The best MMA fights of 2021 have left fans keen for more as the UFC looks ahead to another huge year

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Despite the logistical nightmares occasionally posed by the pandemic, the UFC has had another concussive year of fierce rivalries and all-action contests packed with venomous finishes.

Former champion Conor McGregor’s anticipated return from a gruesome leg injury is likely to be the most high-profile fight of next year, and there are plenty of compelling clashes already scheduled by the promotion for 2022.

Conor McGregor (right) was surprisingly beaten twice by Dustin Poirier, suffering an excruciating leg break in the second loss

Conor McGregor (right) was surprisingly beaten twice by Dustin Poirier, suffering an excruciating leg break in the second loss

2021 highlights

Conor McGregor loses to Dustin Poirier twice

In his first fight for more than a year, some had expected Conor McGregor to make light work of lightweight Dustin Poirier, a rival he had beaten inside two minutes when they had met more than seven years earlier.

As it was, in the UFC’s now-established Abu Dhabi home of Fight Island, Poirier avenged that loss with an apparent ease that verged on the embarrassing, consigning his opponent to an early night seconds into round two after a flurry of punches.

After a build-up to their July rematch that was acrimonious even by McGregor’s incendiary standards, the evening finished in even more agonising fashion for the former two-weight champion.

McGregor somehow reached the end of the round after breaking his leg when he stepped back seconds before the end of the first round. He wound up being hauled out on a stretcher, vowing that his desire to punish Poirier had not ended and would carry on outside the Las Vegas setting of his latest unsuccessful return if necessary.

The long road to a full recovery is continuing for McGregor, while Poirier was unsuccessful in his bid to win the division title in December, suffering a third-round submission defeat to Charles Oliveira at UFC 269. 

Kamaru Usman (right) needed a huge shot to knock out UFC veteran Jorge Masvidal when the feuding pair fought at UFC 261

Kamaru Usman (right) needed a huge shot to knock out UFC veteran Jorge Masvidal when the feuding pair fought at UFC 261

Kamaru Usman knocks out Jorge Masvidal

Welterweight king Kamaru Usman was full of praise for Jorge Masvidal after ‘Gamebred’ agreed to step in as his opponent at short notice on Fight Island in July 2020, losing via decision.

Matters were not quite as competitive when they met again in Jacksonville little more than nine months later. The first round, admittedly, was fairly even – not that it would have been any consolation to Masvidal, who once bragged of the ease with which he would beat Usman.

A brutal right hand took out Masvidal a minute into the second, sending Usman leaping onto the top of the cage and leaving his foe flat out on the canvas while The Nigerian Nightmare raced towards UFC president Dana White, slapping his chest in celebration as he spoke to his boss.

Usman remains undefeated in the UFC and proudly pointed out that he had given the baying crowd the violence he believed they had wanted. 

Having been knocked out for the first time in his 50-fight career, Masvidal admitted that over-confidence may have played a part in his demise. Usman went on to beat another of his former victims, the ever-cocky Colby Covington, by decision in a grudge match at UFC 268.

Despite her brave protests, Zhang Weili (centre) had no comeback after Rose Namajunas (left) caught her with a stunning kick

Despite her brave protests, Zhang Weili (centre) had no comeback after Rose Namajunas (left) caught her with a stunning kick

Rose Namajunas puts her best foot forward against Zhang Weili

Zhang Weili entered this UFC 261 bout in April on a 21-fight unbeaten run that had lasted seven years, including five unbeaten in the UFC and a strawweight title defence against the feared Joanna Jedrzejczyk, so it was always going to take something special to beat her.

Zhang’s fight with Jedrzejczyk more than a year earlier had been considered one of the greatest women’s UFC contests of all time. Her defence against Namajunas was a far quicker one that produced one of the most memorable finishes of 2021.

The division’s former ruler coming into the fight, Namajunas is one of the toughest and most talented fighters out there, and ‘Thug’ needed less than a round to stun Zhang with a left head kick that was one for the cameras and flattened her opponent on the floor, allowing Namajunas to rush in and finish the job with punches.

Zhang showed her toughness by protesting that she had not been unconscious and was ready to fight on. That led to a rematch at Madison Square Garden in November in which Namajunas earned a split-decision victory after both competitors – with ample justification – had verbally goaded each other about their champion credentials during the showdown.

