Sport

UFC 2021 awards announced as Sportsmail judges Kamaru Usman, Conor McGregor and Co

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr


What a year it has been for the UFC. New faces on the scene, old faces with belts, the usual cocktail of mad press conferences and gruesome injuries, it has had it all. 

That said, It has not been a vintage 12 months for the sport’s superstars. 

Conor McGregor’s career took a nosedive and Jon Jones did a lot of tweeting and not a lot of fighting but there has been room for fresh talent to emerge. 

Khamzat Chimaev broke out as the scariest prospect since… well probably ever, and Islam Makhachev truly pushed his title credentials for the first time. 

Here, Sportsmail’s dishes out awards for the best (and worst) of UFC in 2021.  

KNOCKOUT OF THE YEAR

Cory Sandhagen (jumping knee against Frankie Edgar)

Picking a knockout out the year is always contentious when fighters are separated from consciousness on an almost weekly basis. 

But there are some earth-shattering blows that stick with you and rise above the rest when you have a moment to contemplate the most impressive. 

Maybe it was seeing a legend of the sport so emphatically put out. 

Perhaps it was the grim noise that reverberated when Sandhagen’s knee landed flush, or the way Edgar fell stiff to the canvas with his opponent knowing full well that it was the telling blow. 

It is almost hard to watch but the timing and execution of this jumping knee was so perfect in this February match-up that Sandhagen has to be given the nod. 

Honourable mentions go to Kamaru Usman for his KO of Jorge Masvidal and Derrick Lewis’ ridiculous uppercut on Curtis Blaydes.  

WORST INJURY 

Chris Weidman, broken leg 

It sends a shiver up the spine just thinking about this one. 

Having been on the other side of it when Anderson Silva broke his leg against him, Weidman was the one with a limb flailing in the night air this time. 

He went for a right leg kick and landed it on Uriah Hall’s outside left leg. The replay showed as soon as contact was made, the leg started bending in a way nobody ever wants their leg to move. 

To make matters worse, this was supposed to be a new dawn for Weidman, the start of the Indian summer to his career. 

But after one surgery was unsuccessful and he needed another, the 37-year-old faces a long road back if he wants to compete with the best again.  

BEST PRESS CONFERENCE LINE 

‘It wasn’t McGregor FAST, it was McGregor SLEEP’

Conor McGregor went over the line at the pre-UFC 264 press conference, the quick-witted jibes of the past were replaced with crude jokes about Dustin Poirier’s wife and promises to make him a ‘corpse’. 

But it was the American who kept his cool and delivered the best line of the presser. 

McGregor regularly posts about his training regime called McGregor FAST, but ‘Diamond’ took it as a chance to remind the Irishman of getting knocked out in their first fight.  

It was a nice little one-liner and had McGregor temporarily quiet.  

FIGHT OF THE YEAR  

Justin Gaethje vs Michael Chandler 

There is only one choice here. 

Stick this one in the Colosseum back in 80 AD and they’d have been on the edge of their seats. 

There was a reason the UFC chose to open the main card in Madison Square Garden with it and even beforehand, everyone knew the contest would be incredible. 

So for it to then surpass expectations was something else. Gaethje is always in brilliant scraps but Chandler gave as good as he got and both men emptied themselves for the crowd. 

Justin Gaethje (left) defeated Michael Chandler (right) in what was the Fight of the Year

Justin Gaethje (left) defeated Michael Chandler (right) in what was the Fight of the Year

Chandler gave as good as he got but took some serious damage at UFC 268 in November

Chandler gave as good as he got but took some serious damage at UFC 268 in November

In the stats put out by the UFC, Gaethje landed 133 strikes, 116 of those were listed as ‘significant’, with Chandler landing 104 and all but one of those were significant. 

It was the kind of scrap that might end up shaving a couple of years off their careers but for anyone who witnessed it, it will live long in the memory. 

Even for Chandler, despite the loss, he came out with more credit than when he went in. A rematch one day would be something to behold.    

MALE FIGHTER OF THE YEAR

Kamaru Usman

The pound-for-pound king, welterweight champion and seemingly indestructible Nigerian Nightmare reigns supreme. 

He started the year by swatting aside his friend and former team-mate Gilbert Burns. Usman made Burns, who is a legitimately talented and dangerous opponent, look ordinary and even knocked him down with a jab. 

From there, he stepped in again against Jorge Masvidal and promised to finish him this time having coasted to a decision during their last fight. 

Kamaru Usman (right) earned £1.1million in total from his KO of Jorge Masvidal (left)

Kamaru Usman (right) earned £1.1million in total from his KO of Jorge Masvidal (left) 

Usman also defended his welterweight title after a five-round war against Colby Covington

Usman also defended his welterweight title after a five-round war against Colby Covington

He did it in incredible style, knocking out ‘Gamebred’ with an unbelievable showcase of how far his striking has come. 

And to top all that, the recent rematch with Colby Covington, who Usman admits is by far the next best fighter in the division, was another masterclass. 

Charles Oliveira has a strong case to make having beaten Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier so impressively, but it is the hat-trick of big title defences for Usman that gets him over the line.  

FEMALE FIGHTER OF THE YEAR  

Rose Namajunas 

Namajunas defeated Zhang Weili back in April with a sensational head kick and then put to bed any idea it was a fluke by beating the Chinese star in their rematch. 

There is no doubt about who the best strawweight in the world is at the moment and 2021 belonged to Namajunas. 

