The Best Of 2021- UFC Fights
By Mick Robson
Hard to navigate this year's list of UFC fights. As I've mentioned previously, 2021 was a year that saw UFC hold the 3rd most events in a year in the history of the organisation. So, a lot to sort through, and it can be hard to keep it all straight in your head. Plus, like everyone and everything else in the world, the UFC had to contend with the global pandemic, which often meant fight cancellations, and often last minute. Admittedly, I used Wikipedia to jog the old noggin, and I was surprised to see the number of events that didn't have a Fight of the Night awarded. It makes sense though- when I was going off my memory, things were a little hazy after I listed the first few fights. It's been a great year for finishes, but not always for those absolute wars.
I feel like the setting of the UFC Apex is a factor as well. As much as MMA is a real sport, the fighters often feed off the crowd in a similar way that pro wrestlers do. And before anyone comes for my head, pro wrestling and MMA have long been intertwined in a number of ways that I don't feel like getting into right now. But simply put, the roar of the crowd would often spur fighters to go in for the kill, full of emotion and adrenaline. That's missing in the tiny Apex with its very limited amount of fans.
All that said, we have managed to track down 10 quality fights worth going out of your way to watch. Let's do this!
10. Ricky Turcios vs. Brady Hiestand- UFC Fight Night
This was highly reminiscent of Griffin vs. Bonnar from the first TUF Finale, and Turcios and Hiestand paid tribute to that transformative classic of a fight by going balls to the wall for 15 minutes, all in the hopes of becoming the Ultimate Fighter. Damn shame that they didn't get a FOTN award, it was an epic battle!
9. TJ Dillashaw vs. Cory Sandhagen- UFC Fight Night
TJ Dillashaw returned to the Octagon in 2021 looking for redemption. He failed a drug test, causing him to fall into disgrace and serve a 2 year suspension. Upon his return, he had no easy task ahead of him, facing top ranked bantamweight Cory Sandhagen. Dillashaw ultimately won, but it was a razor close split decision victory. Sandhagen had some early success mixing in his grappling, but this was a fight that stayed on the feet for much of the 25 minute duration, and it was Dillashaw's speed and aggression that made the difference in this high level MMA battle.
8. Edson Barboza vs. Shane Burgos- UFC 262
Edson Barboza has been around for a long time. He is best known for scoring a highlight reel KO back when Jorge Masvidal was eeking out split decision wins on undercards. So you would think he'd maybe be slowing down at this point. On this night against the ever-tough Burgos, Barboza had other ideas, with a constant stream of activity, firing off punches and kicks at will. Burgos was game and gave near as good as he got, but in the third round, the Brazilian took it to another level, and a massive right hand from Barboza ended the bout before we could hit the scorecards.
7. Brad Riddell vs. Drew Dober- UFC 263
Brad Riddell burst onto the scene with a fan-friendly surge of energy, earning Fight of the Night in his UFC debut at UFC 243 against Jamie Mullarkey. Fast forward almost 2 years, and Riddell thought he'd repeat the feat, throwing down against the gritty Drew Dober. Dober dropped Riddell in the opening round and bloodied him up, but Riddell showed heart, constantly throwing back and accumulating points and damage as well. The City Kickboxing product made an excellent comeback to claim another big victory after seeming on the brink of defeat in the opening minute.
6. Max Holloway vs. Yair Rodriguez- UFC Fight Night
When this fight was booked, most fight fans and pundits predicted guaranteed fireworks, and that's what we got. Holloway and Rodriguez went balls to the wall for 25 minutes. Yair seemed to surprise the former featherweight champion, taking the opening round, before Blessed found his form. Holloway out-worked Rodriguez for the rest of the fight, but there was a constant sense of danger, with the history and fight style of El Pantera.
5. Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum- UFC Fight Night
At UFC 243, Robert Whittaker suffered a crushing TKO defeat at the hands of current middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. Whittaker fought that fight in a somewhat uncharacteristic aggressive fashion- The Reaper has always been an active fighter, but he was almost reckless in that title loss. A more composed Whittaker emerged from that loss, engaging in a striking chess match with Darren Till. This main event fight with Kelvin Gastelum saw Whittaker find the sweet spot, where he was calculated in his movements but managed to hit the gas more often, engaging in some beautiful striking sequences. Gastelum is no slouch, and he had his moments, but Whittaker employed great takedown defence in addition to a higher striking output. Whittaker secured the victory and the long-awaited rematch with Izzy in early 2022.
4. Amanda Nunes vs. Juliana Pena- UFC 269
Amanda Nunes has long been seen as the GOAT of women's MMA, and with wins over Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg, Miesha Tate and Holly Holm, it was a well-earned accolade. Late in 2021, Nunes put one of her two title belts on the line, as Juliana Pena stepped up to challenge for the women's bantamweight champion. Nobody gave Pena much of a chance here, and round 1 saw the expected domination from the Lioness. Round 2 though saw a champion that was visibly fatigued, and Pena started landing hard strikes. Nunes smiled and tried to walk through the barrage and fire back... until the striking started to stun her a little. Bit by bit, Nunes found herself rocked, and eventually fell down, where Pena locked in a choke for the quick tap. A huge, huge upset and major moment in MMA.
3. Charles Oliveira vs. Michael Chandler- UFC 262
Oliveira long had the label of the guy that "couldn't win the big one". He was a mainstay in the upper echelons of the lightweight division over the past decade, but always seemed to fall against the top guys. Critics have even accused him of not having heart. In this battle for the vacant lightweight title, standing across the Octagon was former Bellator champion Michael Chandler, who made a stunning UFC debut at the start of 2021, flatlining top ranked Dan Hooker with a first round KO. Given Oliveira's penchant for folding at the top level, whether it was a deficiency in his chin or his heart, it was believed that Do Bronx couldn't withstand Chandler's power. In the first round, Chandler dropped and hurt Oliveira badly... but Oliveira survived. Oliveira came out in R2 a determined man, landing some bombs of his own to stop the fight and claim his first world championship. High drama and action throughout, this earns its spot on the countdown for both fight quality and the significance of the grind- in his 11th year in the UFC, Oliveira finally reached the top of the mountain.
2. Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega- UFC 266
Volkanovski came into this title defence with a chip on his shoulder- or maybe more than one. First, this fight was delayed. Originally meant to take place earlier in the year, Volko got COVID on fight week. The UFC turned chicken crap into chicken salad, keeping the Aussie in Las Vegas to film the Ultimate Fighter opposite Ortega as coaches. The season saw a lot of bad blood and shit talk between champion and challenger. Also adding fuel to the fire was the controversial split decision over Max Holloway in Volko's last fight.
Volkanovski and Ortega approached this fight angry yet still technical. In the 3rd round, business really picked up, as Ortega snatched up a mounted guillotine that the champ somehow survived, and moments later locked in a triangle as well. Not only did Volko escape, he pummelled Ortega so badly with ground and pound that "T-City" needed help to his stool. The champ retains, and it was a gutsy performance that should have silenced some of the doubters... but with a 3rd Holloway fight looming, the angry mob is back to attack on social media...
1. Michael Chandler vs. Justin Gaethje- UFC 268
The moment this fight was announced, fight fans' mouths were watering. Chandler and Gaethje are all action fighters, and their Tweets about neither one taking a backwards step or shooting for a takedown only increased the anticipation. And then the fight started, and damn! They were men of their word, playing rock 'em sock 'em robots for most of 3 rounds. I think Gaethje may have shot for a half-assed takedown in R3, but you can't begrudge that after over 10 minutes of pure insanity and violence. Both men landed absolute bombs in an all-out war. Everything it was advertised to be and more. I just wish it was a 5 round fight! Maybe they can run it back one day...
Until next time, take care.