UFC 267 witnessed Brazilian behemoth Glover Teixeira (right) become the UFC's oldest first-time champion at the age of 42

UFC 267 witnessed Brazilian behemoth Glover Teixeira (right) become the UFC’s oldest first-time champion at the age of 42

UFC 267: Veteran heroics and upstart statements 

October’s event on Fight Island was unusual for several reasons, including a UK-friendly start time and an absence from US pay-per-view for a blockbuster UFC event for the first time in almost exactly ten years.

Chinese fighter Li Jingliang was ranked at number 11 and was expected to provide a test for Khamzat Chimaev on the promotion sensation’s first appearance since a serious bout of Covid that almost made him retire. As it was, Chimaev casually picked up Li, carried him towards White while barking at the supremo and promptly thew him to the floor before strangling the man who had never been knocked out inside the first round.

Khabib Nurmagomedov teammate and fellow Dagestani Islam Makhachev insisted he should be given a title shot after submitting seasoned contender Dan Hooker in the first round, and Petr Yan won an all-action scrap with Cory Sandhagen via decision to collect an interim bantamweight crown.

Arguably the easiest headline came in the headliner: more than nine years into his UFC career, 42-year-old Glover Teixeira became the oldest first-time champion in UFC history when the Brazilian submitted the Polish powerhouse in the second round to become light-heavyweight king. He had anticipated a war – and the fan favourite delivered. 

Lightweight star Charles Oliveira has had a year to remember, including victory over former Bellator titlist Michael Chandler

Lightweight star Charles Oliveira has had a year to remember, including victory over former Bellator titlist Michael Chandler

Charles Oliveira vs Michael Chandler

Part of Makhachev’s confidence about his claims to the top of the lightweight division stemmed from the lack of a standout contender to succeed Nurmagomedov, who vacated the title when he retired following his emotional, emphatic win over Justin Gaethje in October 2020.

Former Bellator champion Michael Chandler and submission specialist Charles Oliveira – a much more experienced fighter in the UFC – were among the men hoping to show this year that they were not only successors, but champions capable of matching Nurmagomedov’s dominance.

There was plenty of respect on show when the men met in Houston in May, and another record – most submission wins – was on the cards for Oliveira as a grippingly eventful first round led to a shuddering early finish at the start of the second stanza.

That was when Oliveira sent Chandler to the floor with a huge left. The American wrestler bravely tried to recover, although he had no chance once the deadly Brazilian rushed him.

Chandler went on to lose a classic against Gaethje that thrilled fans at UFC 268, a month after Oliveira successfully defended the title for the first time by submitting Poirier in the third round when they met in Las Vegas. 

Crafty contender Ciryl Gane will challenge the giant Francis Ngannou for the outright UFC heavyweight crown on January 23

Crafty contender Ciryl Gane will challenge the giant Francis Ngannou for the outright UFC heavyweight crown on January 23

Five of the best to look forward to in 2022

Francis Ngannou vs Ciryl Gane Heavyweight

Three weeks into the year, heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou makes the first defence of the title he won in a memorable scrap win over Stipe Miocic in March when the notorious hard-hitter takes on noted tactician Ciryl Gane.

The winner of the interim belt by beating Derrick Lewis in August, Gane is unbeaten in his seven UFC bouts and is considered a danger to Ngannou because of his ability to carefully scrutinise and then systematically take out opponents through guile as much as power.

That might explain why Ngannou, who has complained about what he perceives as mistreatment towards him from the UFC over the past year, has cut a noticeably trimmer figure in pre-fight photos so far, suggesting that he believes he will need to be as slick as he is powerful.

Any concerns that Ngannou could be diminished by the apparent reduction of his usual hulking frame carry little weight with Gane, who has credited his rival with being a more intelligent, well-rounded fighter and evidently expects a different approach from the Cameroonian.

The unpredictable clash of styles renders this a particularly tricky UFC 270 bout to call, making the prestige of being heavyweight champion all the greater for whoever prevails.

McGregor looks likely to make a return this year as he attempts to prove he is still a top contender after those defeats in 2021

McGregor looks likely to make a return this year as he attempts to prove he is still a top contender after those defeats in 2021

The return of Conor McGregor?  

With metal in his leg, holes in his pride and a daunting road to full rehabilitation, Conor McGregor came away from that second Poirier defeat with the path towards an octagon return looking a faraway prospect.

