvin Vettori for the second time in his UFC run.
Elsewhere, Khamzat Chimaev confirmed his status as the UFC’s newest rising star. Having obtained that tag in 2020 with emphatic victories at 170 and 185lbs, the Russian-born Swede saw his shotgun start in the promotion temporarily halted by a serious, extended bout of Covid-19. He returned in October, however, running through a game Li Jingliang to improve his record to 10-0 with 10 finishes. In fact, he has remarkably absorbed just one significant strike in the UFC. Already some are talking about the 27-year-old as a potential successor to Usman atop the welterweight division, in which Britain’s Leon Edwards is closing in on a title shot and earned a notable win against Nate Diaz, whose brother Nick returned after a near-seven-year absence.
At heavyweight, consensus divisional GOAT Stipe Miocic was unable to keep Francis Ngannou at bay as he had in 2018. Three years on from his humbling decision defeat by the part-time firefighter, Ngannou finally ascended to championship status by knocking out Miocic in the second round, his unparalleled power making him another contender to become a crossover star.
However, Ngannou’s former teammate Ciryl Gane became France’s first UFC champion by claiming the interim title against Derrick Lewis, setting up a huge unification bout with the “Predator” for the first pay-per-view of 2022.
A new champion was also crowned at light heavyweight as Blachowicz failed to follow his decision win against Adesanya with a victory over veteran Glover Teixeira, who became the second-oldest UFC title holder ever by submitting the Pole.
There were also coronations at lightweight and flyweight, with 155lber Charles Oliveira claiming the strap vacated by Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2020 by finishing new fan favourite Michael Chandler – who enjoyed a thrilling debut in January after joining the UFC from Bellator. Chandler looked to have the fight won at the end of the first round but could not put away the Brazilian, who stopped the American early in round two.
Poirier’s two victories over McGregor set him up for a title shot against Oliveira in the final PPV of 2021, with many fans expecting the “Diamond” to finally get over the line and wear undisputed UFC gold. The former interim champion was submitted by Oliveira, however, with the Brazilian improving his existing records for most finishes and most submission victories in UFC history. Elsewhere in the division, mouthy Liverpudlian Paddy Pimblett enjoyed a successful UFC debut, winning via first-round knockout after an early scare and seeing his profile swell as a result.
It was Brandon Moreno who became king at 125lbs, following his draw against Deiveson Figueiredo from December 2020 with a submission win against the formidable flyweight. The pair are now set for a trilogy bout in January on the undercard of Ngannou vs Gane.
While Aljamain Sterling technically reigns at bantamweight, so did confusion this March. The Jamaican-American started fast in his title shot against Petr Yan, but the Russian took over and looked on course for victory before illegally kneeing a downed Sterling to lose via disqualification. As such, “Funkmaster” is the most disputed of the undisputed champions, especially with Yan having since won the interim belt in a fight of the year contender against Cory Sandhagen. Elsewhere in the division, fan favourite Sean O’Malley continues to climb, having finally entered the rankings – and almost the top 10.
There was greater stability at featherweight, however, with Alexander Volkanovski retaining his title for a second time, overcoming Brian Ortega in an absolute thriller. Ortega looked to have the Australian in inescapable submissions on at least two occasions, but Volkanovski fought his way out and kept hold of the gold. At the start of the year, former champion Max Holloway broke numerous striking records in outpointing Calvin Kattar with one of the greatest performances the sport has ever seen.
Rose Namajunas regained her strawweight title with a stunning first-round head-kick knockout of Zhang Weili, before retaining the strap against the Chinawoman later in the year in a back-and-forth battle. Meanwhile, Valentina Shevchenko remained flyweight queen with TKO wins against Jessica Andrade and Lauren Murphy.
One of the most shocking moments in the history of the sport came in the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division, where consensus GOAT Amanda Nunes dropped her 135lbs belt to underdog Julianna Pena this month, submitted by the American in the second round to the amazement of those in attendance at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
That result might have actually increased intrigue in seeing two-time Professional Fighters League (PFL) lightweight champion Kayla Harrison take on Nunes in the future, with the world and Olympic champion judoka now a free agent.
The PFL’s unique play-off format saw its popularity increase further this year, while Bellator’s standout moment came in the form of a knockout of the year contender by Sergio Pettis, who was well behind on the scorecards in his bantamweight title defence against Kyoji Horiguchi before stopping the Rizin champion with a phenomenal spinning back fist.
While that finish was arguably knockout of the year, the fight of the year was deemed by most fans to be Justin Gaethje’s three-round war with Michael Chandler in November, its relentless pace punctuated by numerous near-finishes until Gaethje got the nod from the judges.
Meanwhile, the fighter of the year was surely Usman, who stood out as the preeminent champion in the UFC – fighting three times and successfully retaining his welterweight belt on each occasion. He stopped friend and former teammate Gilbert Burns, scored a devastating knockout of old foe Masvidal, and once again fended off fierce rival Colby Covington – outpointing the pantomime villain in an instant classic, two years after stopping the American in the fifth round of another epic.
Usman’s improvements have been evident under coach Trevor Wittman, who also works with Namajunas and Gaethje, all three of whom were victorious at UFC 268 on a monumental night for Wittman.
With all things considered at the end of an engrossing year in MMA, here are The Independent’s end-of-year awards:
Fighter of the year: Kamaru Usman
Fight of the year: Justin Gaethje def. Michael Chandler
Upset of the year: Julianna Pena def. Amanda Nunes
Knockout of the year: Sergio Pettis def. Kyoji Horiguchi
Breakthrough fighter: Paddy Pimblett
Fight that has to be made in 2022: The UFC must finally pull the trigger on Jon Jones’ move up to heavyweight, pairing him with the victor of Francis Ngannou vs Ciryl Gane.
One bold prediction for 2022: Conor McGregor will somehow find himself in a title fight before the year is up.