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As 2021 comes to a close, it has broadly been a good year for MMA. Fans have returned to arenas, adding atmosphere to MMA’s biggest bouts. Pay-per-view returns have been strong, indicating great interest in the major fights. There have been plenty of exciting fights and remarkable performances to reward those who follow the sport. For the fighters, there is an inherent turbulence that comes in a career where one’s fortunes can turn so quickly. As we turn to 2022, here are some of the fighters who will remember 2021 most fondly, as well as some who will be most eager to start anew.
A 2021 to Remember: Kamaru Usman
One of the top contenders for “Fighter of the Year,” 2021 was the year Usman established himself as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. It wasn’t simply the fact of his three victories over the course of the year but the way that he did it. Former training partner Gilbert Burns gave him some difficulty at the beginning, but Usman steamrolled him late. The Jorge Masvidal rematch was the one that will be best remembered, as he delivered an all-time highlight-reel right hand that sent sweat spraying in all directions from the challenger’s head like an exploding watermelon. Then, for good measure, he secured another victory over bitter rival Colby Covington at Madison Square Garden. This year was his.
A 2021 to Forget: Kevin Holland
Holland was one of the most fun MMA stories in 2020, winning five fights and becoming something of a star with his entertaining personality. It all came crashing down in 2021, with a pair of losses to Marvin Vettori and Derek Brunson that did not simply put an end to his momentum but demonstrated fundamental holes in his game that future opponents are also likely to exploit. Holland’s ground game just did not prove good enough to hang at the top level. The way he was knocked out in a fluke clash of heads in October seemed to exemplify a year where things never broke his way.
A 2021 to Remember: Julianna Pena
It’s possible that years from now we will remember this year as the year Pena took her game to a higher level and built a foundation for lasting success at the top level. More likely, it was her career apex, the moment in time she finished the world’s best female fighter to become world champion in one of the greatest MMA upsets of all-time. Even if she can continue this level of success, it will remain a special accomplishment, as fighters rarely have runs as prolific as the one Amanda Nunes has enjoyed. We tend to remember the opponents who end those runs.
A 2021 to Forget: Frankie Edgar
In some ways, it’s remarkable that Edgar was able to compete at the level he did for as long as he did. The 135- and 145-pound divisions are not welcoming to fighters in their late 30s who have been competing professionally for a decade and a half. Yet Edgar remained largely competitive in victory and defeat against top opponents. That ended in 2021, as Edgar was violently knocked unconscious two times in two fights. Edgar looks to be in great cardio shape at age 40—his work ethic has never been in doubt—but the future hall of famer could be in for some rough times if he continues to fight.
A 2021 to Remember: Belal Muhammad
Muhammad’s skills have been evident for years, as he has racked up win after win in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. However, he has flown under the radar to a significant degree because he doesn’t have the sorts of head-turning finishes that tend to attract fan attention. Winning eventually tends to pay off, and that was the case for Muhammad in 2021, as he got to fight three major opponents. The first was because he agreed to fight Leon Edwards on short notice, but it ended in unsatisfying fashion thanks to an accidental eye poke. Muhammad capitalized on his next two opportunities, defeating multi-time title challengers Demian Maia and Stephen Thompson. Due to his performances there, Muhammad is likely to regularly take on top opponents in the future.
A 2021 to Forget: Jon Jones
Jones still hasn’t fought since the WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic in March 2020, and that hiatus is not to his benefit as he approaches his 35th birthday. Jones seems sincerely interested in fighting Francis Ngannou in a superfight, but he also sincerely wants to get paid commensurate with the massive business that fight would do. The UFC is playing hardball. Regardless of how one feels about that, the UFC is winning, given that it’s doing strong business without Jones while he isn’t getting his fight checks. Making matters much worse was a domestic violence incident and exile from the Jackson-Wink MMA academy that had been his home for most of his career. Jones’ professional and personal life is at a low point, but unfortunately, “Bones” for all his greatness inside the Octagon has found ways to reach new lows outside it.
A 2021 to Remember: A.J. McKee
Bellator MMA’s featherweight grand prix was perfectly set up to be McKee’s coming-out party. The talented pool included the Bellator featherweight champion Patricio Freire on the other side of the bracket and plenty of talented opponents on the way to that potential fight. McKee finished all four opponents, including Freire in under two minutes in July. With his mix of dangerous striking and submissions, offensively prolific but defensively stout, McKee is a special fighter. McKee put the world on notice in 2021, and it’s going to be exciting to see what he delivers in the future.
A 2021 to Forget: Tyron Woodley
A big consideration in assessing how a fighter is doing is what his or her bank account looks like. That’s why it’s hard to consider Conor McGregor too much of a loser in 2021. He may have lost twice, suffered a serious injury and made a new collection of enemies in the process, but he made enormous sums given how well his fights with Dustin Poirier did. Woodley similarly made bank by taking on Jake Paul twice. Unfortunately, it was a year of indignities for Woodley. It started with a submission loss to Vicente Luque that ended his UFC career, devolved into his facing widespread ridicule for getting a Jake Paul tattoo on his finger (it has since faded) and culminated with Woodley lying face down unconscious after being knocked out by the former YouTuber. If someone is dogging Woodley 10 years from now, there’s a good chance they’ll bring up something that happened in 2021. Hopefully Woodley will be able to look at his bank account and laugh along.