This past year saw big changes in MMA. As the sport attempted to recover from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, promotions opened up and fighters became just as active as they were before.
Big changes were not just seen in a broad sense, but also in the hierarchy of fighters. Nine champions were crowned in the UFC octagon this year, putting new starts on top – in most cases overtaking previous champs.
There are dozens of fighters who showed excellence in the sport of MMA this year, across borders and promotions. Here are the four nominees for the Knockdown News MMA Fighter of the Year.
The winner will be revealed on December 24th.
The list is sorted alphabetically by last names.
Ciryl Gane – Interim UFC Heavyweight Champion (10-0)
Fights in 2021:
- Def. Jairzinho Rozenstruick via Decision, Unanimous – UFC Fight Night – 2/27
- Def. Alexander Volkov via Decision, Unanimous – UFC Fight Night – 6/26
- Def. Derrick Lewis via TKO, Strikes (RD 3, 4:11) – UFC 265 – 8/7
Heading into 2021, Ciryl Gane was considered one of the top prospects in the UFC. However, there wasn’t a whole lot of buzz surrounding him. Three fights and 12 months later, he’s next in line for a title unification bout against Francis Ngannou.
This quick progression to a title shot came due to Gane’s ability to pick up three high-profile wins in 2021. The undefeated talent picked up his first main event victory in February, going five rounds against the explosive Jairzinho Rozenstruick for a decision win.
Gane beat another ranked fighter only four months later, fighting for another 25 minutes to defeat Alexander Volkov in June.
Then, in what was arguably his best performance yet, Gane stopped Derrick Lewis in August to become the interim UFC Heavyweight Champion. The near-perfect performance for Gane saw him finish Lewis in the third round after previous excellence.
Gane’s biggest test is set – the interim champ is set to face Ngannou at UFC’s January 22nd card. The challenge is a big one for Gane and will show whether his growth has hit a ceiling, or if a star is in the making.
Brandon Moreno – UFC Flyweight Champion (19-5-2)
Fights in 2021:
Brandon Moreno is the unlikely success story of the year. Who thought that a fighter who was once cut from the UFC would be able to come back and win a championship?
Moreno only fought once in the year, but like fellow nominee Charles Oliveira, the victory showed the high-point of a story that has been building up for years.
Moreno won the UFC Flyweight Championship in June, securing a third-round rear naked choke submission win over Deiveison Figueiredo. The fight was a rematch, as Moreno had previously fought five hard rounds against Figueiredo in late 2020, resulting in a draw.
That first title meeting was given to Moreno after he secured three consecutive wins in the UFC. Moreno’s ongoing UFC run is a story of perseverance, as it shows a fighter who has struggled in the past but has not let his failures be his story.
Moreno has the chance to close out his rivalry against Figueiredo early next year, as he will fight him in a trilogy on January 22nd.
Charles Oliveira – UFC Lightweight Champion (32-8)
Fights in 2021:
- Def. Michael Chandler via TKO, Strikes (RD 2, 0:19) – UFC 262 – 5/15
- Def. Dustin Poirier via Submission, Rear Naked Choke (RD 3, 1:02) – UFC 269 – 12/11
Charles Oliveira is not a new name to anyone. The lightweight fighter has been on the UFC roster for more than a decade and has competed more than 25 times on the big stage. However, two high-profile fights in 2021 showed the culmination of years of excellence, making it easily the best year of his career thus far.
Oliveira was given a title shot in May, facing Michael Chandler for what was then a vacant belt – which was dropped last year by Khabib Nurmagomedov. Oliveria was given the fight after attaining an impressive eight consecutive wins, including high-profile victories over Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee.
Oliveira passed his title fight test with flying colors, stopping Chandler early in the second round with strikes.
Another big challenge was presented to Oliveira to finish the year – to face Dustin Poirier, who was coming off two impressive showings over Conor McGregor earlier this year.
While Oliveira struggled early in the fight, he showed his ability to adjust and overcome, securing a third-round rear naked choke win to defend his belt for the first time.
The always-active lightweight division will surely have big tests for Oliveira in the new year. The performances from Oliveira this year indicate that the champ has many memorable fights to come.
Kamaru Usman – UFC Welterweight Champion (20-1)
Fights in 2021:
- Def. Gilbert Burns via TKO, Strikes (RD 3, 0:34) – UFC 258 – 2/13
- Def. Jorge Masvidal via TKO, Strikes (RD 2, 1:02) – UFC 261 – 4/24
- Def. Colby Covington via Decision, Unanimous – UFC 268 – 11/06
Kamaru Usman was the most active champion in 2021, defending his UFC Welterweight Championship three times in the year. The calendar year saw him beat many ranked fighters in the division, further solidifying a near two-year dominance over the weight class.
Usman’s year started with a bang, picking up two stoppage wins within four months. His first fight saw him stop the momentum of rising contender Gilbert Burns, finishing him in the third round with strikes.
Just two months later, Usman picked up a knockout win over Jorge Masvidal. The victory was Usman’s second win over the “B.M.F.,” and was a more explosive win than his wrestling-heavy, short-notice victory over Masvidal from 2020.
Usman’s strong year concluded in November, having a hard-fought five-round win over Colby Covington.
Usman has some big challenges ahead of him. Rising contenders like Leon Edwards or even Vicente Luque could get a title shot next year. As fresher and potentially bigger challenges are on the horizon for Usman, a dominant 2022 might even be more of a statement from Usman than his flawless 2021.