The UFC 261 triumph back in April is what this year will be remembered for in her division and after an unsavoury build up, Namajunas came up with the goods. 

Rose Namajunas became UFC strawweight champion once again after devastating Zhang Weili

Rose Namajunas became UFC strawweight champion once again after devastating Zhang Weili

A brutal first-round head kick from Namajunas saw Weili crash down and the fight was ended

A brutal first-round head kick from Namajunas saw Weili crash down and the fight was ended

It was never likely to be as easy second time around but she showed off her technical prowess in a much closer fight to get it on the scorecards. 

An honourable mention to Valentina Shevchenko, who defended her flyweight championship against Jessica Andrade and Lauren Murphy, both by TKO. 

Maybe if she wasn’t so consistently excellent she’d take home the prize but we are no longer surprised at Shevchenko’s abilities.  

BEST BEEF

Francis Ngannou and Ciryl Gane 

This one will spill over into 2022 but the bad blood is real between these two heavyweights. 

There was a fallout after Ngannou was sent packing by his coach in Paris, where he had trained and sparred with Gane, who will now be fighting him for the heavyweight title in January.   

Fernand Lopez, the coach in question, came out and said he’d rather work with Gane for free than get paid £100,000 for another minute with Ngannou. 

The bitter split was evident in a video of the UFC heavyweight champion walking past Lopez and Gane at UFC 268 in New York and completely blanking both men. 

Of course, the hostility between Covington and Usman was compelling and McGregor’s rematch with Poirier was far less respectful than the first, but nothing quite beats heavyweight aggro and next year could start with a bang.  

Fernand Lopez (left) is preparing interim heavyweight champion Cyril Gane (right) to fight his old pupil and Gane's old sparring partner Francis Ngannou for the title next year

Fernand Lopez (left) is preparing interim heavyweight champion Cyril Gane (right) to fight his old pupil and Gane’s old sparring partner Francis Ngannou for the title next year

Ngannou and Lopez used to be close but they had a series of falling outs and Ngannou left

Ngannou and Lopez used to be close but they had a series of falling outs and Ngannou left

BEST SUBMISSION

Tom Aspinall 

This could well be Britain’s first UFC heavyweight champion and back in February, there was more evidence that he is the real deal. 

He tapped out Andrei Arlovski, former champion and legend of MMA, who Aspinall even went to watch as a fan before he was serious about fighting. 

There were flashier submissions in higher profile fights in 2021. Charles Oliveira’s standing rear-naked choke to defend his belt against Poirier takes some beating for technical prowess. 

And Andre Muniz breaking Jacare Souza’s arm was something to behold. 

But it was the way Aspinall transitioned from the standup to a takedown and submission all in the blink of an eye against someone of Arlovski’s calibre that was so impressive.   

Tom Aspinall submitted Andrei Arlovski (right) surprisingly quickly back in February

Tom Aspinall submitted Andrei Arlovski (right) surprisingly quickly back in February 

WORST REFEREEING MOMENT 

Herb Dean 

Unfortunately after years at the top of his game, there have been a number of questionable stoppages from Herb Dean in the last couple of years. 

Most recently, even Dana White had had enough and publicly criticised the experienced official. 

Marcos Rogerio de Lima was fighting Ben Rothwell at UFC Vegas 42. From the first bell de Lima went all-out to attack Rothwell and very quickly had him rocked back against the cage.

The Brazilian then began unloading huge blows on Rothwell, who had no escape from the punishment as referee Dean watched on.

Herb Dean came under fire for a botched stoppage of Marcos Rogerio de Lima vs Ben Rothwell

Herb Dean came under fire for a botched stoppage of Marcos Rogerio de Lima vs Ben Rothwell

De Lima kept raining the punches down on Rothwell to the point where Dean threw his arms around the Brazilian’s waist, in a signal that he was stopping the fight. 

However, as Rothwell fell he brought De Lima down with him and Dean then stepped back, appearing unwilling to get in between both fighters.

A confused De Lima, now poised on top of a fallen Rothwell, then looked to Dean for confirmation of the situation, and the referee then finally stopped the fight, declaring De Lima the winner. 

Afterwards, White said: ‘Herb needs to stop touching guys unless the fight’s over. He goes in and grabs him by the waist and decides, ‘Oops…’  

Dana White slammed the indecision of Dean, who has put in some shaky performances

Dana White slammed the indecision of Dean, who has put in some shaky performances 

‘The good thing about this one was, that fight should’ve been stopped when he stopped it.

‘When they played it back in slow motion, he’s kind of like dancing, like he doesn’t know what to do, whether he’s going to jump in or not jump in.

‘I like him personally, he’s a nice guy. He’s got to stop touching people until he’s ready to stop the fight.’

BEST DEBUT

Paddy Pimblett 

Some competition for this one and a special mention for Ian Garry who delivered a perfect first-round KO at Madison Square Garden.

But Paddy Pimblett has officially arrived in the UFC and made more noise than any other newcomer. 

The Liverpool fighter came out throwing against Luigi Vendramini with his chin in the air and took a couple of good shots before pouring on the punishment of his own. 

Vendramini could not make it out of the first round and Pimblett celebrated in style, then rocked the mic as he usually does. 

All eyes will be on the ‘Baddy’ in 2022 to see where he goes next.  

Paddy Pimblett looked sensational on his UFC debut with a first round knockout

Paddy Pimblett looked sensational on his UFC debut with a first round knockout 

Write A Comment