Kamaru Usman, Julianna Peña lead the year of MMA: the best fighters, fight, completion and moments of 2021

Every year brings ups and downs in all sports, memorable performances and the emergence of new stars. In mixed martial arts, the leading wrestling promotion, UFC, has eight weight classes for men and four for women and had 43 fight cards in 2021, leaving plenty of space available on stage for athletes to show off their skills. . Add in full billboard lists at Bellator and other promotions, and it was an eventful year for MMA.

Who stood out among the best of the year? Which matchups and performances were the most revealing? There are many possibilities to consider, and ESPN’s Carlos Contreras Legaspi, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim looked back and chose the best of the best. Each of them also cited their most memorable moments of the year.

Fighter of the Year (men): Kamaru Usman

It was a career defining year for the UFC welterweight champion, one that took him ahead of Georges St-Pierre as the greatest 170-pound fighter of all time or at least on the cusp. What’s most impressive about Usman is not just his mastery, but the improvement he’s showing in nearly a decade of professional MMA career.

Also impressive, no doubt, was his activity. It has become a rarity for a UFC champion to fight three times in a calendar year, and Usman had three fights in 2021 in a span of nine months. He defended his title against Gilbert Burns and Colby Covington, who were undoubtedly the division’s top contenders this year, and buried absolutely any doubts about his dominance with a knockout of Jorge Masvidal, whom he beat in 2020 but in unspectacular fashion.

Usman did enough to become a near-universal pick as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Regardless of whether you have him ahead of or behind GSP as the greatest welterweight of all time, there is no denying that in this current era, Usman looks a lot like St-Pierre in his prime. Usman has distanced himself from the pack. He is the smartest, most skilled and best prepared athlete in the sport. – Okamoto

Fighter of the Year (women): Julianna Peña

This award wasn’t decided until the last UFC pay-per-view of the year, UFC 269 in Las Vegas on December 11, when Peña stunned the world not only by beating Amanda Nunes, but by finishing her with a second-round submission (rear choke to the neck). Nunes, considered the greatest female MMA fighter of all time, with victories over Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg and Valentina Shevchenko, had won 12 matches in a row and looked virtually unbeatable.

Peña, however, paid no attention to Nunes’s long list of accomplishments. On her way to becoming the UFC women’s bantamweight champion, Peña was confident going into the fight, showing absolutely no fear or intimidation. In the second round of the fight, she essentially walked towards Nunes, landing hit after hit until the takedown and submission ended the also UFC featherweight champion. Peña, who started the year with a January stoppage of Sara McMann to earn her title shot, had to be patient as Nunes recovered from a battle with COVID-19. It was surely worth the wait.

Other women also showed off throughout the year. Shevchenko and Rose Namajunas come to mind. But none of them stopped the GOAT. Peña did it, and that was more than enough to win this crown. – Raimondi

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

MMA championship fights have reached such a high level that it is rare that you see a bad title match. They are all fantastic to some degree, because they are all examples of the best the sport has to offer. Still, the September UFC featherweight title fight between Volkanovski and Ortega really had everything you could want to see in a martial arts showdown.

First and foremost: skill. The sport really (and finally) began to recognize the depth of skills that Volkanovski possesses. He’s a world-class pound-for-pound talent, and he showed it in this match.

The fighters had hearts: Ortega’s ability to fend off early damage and Volkanovski’s ability to escape dangerous positions against one of the best finishers in the UFC.

It also had drama, due to those dangerous positions from which Volkanovski escaped.

Plus, we love the pre-fight sound bites. We love stories. The preparation for this fight took place on a reality show. But at the end of the day, what we want to see the most in MMA are fights at the highest level. And without a doubt, this fight was the best example of that in 2021. – Okamoto

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

Horiguchi completely dominated Pettis, the reigning Bellator bantamweight champion, in their December 3 title fight. It looked like the Japanese fighter was on the verge of regaining the title he once held. Through the fourth round, Horiguchi was putting on an excellent performance, smashing Pettis on the feet and knocking him down at will to add some ground and pound to his attack. However, Pettis never broke down and, at 3:24 of the quarter, landed one of the most memorable knockouts in Bellator history.

