What were the best fights of 2021? Read on for our picks (and how we reported on them on fight night) as the highly unofficial awards season concludes.
10 – Charles Oliveira vs Michael Chandler
It took 28 fights, and several twists and turns, but Charles Oliveira is now a UFC world champion after stopping Michael Chandler in the second round of their UFC 262 main event in Houston’s Toyota Center to win the lightweight title vacated by the retirement of Khabib Nurmagomedov.
“I’m proving to everybody that I’m the lion of lions,” said Sao Paulo’s Oliveira, who has now won nine straight in becoming the 11th undisputed lightweight champion in UFC history. “Do Bronx” also set the record for most finishes in UFC history with 17, passing Donald Cerrone.
A leg kick by Oliveira put Chandler on the deck as the fight began, but Chandler jumped up and nearly caught Oliveira in a guillotine choke as the fight went to the mat. Oliveira got loose and took Chandler’s back, and while the Missouri native tried to slam his way out of trouble, that only tightened the body triangle the bloodied Oliveira had. Remarkably, Chandler exploded out of the hold and got free, and with two minutes left, the two stood. While standing, Chandler hurt Oliveira and went on the attack as the Brazilian fell to the mat, but Oliveira cleared his head and stayed busy from his back. Chandler kept the heat on, though, and he ended the round in control.
Seconds into round two, Oliveira turned everything around, as a left hook dropped Chandler to the mat. Chandler tried to recover, but Oliveira kept coming and kept punching, and after a series of unanswered blows, referee Dan Miragliotta had seen enough, stopping the bout 19 seconds into the second round.
9 – TJ Dillashaw vs Cory Sandhagen
Returning to active duty for the first time since serving a two-year suspension for a failed drug test, former bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw didn’t skip a beat in pounding out a grueling five-round split decision victory over Cory Sandhagen.
Scores were 48-47 twice and 47-48 for Dillashaw, now 18-4. The No.2-ranked Sandhagen falls to 14-3.
Dillashaw, who hadn’t competed since January 2019, opened the scoring with a couple kicks, but it was Sandhagen coolly responding with a flying knee that was followed by a triangle attempt when it missed. Dillashaw got free from the submission attempt and landed some ground strikes before working his grappling attack as they battled against the fence. Once separated, the exchanges picked up, Dillashaw using his strikes to implement his grappling. With a little over a minute left, Dillashaw got the fight to the mat, but Sandhagen stayed busy while his foe fired off strikes.
Sandhagen’s grappling work late in round one may have injured Dillashaw’s left knee, but the former champ was right on the attack as the second opened. Sandhagen was busier with his strikes than he was in the first five minutes as he settled into the fight, and just before the midway point, he dropped Dillashaw with a short left. Now bloodied, Dillashaw tried to even the score, but the bout was briefly halted for the doctor to examine the cut over the Californian’s eye. Once the bout resumed, Sandhagen landed a flying knee and kept landing, with Dillashaw trying to get the fight to the mat to turn things around.
The cut was giving Dillashaw issues in the third round, but he kept working, eventually getting the fight to the mat with a little over two minutes left after a missed spinning kick by the Coloradan. Sandhagen got up quickly and went back to a more traditional striking attack, but Dillashaw was right there with him every step of the way, and he ended the round with some hard strikes as he pinned Sandhagen to the fence.
Working his punches and leg kicks, Dillashaw had momentum on his side in the fourth round, but after a spell locked up against the fence, Sandhagen went on the offensive, landing some shots that reopened Dillashaw’s cut. Dillashaw was having success in clinches against the fence, but at range, Sandhagen was holding the edge heading into the final frame.
Dillashaw played the aggressor to begin the fifth round, throwing punches to the head and kicks downstairs. Sandhagen countered well, but he did get taken down briefly in the second minute. Once on his feet, Sandhagen landed with a sniper’s accuracy, even though Dillashaw was getting in his shots while mixing in stints in control against the fence. As the seconds ticked away, there was more back and forth action before the judges got to decide the fight, and it wasn’t an easy task, but the final nod went to the former champ.
8 – Santiago Ponzinibbio vs Miguel Baeza
Fight fans were expecting a war from welterweights Santiago Ponzinibbio and Miguel Baeza, and they gave it to them for 15 minutes, with Ponzinibbio emerging with the unanimous decision victory in a thrilling Fight of the Year candidate.
