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MMA Fighting’s 2021 Fight of the Year: Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

A “Fight of the Year” between Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler? Color me surprised.

With more performance bonuses between them than Conor McGregor has wins in the UFC lightweight division, it was inevitable these two would eventually beat the soul out of each other for our entertainment.

Gaethje, the human equivalent to Sarlacc, drowns men before devouring them in the most horrifying ways possible. Not to be outdone, Chandler — who looks like a bag of dumbbells performing their best human impression — was more than willing to stand in Gaethje’s “zone of death.”

Without fail, these two lunatics began lobbing bombs at UFC 268 without any regard for their well-being. Why block punches when you can eat four to land two of your own, right?

With a Chandler right hand plastered across Gaethje’s temple, fans saw the Colorado native perform his best Bambi impersonation as he wobbled across the canvas. Sensing blood, Chandler hunted down his prey before emptying the chamber, looking to separate Gaethje from his senses. Naturally, Gaethje survived the onslaught and raked an uppercut across Chandler’s jaw, sitting him down in the process.

Again, Chandler not only withstood the punishment raining down upon him, but motioned for Gaethje to feed him another spoonful of violence. With blow after blow landing, each more ferocious than the last, the two men morphed into gladiators as they battered each other inside Madison Square Garden.

What could make the brutal display better? How about Chandler dropping Gaethje on his skull with a powerful slam? That would surely put an end to him, right? Maybe to an average human, but this was Justin Gaethje, after all. Rolling through the slam, Gaethje immediately scrambled to his feet and served up another fistful of pain to close out a 15-minute fracas.

“He is a warrior and we are living in the wrong times,” said the victorious Gaethje in his post-fight interview. “Me and him should have been fighting to the death in a coliseum.”

The hype was real, and our bloodlust satiated. Well done, gentlemen.

Now, can we please add armor and swords to the rematch?

MMA Fighting

2. Petr Yan vs. Cory Sandhagen, UFC 267

UFC 267: Yan v Sandhagen Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Have you ever played with Beyblades?

What am I saying? Of course, you’ve all played with Beyblades. Silly me.

For those of you pretending to be confused, close your eyes and picture Petr Yan and Cory Sandhagen as plastic spinning tops whirling around, clanging together for 25 minutes.

Got it? Good. Now you know what Beyblades is all about (as if you didn’t already).

In all seriousness, few fights come to memory that truly exemplify high-level martial arts quite like UFC 267’s interim bantamweight title fight in Abu Dhabi.

Fighting Yan, for you cinephiles out there, resembles the blanket party scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket: A non-stop barrage of punishment where the only escape comes when your assailant chooses to end the torture. Yan secretes violence from every pore of his body, bludgeoning his opponents into dust. On the other side, Sandhagen systematically carves up his opponents with cruel intentions like an unhinged Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs. He is terrifying, methodical, and has fantastic taste in music (shout out to my Notorious B.I.G. fans).

So when these 135-pound men finally locked themselves inside a cage to fight over a gold belt, fans and pundits expected nothing less than magic. And my God, did they deliver.

Sandhagen unleashed an avalanche of strikes to the former champion’s head, body, and leg right out of the gate. Walking through Sandhagen’s arsenal, Yan fired back with the pair of cinderblocks attached to his arms. It was violent. It was magnificent. It was also only Round 1.

Untethered from mortal physics, the two men whirled around the octagon, looking for the tiniest openings to land slicing knees, skull-rattling kicks, and liver-exploding hooks, as if we were witnessing two gods shape the very fabric of our world with each blow landed.

But after 25-minutes of exhausting battle, Yan emerged victorious, hoisting his son into the air as Dana White wrapped his new interim title around his waist. Ever classy in defeat, Sandhagen embraced his Russian counterpart.

It was dangerous and captivating, horrifying and brilliant. A fight that needs to be hung in the Louvre for the rest of time.

3. Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega, UFC 266

UFC 266: Volkanovski v Ortega Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images

Have you ever had the oxygen choked from your body? Alright, creeps, calm down — I’m talking about fistfighting, not … never mind.

Anyway, that’s what happened to Alexander Volkanovski when he found himself choking to death in the vice grip that is Brian Ortega’s guillotine. But we’ll revisit that momentarily.

The animosity between Volkanovski and Ortega entering UFC 266 was palpable. Volkanovski, the reigning champion, had just spent the better part of the year recovering from COVID-19 while being perpetually annoyed at the consistently tardy Ortega during their time as rival coaches on The Ultimate Fighter 29. Ortega, meanwhile, seemed amused at his Australian rival’s exasperation.

So when the two 145-pound scrappers finally locked horns in Las Vegas, fans knew someone was leaving on a stretcher.

After a back-and-forth opening frame, that prediction certainly looked on the money. Ortega made his way to his corner with a gnarly cut over his left eye, while a crimson gash found a home on Volkanovki’s cheek. With Ortega ignoring Volkanovski’s combinations like Rachel Keller should have ignored those phone calls (you all get that reference), each thudding blow rattled the cage walls and brought the arena to its feet. Volkanovski began to pull away as he chipped away at his opponents’ legs. Then out of nowhere, Ortega sent shockwaves through the sport as he stunned Volkanovski with a punch before clamping on a mounted guillotine. With the crowd collectively holding their breath, the Las Vegas faithful stood in awe as they witnessed Volkanovski’s windpipes squeezing shut.