Pettis pushed Horiguchi into the cage and went to kick him right to the head. Horiguchi ducked to stay out of trouble, but Pettis kept turning. In the same motion as the kick, Pettis swung his left arm back with a twisting fist and landed right on Horiguchi’s jaw. Horiguchi was immediately knocked out and stiffened before hitting the ground with a thud. Pettis could have lost almost every moment of the fight up to that point, but it didn’t matter. He retained his belt through an absolutely impressive knockout.

There were several other great knockouts in 2021 – Jiri Prochazka’s back spinning elbow KO of Dominick Reyes and Cory Sandhagen’s flying knee against Frankie Edgar come to mind, but Pettis got his knockout while down on all cards in a main event with a title on the line. There is nothing better than that. – Raimondi

The most memorable MMA moments of 2021

Brandon Moreno: “Yes wey could”

Deiveson Figueiredo did not imagine that Arizona would be hostile territory for him, both inside the cage with a Brandon Moreno who had completely deciphered his game, and outside of it, with thousands of Mexicans cheering for their first champion.

Three years earlier, the Tijuana man had lost his job. The promising youngster who reached flyweight by defeating two ranked opponents in his first three fights was quenched with losses in Mexico City and Santiago de Chile to Alexandre Pantoja.

That’s why his championship message meant so much. He went from being the “already merit” to “yes it could”, two phrases that mark the sports culture of his country. Six months earlier, he had given the fight of his life at UFC 256, but it was only enough for a majority draw. At UFC 263 he made a leap in quality and in his psychological preparation, he convinced himself that he could be the best in the world and made history for Mexico and all of Latin America by beating Figueiredo by submission in the third round. – Legaspi

Rose Namajunas: ‘I am the best!’

After Namajunas knocked out Zhang Weili with a beautiful kick to the head in the first round of their strawweight title fight at UFC 261 in April, the new champion was holding back tears and talking to her partner / coach, Pat. Barry. The exchange between them was inspiring.

“You are the best fighter of all time! Who is the best?”

“I am the best!”

“Who the hell is the best?”

“I am the best!”

“You have been the best.”

Can’t beat that. It was the best MMA moment in 2021 for me, by far. – Okamoto

Glover Teixeira, UFC Champion … at 42

“Never give up on your dreams,” were the words that echoed from the microphone inside the octagon.

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

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

And what a bumpy and tortuous path Teixeira took to the top of the mountain! The portly Brazilian has been a professional fighter since 2002 and has been in the UFC since 2012, his Octagon debut delayed several years due to visa issues. After winning his first five UFC fights to extend his overall winning streak to 20, he challenged Jon Jones for the title in 2014 and was dominated. He was only a few months away from 35 at the time. End of story?

No. Fifteen fights and seven and a half years later, Teixeira finally got his second chance and showed what has made him one of the greats from the start, as a fighter and as a human. He cleverly defeated Blachowicz, a dangerous striker, and finished him off with the efficiency of a veteran. Then after his arm was raised and the microphone held in front of him, Teixeira didn’t make the moment all about himself.

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

That’s 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 climax was the only one that made me feel emotionally uplifted. Dreams Never give up on them. – Wagenheim

Conor McGregor sitting against the cage with a broken leg

The moment that stands out to me is not necessarily a good one, but it is a moment that was imprinted in the minds of MMA fans: McGregor, the biggest star in UFC history, sitting against the fence of the Octagon at UFC 264. on July 10 in Las Vegas with a broken leg and Joe Rogan interviewing him.

Dustin Poirier had just won by technical knockout after medical stoppage when McGregor suffered a fractured tibia and fibula near the end of the first round of their trilogy fight. McGregor, clutching his leg, continued his trash talk before and during Rogan’s interview. It later became an internet meme due to the surreal nature of the scene: Rogan sitting against the cage to McGregor’s right, with her microphone in the Irishman’s face. The common joke became that Rogan would interview anyone, anywhere, regardless of the seriousness of the situation.

McGregor, even when he couldn’t get up and walk, kept hurling expletives and insults at Poirier and his wife, Jolie, who stuck his middle finger off during the exchange. For better or for worse, it was extremely memorable. – Raimondi