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The Perfect UFC Event Built With 2021 Fights

We Built The Ultimate Fight Card Using Some Of The Best Fights In 2021:

As a child of the ‘80s, I grew up making mixtapes — cassettes containing my favorite songs of the moment or my picks for the best of a specific genre or year.

Think of it as a playlist, but harder to put together because you had to physically track down each song and worry about things like running out of room before the final song was finished. There was nothing worse than hearing the tape pop midway through the last track of Side A or the closing tune of the whole cassette because those were tracks you often put even more thought into.

At the start of the year, I began playing with the idea of building a 2021 UFC mixtape — a compilation of the best fights of the year — and pretty early on, that idea morphed into a plan to create the ultimate 2021 fight card.

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The idea was to highlight my favorite performance or fight from every individual slot on a fight card — from the main event to the opener — to build a collection that represents some of the coolest moments, most impactful efforts, and the best fights and finishes of the last 12 months.

And now, after 43 events, 510 fights, and more rounds than I care to add up, here it is: a compilation of my favorite fights and finishes from each place in the lineup over the past year.

TJ Dillashaw def. Cory Sandhagen by split decision (UFC Vegas 32)

Personalidades do MMA reagem à vitória de Dillashaw no UFC Vegas 32

This fight was all the reasons I think bantamweight is the best division in the UFC at the moment and why I love this sport wrapped into one — an ultra-competitive, back-and-forth affair between two elite talents, where a case could be made for any number of scores being viable after five rounds.

Fighting for the first time in more than two years, Dillashaw showed he is as good as ever, waltzing into the Octagon rust-free to go 25 hard minutes with Sandhagen, who had stamped himself as one of the top contenders in the 135-pound ranks with his incredible 28-second flying knee finish of Frankie Edgar in February.

Even if you disagree with the verdict, there is no denying this was one of the best fights of the year. For me, it’s the gold medal winner in that category, and deserving of the main event slot on this ultimate 2021 fight card.

Julianna Peña def. Amanda Nunes by submission (UFC 269)

Julianna Peña Octagon Interview | UFC 269
Julianna Peña Octagon Interview | UFC 269

There are still moments every couple of days where I remember that this actually happened and have to shake my head because like a whole lot of people, I was in shock when Peña made good on every single promise she made heading into her bantamweight title clash with Nunes and knocked “The Lioness” from atop the bantamweight division.

The 10 Best Submissions Of 2021

We can quibble about whether or not it’s the biggest upset in UFC history another time. For now, let’s just agree this was an absolute shocker, and while there were flashier finishes and closer battles that occupied the co-main event position over the year, no penultimate fight had as great an impact as the first of UFC 269’s two championship fights.

Valentina Shevchenko def. Jessica Andrade by TKO (UFC 261)

Valentina Shevchenko | Championship Reign
Valentina Shevchenko | Championship Reign

Jessica Andrade was going to be the one to push Valentina Shevchenko, the reigning flyweight queen who had dominated everyone she stood across from since moving down to the 125-pound weight class.

She had debuted in the division in October of last year, earning a first-round stoppage win over perennial contender Katlyn Chookagian with the kind of marauding, powerful effort that made you believe the former strawweight titleholder was going to step into the Octagon and push Shevchenko.

The 10 Best Fighters Of 2021

Just over a minute into the fight, “Bullet” hit a perfectly timed takedown in the center of the Octagon. A couple minutes later, she put the Brazilian on the canvas again, and it was clear that the idea of Andrade challenging Shevchenko was nothing more than a dream. The champion once again dominated, putting the challenger on the deck early in the second round, climbing into side control, and finishing the fight from the mounted crucifix position.

It was a truly masterful performance from one of the most complete and gifted fighters in the sport today.

Clay Guida def. Leonardo Santos by submission (UFC Vegas 44)

Highlight: Clay Guida Secures Come-From-Behind Submission | UFC Fight Night: Font vs Aldo
Highlight: Clay Guida Secures Come-From-Behind Submission | UFC Fight Night: Font vs Aldo

Almost as soon as this fight started, Santos had Guida hurt and looking for desperation single legs, searching for anything that would help slow the onslaught of punches being directed his way. He kept moving, kept searching for ways to tie up a limb or get away from the lanky Brazilian veteran, but he just couldn’t wriggle free, and as Santos kept piling up the unanswered punches, it felt like the fight was going to be stopped.

But as Santos repeatedly looked at the referee as if to say, “What more do I need to do here?” the pace of his punches waned, and Guida found a way to extricate himself from the position. As soon as he got back to his feet, you had a sense something funky was going to happen because Santos was spent, and he was standing across from the UFC’s version of the Energizer Bunny.

