When Kamaru Usman exited the picture after his only fight of 2020, it was almost as if some higher power had hit the rewind button on his career. Much of the momentum gained from his electric first meeting with Colby Covington? Lost after five rounds of foot stomps and cage clinching against Jorge Masvidal at UFC 251. Usman was an obvious prodigious talent, but the boobirds were back out in full force, and whether fairly or unfairly, it felt as if his reign was still hounded by the ghosts of 30 percent.
The fact remained as the calendar turned to 2021: The UFC’s first African-born champion hadn’t clicked with the MMA fandom in a way other welterweight champions had before.
What a difference a year makes, eh?
In many ways, Usman was MMA in 2021. The UFC’s most active champion. The No. 1 pound-for-pound male fighter on any respectable list. His résumé over the past 12 months had no equal. Overnight, the man who spent the majority of last year getting dragged online as a snoozer of a titleholder transformed into one of the most ferocious finishers at the highest levels of the game, aided in part by the wizardry of new coach Trevor Wittman.
His conquests came in highlight-reel bursts. He pushed through adversity to crush a former teammate in Gilbert Burns and bury the Covington rivalry six feet under forever. He landed a thermonuclear missile of a right hand in a rematch with Masvidal that spawned multiple iconic photographs and may be the single best live recreation of a Pantera album cover ever conceived, not to mention a frontrunner for Knockout of the Year.
But more so than anything else, Usman’s greatness reached a higher plain of excellence and longevity — one that began to force reexaminations of legacy every time he competed.
After yet another undefeated year, “The Nigerian Nightmare” is 15-0 in his UFC run, just one win short of tying Anderson Silva’s hallowed record for the most successful start to a career in promotional history. It’s a mark that once felt impossible to ever see replicated again, a feat so rare that the knee-jerk hysterics that shower into the ether every weekend after every fight card proclaiming every champion with a few title defenses to be worthy of all-time status are no longer starting to feel so hollow for him.
If it can be said that 2021 was the year comparisons to Georges St-Pierre started to feel like fair game, there is no greater point to be made about Usman’s claim for Fighter of the Year.
In truth, virtually every category of this year’s award races were close. Except for this one.
Kamaru Usman is MMA Fighting’s Fighter of the Year. It was an easy pick. And at age 34, if he’s able to continue at this torrid pace, it may not be long before those questions concerning a certain Canadian Hall of Famer become a legitimate debate.
2. CHARLES OLIVEIRA
It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? Charles Oliveira’s time as a UFC fighter was nearly over four years ago. Remember that? How bleak his picture looked after a late 2017 loss to Paul Felder? It was Oliveira’s fourth stoppage loss over a six-fight stretch, and worse than an afterthought, “Do Bronx” had faded into something of a punchline.
The habitual line-stepper whose record after 19 UFC bouts barely sat above .500. The perpetual frontrunner more known for missing weight and making ludicrous pleas to drop down to 145 pounds than his astonishing submission skills. Eight years of grinding away in the UFC, yet the most consistent thing about him was his inconsistency. He was who he was, and that wasn’t going to change. MMA Twitter had plenty of laughs at his expense.
Who’s laughing now?
If a movie is ever made about the rise of the UFC’s all-time submission king, 2021 will be its climax. The year Oliveira rewrote his story in the unlikeliest of ways.
He still hasn’t lost since that 2017 setback to Felder. The tally is up to 10 straight wins now, along with a UFC lightweight title few saw coming. But proving old narratives wrong is what Oliveira does best these days. Any doubts that may have lingered about his supposed lack of heart were stricken away in 2021 with back-to-back come-from-behind finishes of Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier, the latter of which was the final nail in the coffin for skeptics who questioned whether the title of best active lightweight in the world actually belonged to the man holding the UFC belt.
There is no longer any doubt: Oliveira belongs.
At age 32, with a résumé littered with UFC records, “Do Bronx” is already a surefire Hall of Famer. Whatever heights he climbs from here is simply the cherry atop a career that’ll go down as one of the more unique and inspiring turnarounds MMA has ever seen.