This was it. His reign atop the division was sure to be over. It was the end of times for Volkanovski as he writhed beneath the pressure on his larynx. The events unfolding were his Ragnarok, doomsday, Armageddon, Judgment Day … you get the idea.

But just like Bret Hart at Wrestlemania X, Volkanovski miraculously squirmed free and unloaded more murderous ground-and-pound. Refusing to succumb to the sledgehammers dropping down on him, Ortega threw up a triangle choke from the bottom. With his championship once again in jeopardy, Volkanovski defended the choke, broke free, and went back to dribbling Ortega’s head off the canvas until the end of the round.

(Sidenote: If this was a Round of the Year column, this takes the top spot.)

A visibly exhausted Ortega labored back to his corner yet emerged ready for action in the final frames. His face a pulpy mess and his lungs barely working, Ortega continued to plod forward as Volkanovski did everything he could to finish him until the final bell.

With the beef squashed, the two pugilists embraced and Volkanovski secured a one-way ticket for his gold belt to return back Down Under.

4. Max Holloway vs. Yair Rodríguez, UFC Vegas 42

UFC Fight Night: Holloway v Rodriguez Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

What if I told you the first fighter in UFC history to land a total of 3,000 total strikes and a real-life ninja put on one of the most incredible displays of martial arts this year? You’d probably be just as surprised as when I told you Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler won another Fight of the Year, right? Shocking.

When Max Holloway signed the contract to throw down with Yair Rodriguez in the main event of UFC Vegas 42, fight fans everywhere rejoiced while also scratching their heads. Here was Holloway, the man many consider the uncrowned champion of the featherweight division, still sitting atop 145-pound rankings lists across the world. He’d just come off one of the most lopsided performances in UFC history when he turned Calvin Kattar’s face into raw hamburger meat and, in our minds, had done more than enough to warrant a third shot at Volkanovski.

On the other hand, Rodriguez hadn’t made the walk to the octagon since October 2018. Since then, an ankle injury and a USADA suspension had forced “El Pantera” to watch from the sidelines. So what did Holloway have to gain from facing an inactive — yet incredibly deadly — Mexican warrior in a five-round fight inside the UFC APEX?


And he earned that glory. We didn’t realize it yet, but the sport was about to witness a real-life Ken vs. Ryu matchup, and it was button-mashing at its finest.

Living up to his self-proclaimed title of the “best boxer in the UFC,” Holloway stood right in front of Rodriguez and let the leather fly. But while the Hawaiian was busy racking up punches, Rodriguez served up a plethora of leg kicks before snapping Holloway’s head back with a combination. Holloway responded by sending Rodriguez on his heels with another flurry, not showing any signs of slowing down.

The damage on display was jarring. Every punch was a car crash, every kick was a baseball bat to the ribs, and every submission attempt was a death rattle that reverberated throughout the venue. It was a boss fight to end all boss fights, each man pulling out every trick they had learned over the years.

When the dust finally settled on the massacre before us, both fighters were covered in blood and barely able to walk. Rodriguez may not have earned the victory, but he cemented himself as one of the toughest humans on this blue marble we call Earth.

Bravo, lads, you just put yourself through a meat grinder, survived, and won the hearts of millions.

5. Jiří Procházka vs. Dominick Reyes, UFC Vegas 25

UFC Fight Night: Reyes v Prochazka Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Jiří Procházka is a psychopath.

Here is a man who ran out into the woods, found a tree, and punched it 500 times as WARM-UP for his actual training camp. He is Saitama come to life, a man who can drain your life force with a single punch — or elbow.

So what kind of man is Dominick Reyes? A special breed of athlete, to be sure. After all, he had pushed the great Jon Jones to his limits and was hellbent on erasing his previous loss to then-champion Jan Blachowicz heading to UFC Vegas 25. He was on a mission, and Procházka was in his way.

But that’s only one way to describe the horror on display in the main event that fateful night inside the UFC APEX, and I’m going to need your help setting the rest of the scene.

Go into your kitchen, reach into the drawer where you keep your leftover sauce packets (yes, I know you all have one), toss a few into a blender, add a handful of gravel, set the power to its absolute highest, and turn it on.

OK, now look inside. Horrendous right? That is my expert analysis of how Reyes’s fight against Procházka played out.

The entire fight was as gruesome as it was quick. The two light heavyweights traded blows, crimson streaks splattering across the canvas. The octagon looked more like Patrick Bateman’s night out with Paul Allen than an actual sporting event.

Procházka eventually ended Reyes’ night with a slashing elbow to the skull, sending the head of “The Dominator” into another dimension and securing one of the most memorable finishes in UFC history.

(Side note: I am confident that I would have died if Procházka had hit me with that same elbow.)

Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2021 Fight of the Year played out.



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