The long wait is over. The UFC’s longest hiatus is coming to a close, as fans rear up for this weekend’s UFC Vegas 46 event, headlined by a barnburner between featherweight contenders Calvin Kattar and Giga Chikadze.
There’s already been a lot to talk about in this young year, after the UFC saw one of its most successful 12-month periods in the promotion’s history. In fact, the UFC set their record for the number of Pay-Per-View buys in 2021, something that was sure to make the brass very happy. The sport’s popularity continues to skyrocket and fans can reasonably expect bigger and brighter things to come. So, before we look forward to what promises to be another epic cycle of the sun, let’s look back and appreciate all the beautiful carnage from last year.
For almost as long as Jon Jones has been in the UFC, fans have wondered how he would fare at heavyweight. There was a time where “Bones” was adamant that he would stay at 205, stating that his attributes to be long and skinny were God’s way of saying he was meant to dominate the UFC’s light-heavyweight division for many years to come.
However, after winning a controversial decision over Dominick Reyes all the way back in February, 2020, it seemed like fans were finally going to witness Jones take the leap up to heavyweight.
After Francis Ngannou annihilated Stipe Miocic in March, “Bones” set his eyes on the prize: a super-fight between himself and the Predator from Cameroon. It would be the ultimate test for Jones and a supreme treat for fans. Could the wrestling, creative striking, and attributes of Jon Jones, the greatest mixed martial artist ever, overcome the devastating power of Francis Ngannou?
It’s a risk many fans claimed Jones had been skirting throughout his career. However, the prospect of Jones headlining an event against Ngannou has many of us watering at the mouth. While Jon wasn’t watering at the mouth, he did have dollar signs flash in his eyes.
Make no doubt about it, being locked in the Octagon with Francis Ngannou is a massive risk. And it’s a risk that Jon Jones wanted to be rewarded for - handsomely. According to Dana, he wanted to be paid to the tune of $30 million, which would have been the largest fight purse in UFC history. It put the spotlight back on Dana White and the UFC over the controversy of fighter pay, with many believing the organization’s athletes are criminally underpaid.
Unfortunately, rather than the fight coming to fruition and there being some sort of progress towards a fairer payout for the fighters, fans instead got something they’re all too familiar with: Jon “Bones” Jones was in trouble with Johnny Law yet again.
For a man who’s made a career out of dominating other fighters in the cage, Jones routinely gets 10-7’ed by the long arm of the law. The details of his extracurriculars this time were particularly ugly, as there were allegations of domestic violence against Jones's wife, Jesse Moses, in front of their children.
We all know Jon Jones is a reckless individual. After all, this is the guy who committed a hit and run on a pregnant woman, did donuts in his car while firing a gun into the Vegas sky, multiple DUIs, and accusations of unwanted sexual advances on a waitress. That’s without even bringing up the times that he’s pissed hot.
Even with all those past run-ins with law enforcement, adding “domestic abuser” is a particularly ugly thing to add to an already ugly ledger. The fans who know that this man could have achieved peaks unreachable by any other of this sport instead have to contend with the reality that Jones is his own worst enemy. Things only seem to be escalating.
In the build up to their rematch, Daniel Cormier stated in an interview with Joe Rogan and Jones that his adversary would never change. Those words ring truer every day. After his first arrest in 2012, MMA fans are witnessing the same old story when it comes to “Bones.”
Deja Vu, thy name is Jon Jones.
The very first PPV of 2021 featured a rematch many years in the making. Dustin “the Diamond” Poirier was getting his chance at redemption against Conor “the Notorious” McGregor after his TKO loss against the Irish superstar back in 2014.
There were a lot of interesting storylines in play that set the stage for UFC 257. McGregor was making his first appearance at lightweight since losing his championship bout against Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018. In between that time, Poirier himself had lost a championship bout to Khabib. Seemed like the perfect matchup for Conor’s return.
The card also featured the debut of Michael Chandler, an explosive veteran import from Bellator who was biting at the bit to test his mettle in the UFC. He matched up against Dan Hooker, meaning the main card of UFC 257 was shaping the picture for lightweight after Khabib’s retirement.
Fans also got to see a much different Conor in the build-up. We didn’t get the charismatic trash talker who was dead set on getting into his opponent’s head, no matter how dark things got. Instead, we got “friendly Conor.” He sang Dustin’s praises, plugged his hot sauce, and claimed that it was going to be a great, competitive fight. A far cry from the Mystic Mac who would predict the round.
McGregor was a favorite going in. After all, he has beaten Dustin once. Many believed that the Irishman did a much better job against Khabib than Dustin did. Plus, the UFC was desperate to have their golden calf back in action, winning against top contenders.
Dustin Poirier had other plans. If you look back at all the coverage leading up to that fateful bout, you’ll notice a theme. There were people picking Dustin to win, but few predicted the correct outcome.
Poirier would have to use his wrestling and BJJ. He’d have to survive the first two rounds and take Conor into the deep waters of his cardio. He’d win a decision if he could just keep the fight going.
Well, the scripts got flipped. Instead of McGregor scoring a knockout in the first two rounds, it was Poirier who knocked out Conor in the second. It was the first knockout loss of McGregor’s career, his only loss where he wasn’t submitted. BJJ be damned, Dustin’s got dynamite in those hands.
We all knew a trilogy was inevitable, and fans didn’t have to wait too long to see it. Only 6 months after taking a nap in Abu Dhabi, Conor and Dustin squared off again, this time in Las Vegas. This time, Mr. Nice Irishman was a thing of the past.
The trash talk was back, but it wasn’t charismatic. It was down and dirty, taking shots at Dustin’s wife. There was also the check that was never cashed, after McGregor had promised to donate a cool half-milly to Dustin’s charity. There would be no more exchange of hot sauce. The blood turned bad.