The 10 Biggest Upsets Of 2021

Guida closed out the round as the aggressor, but couldn’t do enough to win back the frame after nearly being finished, but it didn’t matter. As soon as the second round began, “The Carpenter” put Santos on the canvas and started hunting for a finish, eventually lacing up a rear-naked choke and forcing the decorated Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioner to tap.

If you ever want to show people why the veteran lightweight is such a beloved figure in this sport, pop on this fight because it’s all the explanation you need.

Justin Gaethje def. Michael Chandler by unanimous decision (UFC 268)

Justin Gaethje punches Michael Chandler in their lightweight bout during the UFC 268 event at Madison Square Garden on November 06, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Justin Gaethje punches Michael Chandler in their lightweight bout during the UFC 268 event at Madison Square Garden on November 06, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

It’s rare when a highly anticipated fight manages to exceed expectations because the versions we conjure up in our heads are pristine and perfect.

On top of that, Gaethje and Chandler asked to be the first fight of the pay-per-view main card for the UFC’s return to Madison Square Garden in November, and that just got everyone even more hyped to see these two lightweight standouts locked in the Octagon together in NYC.

The 10 Best Fights Of 2021

Despite all that, these two lunatics — and I say that lovingly — still managed to leave everyone with their jaws on the floor, going toe-to-toe for 15 non-stop minutes to violent goodness that ended with both men battered and bloody, and Gaethje standing triumphant.

These two are a different kind of tough, and this fight was something else.

Merab Dvalishvili def. Marlon Moraes by TKO (UFC 266)

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 25: Merab Dvalishvili of Georgia celebrates his win over Marlon Moraes of Brazil in their bantamweight fight during the UFC 266 event on September 25, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

This feels like the somewhat forgotten chaos-fest of the year.

Positioned as the final preliminary card fight of September’s pay-per-view event in Las Vegas, the first half of the opening stanza as tactical, with Moraes banging home low kicks and Dvalishvili timing one up to secure a takedown. The Brazilian worked back to his feet rather quickly, and just before the midway point of the round, the craziness kicked off.

Moraes hit Dvalishvili with a left hook that caused him to sit down, and for the next 30 seconds, the former title challenger tried to put his rubber-legged adversary away. Dvalishvili not only managed to survive but secure a takedown and started opening up with ground-and-pound towards the end of the frame, hurting Moraes with a series of hammerfists through to the horn.

When the round ended, Dvalishvili was excited and Moraes was exhausted, and when they came out to begin the second, Dvalishvili connected with a right hand that clearly hurt Moraes again. He chased him to the canvas and started smashing home elbows and punches from top position, “The Machine” battering the Brazilian with an incredible deluge of offense that ultimately brought the fight to a close in the final minute of the round.

This was Guida-Santos but with higher stakes and a closer near-finish prior to the comeback. Dvalishvili finished the bout landing well over 100 consecutive unanswered blows, securing his seventh straight victory with an incredible comeback.

Amanda Lemos def. Montserrat Conejo by KO (UFC Vegas 31)

Amanda Lemos opened this fight, the 500th women’s fight in UFC history, with a hard kick to the body, following it up with a check left hook as she pivoted out to her left to avoid the advancing Conejo. Each time the Mexican grappler pressed forward, Lemos angled off and landed a strike, and when Conejo looked to close the distance 30 seconds into the opening round, the Brazilian leaned back and connected with a right hand that sounded like a line-drive double to the gap.

Conejo’s momentum kept her coming forward and Lemos exited and hit her with another clean shot as she tumbled to the canvas, but the first one was really all she needed. While the tough-as-nail Conejo quickly popped up to her feet and stumbled backwards across the Octagon in an attempt to get clear of any more punishment, Lemos celebrated a second straight first-round stoppage victory.

Not only was this a laser-beam of a right hand with a beautiful left behind it, but it was also an excellent piece of game planning by Lemos and her team. She took complete advantage of Conejo’s aggression and need to close the distance, making her pay in sudden fashion.

Mason Jones def. David Onama by unanimous decision (UFC Vegas 41)

Mason Jones Post-Fight Interview | UFC Fight Night: Costa vs Vettori
Mason Jones Post-Fight Interview | UFC Fight Night: Costa vs Vettori

The circumstances can be a part of the package of what makes it memorable, and in this case, the fact that Onama took the bout on four days’ notice, and up a division, added to the drama.

The undefeated prospect from the Glory MMA & Fitness crew had fought two weeks earlier, registering a first-round finish, and jumped at the chance to share the Octagon with “The Dragon” while getting his foot in the door with the UFC. It didn’t take long for Onama to show he belonged.

