2021 was a wild and unprecedented year in the sport of mixed martial arts. With a pandemic putting the sports world in chaos, Dana White and the UFC continued to be the premier mixed martial arts organization in the world. There were many great fighters, knockouts and submissions so I narrowed it down and handed out the first annual Mo Sports MMA Awards.
Male Fighter of the Year: Kamaru Usman
This award came down to Kamaru Usman against Charles Oliveira and while Oliveira had a fantastic 2021 winning the UFC lightweight belt and scoring stoppages over Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier, Usman has the slightly more impressive resume.
Usman successfully defended his UFC welterweight title three times. At UFC 258, Usman weathered an early storm from Gilbert Burns and finished him in the third round with ground and pound. Then at UFC 261, Usman put a stamp on his rivalry with Jorge Masvidal, putting Masvidal to sleep with a crushing right cross in the second round. Finally at UFC 268, Usman defeated arch rival Colby Covington for the second time, this time by unanimous decision in another epic clash between the two.
Female Fighter of the Year: Rose Namajunas
Rose Namajunas is my choice for female fighter of the year after picking up two wins over Weili Zhang. At UFC 261, Namajunas won the UFC strawweight title for the second time, knocking out Zhang in just 78 seconds with a vicious head kick. Then at UFC 268, Namajunas retained her title by split decision in a rematch with Zhang. Namajunas fell behind early, but dug down deep late in the fight to have two of the three judges agree that she won the fight.
A few other female fighters had good years like Marina Rodriguez and Amanda Lemos, but Namajunas’ two title performances impressed me the most. Rodriguez picked up three wins in 2021, a second round knockout of Amanda Ribas and five round unanimous decision victories over Michelle Waterson and Mackenzie Dern. Another strong year in 2022 and she could be in line for a strawweight title shot.
Breakout Fighter of the Year: Chris Curtis
My choice for Breakout Fighter of the Year is the “Action Man” Chris Curtis, a longtime veteran of the sport who finally got his chance on the big stage. Curtis was set to make his UFC debut on just 24 hours notice against Phil Hawes in October, but the fight was scrapped when Hawes wouldn’t agree to the fight. However, the fight was rebooked for UFC 268 with Curtis scoring a major upset, knocking Hawes out in the first round. A month later, Curtis would face Brendan Allen at UFC Vegas 44 and again pull off a major upset, knocking out Allen in the second round.
A welterweight for most of his career, Curtis stepped up to middleweight and in the span of one month knocked out two prospects to earn the Breakthrough Fighter of the Year award. It was a long time coming for Curtis, who was passed up for a UFC contract on the Contender Series and had a short lived retirement while competing for a million dollars in the PFL.
Male Newcomer of the Year: Bruno Silva
This award is for a fighter that made their UFC debut in 2021 and the fighter that made the biggest impact was Bruno Silva. “Blindado” scored three wins in 2021, all by knockout. He was supposed to make his UFC debut in 2019, but was forced to serve a two year USADA suspension.
In his UFC debut, Silva faced Wellington Turman and was taken down early. However, Silva escaped danger and put Turman to sleep with vicious ground and pound in the first round. In his next fight, Silva was getting out-wrestled by Andrew Sanchez for the first two rounds, but in the third round turned up the heat on a fading Sanchez for a third round knockout victory. Silva then closed out 2021 with a first round knockout of Jordan Wright at UFC 269.
Female Newcomer of the Year: Casey O’Neill
This award came down to three fighters for me: Casey O’Neill, Manon Fiorot and Erin Blanchfield. It wasn’t an easy decision, but ultimately I chose O’Neill, who picked up three wins in 2021, all by finish. The Scottish fighter fighting out of Las Vegas is a bright prospect in the women’s flyweight division and has a date with women’s MMA pioneer Roxanne Modafferi at UFC 271.
O’Neill made her UFC debut in February and stopped Shana Dobson in the second round with ground and pound. Then, O’Neill would face Lara Procopio, who she submitted via rear-naked choke in the third round. O’Neill finished Antonina Shevchenko with ground and pound in the second round to complete a perfect 2021.
Fight of the Year: Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler at UFC 268
Justin Gaethje versus Michael Chandler was one of the most anticipated fights of 2021 and boy did it deliver. With two heavy handed lightweights in Gaethje and Chandler, there was very little doubt in anyone’s mind that this was going to be a war. The two went toe to toe early and Chandler was the first fighter to land a big blow, stunning Gaethje but the Colorado native recovered quickly. Midway through the first round, Gaethje hurt Chandler and momentum had clearly shifted in his favor. It was the closest round of the fight with two of the three judges giving Chandler the round.
In the second round, Gaethje was gaining steam, dropping Chandler with an uppercut and looked like he was on his way to a finish. However, Chandler was able to recover and actually gained his second wind in the third round, but Gaethje had the superior conditioning and was never really in danger in the final two rounds. To the surprise of many, the fight went the distance with Gaethje earning the unanimous decision with scores of 30-27 and 29-28 twice.
Knockout of the Year: Jiri Prochazka over Dominick Reyes at UFC Vegas 25
2021 was filled with many spectacular knockouts, but the one that impressed me the most was Jiri Prochazka’s spinning back elbow knockout of Dominick Reyes. The finish came with under a minute left in the second round of a competitive battle in the light heavyweight division. Prochazka whiffed on a right elbow, but landed a spinning left elbow that Reyes didn’t see coming. Reyes was out cold before he was sent face first to the mat in a crumpling heap. This knockout stood out for me because it’s not a strike you see land in such devastating fashion.
We can’t discuss spectacular knockouts without mentioning Ignacio Bahamondes’ wheel kick knockout of Roosevelt Roberts. Bahamondes was cruising to a decision win before he uncorked that beautiful and violent kick. You’ll get no argument from me if you chose Bahamondes’ knockout as the best in 2021.
Submission of the Year: Anthony Hernandez over Rodolfo Vieira at UFC 258
There weren’t any flashy submissions in 2021 like a twister or flying triangle so my pick for Submission of the Year goes to Anthony Hernandez, who submitted Rodolfo Vieira, an elite Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, in the second round with an arm-in guillotine choke at UFC 258. It was one of the biggest upsets of the year and Hernandez was 30-1 to win by submission.
Hernandez looked to be in trouble early, getting put on his back within 20 seconds and finding himself mounted by Vieira in the first minute. However, Hernandez displayed great defensive grappling and with two minutes left in the first round, Vieira was absolutely gassed. From there, Hernandez poured on the pressure, hurting Vieira multiple times and eventually forced a tap from the exhausted Brazilian in the second round.
Upset of the Year: Julianna Pena over Amanda Nunes at UFC 269
The biggest upset of 2021 without a doubt was Julianna Pena’s second round submission victory over UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes at UFC 269. Pena closed as high as a 7-1 underdog with Nunes as high as a 12-1 favorite.
Nunes had success early in the first round, scoring a takedown and controlling Pena while avoiding Pena’s submission attempts. However in the second round is when it all fell apart for Nunes. Pena dragged Nunes into a brawl and Nunes had no answer for Pena’s jab as her gas tank steadily emptied. Beaten up and exhausted, Nunes was dragged to the mat by Pena and within seconds was tapping to a rear naked choke.