It was a stirring year for MMA, with standout champions and extraordinary events in spite of the continued onset of Covid-19.
Indeed, there is an argument that fighters and fight leagues made more of their events and, when fans did return, aficionados made their voices felt even more tellingly from New York to Las Vegas, Los Angeles to Moscow, Dublin and London.
That translated into an ambience of passion passed on to the protagonists, whom, we must never forget, put their bodies and warrior spirits on the line for our entertainment. Fighters first. Always. And how they produced in 2021.
The UFC ran out 43 events – 31 behind closed doors at the UFC Apex centre at its HQ in Las Vegas – with so many scintillating moments.
The pick of the fighters, for me, were Charles Oliveira, the incumbent lightweight champion, and Kamaru Usman, who made three defences of his welterweight belt.
Oliveira, who is on a current win streak of 10-0, having gone 10-8 in his early MMA career, enjoyed victories over Michael Chandler (for the vacant belt) and Dustin Poirier (a defence of the 155lb title).
Both performances were monumental and his anaconda-like brilliance at jiu-jitsu is now allied by a formidable striking game. Funnily enough, Oliveira has never lost after dyeing his hair peroxide blonde.
Usman, meanwhile, is arguably one of the most difficult tasks, stylistically, for any challenger around 170lb in the sport.
It was Chandler, nonetheless, having crossed fight leagues from Bellator to the UFC, who arguably took part in the most entertaining fight of the UFC year, a 15-minute war with Justin Gaethje which ranks as one of the greatest all-action three-round fights in the history of MMA.
Both wrestlers in background, they indulged in a breathless, compelling back-and-forth striking match which left one exhausted. It was unadulterated beautiful brutality. Gaethje took the victory, but both fighters emerged with legions of new fans.
Gaethje – if not a returning Conor McGregor, potentially – could be next defence for Oliveira.
In the UFC’s women’s divisions, Julianna Pena dethroned two-weight champion Amanda Nunes late in the year, the ‘Venezuelan Vixen’ producing a counter-attacking masterpiece against the heavy-handed Brazilian which was both bold and brilliant, earning her a second-round TKO.
But for me, apart from Rose Namajunas, who produced a mighty first-round headkick knockout of China’s Zhang Weili to claim the UFC strawweight crown and defended it in a rematch, Valentina ‘Bullet’ Shevchenko remains the standout pound-for-pound leading female fighter in the UFC league after she twice defended her flyweight title.
From the UK, undefeated 21-year-old bantamweight Muhammad Mokaev, who has an incredible life story from Dagestan and who is now a British citizen, will be a force in the UFC next year, while Irishman Ian Garry and Liverpool stars Darren Till, Molly McCann, Paddy Pimblett and Manchester heavyweight Tom Aspinall are either stapled headliners or rising stars.
Indeed, Aspinall may only be a pair of victories from challenging for the UFC’s heavyweight crown. That said, the UFC have been unable to carry an event in the UK now since March 2019.
However, Bellator MMA continues its European expansion. In 2021, Bellator signed a roadmap deal with the BBC, having been in recess because of Covid-19 protocols for almost four months until April.
Eighteen events aired on BBC iPlayer, allowing MMA fans in the UK to witness every event of the year, live and free to air. What a long way the sport has come, with mainstream perception in the UK – indeed in Europe – having changed beyond all recognition.
Bellator’s three events on this side of the pond – in London and Dublin – all produced memorable, ground-breaking nights.
The cagey, elite-level fight between Londoner Michael ‘Venom’ Page and Douglas Lima, a rematch from their contest two years earlier, saw Page end triumphant, and Bellator moved to take a decision to bring all headline events, regardless off championship title status, from three rounds to five.
We all wanted to see two more rounds between Page and Lima. The trilogy fight, indeed, is set for 2022.
The third of the events in Europe, in Moscow, saw a stentorian night with the ‘Last Emperor’ Fedor Emelianenko, the greatest heavyweight of all time, return to the Russian capital for a spine-chilling walkout and a thrilling knockout of Timothy Johnson.
Overall in Europe, Bellator continues a growing presence and a group of fighters – including Leah McCourt, Norbert Novenyi and Luke Trainor from the UK, and Mads Burnell from Denmark – with advancing fanbases by dint of their continued success.
In the USA, Cris Cyborg continued her reign as Bellator women’s featherweight champion with two defences of the title, and is still, in my view, the greatest female we have ever seen in an MMA cage.
aBntamweight champion Sergio Pettis and featherweight champion AJ McKee are two of the biggest stars in the sport.
Emelianenko’s protege Vadim Nemkov, Bellator’s light-heavyweight champion, also gets exponentially better, and has a potential blockbuster early next year against Corey Anderson in the final of the light-heavyweight grand prix.
Indeed, Bellator’s tournament format continues to be a riveting asset to the burgeoning organisation.
For Scott Coker, president of Bellator MMA, Pettis and McKee have been a revelation. “When the fans aren’t there, the fighters don’t feel the fans – it’s a lot different,” the long-standing fight sport promoter told BBC Sport.
“But starting with the AJ-Patricio Pitbull fight in Los Angeles with crowds – we went on a roll. We went to San Jose, London, Dublin, Moscow, and closed out 2021 with the Kyoji Horiguchi-Pettis fight, which was a spectacular ending to an amazing year.
“The fighters need the fans there. They put the soul into the event. The spirit. Without it, it’s a different feeling.”
Coker added: “I don’t say this lightly but when I think about our roster, this is the best line-up we’ve had since I’ve been here [for five years]. We didn’t have the depth that we have today.
“Our bantamweight division is the best division in MMA, period. It’s better than any other league. Our 205 (light heavyweight) division is the best on the planet, better than any other leagues.
“We have the best 145lb fighter in the world in McKee. The ‘Fedor thing’ was very special because it’s something he and I have been talking about since the Strikeforce days.
“To do a fight in Moscow, with Fedor fighting the number-four-ranked guy, knocking him out the way he did, it was a fairytale ending to our trip there. I think by summer time we’ll be back in Moscow doing Fedor’s next fight.”
The year ended on BBC iPlayer with Pettis being dominated and behind in the fourth round against the marvel that is Kyoji Horoguchi – arguably one of the greatest Japanese mixed martial artists of all time – yet suddenly Pettis became the victor by spectacular, unexpected, silence-instilling knockout.
The finish was emblematic of the drama, thrills and surprises the sport brings, through its array of protagonists. It has a narrative that embodies will, skill, survival and rejuvenation.
“Horiguchi is super talented and he was the favourite going into the fight,” Coker said. “To me it was 50-50. When Horiguchi came out and Pettis hit him with a right hand, Horiguchi did a cartwheel. I loved it. It was great theatre.
“He really took it to Pettis for almost four rounds and then Pettis does a crescent kick and comes back with a spinning back fist and it’s over. Cancel Christmas, it’s done. That’s what a world title fight should look like. It was spectacular.”
The biggest star, however, must be McKee. “When I think about AJ McKee, I signed him as an amateur, and you fast forward five years and he’s got some experience now and he’s unshakeable,” Coker said.
“A lot of guys would have cracked under the pressure he faced – Pitbull, who has been knocking out everybody for the last few years, in your face. But this guy’s unshakeable.
“He just has that belief in himself that he’s going to overcome and win and he did. That performance was so dominating it wasn’t even like it was a close decision.
“He’s the best fighter at 145 on the planet, better than any other company. This kid is super talented and I don’t say that lightly because there are a lot of other talented fighters out there. But I’d put this kid against anybody on any given day and I think he’ll win.”