For 15 minutes, these two got after one another, each man throwing roughly 150 significant strikes, with Jones connecting at a 55% clip and Onama bettering him by three percentage points. They landed the exact same number of blows in the first, were separated by two significant strikes in the second, and one in the third, with Jones earning the advantage thanks to his ability to get the fight to the canvas.

Even then, Onama held his own and made the Welsh UFC rookie work, turning in the kind of performance where the result mattered far less than the effort he put forth. While Jones captured the victory — his first in the UFC — a lot of people also came away from the contest eager to see what the 27-year-old Uganda native does when he moves back down to featherweight.

This was a grimy, gritty, good old-fashioned slobberknocker and every fight card could do with one or two of those woven into the mix.

Kai Kara-France def. Rogerio Bontorin by KO (UFC 259)

Bontorin stung Kara-France with a right hand a little over a minute into the first round of their clash at UFC 259 in early March. He scooped him in the air, deposited him on the canvas, and climbed onto his back, searching for a rear-naked choke about 20 seconds later.

For the next three minutes, the New Zealander patiently defended the Brazilian’s advances, fighting the hands, avoiding dangerous spots before Kara-France finally shook Bontorin off his back with 25 seconds remaining in the round. After stepping back to gather himself and allow Bontorin to get back to his feet, Kara-France stepped forward with a right hand that landed flush on the side of the Brazilian’s head.

Bontorin took it well, avoiding the follow-up missiles, and started to walk down Kara-France, who had circled out to reset. As Bontorin got into range, the City Kickboxing representative hit him with another right hand bomb that caused Bontorin to stiffen. An uppercut and an overhand right followed and the Brazilian fell forehead first into the canvas, as the ecstatic New Zealander started sprinting around the canvas in celebration.

There was some confusion following the stoppage as the referee never made the “It’s Over!” signal with his arms, resulting in Kara-France nearly running over and clubbing Bontorin once more while he was laying on his back, but thankfully the ref stepped in and stopped that from happening.

This was the first of two examples this year of why Kara-France’s nickname is “Don’t Blink!” He may be a flyweight, but he hits like a much bigger man, and only needs to land one to snag a victory.

Ian Garry def. Jordan Williams by KO (UFC 268)

Highlight: Ian Garry Notches First-Round TKO In UFC Debut | UFC 268
Highlight: Ian Garry Notches First-Round TKO In UFC Debut | UFC 268

Garry arrived in the UFC as one of the most hyped prospects to join the promotion in some time — an undefeated Cage Warriors champion from Ireland, full of swagger and potential, making the Conor McGregor comparisons unavoidable.

It’s difficult to live up to massive expectations and for much of his first round inside the Octagon, Garry looked like a typical newcomer, not “The Next Big Thing.” While he had solid moments, so too did Williams, who connected with enough quality shots to leave Garry leaking claret from his nose, and those watching wondering what all the fuss was about.

The 10 Best Newcomers Of 2021

But just after the 10 seconds clacker sounded, Williams missed with a winging left hand and Garry made him pay, setting off and firing a right hand down the pipe that landed clean and brought the fight to an instant halt.

The crowd at Madison Square Garden went nuts and Garry celebrated, ending his debut in impressive fashion, showing why so many (myself included) are so high on his prospects in the 170-pound weight class. In a year filled with stunning debuts, this was one of the best, without a doubt.

Chris Barnett def. Gian Villante by KO (UFC 268)

Highlight: Chris Barnett Gets Jaw-Dropping First Win Inside Octagon | UFC 268
Highlight: Chris Barnett Gets Jaw-Dropping First Win Inside Octagon | UFC 268

There is a whole lot that goes into this one beyond just the finish itself.

First, Barnett is a dude that hardcore fans have loved for years — a taekwondo stylist that previously competed at super heavyweight and did breakdancing routines to celebrate victories.

After debuting with a loss in May, the 35-year-old veteran danced his way to the cage for his sophomore appearance against Villante. He had people entertained and rooting for him even before he hit the Octagon, which was impressive given he was fighting a New Yorker in his retirement fight at “The Mecca,” but that’s how infectious Barnett’s style and personality are.

The 10 Best Knockouts Of 2021

A little over two minutes into the second round, “Beastboy” dipped into his bag, hitting Villante with a spinning wheel kick that put him on the deck. Follow-up blows brought the fight to a close and prompted Barnett to hit what he called his “Fat Man Flip,” doing a beautiful flip in mid-air and landing on his backside, raising his arms in victory and screaming triumphantly for sticking the landing and scoring the knockout finish.

