It was quite the year in the Octagon. As one of the few sports that persisted and continued throughout the COVID pandemic, the hype train for the UFC only continued to accelerate in 2021. This year saw the crowd’s return, as well as the continued use of the snug UFC Apex; the small behind-closed-doors arena in Las Vegas that brought us closer to the action than ever before.
Without any further ado though, here are our top five fights of the year…
5: Holloway vs Kattar (UFC on ABC - January)
The year got underway with a bang. ‘Fight Island’ welcomed everyone’s favourite Hawaiian former champion Max Holloway, who spent the festive period relaxing his way through camp and came into this fight on a new ‘wave’ of energy that we hadn’t seen before. He changed his approach to the fight, refusing to spar and thus staying in peak physical condition. His foe, Calvin Kattar, entered the fight on the back of defeating hot prospect Shane Burgos, Jeremy Stephens and Dan Ige with his impressive boxing skills, and he looked to be a match for self-proclaimed “best boxer in the UFC” in Holloway.
Despite the news of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s lightweight title being forfeited potentially overshadowing the event, Holloway turned in possibly the greatest striking performance in the UFC’s illustrious history. The easiest unanimous decision was reached with ‘Blessed’ landing 445 out of 744 significant strikes, a record for most thrown and most landed ever in the UFC. He even spent time in the fifth round screaming at the commentary team that he is the ‘best boxer in the UFC, baby’ while dodging punches thrown by Kattar, which later became one of the organisation's most viewed social media clips ever. Not to count out Kattar either, who landed some great shots and some huge hits that caused damage to Holloway, but it was simply the most one-sided barn-burner you’ll ever see.
4: Volkanovski vs Ortega (UFC 266 - September)
Jon Anik described the third round of the Featherweight title fight between Aussie champ Alex Volkanovski and Brian Ortega as "one of the best title rounds you’ll ever see."
He wasn’t talking in hyperbole. This fight showcased two men who hadn’t really shown their full potential in the Octagon, which is incredible given how one holds the belt. Brian Ortega, not known for his defensive abilities, came out full force with the title on his mind and actually put the champion in an awkward position. He even went as far as to take Ortega to two submission holds that would’ve made the greatest fighters tap out.
Somehow, and no one could tell us how, Volkanovski survived both attempts and managed to turn the fight around to win via unanimous decision. If this and the Holloway/Kattar fight were watched consecutively, you’d think that the featherweight division was by far the greatest division in the organisation right now.
3: Oliveira vs Chandler (UFC 262 - May)
What a year it has been for Charles Oliveira. The Brazilian with the most submissions in UFC history rose from being cut by Dana White to win over ten consecutive fights and put together a title charge to be admired. Michael Chandler had arrived in the UFC from Bellator with a huge reputation. A January Performance of the Night against Dan Hooker saw the two paired up in a surprise title battle, given that Dustin Poirier, Justin Gaethje and more were all looking to see how they could find their way to a vacant title. But Dana White chose two men who hadn’t recently lost to the previous champion, and what a choice he made.
The first round had Chandler dominating and flooring Oliveira in between some work on the ground. Chandler’s right hand hooks were incredible and it is inexplicable how Oliveira managed to scramble enough to survive the round. The second round was over very quickly though, with the South American keeping the former Bellator champion pinned against the cage and landing at will. About 15 punches later, Charles ‘Do Bronx’ Oliveira was the new UFC Lightweight champion.
2: Nunes vs Peña (UFC 269 - December)
At 7/1, Julianna Peña pulled off the biggest underdog victory that we’ve seen since Matt Serra defeated George St Pierre at UFC 69 back in 2007. Amanda Nunes was on course to continue her run as the greatest female fighter in the UFC’s history but, out of nowhere, Peña came back from a tough opening round and landed strikes en masse, looking more like something from a video game than real life. All of a sudden the breaths got heavier for Nunes and before she knew it, she was on the floor in a rear naked choke being tapping out. Some might suggest that she gave up but she’s been a champion for long enough to know when enough is enough.
All of a sudden the women’s division has a new champion, and Julianna can’t wait to run it back with Nunes as soon as possible. Keep your eyes open for part two to see if the incredible fairytale continues for the American.
1: Gaethje vs Chandler (UFC 268 - November)
And to think, Dana White scheduled this fight to be the first fight on the main UFC 268 card to make sure that an audience would tune in from the start. Little did he know that this would be the best fight of the year.
Justin Gaethje’s reputation precedes him. A relatively calm and measured man who is friendly outside of the cage but a completely different beast when inside it. Nicknamed as the ‘Human Highlight Reel’, it’s easy to see why and this fight could be his magnum opus. Fighting the former lightweight champion of Bellator in Michael Chandler, Gaethje brought power, pace and stamina by the skip-load to create one of the most brutal fights you’ll ever see.
The fact that this fight was only three rounds was both criminal and beautiful. There probably would’ve been a knockout if there had been another two rounds but it’s nice that both men could end the fight on their feet. Justin Gaethje was so dominant that he deserved to have another incredible highlight added to his collection - he was like a mixed martial art’s equivalent of Star Wars’ General Grievous.
A win for Gaethje put him firmly back in the spot for another title shot. This time he will be facing Charles Oliveira, so that will be high on the list of fights to make for Dana White in 2022.
Honourable mentions: McGregor vs Poirier II, Usman vs Masvidal II, Miocic vs Ngannou II