MMA 2021 Year in Review: Fighter of the Year

Kamaru Usman UFC
Kamaru Usman, UFC 268 Pre-Fight Press Conference Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

A number of MMA fighters had statement years in 2021. Rose Namajunas became the first UFC athlete to win a title twice in the same division, reclaiming her strawweight belt and defending it against Weili Zhang. Charles Oliveira’s long climb to the top paid off. What’s the plural of arch-nemesis? Kamaru Usman may have been asking that after fighting Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington in the same year. Over in Bellator, Sergio Pettis earned bantamweight gold, then scored the Comeback of the Year while defending the belt.

Who were our male and female fighters of the year? Read on as we wrap up our 2021 Year End Awards!

Fighter of the Year 2021: Male

Jay Anderson: It’s hard to argue against Charles Oliveira here. Winning the UFC lightweight title with a rousing comeback (and knocking out Michael Chandler in the process), then securing another comeback win via submission against Dustin Poirier to defend the title — this is the guy people claim doesn’t have heart? MMA is such a wild sport, and Oliveira has put his time in.

Farzin Vousoughian: Not only did Kamaru Usman successfully defend his title three times, he finished Gilbert Burns, Jorge Masvidal and beat Colby Covington for a second time despite being labeled as a boring fighter by many.

Eddie Law: Glover Teixeira. Sure he only fought once in 2021, but the story is too good not to celebrate. With an up-and-down record following his loss to Jon Jones at UFC 172 Teixeira came into UFC 267 riding a five-fight win streak. At 42-years-old he tapped Jan Blachowicz and became champ at an age where most of us consider walking our dogs as a workout. Glover is the definition of “Never Give Up.”

Alex Behunin: Kamaru Usman – The welterweight champion was the most active champion in the UFC and he was the second most active in the welterweight top 15. Usman defended his belt three times, finishing Gilbert Burns, knocking out Jorge Masvidal, and beating Colby Covington in the rematch.

Gabriel Gonzalez: Kamaru Usman. He’s officially crossed the threshold from great champion to all-time great fighter with an impressive 2021 campaign.  He is the first reigning champion in years to compete three times in the calendar year, and in two of those he scored impressive knockouts.  If his 2022 is anything close to his 2021, it would be time to begin discussing Usman amongst the big five of Jones, Silva, St-Pierre, Fedor, and Demetrious as the Greatest of All Time.

Justin Gibbons: With three successful defences of his welterweight title in 2021, Kamaru Usman is my Male Fighter of the Year. Getting the finish in two of the three title defences over the top talent in the division is super impressive. With a powerful jab leading to a TKO win against Gilbert Burns, and then to knock out Jorge Masvidal two months later is simply masterful. Colby Covington seemed to be the kryptonite to test the skills of Usman, but like a true champion he defended his title for a third time in 2021.

Michael Lynch: Ciryl Gane. For his title run.

Josh Evanoff: Kamaru Usman. By far one of the easiest picks in years. 3-0 over top contenders in Burns, Masvidal, and Covington is a year we’re not going to see for a while.

Bryson Hester: My pick for male fighter of the year edged out Jose Aldo and Kamaru Usman, Mr. Charles Oliveira. Charles began his year winning the vacant lightweight belt in the the wake of the Khabib era by flattening UFC newcomer Michael Chandler, in my pick for 2021’s comeback fight of the year. Charles completed a long journey spanning two weight classes and over 10 years in the UFC in realizing the UFC Lightweight Title. Charles also defended his belt earning a tough win over a super tough Dustin Poirier who was on a red hot streak at the time, coming off of two stoppages against Conor McGregor.

Shawn Bitter: With a lot of options Kamaru Usman is the obvious choice. Beating a good opponent in Gilbert Burns, knocking out Jorge Masvidal in the rematch, and dominating Colby Covington in the rematch to close the year. Someone that was questioned about his fighting style in the past put on three great performances this year.

Daniel Vreeland: Kamaru Usman. With the reputation of a boring wrestler, you go in and KO Jorge Masvidal on the feet. Then take care of Gilbert Burns. Oh, and to top it all off, you put a stamp on the one fighter who kept it close with you? It’s Usman and it’s not close.

Dan Doherty: Charles Oliveira. What a grind to the top for Oliveira. His 11th year in the UFC was his best as he rode an eight-fight win streak with seven finishes into 2021. That finally earned the veteran his first title shot and the man with the most submissions in UFC history knocked out the powerful Michael Chandler to win gold. Oliveira then ate Dustin Poirier’s best shots in his first title defense only to submit him in the second round. Seeing Oliveira reach the summit at this point in his career makes him a clear choice.

End Result: While Charles Oliveira received a handful of votes, it was a strong showing for Kamaru Usman with over 50% of the vote! He takes it as our male Fighter of the Year for 2021.