The year 2021 presented unique challenges to fighters who wanted to make a name for themselves. In 2020, the struggle was getting fights. As the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically lowered the number of events in 2020 and the virus placed an added risk to fighters, the amount of people who competed was less than ever.
But in 2021, the mass re-opening of live sports brought forth a new issue for fighters: to stick out from the pack. Major promotions, regionals and everything in-between were back this year, making it hard to pick who had the best body of work over the past 12 months. But in the end, the award is going to someone who resembles the culmination of over a decade of work through a year of significant excellence.
The 2021 Knockdown News Fighter of the Year award goes to the UFC Lightweight Champion, Charles Oliveira.
Oliveira’s 2021 saw him claim a belt and defend it once, succeeding in two high-profile matchups at one of the most stacked weight classes in MMA. This opportunity at the top level of the sport came after years of developing his craft and earning his place in the division. For that, he is the winner this year.
It wouldn’t do Oliveria’s story justice to not mention his career before 2021. The veteran fighter has competed as a pro since 2008. He has been on the UFC roster for over a decade, first making his debut in 2010.
Oliveira is certainly a familiar name to viewers. Even before his title push which started in 2018, he competed in five co-main event bouts and one UFC headliner.
Oliveira’s title shot earlier this year did not come overnight. In the dense division that is lightweight, he had to attain an extensive eight-fight winning streak before getting to a title.
He was booked to meet Michael Chandler in May. He fought for UFC’s vacant lightweight title – a belt that was vacated by Khabib Nurmagomedov in the previous year.
Chandler was quite early in his UFC run but was certainly a big challenge. The former Bellator Lightweight Champion had the momentum of two finish wins he had late in his Bellator run, and made a statement in his UFC debut against Dan Hooker, stopping him in under three minutes.
The explosive striking of Chandler did damage in their fight. However, Oliveira’s grappling skills would swing momentum in the other direction or stall out the success of Chandler at least.
In the second round, Oliveira showed his own power with fists, hurting Chandler with a left hook then dropping him with follow-up shots.
An ecstatic Oliveira then ran all-around a venue in Texas, uncontrollably shouting and hugging with friends, colleagues, fans, and staff that was trying to usher him back to the cage.
It was a moment that was in the making for too long.
But Oliveira didn’t have much time to enjoy that moment, as being a champion isn’t a comfortable position. Soon after he had his glorious win, Oliveira was booked to defend his title against Dustin Poirier.
The fight against Poirier showed Oliveira’s stellar ability to switch his strategy. Poirier proved to be the better boxer early on in their bout, stunning and hurting Oliveira on the feet in the opening round. Likely noticing his struggle on the feet, Oliveira focused on a grappling-heavy game plan for the second and third rounds.
This proved to be successful. Poirier spent the majority of the second round on his back, then was submitted in the third frame with a rear naked choke.
Oliveira’s performances in 2021 were not blowouts. Instead, they were showcases of a fighter that battles adversity and becomes better because of it. There were times where Oliveira struggled, but the adjuments he made always put him on the right track.
And that might be a fair way to describe the 32-year-old’s career as a whole. While it took him over a decade in the UFC, including eight losses along the way, to get a title shot, it was the overall improvements he made as a fighter that took him to the top of the division in 2021.
Oliveira’s career is a story of perseverance. It is a story of struggle. But above all, it is a story of success. And that is what makes him the 2021 Knockdown News Fighter of the Year.