3. CIRYL GANE
It was always going to happen for Ciryl Gane. Speed, power, athleticism, preternatural fluidity for a man his size — the 6-foot-4 Frenchman has a skill set any UFC heavyweight would kill for to call their own.
But it was never supposed to happen this fast.
In truth, few athletes in history can claim to have summited the mountaintop as quickly as Gane did in 2021. Just three years after his professional MMA debut, “Bon Gamin” capped off a 3-0 campaign over ferocious competition with a masterclass against the UFC’s all-time knockout king. His trio of routs over Jairzinho Rozenstruik, Alexander Volkov, and Derrick Lewis — the last of which delivered an interim title back to France’s MMA Factory — did more than shut down any lingering concerns of whether a 31-year-old neophyte was ready for elite of the elite. Instead, it flipped the question on its head.
Suddenly it’s fair to wonder: Is the Francis Ngannou era about to end before it ever truly begins?
Those answers await on January 22 when the two ex-teammates collide in a mammoth title unification bout at UFC 270. It’s poetic, in a way, how everything has worked out. But if Gane is able to vanquish his old acquaintance and claim the undisputed title of Baddest Man On The Planet as his own, it may be a long time before that title changes hands again.
4. JULIANNA PENA
Julianna Pena tried to tell us. She really did.
The first female winner of The Ultimate Fighter cut a scathing promo to Ariel Helwani back in March. She’s going to quit, Pena promised. She’s lazy and she’s scared, she knows I’m a bad matchup — and most of all, she knows she’s going to quit.
At the time, it was laughable. Pena was the gazelle coating itself in barbecue sauce and parking itself outside the lioness’ den. No one spoke to the GOAT like that. No one called out the most decorated and dangerous woman to ever lace up a pair of four-ounce gloves like that, at least not if they wanted to survive. Didn’t Pena realize what she was doing?
She sure did.
It’s still a bit stunning that on the final pay-per-view night of year, Pena lived up to every word of her promises and more. She survived Amanda Nunes’ best shots at UFC 269 then systematically broke a two-division force who’s spent the last five years devouring every possible threat in sight. In a year flush with “HOLY SH*T” moments, Pena’s no-hooks rear-naked choke to cement one of the biggest upsets in combat sports history and steal away an unlikely UFC crown stands above them all.
Like it or not, the bantamweight division runs through “The Venezuelan Vixen” now.
Was it a fluke or can the champ pull off the impossible twice in a row? With a rematch likely on the way in 2022, we’re sure to find out soon enough.
5T. ROSE NAMAJUNAS / KAYLA HARRISON
One is the epitome of quiet confidence, a reclusive and analytical killer who shuns the pageantry inherent to the sport’s highest levels. The other is the embodiment of cocksure uncertainty, a decorated two-time Olympic champion who has embraced MMA’s pro wrestling roots and, in doing so, transformed herself into must-see television despite fighting on a lesser stage. Theirs are styles on diametric ends of the spectrum in seemingly every way, yet they share the only similarity that matters: They win.
And that didn’t change in 2021.
“Thug Rose” recaptured her claim as the best 115-pound fighter in the world with back-to-back splashes over the division’s supposed heir apparent, Zhang Weili — the first of which was a 78-second masterstroke that rocketed onto every short list for Knockout of the Year. Harrison, likewise, reaffirmed her claim as the face of PFL with her second of back-to-back tournament triumphs over an overmatched field of lightweights who failed to mount even a single hint of opposition to the queen of oversized $1 million checks.
Fittingly, their paths forward in 2022 are equally dissimilar. Namajunas already knows what’s next — a rematch eight years in the making against Carla Esparza that’ll close the loop opened by the two in 2014 in the UFC’s inaugural strawweight title fight. Harrison, on the other hand, has the world at her fingertips. With another seven-figure payday in the rear-view, she’s become one of the most intriguing MMA free agents in recent memory — and her eventual decision will likely play a major role in defining the story of 2022.