Still, there was never a chance that would keep the most marketable name in the sport out of the limelight. From his often-incoherent, swiftly-deleted insults on Twitter to unsubtle endorsements of his business interests and updates showing him looking ripped in the gym, McGregor has been a predictable braggart during his enforced absence.

His coach, John Kavanagh, has said he expects McGregor to return in early summer. White has also mentioned that timescale. Who he will fight is a moot point, and there has even been fanciful talk of him competing immediately for the lightweight title.

Should McGregor lose again on his return, he could end up being seen as something of a novelty act in MMA – always a huge draw, but without that glimmer of a title that was within his sights this time last year.

A win would give some long-awaited substance to all the hot air. Whatever the result, McGregor’s expected latest comeback is guaranteed to dominate attention.

Deiveson Figueiredo (left) and Brandon Moreno will meet again at flyweight in what will be their third scrap within 13 months

Deiveson Figueiredo (left) and Brandon Moreno will meet again at flyweight in what will be their third scrap within 13 months

Brandon Moreno vs Deiveson Figueiredo

Not that they show any signs of it, but if flyweight adversaries Brandon Moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo are lacking any motivation for their January trilogy fight, they need only look at their two previous meetings.

In December 2020, the pair took part in the Fight of the Night at UFC 256 which was shrouded in controversy because ‘The God of War’ was docked a point as a result of being deemed to have repeatedly hit Moreno in the groin.

Exactly six months later, ‘The Assassin Baby’ took Figueiredo’s title with a third-round rear-naked choke submission at UFC 263 in Arizona, when the winner on the night surprised analysts by coming out blazing with tactics that led to a somewhat surprising victory.

Figueiredo immediately asked White for a rematch that the presidently would have needed little time to ponder, given how popular the first two editions were with fans. It was a request made because the dethroned fighter put his defeat almost entirely down to a difficult weight cut.

Now Figueiredo is gunning to regain his belt in what should be another entertaining fight – and even more competitive, as long as the challenger can get the cut right ahead of their third bout in 13 months.

Russian light heavyweight Magomed Ankalaev will undoubtedly be hoping that he will be awarded a shot at the title in 2022

Russian light heavyweight Magomed Ankalaev will undoubtedly be hoping that he will be awarded a shot at the title in 2022

Thiago Santos vs Magomed Ankalaev

Despite his performance in winning that title, Teixeira’s age now means the light heavyweight division is a place where most top-ranked fighters feel they have a genuine claim for a tilt at the belt.

Former amateur MMA world champion Magomed Ankalaev is one of the most hotly-tipped names to potentially be the next in line, having won his seventh fight in a row with a unanimous decision victory over Volkan Oezdemir in the opener for that memorable UFC 267 card in October.

Thiago Santos can never be taken lightly: 22 fights into his UFC career, the 37-year-old has beaten Blachowicz and taken hall-of-famer Jon Jones to a split decision in recent years, making him a stern test for Ankalaev who could end that winning run.

Santos has 15 wins by knockout and felt he was greatly improved on his return from a knee injury when he beat Johnny Walker in October, while Ankalaev is no slouch with his fists despite his formidable wrestling background.

Should Ankalaev win this intriguing match-up in March, the 29-year-old Dagestani will surely be demanding a shot at the title next time out. 

Khamzat Chimaev is arguably the UFC's most feared fighter – and possibly the most avoided, depending on who you believe

Khamzat Chimaev is arguably the UFC’s most feared fighter – and possibly the most avoided, depending on who you believe

Khamzat Chimaev vs… someone?  

White appeared to backtrack on a recent suggestion that no fighter wants to take on Chimaev, although that is hardly an absurd idea when you consider what he has achieved on his terrifying run of form in his four UFC fights so far.

Chimaev is either the scariest man in the UFC on a path to the top that is little more than a formality or a one-man hype train steaming towards derailment when he meets an elite contender, depending on who you listen to.

For now, anyone weary of this kind of clamour is simply excited to see the exciting Chechen-born, Sweden-based talent attempt to continue a menacing record that has seen him take out his first four opponents in the promotion with breathtaking ease, most recently when he almost literally crushed – in an iron grip around his neck – Xi in that UFC 267 hammering.

The image of Chimaev casually picking up Xi and marching towards White was an instant source for a deluge of memes and is certain to be looked upon as iconic. 

Fearless Chimaev has called put almost everyone in the top ten, including McGregor. Whether anyone will actually want to face the brutal newcomer remains an obvious issue.  

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