We did get an epic pre-fight press conference quip, though. Only the script was flipped again; this time, it came from the normally reserved Dustin.
“It isn’t McGregor fast, it’s McGregor sleep.”
This time, the fight didn’t make it out of the first. Conor’s leg snapped at the end of the round, in a gruesome call back to Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman. Unlike those two, however, McGregor was able to stifle the pain long enough to continue talking smack about Dustin’s wife. Of course, a snapped leg wasn’t going to stop Joe Rogan from getting his interview, either.
For what it’s worth, McGregor’s two appearances contributed for a whopping 38% of the UFC’s record setting PPV buys last year. Despite the back-to-back losses, Conor McGregor is still the promotion’s biggest cash cow.
2021 was the year that a group of Brazilian fighters proved that even father time can have things turn around on him.
The transformation of Jose Aldo has been one of the happier storylines out of the UFC this year. The featherweight GOAT is finding new life in his new division, looking sharper than ever in his two dominant victories last year. Against all logic and common wisdom, Jose Aldo is continuing to improve despite being in the fight game for nearly two decades.
He’s currently the top contender in bantamweight, with another title shot in grasp for the legendary Brazilian brawler.
Another longtime UFC vet from Brazil finally reached the highest peak, when Charles Oliveira knocked out Michael Chandler to become the champion of the promotion’s deepest division. Many people viewed the organization’s finish and submission leader as a mere placeholder for some of the other contenders. Namely, Dustin Poirier.
Well, those who thought of Oliveira as a place holder got a rude awakening after “Do Bronx” put a stamp on 2021 by choking out Dustin Poirier. The man is now on a 10 fight win streak with 9 finishes - the only decision coming against Tony Ferguson. Considering Ferguson was caught in an armbar that 99.99% of humans would have tapped in, it should be considered 9 finishes with 1 Tony Ferguson.
Perhaps the most shocking of all, however, was when Glover Texeira upset Jan Blachowicz at UFC 267. The underdog found a way to choke out the Polish Power, becoming a UFC champion for the first time at the ripe age of 42.
Father time, eat your heart out.
There was no shortage of epic fights in 2021. There were quite a few instances of fights that are destined to be talked about for years to come.
Oftentimes, when a fight gets hyped up to oblivion, it almost becomes impossible for it to live up to expectations. The common quip heard when referring to this matchup of top lightweight contenders was that “it wasn’t going the distance.”
Well, it didn’t go the distance. But it exceeded expectations. Fans were treated to an epic war. This fight had everything: back and forth action, near finishes, pure will, grit, and determination. The stuff of movies.
Gaethje proved that he’s up to any challenge in the lightweight division. While Chandler lost the decision, he also proved that he’s one of the most exciting fighters to watch. Bravo, men, for this display of carnage.
There were a ton of options to choose from for championship fights. However, one stood out from the crowd for it’s excitement factor. For all intents and purposes, Volkanovski dominated the fight.
Until the moment where he nearly got choked out. Multiple times, in the same round. After getting worked pillar to post for most of the fight, Ortega swooped in on a guillotine and looked destined to hear “And New.”
It was tight. Really tight. As tight as it gets. And yet, Volk refused to lose his belt that night.
It’s one of those moments where you go back and rewatch multiple times, getting more confused as to how Volk didn’t tap or nap in that moment each time you watch it. Truly amazing.
Going into this fight, betting against Amanda Nunes was like betting against the Harlem Globetrotters. They say there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to the fight game, but MMA fans seemed to make an exception for Amanda Nunes. Everyone knew there was no way she could lose a fight against Julianna Pena, right?
There was so much certainty around Nunes’ victory that one man even bet over $300k on her to win, only to win a paltry $20k in return. She was that much of a favorite.
Needless to say, that man is probably on the breadline now. There really is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to combat sports.
The comeback of the year comes via Bellator, with former UFC flyweight and younger brother of former UFC champ Anthony Pettis. Sergio Pettis was getting worked. Entering the fourth round, he was down on all 3 judges’ scorecards, 30-27.
There was only one option for the 125’er: get a finish. Easier said than done when you’ve been pummeled for three rounds. However, that didn’t sway the young flyweight.
In true Pettis fashion, he broke out the style. A spinning backfist KO to finish the fight, as flashy and satisfying as it gets. He whiffed on a looping high kick, but threw out the backfist just in case his opponent re-entered range. And re-enter, he did.
It was such a beautiful KO that it’s been called the knockout of the year by several MMA news outlets. Well done to the younger Pettis.
There are many fighters who had great 2021s, but PFL women’s lightweight Kayla Harrison is carving herself a path to the UFC in dominant fashion. She’s the bright light of women’s MMA and the fighter many consider to be the next female superstar in the sport.
She went 4-0 in the PFL in 2021, with two knockouts and two submissions. Her eyes have been on the prize of entering the UFC and challenging Amanda Nunes. Many expected this to be the next big women’s superfight, until Nunes’ shocking loss to Julianna Pena in the UFC’s last event of the year.
Harrison’s stock continues to rise and it’s only a matter of time before she’s able to test herself against the best in the world in the UFC.
Need we say more?
That YouTube Disney kid keeps interjecting himself into the MMA world, for better or worse. Well, mostly for the worse. Actually, completely for the worse.
God damnit, Tyron…
With 2021 firmly in the rear-view mirror, we’re excited for all the things in store for the MMA world coming up. What were your favorite moments in the sport from 2021?
UFC’s return to action happens this Saturday for UFC Vegas 47: Kattar vs. Chikadze, followed up by the promotion’s first PPV event. UFC 270 is headlined by Francis Ngannou vs Ciryl Gane. What better way to kick off the year than with a battle of heavyweight titans?