Scores were 29-28 across the board for Ponzinibbio, now 29-4. Baeza falls to 10-1.
Baeza went after Ponzinibbio’s legs from the start, and it momentarily slowed the forward progress of the Argentina native. Baeza then moved his attacks upstairs, bruising his foe’s face, but it was Ponzinibbio ending the round strong.
The leg kicks kept coming in the second stanza, and when he followed up with a right hand a minute in, he staggered his foe. Ponzinibbio wasn’t going away, though, and he kept pressing and throwing, refusing to back down from the Floridian as he pumped out a stiff jab while landing his own leg kicks in a late surge that had Baeza on the defensive.
Momentum was clearly on Pozinibbio’s side as the final round began, but Baeza got back down to business until a right kick to the leg staggered “Caramel Thunder.” Now in a battle of wills, both fighters were leaving it all in the Octagon in search of victory, and with two minutes left, Ponzinibbio went looking for the finish. Baeza shook off the blows and fired back, making you wish there was a packed house cheering the two welterweights on as they went back and forth, slugging it out until the final horn.
7 - Ricky Turcios vs Brady Hiestand
In a fight reminiscent of the first Ultimate Fighter Finale bout between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar in terms of action and intensity, Ricky Turcios took the TUF 29 bantamweight crown with a three-round split decision over Brady Hiestand.
Scores were 29-28 twice and 28-29 for Team Volkanovski’s Turcios, now 12-2. Hiestand, also a member of Team Volkanovski, falls to 6-2.
Hiestand put the fight on the mat in the opening minute, and though Turcios fought his way back to his feet, he was quickly floored again moments later. Turcios stayed busy from his back, giving him the opportunity to stand, and in a subsequent trip to the canvas, it was the Texan staying in control as he cut Hiestand. Once standing, the two traded, each fighter getting in some solid shots.
A takedown by Hiestand opened the second, but again, it was the busier Turcios doing the best work before the fight returned to the standing position. Two minutes in, Hiestand landed a flush left hand, and this time it was Turcios going for the takedown. Hiestand returned the favor with a slam, and the 135ers continued trading moments of control.
Turcios scored a pivotal knockdown with a pair of right hands early in round three, but Hiestand turned the misfortune into a takedown. As Turcios tried to get loose, he landed several close-range elbows, but Hiestand took them well and kept chasing another takedown. As the two battled it out against the fence, Turcios’ strikes were on target, but Hiestand didn’t back down, and he fired back, with the two slugging it out to the horn.
6 – Edson Barboza vs Shane Burgos
In a bout that lived up to its advance billing, featherweight contenders Edson Barboza and Shane Burgos went to war until Barboza outlasted his foe and stopped him in the third round.
Barboza went after Burgos’ legs from the start, and he got in several before Burgos started making him miss. The New Yorker kept marching forward, and his jab was sharp, marking up Barboza’s eye. And as the round progressed, Burgos’ body attack was paying off. A spinning back kick by Barboza rattled Burgos, though, and a couple right hands forced Burgos to reset and gather himself.
The back-and-forth action continued in round two, each shot wince-inducing and designed to end the fight. Soon, Barboza was bleeding from a cut on his shin, but he kept throwing kicks to Burgos’ leg and body, while Burgos mixed up his attacks nicely and his opponent’s face was showing it.
There was more of the same in the third, but a right hand by Barboza landed flush, and a couple moments later, it was a delayed reaction as Burgos staggered to the fence and fell to the mat. A follow-up by Barboza was next and the fight was stopped by referee Mike Beltran at 1:16 of the final round.
5 – Jiri Prochazka vs Dominick Reyes
Czech light heavyweight contender Jiri Prochazka made it two UFC wins and two UFC knockouts, as he ended a main event slugfest against two-time title challenger Dominick Reyes with a devastating second-round knockout.
Reyes started strong out of the southpaw stance, seemingly unbothered by the unorthodox stylings of Prochazka, but once the Czech Republic native began finding his range, he was tagging Reyes with hard shots. Reyes slowed his foe’s momentum briefly with a takedown, but once standing, Prochazka continued landing bombs that Reyes had no problem responding to, with each fighter taking bombs in an action-packed first frame.
