Columnists, Mixed Martial Arts, Sports

The Red Corner: UFC 2021 year in review, end-of-year awards

This week, all sights are set on the final UFC pay-per-view card of the year. UFC 269 boasts two title fights, including a battle between lightweight champion Charles Oliveira (31-8) and former interim champion Dustin Poirier (28-6). I previewed that fight, and the remainder to the blowout card, last week. This week, we will look back at all that made 2021 the greatest year in the UFC’s 28-year history. 

Notable outcomes

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The UFC opened the calendar year at Fight Island on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Max Holloway (23-6) dominated Calvin Kattar (22-5) to a bloody unanimous decision and a bang to the start of 2021. Holloway won by such a large margin that he broke his own record for landing the most significant strikes in a single bout with 445. 

Two weeks later, Poirier met Conor McGregor (22-6) in the promotion’s first PPV of the year: UFC 257. This was a rematch nearly seven years in the making and would be only the second fight of an eventual trilogy. Poirier, who is now challenging for the lightweight title, won via second-round knockout and has a legitimate claim to fighter of the year should he win Saturday. Not many fighters can say they were the main draw to both open and close the promotion’s bookend pay-per-views. 

Following shortly thereafter, welterweight belt holder Kamaru Usman (20-1) knocked former teammate Gilbert Burns (20-4) out with a straight jab and entered the upper echelon of welterweights. 

UFC 259 spelled an unsuccessful attempt to become a two-belt champion by Israel Adesanya (21-1) when he moved up to light heavyweight. He was promptly sent back down to middleweight by then-champ Jan Blachowicz (28-9). This was Adesanya’s first career loss in mixed martial arts and Blachowicz’s first title defense. 

At UFC 260 in March, Cameroon’s Francis Ngannou (16-3) rematched heavyweight champion and GOAT Stipe Miocic (20-4). Ngannou capitalized upon his second title shot and knocked Miocic out in the second round, becoming the first “And new” of the year. Well, technically it was Aljamain Sterling (20-3), who won the bantamweight strap via disqualification at UFC 259 — but Ngannou earned it the hard way, where many point to Sterling’s theatrics en route to the belt. 

UFC 261 in April was an early contender for card of the year. Rose Namajunas (11-4) took the strawweight belt from Weili Zhang (21-3), Valentina Shevchenko (22-3) made light work of Jessica Andrade (22-9) while defending the belt at women’s flyweight and finally, Usman fought again and nearly decapitated Jorge Masvidal (35-15) with a second-round KO. 

The summer spelled a flurry of new UFC champions. Oliveira knocked out Michael Chandler (22-7) for the vacant lightweight belt in May. In June, Brandon Moreno (19-5-2) won the flyweight title via a rear-naked choke of Deiveson Figueiredo (20-2-1).

Later in August, after Poirier once again dismantled McGregor in July, Cyril Gane (10-0) picked up the interim heavyweight strap. I’ve spoken at length about how illegitimate and wrong this interim belt fight was, however, Gane and Ngannou will take the first PPV of 2022 to settle whose belt remains. 

Featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski (23-1) defended his belt against Brian Ortega (15-2) in September at UFC 266. This fight was bananas — very rarely do we get to see multiple pendulum swings over a five-round title fight. For more on that, click here

The following month, we once more returned to Abu Dhabi, where we heard Bruce Buffer utter two more “And new” calls. Petr Yan (16-2), the former bantamweight champ who lost his belt via DQ, picked up the interim bantamweight strap over Cory Sandhagen (14-4). The following fight, 42-year-old Glover Teixeira (33-7) caught Blachowicz and warranted a tap from the Polish champion, earning the belt and becoming the oldest first-time winner of a UFC title. 

November’s PPV, UFC 268, may have just been the best card all year. Usman rematched Colby Covington (16-3) and Namajunas and Zhang ran it back from their bout in April at UFC 261. On paper, this card was expected to be awesome — that was amplified by a perceived shoo-in for fight of the night, month, year, decade: Chandler vs. Justin Gaethje (23-3). 

The card wasn’t just great on paper, but in reality as well. Seven knockouts and two razor-thin title fights that went to decision, including Namajunas vs. Zhang, which was a split decision. Oh, and Chandler-Gaethje was every part of what was expected —  an instant banger. If you have a friend who wants to get into MMA — show them this fight first. 

This year was undoubtedly the best we’ve ever seen from the UFC. It has never been more rewarding to be a fan of mixed martial arts. This year can be characterized by the multiple feel-good new champions we saw get their hands raised. 

Ngannou grew up in extreme poverty, working in a sand mine in Cameroon. Namajunas is one of the most likable fan-favorites in the sport. Moreno sobbed with joy as he hugged his new belt, becoming the first Mexican-born UFC champ. Oliveira has been chasing the UFC belt for over a decade — a feat that took him nearly 40 professional fights. Teixeira is 42 and has been ruled out because of his age over and over again. These new champs just speak to the rewarding nature of being a UFC fan. Thank you for a great 2021, and here’s to 2022 from both of us at The Red Corner. 

The Red Corner inaugural end-of-year awards: TRC’s best of 2021

2021 Fighter of the Year: Kamaru Usman

2021 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year: Cyril Gane

2021 Fight of the Year: Volkanovski vs. Ortega at UFC 266

Honorable Mention: Chandler vs. Gaethje at UFC 268

2021 Knockout of the Year: Jiri Prochazka via R2 elbow over Dominick Reyes at UFC Fight Night

2021 Submission of the Year: Amanda Nunes via R1 inverted triangle armbar over Megan Anderson at UFC 259

2021 Coach of the Year: Trevor Wittman

2021 Referee of the Year: Herb Dean

2021 Analyst of the Year: Jon Anik

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