Kamaru Usman and Julianna Peña mark year of MMA – best fighters, fights, finishes and moments of 2021

Each year in each sport brings ups and downs, memorable performances, the emergence of new stars. In mixed martial arts, the main fighting promotion, the UFC, has eight weight classes for men and four for women and held 43 fight cards in 2021, leaving plenty of room on stage for athletes to show their stuff. Add to that full slates of cards in Bellator and other promotions, and it has indeed been an eventful year for MMA.

Who stood out among the many greats of the year? Which confrontations and performances were the most revealing? There were a lot of possibilities to consider, and ESPN’s Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim reviewed the year and found the best of the best. They also each cited their most memorable moments of the year.

Fighter of the Year (men): Kamaru Usman



Chael Sonnen believes that if Kamaru Usman then eliminates Colby Covington, he might be on his way to the level of Georges St-Pierre in the world of MMA.

It was a defining year for the UFC welterweight champion’s career, a year that propelled him past Georges St-Pierre as the greatest 170 pounds of all time or at least on the cusp of it. this. The most impressive thing about Usman isn’t just his dominance, but the improvement he has shown for nearly a decade in his pro MMA career.

His activity was also impressive, to be sure. It has become something of a rarity for a UFC champion to fight three times in a calendar year, and Usman has had three fights in 2021 in the span of nine months. He defended his title against Gilbert Burns and Colby Covington, who were arguably the best contenders in the division this year, and he absolutely buried any doubts about his dominance with a knockout of Jorge Masvidal, whom he had beaten in 2020 but from unspectacular way.

Usman has done enough to make himself an almost universal choice for the world’s top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter. Whether you have him ahead or just behind GSP as the greatest welterweight of all time, there’s no denying that in this current era Usman feels a lot like St-Pierre in his prime. Usman distanced himself from the peloton. He is the smartest, most skilled and best prepared athlete in the sport.


Female Fighter of the Year: Julianna Peña

That award was only decided at the last UFC pay-per-view of the year, UFC 269 in Las Vegas on December 11, when Peña shocked the world not only by beating Amanda Nunes but finishing her – a second round submission via bare rear choke. Nunes, considered the greatest fighter of all time in women’s MMA, with wins over Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg and Valentina Shevchenko, had 12 straight wins and looked virtually invincible.

Peña, however, could not have been less baffled by Nunes’ long list of accomplishments. On her way to becoming the UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, Peña was confident, showing absolutely no fear or intimidation. In the second round of the fight, she essentially brought Nunes down, landing in quick succession until teardown and submission was complete. Peña, who started the year with a January end of Sara McMann to earn her title shot, had to be patient for her opportunity as Nunes recovered from a fight with COVID-19. It was surely worth the wait.

Other women have had a great year. Shevchenko and Rose Namajunas come to mind. But none of them stopped the GOAT. Peña did, and it was more than enough to win that crown.

– Raimondi

Fight of the Year: Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega (UFC 266)

The MMA Championship has reached such a high level that it’s rare that you witness a bad title fight. They are all fantastic to some extent as they are all examples of the best the sport has to offer. Regardless, the September UFC featherweight title fight between Volkanovski and Ortega really had everything you could want to see in a martial arts competition.

Above all: competence. The sport has really (and finally) started to recognize the depth of Volkanovsky’s skill in this fight. He’s a world-class pound-for-pound talent, and it shows in this one.

The fighters had heart: Ortega’s ability to defend against early damage and Volkanovsky’s ability to escape dangerous positions against one of the UFC’s top finishers.

There was also drama because of those dangerous positions from which Volkanovsky escaped.

Listen, we love the pre-fight sound bites. We love intrigue. The build-up of this fight took place on a reality TV set. But at the end of the day what we all want to see the most in MMA is fighting at your top level. And without a doubt, this fight was the best example of that in 2021.


End of the year: Sergio Pettis vs. Kyoji Horiguchi (Bellator 272)

Horiguchi completely towered over reigning Bellator bantamweight champion Pettis in their title fight on December 3. It looked like the Japanese fighter was about to walk away with the title he once possessed. At the start of the fourth lap, Horiguchi put in a remarkable performance, separating Pettis at his feet and knocking him down at will to add ground and weight to the assault. Pettis never broke, however, and at 3:24 of the fourth he landed one of the most memorable knockouts in Bellator history.

