Normally, when the first three months of the year have blown by the way January, February, and March did this year, I would make some quip about “How is it April already?,” citing that Christmas wasn’t that long ago and I’m not ready for spring and summer and all that follows.
This year, however, is different, because I can very much understand how these first three months have blown by. It’s been an absolute whirlwind up in these parts since last fall, actually, and between moving twice and handling the myriad new home tasks one must tackle while taking in 125 fights over the last 11 weeks (yes, I’ve done the math), I can quite easily see how January given way to April and left us on Spring’s doorstep.
And as enjoyable as getting settled in our new digs has been, the action inside the Octagon over the first quarter of 2021 has been even better, and I say that as someone who genuinely loves setting up his office anew and figuring out how to make the best use of our gigantic foyer.
While there have been a ton of impressive individual performances so far this year, today I’m focusing in on the top fights that transpired between January 16 and March 27, 2021.
Here they are in chronological order.
This is The 10: The Best First Quarter Fights of 2021.
Max Holloway def. Calvin Kattar by unanimous decision (UFC Fight Island 7)
Our tendency when talking about great fights is to look at close battles that feature momentum shifts and narrow results, but Holloway showed in the first main event of the year that we need to consider transcendent individual performances that go the distance as well.
This was an absolute master class from the jump, with “Blessed” fired up to make a statement about his place in the division and, as it turns out, the way Kattar was portrayed in the lead-up to the bout. For five rounds, the former featherweight champion picked apart the ultra-tough Massachusetts native, busting him up with clean, crisp boxing before spending the final couple rounds telling Kattar, the broadcast team, and everyone watching about what he was doing as he was doing it.
“I’m the best boxer in the UFC, baby!” he shouted at the commentary team, looking at them while backing up and avoiding Kattar’s advances before popping him with another jab, taking the words used to describe his opponent in the build to this fight and making them his own.
It’s not that Kattar didn’t have his moments — he landed some shots that would have put most mortals down — it’s just that Holloway was on a different level from the outset of this one, authoring one of the best performances of the year in the first main event of 2021.
While the first fight on this list was an affirmation of a number of things — Holloway’s skill and gamesmanship, Kattar’s toughness and talent, featherweight being generally awesome — this one was an introduction to a pair of all-action competitors that folks should make a point to tune in for each time they step into the Octagon from this point forward.
A standout on the Florida regional scene who was favored to beat Sodiq Yusuff in their Contender Series clash, Davis’ only other professional setback came in his short-notice UFC debut against Gilbert Burns, and he entered this one off an absolute thrashing of Thomas Gifford where he showcased why so many were so high on his potential heading into that clash with “Super Sodiq.”
As for Jones, he was making his promotional debut after achieving “Champ-Champ” status under the Cage Warriors banner, returning to lightweight after a championship vacation to welterweight in his last appearance. “The Dragon” was a perfect 10-0 and eager to make an impression on the UFC audience, and both he and Davis did just that.
This was one of those fights where the 29-28 scores across the board were accurate, but also don’t tell you the entire story of this fight because for 15 minutes, these two just got after each other, no quarter asked and none given.
They hit each other with a combined 225 strikes over three rounds (Davis landing 117, Jones 108), one of only three times this year that both combatants landed 100-plus strikes, and unlike the one other three-round affair to fit that description, the pace of this one never wavered. Davis and Jones got after it out of the gate and stayed after it until the final horn sounded, and hopefully people will remember that when each of these two dynamos return to action later this year.
I adore fights like this — competitive contests between two highly skilled, highly motivated, underrated talents looking to earn some overdue recognition — and this one came with the added bonus of being a rematch, so that was another element added into the mix.
It was technical without being too tactical, explosive without being sloppy, and entertaining from start-to-finish, with Dariush stinging Ferreira with a body kick in the first, the Brazilian having some success late in the frame, and the two engaging in a tug-of-war over the remaining 10 minutes, with Dariush controlling the majority of the middle stanza and Ferreira having his best round in the third.
Dariush came away on the happy side of the split decision verdict, giving him a 2-0 series lead.
