Sherdog's 2021 Submission of the Year

What makes a “Submission of the Year?” Out of the dozens of submission finishes each year in top-level global promotions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Bellator MMA and One Championship—and hundreds more in smaller regional shows around the world—what makes a handful stand out as especially memorable or praiseworthy? If the winning entries from previous Sherdog Year-End Awards are any indication, it usually takes two things: impressive technique, and enough stakes or historical context to make it matter. For example, our 2018 winner, Ryan Hall, landed a rare heel hook from an even rarer Imanari roll, but what elevated a “Submission of the Night” into a “Submission of the Year” is that it was the first time we had ever seen the legendary B.J. Penn tap the mat.

By that set of criteria—how, when, where and against whom—2021 offered no shortage of candidates for “Submission of the Year.” A.J. McKee, who earned this award last year for his mind-boggling modified neck crank from guard against Darrion Caldwell at Bellator 253, made a bid for back-to-back honors by tapping out Patricio Freire with a first-round guillotine at Bellator 263 in July to win the Bellator MMA featherweight grand prix and with it, Freire’s belt. The finish was not memorable for exotic technique, but for the way in which it capped off a shockingly fast and thorough destruction of one of the sport’s top pound-for-pound fighters, and marked McKee’s own graduation from prospect to champion.

At UFC 258 in February, Anthony Hernandez tapped out an exhausted Rodolfo Vieira in the second round of their middleweight matchup. Like McKee against “Pitbull,” it was another bread-and-butter guillotine choke elevated from the mundane to the sublime by context: Dana White's Contender Series alum Hernandez was a good MMA grappler with a decent record, while the then-undefeated Vieira is one of the most accomplished Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners ever to cross over to MMA. Not only was “The Black Belt Hunter” a -500 favorite, the prop for a win by submission was -200. “Fluffy” spent much of the first round on the ground in survival mode, calmly allowing the hulking Vieira to empty his gas tank. By the time the two came back out for the second frame, Vieira’s 2015 Abu Dhabi Combat Club title and five Mundials gold medals had been rendered irrelevant by fatigue, and when his opponent slapped on the fight-ending choke, the only people happier than Hernandez and his team might have been any betting crazies who stood to collect the 33-to-1 payout for that particular outcome.

However, one submission in 2021 stands out above all the others for its combination of technique, stakes and historical import, with the added car-crash appeal of a grisly injury. Andre Muniz’s bone-snapping armbar submission of Ronaldo Souza at UFC 262 on May 15, in same way as Hall’s 2018 heel hook of Penn, was shocking for the simple optics of what had just been done, and to whom. Like Penn in 2018, “Jacare” in 2021 was clearly a fighter in decline, and rode a three-fight losing streak into his fight with Muniz. However, those had come against a Top 5 fighter in Jack Hermansson, future light heavyweight champ Jan Blachowicz, and Sherdog’s 2020 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year, Kevin Holland, and the problems on display included waning cardio, cracks in his once-reliable chin, and an apparent inability to find a comfortable home at either middleweight or light heavyweight. As another of the most decorated grapplers to cross over to MMA, Souza’s ground game still figured to be there like a bedrock of granite, and he entered UFC 262 as a slight favorite over the promising but relatively unproven Muniz.

I covered UFC 262 in person as part of the credentialed media, and Muniz, for his part, spent fight week telling anyone who would listen that while he respected “Jacare,” he wouldn’t be intimidated, and in fact planned to test the legend on the floor. Was it bravado, or true self-belief? Was he leaving a professional suicide note, or was this some art-of-war misinformation from a fighter who in fact planned to treat the floor like lava once the cage door locked behind them? After all, Souza’s career résumé was littered with the twisted and snoring bodies of men who had said similar things. In hindsight, it was reminiscent of Hernandez’s calm, matter-of-fact talk ahead of the Vieira fight, and to a sharper observer than myself, might have offered a clue of what was about to come.

Once the two squared off in that night’s top prelim, it became obvious very quickly that Muniz’s pronouncements had not been bravado or mind games. After being taken down early by “Jacare” and fighting back to his feet, it was “Sergipano” who returned the action to the canvas, grounding Souza with a powerful double-leg. As if to underscore his commitment to beating the decorated grappler in his own wheelhouse, Muniz scooped and slammed him back down seconds later for an emphatic mat return.

A moment later, Souza stood once more and Muniz followed in an attempt to take his back standing, which set up the final sequence. Souza shook Muniz over the top and looked to escape out the back door, dropping to his knees. It looked about to succeed, and might have, if Muniz had not grabbed Souza’s right arm. Muniz slowly slid off of Souza’s back and out to the right side, isolating the arm at an odd angle. Souza fought the hold for a moment until his right upper arm gave out and he tapped quickly, leading referee Jacob Montalvo to dive in for the stoppage. From press row, 60 feet away in a Toyota Center full of nearly 20,000 screaming fans, the snap of Souza’s right humerus was clearly, sickeningly audible. Muniz rolled off and away as the stricken "Jacare" sat up, cradling a limp and twisted limb. As the finish replayed over and over again on the arena’s giant screens, fans and media alike looked at each other in disbelief of what we had just witnessed.

For its historical context, it was even more impressive than Hernandez’s submission of Vieira, for while it remains to be seen how Vieira’s MMA accomplishments will stack up to his grappling résumé, “Jacare” is one of the best middleweights of his generation and one of the greatest fighters never to win a UFC title. While Hernandez was aided by Vieira’s exhaustion and McKee by having rocked Freire badly with strikes, Muniz flat-out caught a fresh, unhurt, world-class grappler in a scramble, then carried the sequence to its logical, bone-crunching conclusion. It was a shocking, electrifying moment and it is Sherdog.com’s 2021 “Submission of the Year.”

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