This was a feel-good moment for one of the sport’s beloved characters and turned a bunch of people that had previously never even heard of Barnett into brand new fans.

Jeff Molina def. Aoriqileng by unanimous decision (UFC 261)

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - AUGUST 25: (R-L) Jeffrey Molina punches Jacob Silva in a flyweight bout during week four of Dana White's Contender Series

Molina and Aoriqileng squared off in their joint debuts early in the night at UFC 261.

Through the first two rounds, the Dana White’s Contender Series graduate and the Chinese newcomer ran level, the latter winning the opening frame on all three scorecards thanks to a solid takedown and nearly two minutes of top control, and the former tying things up by scoring a pair of knockdowns in the second.

Knotted up at one round apiece in their shared debuts, the final five minutes would decide it, and Molina came out and showed the aggression and grit that earned him his contract in the first place, throwing well over 200 significant strikes, landing at a nearly 60% clip, and generally putting it on Aoriqiling to secure the victory.

The final two rounds of this fight were terrific theatre, and the gameness Molina showed in the last frame really resonated with me. He’d looked solid on the Contender Series, but this performance made him a must-watch fighter for me, with his follow-up win over Daniel Lacerda leading to “El Jefe” landing a spot on my list of Fighters on the Rise for 2022.

Matthew Semelsberger def. Jason Witt by KO (UFC Vegas 21)

Matthew Semelsberger Scores A 16 KO over Witt | UFC Fight Night: Edwards vs Muhammad
Matthew Semelsberger Scores A 16 KO over Witt | UFC Fight Night: Edwards vs Muhammad

The quickest finish in this collection and arguably the best “opening bout” performance of the year — even though it’s not the opener here — this 16-second finish was only the second-fastest knockout of the year for Semelsberger.

Yeah, you read that right — Semelsberger flattened Witt with a right hand 16 seconds into their mid-March meeting in Las Vegas and scored a 15-second knockout win six months later at UFC 266 when he cracked Nick Diaz disciple Martin Sano Jr. with an overhand right on the jaw right as Jon Anik explained that he was a massive betting favorite in the contest.

In case it wasn’t clear, “Semi the Jedi” has filthy power and is someone you need to tune in and see every single time he steps into the Octagon.

Gillian Robertson def. Priscila Cachoeira by submission (UFC 269)

feature gillian robertson ufc 269

Robertson earned a place on this list by introducing everyone to the term “neck cuddles” following her first-round submission win over Cachoeira a couple weeks ago in Las Vegas.

Entering on a two-fight slide, Robertson needed a victory, and in order to get that, she needed to get the fight to the ground. Through the first couple minutes, she was forced to stand with the Brazilian, and ate a few shots for her troubles, but just before the midway point of the round, she changed levels, put “Zombie Girl” on the canvas, and started working.

Robertson quickly passed to half guard and threatened with a kimura, taking Cachoeira’s back momentarily in the ensuing scramble. When the Brazilian dropped her shoulders to the canvas, the Canadian shuffled into side control and started bashing home elbows before deftly climbing into mount. She moved to a very high mount, setting up an armbar, but Cachoeira sniffed it out, only for Robertson to get under her neck in the scramble that followed.

With no hooks, Robertson squeezed on the choke, maintaining her grip and tightening her squeeze even when Cachoeira illegally stuffed her thumb into her eye on two different occasions.

This was a savage finish from “The Savage,” who remains an intriguing fighter in the flyweight division.

Trevin Jones def. Mario Bautista by KO (UFC 259)

Opponents Mario Bautista and Trevin Jones face off during the UFC 259 weigh-in at UFC APEX on March 05, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Opponents Mario Bautista and Trevin Jones face off during the UFC 259 weigh-in at UFC APEX on March 05, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Only one event this year had 15 fights, so this was an automatic berth situation, but it was an impressive finish nonetheless.

Jones and Bautista got the action going at UFC 259, spending the opening five minutes trading strikes in space and grinding in the clinch along the fence. Neither man gained any kind of considerable advantage, but each landed a smattering of solid blows, especially in the second half of the frame.

Following the break, Bautista came out a little more aggressively, moving and feinting on the outside, leading the exchanges early in the round. But after a little flurry from the MMA Lab product in the center of the cage, Jones came forward looking to land something of his own and clipped Bautista with a lead uppercut that took his feet out from under him. Jones followed him to the canvas and pounded out the finish.

Not only did Jones get UFC 259 off to an explosive start, but his win over Bautista in March also stands as the cracking opener to this collection of the best fights from each spot on the fight card for 2021, as well.