Pettis pressured Horiguchi towards the cage and gave a straight header. Horiguchi dodged to avoid trouble – but Pettis kept spinning. In the same movement as the kick, Pettis brought his left arm with a fist back and it landed directly on Origuchi’s jaw. Horiguchi was released on impact, stiffening before hitting the ground with a thud. Pettis might have lost almost every moment of the fight so far, but that didn’t matter. He had retained his belt via an absolutely stunning knockout.

There have been several other big knockouts in 2021 – Jiri Prochazka’s back elbow knockout of Dominick Reyes and Cory Sandhagen’s flying knee against Frankie Edgar come to mind – but Pettis landed his knockout on the highlights so that he was on every main event dashboard with a title on the row. It doesn’t get much better than that.

– Raimondi

The most memorable MMA moments of 2021

Rose Namajunas: “I’m the best!

After Namajunas knocked out Zhang Weili with a nice header in the first round of their UFC 261 strawweight title fight in April, she held back tears and spoke with her partner / coach, Pat Barry. The conversation between them, man, it’s inspiring. Just go watch it.

“You are the best fighter never! Who is the best?”

“I’m the best!”

” Who is the best ? “

“I’m the best!”

“You summer the best.”

Dude. You can’t beat that. Best moment of 2021 in MMA for me, by far.


Glover Teixeira, UFC champion … at 42

“Never give up on your dreams” were the words that burst into the microphone inside the Octagon.

The speaker was Teixeira and the occasion was the conclusion of UFC 267’s main event on October 30. But it could have been any fighter after any victory. Persistence is a common theme among professional mixed martial artists.

However, Teixeira took persistence to the next level. When he smothered Jan Blachowicz that night to win the light heavyweight championship at 42, he became the oldest to win a UFC belt for the first time. Only two others, Hall of Famer Randy Couture and future HOFer Daniel Cormier, won UFC titles after turning 40.

And what a rugged and winding road Teixeira took to the top of the mountain! The beefy Brazilian has been a professional fighter since 2002 and has been with the UFC since 2012, his Octagon debut being delayed for years by visa issues. After winning his first five UFC fights to bring his winning streak to 20-game winning streak, he challenged Jon Jones for the title in 2014 and was dominated. He was only a few months from the age of 35 at the time. End of the story?

No. Fifteen fights and seven and a half years later, Teixeira has finally had his second chance and shown what has made him one of the greatest ever – as a fighter and as a human. He cleverly took out Blachowicz, a dangerous forward, and finished him with the efficiency of a veteran. Then, after his arm was raised and the microphone was placed in front of him, Teixeira couldn’t bring himself to make the moment all around him.

“I love this man,” he said, pointing to the crestfallen Blachowicz. “He has my respect forever.”

This is how all but the darkest souls in the MMA world feel about Glover Teixeira. He was just one of seven fighters to win a UFC title this year. But his crowning moment was the only one that made me – a geezer covering the sport as calmly as possible – feel emotionally uplifted. Dreams. Never give up on them.

– Wagenheim

Conor McGregor sitting against the cage with a broken leg

The moment that strikes me isn’t necessarily a big one, but it’s one that will be etched in the psyche of MMA fans for years to come: McGregor, the greatest star in UFC history, sitting against the octagonal fence at UFC 264 on July 10 in Las Vegas with a broken leg and Joe Rogan interviewing him.

Dustin Poirier had just won by doctor TKO stoppage when McGregor suffered a fractured tibia and fibula near the end of the first round of their trilogy fight. McGregor, grabbing his leg, continued his trashy speech before and during Rogan’s interview. It later became a widespread internet meme due to the surreal nature of the scene – Rogan sitting against the cage to McGregor’s right, with his microphone in the Irishman’s face. The common joke became that Rogan would interview anyone, anywhere, no matter how serious the situation was.

McGregor, even though he was unable to stand and walk, was still cursing and cursing at Poirier and his wife, Jolie, who pulled a middle finger at him during the exchange. For better or for worse, it was extremely memorable.

– Raimondi

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