MMA 2021 Year in Review: Comeback of the Year

Sergio Pettis Bellator 272
Sergio Pettis, Bellator 272 Credit: Bellator MMA

The sport of MMA managed to make its way throughout most of 2021 with just a handful of major comebacks within fights. Then, the dam burst, and the final few weeks of the year saw several strong candidates for Comeback of the Year emerge.

What might have been a two-horse race suddenly became a solid field of inspirational comeback stories. Note, this category considers individual comebacks in fights, rather than career comebacks.

Comeback of the Year 2021

Jay Anderson: There were some good candidates in this category in 2021. Back in April at Bellator 257, Paul Daley rallied back from an early knockdown to finish Sabah Homasi by TKO in round two. Then, over the course of a weekend, we saw Spike Carlyle endure a beating only to submit Dan Moret (Bellator 272), Sergio Pettis lose basically four rounds before knocking out Kyoji Horiguchi (also Bellator 272), then Clay Guida block knees with his face against Leonardo Santos, only to win via submission. There was also the Oliveira vs. Chandler fight, and to a lesser extent, Oliveira vs. Poirier. I’ll side with Pettis vs. Horiguchi for this one. A title on the line, essentially four rounds down, and Horiguchi the returning former double-champ. Pettis shocked a lot of people with that finish.

Farzin Vousoughian: Charles Oliviera vs. Michael Chandler. Michael Chandler was in full control of the fight against Charles Oliviera. But it was a punch that caught Chandler, crowning Oliviera the new lightweight champion.

Eddie Law: Kennedy Nzechukwu KO’s Carlos Ulberg at UFC 259. Well we came for Blachowicz vs. Adesanya, but we got Nzechukwu vs. Ulberg in an absolute BRAWL where Nzechukwu got beat up for almost the entire first round before waking up and landing some shots to get himself composed. In the second round Nzechukwu came out like his mom told him, “You go back out there and whoop them or I’ll whoop you!” and he took it to Ulberg as they had a back-and-forth exchange for almost four minutes before Nzechukwu landed a right uppercut that ended Ulberg’s night and made fight fans glad they tuned into the early prelims.

Alex Behunin: Sergio Pettis vs. Kyoji Horiguchi – Pettis was completely dominated for four rounds and then out of nowhere he landed a spinning back fist and put Horiguchi out cold. The fight was so dominant that I almost turned it off but thankfully I didn’t. A classic comeback in MMA.

Gabriel Gonzalez: Sergio Pettis vs Kyoji Horiguchi. Though many casual fans might have not kept up with Kyoji Horiguchi following his time in the UFC, the hardcore fans know that he continued his amazing run back in Japan as he grew his reputation in RIZIN.  After injuries and the pandemic slowed his schedule, he looked in prime form as he was routing Pettis three rounds to none going into the fourth round.  So for Pettis to shock Horiguchi with his own knockout of the year candidate and leave him out cold from seemingly out of nowhere (then to learn it was not)  makes this an easy one for Comeback of the Year.

Justin Gibbons: The fight between Nate Maness and Tony Gravely was pretty close and competitive until Gravely landed a bomb at the end of the first round that looked like it could have altered the rest of the fight… but Nate Maness reached down deep and came back from the brink of defeat. He got the knockout at 2:10 of Round 2. Watching a Nate Maness fight always holds a special spot in my heart as we went against each other for Cageside Press’ Fighter vs. Writer, so to witness this knockout is my pick for Comeback of the Year.

Michael Lynch: Prochazka vs Reyes – This could have also won KO of the year.

Josh Evanoff: Charles Olivieira def. Michael Chandler. Olivieira for whatever reason always had the reputation of being a “quitter.” To completely shatter that notion on the biggest stage with the title on the line was awesome to see.

Bryson Hester: My pick for comeback fight of the year would be the lightweight title fight between Charles Oliveira and Michael Chandler. Michael had Charles hurt and dropped during round one and had been absolutely dominating, making it look like the fight was all but over. But in the 2nd round Charles rallied and was able to KO Chandler in a striking exchange, in my pick for wildest comeback of 2021. 

Shawn Bitter: Merab Dvalishvili’s comeback win over Marlon Moraes wasn’t only the comeback of the year but one of the best moments of the year. Moraes had him in major danger in round one. Moraes couldn’t put Dvalishvili away and started to wilt. Round two Dvalishvili was still full of energy and used all of it to dominate and put Moraes away in round two.

Daniel Vreeland: Nate Maness’ KO over Tony Gravely. I think this is maybe one of the more underrated comebacks of all time. Maness was basically unconscious after round one. Not only did he answer the bell, but in about half a round he had his hand raised. That’s next level toughness.

Dan Doherty: I’ll go with Gerald Meerschaert vs. Makhmud Muradov for Comeback of the Year. I thought Meerschaert was out right from the start but somehow he survived and choked out the talented Muradov in the second round. Biggest underdog on the card too.

End Result: We have a tie. And several runner-ups. But the majority of our staff went one of two ways, either Sergio Pettis vs. Kyoji Horiguchi at Bellator 272, or Charles Oliveira vs. Michael Chandler. Those two fights share the Comeback of the Year award for 2021.