Bloodied after taking several hard shots, Reyes didn’t back down in the second round, and just when it seemed like Prochazka was going to pull away, Reyes drilled him with return fire that kept “Denisa” honest. Midway through the round, Reyes hurt Prochazka with a left hand, prompting a takedown attempt that nearly ended the fight when Reyes caught him in a guillotine choke. Prochazka escaped and landed some ground strikes before the two rose, and this time, Prochazka wouldn’t be denied, as he pursued Reyes and landed a right elbow followed by a spinning left elbow that put Reyes down and out, with referee Herb Dean halting the bout at 4:29 of round two.
Jiri Prochazka Interview with Paul Felder | UFC Fight Night: Reyes vs Prochazka
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Jiri Prochazka Interview with Paul Felder | UFC Fight Night: Reyes vs Prochazka
4 - Petr Yan vs Cory Sandhagen
In a compelling five-rounder, Petr Yan regained a portion of the UFC bantamweight crown he lost via disqualification to Aljamain Sterling by winning a unanimous decision over Cory Sandhagen to take the interim 135-pound belt in the UFC 267 co-main event.
Scores were 49-46 across the board for Yan, now 16-2. The No.3-ranked Sandhagen falls to 14-4.
Sandhagen had a good first round as he mixed up his striking attacks and kept a busy pace. Yan got in some shots of his own, but wasn’t able to break the Coloradan’s rhythm.
Yan’s kicks were putting money in the bank for the Russian, but the same could be said for Sandhagen’s body shots as round two got underway. And as Yan settled into the fight, the standup exchanges got a lot more heated, with each fighter having their positive moments.
There was no let-up to the high-level action in the third, with Sandhagen keeping the pace high while Yan was more interested in picking his spots to attack. But with a little over a minute to go, Yan dropped Sandhagen with the biggest strikes of the fight, a spinning right backfist followed by a left hand that broke open the round. Sandhagen survived the ensuing onslaught, but momentum had swung to Yan’s side.
Sandhagen got a takedown midway through the fourth frame, and though Yan got up quickly, he now had something new to think about. When standing, Yan pressured his opponent and landed flush shots as the crowd roared. Sandhagen wasn’t backing down, but he was looking for other offensive options, and a subsequent takedown attempt came up empty, with Yan punishing his foe as they stood.
Still fresh in the final round, Sandhagen used lateral movement to hold Yan at bay, all the while throwing enough shots to keep “No Mercy” honest. With under two minutes to go, Yan landed a flush kick to the head that Sandhagen shook off, but it was a major scoring blow in a close round that the Coloradan tried to secure late before a last-second barrage of hard shots by Yan.
3 - Max Holloway vs Yair Rodriguez
Big things were expected from the UFC Fight Night main event between Max Holloway and Yair Rodriguez, and big things were delivered by the featherweight stars, as they battled hard for five compelling rounds, with Holloway emerging victorious via unanimous decision.
Scores were 49-46, 48-47, 48-47 for the No.1-ranked Holloway, now 23-6. The No.3-ranked Rodriguez, back in action for the first time since October 2019, falls to 14-3, 1 NC.
Holloway got right in Rodriguez’ face, hoping to get within the range of his opponent’s kicks, but “El Pantera” found the room to get those shots in, and when Holloway did get close, Rodriguez landed his share of hard punches. Holloway wasn’t bothered, but it was Rodriguez outworking him. With a little under two minutes left, the two traded flush right hands, Holloway’s opening a cut under his foe’s left eye. Rodriguez proceeded to look for a takedown in the final minute, momentarily halting the Hawaiian’s momentum until the two ended the round looking to make a statement.
Rodriguez kept a high pace in the second round, focusing on battering Holloway’s legs. When Holloway tired of the kicks, he fired back and tagged the Mexican, and it appeared that his strikes were having more of an effect on Rodrigues, who appeared to get stung by a knee in the closing minute.
Holloway scored with a flying knee to start the third, and while Rodriguez continued to focus on the legs, “Blessed” didn’t stop moving forward, and after what appeared to be a flash knockdown but was revealed to be a slip, he got into the mount position on his foe, looking to finish with plenty of time left on the clock. Rodriguez defended well and got back to his feet, and while he initially appeared weary, he fired off a flurry and sought out a takedown. It was Holloway who got the fight to the mat, though, and in the final minute, the former champ finished strong with ground strikes that continued to leave their effect on Rodriguez’ face.