There is a palpable tension you can feel every time a championship fight is set to take place inside the Octagon; even sitting at home in Abbotsford, I get butterflies in my stomach because I know how much is at stake, how evenly matched the two combatants are, and that what is about to transpire is almost always a representation of the sport at its highest level, and it makes me feel all tense and nervous and excited in the best ways possible.
This fight was intriguing from the minute it came together, not just because Usman and Burns were long-time training partners and friends, but also because from a stylistic perspective, neither man had an advantage or deficit in any one realm. Burns had a little more pop on the feet, but Usman was seen as a little more technical, and though their preferred disciplines were different, both were terrors on the ground, meaning this one would likely be close, competitive, and come down to small adjustments and capitalizing on whatever opportunities presented themselves.
Burns pressed forward right out of the gate, hitting Usman with a right hand that disrupted the champion’s equilibrium, requiring Usman to brace himself with two hands on the canvas to avoid toppling to the ground. The challenger was a bundle of energy to start and tried to build off the big blow, but the champion did a quality job of avoiding any real significant follow-ups, regaining his composure, and finding some success of his own late in the frame.
From then on, it was all Usman.
“The Nigerian Nightmare” is one of those athletes who understands the gravity of the moment and is able to rise to the occasion, saving his best for when the stakes are the highest. After getting staggered in the first, he reset and rallied, and over the next five minutes and change, Usman showed why he is the best welterweight on the planet, ultimately securing the finish just 34 seconds into the third round.
Though it lasted just a touch over two rounds, this one had all the ebbs and flows and excitement and energy we’ve come to expect from marquee championship contests, and certainly deserves a spot on this list.
The second sequel on this list, the anticipation for this fight got extended when it was pushed back a couple of weeks, and yet it somehow still managed to exceed expectations, which should tell you everything you need to know about this bantamweight battle.
Rivera won the first by split decision a number of years ago, and both men have remained fixtures in the loaded 135-pound weight class since, holding steady in the 5-10 range while facing nothing but stern challenges every time out. Stationed opposite one another for the second time, it was more of the same, and just as they did the first time around, Munhoz and Rivera brought it on fight night.
This was one of those fights that really reinforces that most of us are in no way, shape, or form cut out to be professional fighters because if I’d have taken two of the countless low kicks Munhoz doled out during this fight, I would have laid down on the canvas, tapped due to impending strikes, and retired on the spot. Rivera simply toughed it out, switching stances at times, firing off his own offense throughout, and making Munhoz work to even the series at one win each.
Both men graduated from the Contender Series and represent top flight camps — Nzechukwu fights out of Fortis MMA, Ulberg out of City Kickboxing — and there was a ton of interest in this contest as Ulberg came in with a ton of hype behind him.
At UFC 259, they combined to produce eight minutes and 19 seconds of unadulterated savagery, and every single soul that watched it loved every single second of it. There were very few off-speed pitches thrown in this one — it was smoke, smoke, and more smoke, and very few of those shots were wide of the target.
Ulberg landed 146 strikes to Nzechukwu’s 82, which means they combined for three more strikes than Davis and Jones combined to land in a little more than half the time, and they’re light heavyweights too, which further underscores what a ridiculous pace and wildly entertaining brawl this was early in the night at UFC 259. There were more than a couple shots on either side that made you audibly gasp and question how the receiver was still standing, and even if you knew nothing about either man heading into this fight, you came away with the utmost respect and admiration for both once it was over.
Despite nearly getting doubled up in terms of strikes landed, Nzechukwu never relented and always responded, and when Ulberg slowed down, the Fortis MMA product took full advantage, finishing things along the fence midway through the second round.
This was a wildly entertaining firefight that will remain in the thick of the Fight of the Year race regardless of what transpires from here on out.
Great fights don’t have to be long fights, and they also don’t have to feature that many actual punches being thrown, and this fight is the proof of that.
A couple bouts after Nzechukwu dumped his teammate Ulberg to the canvas,
Kara-France came out looking to get one back for the City Kickboxing crew, but early on, it didn’t look good for the former Ultimate Fighter contestant. Bontorin took him down, took his back, and attacked his neck. This was full back mount, body triangle locked, forearm under the chin, get ready to go night-night, and yet Kara-France somehow managed to wriggle his way free and back to his feet.