The exchanges remained heated in the fourth round before Holloway suddenly sought out a standing guillotine in the second minute. Rodriguez survived but was taken to the mat, and Holloway’s punishing attack resumed. With 1:45 to go, the two rose, Rodriguez trying a pair of spinning moves to catch Holloway napping. An inadvertent eye poke by Holloway brought a brief halt to the action, and then it was back to each fighter looking to end matters with whatever weapons they had at their disposal.
Told between rounds that he needed a finish to win, Rodriguez went after it to begin the fifth frame, showing remarkable stamina and resilience. Then again, those are two of the hallmarks of Holloway’s style, and “Blessed” took whatever came his way and answered back in kind. Midway through the round, a wild kick by Rodriguez ended up with him on the mat, but he reversed position and had control briefly until the two stood and battled against the fence. As they exchanged, Holloway emerged with a cut over his right eye. An accidental eye poke from Rodriguez halted the fight briefly, but when they got back into it, there was more compelling action until the final horn.
2 - Alexander Volkanovski vs Brian Ortega
UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski won his 20th consecutive bout and successfully defended his belt for the second time in the UFC 266 main event with a five-round unanimous decision over Brian Ortega in an instant classic.
Scores were 49-46, 50-45 and 50-44 for Australia’s Volkanovski, now 23-1. The No.2-ranked Ortega falls to 15-2 with 1 NC.
Volkanovski led off with kicks, occasionally following with a right hand, one of them cutting Ortega over the eye. The challenger did get in a couple good counters, cutting the champion in a little bit of payback, and a left hand from Ortega in the final minute also scored well.
Both fighters had their moments in the second round, as the action remained competitive, with neither pulling away yet, but Volkanovski was staying busier.
Ortega started to get more active in round three, and he landed some hard shots that were quickly answered by the Aussie. A clash of heads bloodied Ortega’s nose and he was showing plenty of damage on his face, but out of nowhere, the challenger dropped Volkanovski and locked in a tight guillotine. Volkanovski looked to be in deep trouble, but he escaped and began unloading with both hands. This time, Ortega caught him in a triangle choke, but again, Volkanovski got free and unleashed a barrage of strikes that nearly finished him before the horn intervened.
Ortega was still in deep trouble as the round ended, barely making it to his stool, but after a visit from the Octagonside physician, he was cleared to continue, and he appeared to have his legs back under him early in round four. In the second minute, Ortega got a takedown and went for the choke again, but it wasn’t as tight as it was in the previous round, and Volkanovski easily escaped before firing off more strikes as Ortega still fished for a submission. Volkanovski was relentless, though, and he had the challenger in danger of being stopped once again. The champion put the fight back on the feet in the final minute, and again, Ortega survived.
Volkanovski tossed away Ortega’s first takedown attempt in round five, but the gutsy challenger didn’t stop trying to turn the fight around, as he landed some hard shots on the champion as they wearily stood inches away from each other down the stretch and both left the fans with one more burst of frenetic action.
1 - Justin Gaethje vs Michael Chandler
Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler are built differently.
The lightweight contenders opened Saturday’s main card with one of the most hellacious opening rounds in UFC history, each man swinging hammers from start to finish, trading massive blows that left each man bruised, battered, and smiling after five minutes.
Gaethje took charge in the second, battering Chandler’s lead leg and dropping the recent title challenger with an uppercut midway through the round, but somehow, the first-year UFC talent was able to weather the storm and claw his way back into the fight late in the round. They continued hitting each other with everything they had at their disposal in the third, somehow slugging it out to the final horn.
When the tens and nines were tallied, it was Gaethje that came away with the victory, pushing his record to 23-3 as he got back into the win column while handing Chandler his second straight loss.
HONORABLE MENTION - Holloway-Kattar, Davis-Jones, Dvalishvili-Moraes, Burgos-Quarantillo, Munhoz-Rivera 2, Fiziev-Green, Gillespie-Ferreira
VOTERS – Juan Cardenas, Thomas Gerbasi, Christoph Goessing, Cory Kamerschak, E. Spencer Kyte, Steve Latrell, Zac Pacleb, McKenzie Pavacich