Bontorin controlled the action for more than four-and-a-half minutes, but in the final 30 seconds of the opening round, Kara-France showed why his nickname is “Don’t Blink,” unloading and connecting with right hand missiles to the dome, the last of which folded the Brazilian over at the waist before he collapsed to the canvas.
Kara-France walked it off like Mark Hunt as Bontorin tried to stand and stumbled forward, bringing this incredible comeback victory to a dramatic end.
I feel like there are times when people see a finish — even a third-round finish — and automatically think everything that transpired before the ending was likely one-way traffic because we see it was stopped inside the distance and it conjures up imagines of domination.
It makes sense, but it’s not always the case, and this fight is another example of that.
Through the first two rounds, this was an extremely close, competitive fight. How close? How about 63-62 Jourdain in terms of significant strikes close, with the French-Canadian landing at the greater percentage, but Rojo showing his gameness and toughness by taking everything that was coming his way and responding in kind, giving an outstanding accounting of himself in his short-notice, late-replacement promotional debut.
In the third, Jourdain’s investment in kicks to all levels, high percentage attacks, and his overall conditioning paid off, as he steadily distanced himself from Rojo as the seconds ticked off the clock, ultimately dropping the Argentine twice in the frame and securing the finish in the final 30 seconds.
Preliminary card fights don’t always maintain prevalence in people’s mind as the year goes on and the number of great fights grows, but this is another one that should remain in the thick of the Fight of the Year race over the next nine months.
Hindsight takes a little of the juice out of this one, as the scorecards revealed after the fact that Dawson was ahead on two of the three scorecards, but in the moment, this lightweight battle between the unheralded Brazilian veteran and the talented upstart felt like it was going right down to the wire with scores that were sure to leave someone walking out of the Octagon angry and confused.
The first round could have gone either way — Dawson landed a dozen significant strikes, Santos landed 10, but the Brazilian secured a takedown and had some quality control time on the canvas. The second was Dawson’s, as the Glory MMA representative landed more significant strikes (but fewer total strikes) and generally controlled the action, setting up what in real time felt like a third round that would determine the victory.
That’s indeed how it played out, but with a twist ending.
Dawson dominated the frame, coming out aggressively and taking the fight to Santos, who only managed to let loose with 11 total strikes over the course of the round. Just when it seemed like the Contender Series graduate and lightweight newcomer was going to secure a victory on the scorecards, Dawson crashed home a couple heavy hammerfists that put Santos out and stopped the fight.
The final time? 4:59 of Round 3, making it one of the latest finishes in UFC history.
This was a great example of a fighter showing an understanding of the moment, fighting with a sense of urgency when things could have been close, and fighting through to the final horn. It was an all-around tremendous effort from the promising American, who stands as one of the top emerging talents on the roster heading into the second quarter of 2021.
Vicente Luque def. Tyron Woodley by submission (UFC 260)
The final entry on this list of the top fights of the first quarter is the penultimate fight of the first quarter — a bout that lasted a couple ticks less than four minutes, yet still featured a near finish and a massive swing in momentum.
Entering on a three-fight losing streak, Woodley came out of the corner like a man possessed, showing more aggression and fire in the opening seconds than he had in his previous three fights combined. The two battled in the clinch for a couple minutes before breaking into space just past the midway point of the round, and then the chaos kicked off.
Woodley bashed Luque with a powerful overhand right that put the Brazilian on shaky footing, but as the former champion looked to follow up, Luque responded with a laser-beam of his own that nearly floored Woodley, who struggled to recover, prompting Luque to go on the hunt. “The Silent Assassin” continued firing off heavy strikes, and though Woodley gamely tried to respond — and did land a couple solid blows — Luque never let up.
When the former titleholder finally collapsed to the canvas, Luque dove on his signature D’Arce choke, locking in the hold and securing the tap to close out a frenetic finishing sequence and earn the biggest victory of his career.