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UFC Fighter of the Year for 2021 – Ranking the Promotion’s Best from 10 to 1

| December 14, 2021 9:34 am PDT

If you ask me who was the best fighter in the UFC in 2021, it won’t take long for me to give you a name.

Still, every fighter on this list deserves some attention for their efforts in one of the best years we have seen in mixed martial arts. Ever. I can assure you that I’m not overexaggerating with that statement. It was truly a phenomenal twelve months for the promotion.

Before I start the countdown of my list to reveal the best UFC fighter of 2021, it’s worth mentioning something. It’s rare that the competition can be so good yet the top fighter in the promotion can stand so far above their peers and competitors.

If 2022 is even close to being as good as this year was, we are in for a treat. But let’s take a few moments to look back on the best fighters to do it inside the Octagon in 2021.

Let’s get things started with #10 on my list of the top UFC fighters of the year.

10. Sean O’Malley

Sean O'Malley
  • Rank: #12 Bantamweight
  • Record in 2021: 3-0
  • Defining Victory: Thomas Almeida – KO (3)

Love him or hate him, Sean O’Malley had a very good year.

Having suffered the only loss of his career to Marlon Vera in 2020, “Sugar” bounced back with a disgusting KO of Thomas Almeida at UFC 260 in March. That took the 27-year-old to 13-1 in MMA, and also marked his fifth win inside the Octagon.

If placing O’Malley among the best UFC fighters of 2021 is controversial, I’m open to hearing why. After all, he finished the year off with a record of 3-0, which is better than most on this list.

Sure, his victory over the stupidly tough Kris Moutinho wasn’t his most impressive to date. Still, he got the job done, picking up his 9th career KO/TKO in the process. Moutinho might have felt a little hard done by not to survive the third-round in what was one of the fights of the year.

O’Malley, however, landed a ridiculous 230 significant strikes that night. For reference, the UFC record in a three-round bout is 238, which belongs to Nate Diaz for his performance against “Cowboy” Cerrone at UFC 141.

He did, however, set a new record for strikes landed in a bantamweight bout. 

O’Malley finished the year as he started it. His knockout win over Raulian Paiva at UFC 269 was impressive, with the bantamweight prospect taking less than one round to get his man out of there. More impressively, he was unranked by the UFC heading into the bout.

Sugar is not my UFC fighter of the year for 2021, but more than deserves his spot on this list.

9. Julianna Pena

Julianna Pena
  • Rank: UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion
  • Record in 2021: 2-0
  • Defining Victory: Amanda Nunes – Submission (2)

The top UFC betting sites priced Amanda Nunes as a -900 favorite to beat Julianna Pena.

Few gave “The Venezuelan Vixen” as much as a glance at +600. After all, she was coming up against the greatest female fighter of all time. It’s not as if we hadn’t seen better fighters than Pena absolutely dominated by “The Lionness.”

Well, most of us were wrong. Not only did Pena match Nunes on the feet, but she took the reigning bantamweight champion to the mat, forcing the tap. In doing so, Pena set a few records in the process.

  • The first fighter to win a UFC title after giving birth.
  • The first fighter to defeat Amanda Nunes in over 7 years.
  • The first fighter to defeat a reigning two-weight world champion.
  • The second fighter to submit Amanda Nunes.

To say the win over Nunes was a betting upset is an understatement. But there was no one watching the fight that night that could claim the better fighter lost.

Pena should make any list of the best UFC fighters of 2021 based on her win over Nunes alone. But let’s not forget that the 32-year-old also submitted Sara McMann at UFC 257 in January.

Of course, we all know that Pena’s career will be — at the very least until this point — be defined by her victory over Nunes. It’s almost guaranteed that the two will run it back at some point in 2022, but whether it will be for the bantamweight title or Nunes’ featherweight strap is not yet clear.

As Daniel Cormier perfectly put it after the win, Pena “called her shot.”

The rematch should be incredible.

8. Valentina Shevchenko

Valentina Shevchenko
  • Rank: UFC Women’s Featherweight Champion
  • Record in 2021: 2-0
  • Defining Victory: Jessica Andrade – TKO (2)

Amanda Nunes’ submission loss means that other women are looking to take her pound-for-pound #1 spot.

At the top of the heap is a certain Valentina Shevchenko. A fighter that solidified her status as one of the top UFC fighters of 2021 with a couple of strong victories over the past 12 months.

The Russian is peerless at flyweight. Former strawweight queen Jessica Andrade took it to the champ at UFC 261 in April, only for the champ to completely shut her lights out by way of a TKO victory in Round 2.

With Andrade out of the picture, the next challenger to the crown of “The Bullet” was Lauren Murphy at UFC 266.

Murphy, who has one of the greatest Rocky stories in the history of the promotion, looked like a rabbit in the headlights against the all-time great. She had no answer for the incredible technical prowess of Shevchenko, eventually succumbing to a TKO loss in Round 4.

With that victory, Valentina cemented herself as the greatest woman in the history of the women’s flyweight division. Unbeaten since moving down to 125-pounds in the UFC, it was another example of the sheer perfection this woman takes into the cage.

Shevchenko’s record in this weight class is truly something else.

  • Lauren Murphy – TKO
  • Jessica Andrade – TKO
  • Jennifer Maia – Decision
  • Katlyn Chookagian – TKO
  • Liz Carmouche – Decision
  • Jessica Eye – KO
  • Joanna Jedrzejczyk – Decision
  • Priscila Cachoeira – Submission

Who can beat Shevchenko at flyweight?

Perhaps 2022 has the answer. But I wouldn’t count on it.

7. Glover Teixeira

Glover Teixeira
  • Rank: UFC Light Heavyweight Champion 
  • Record in 2021: 1-0
  • Defining Victory: Jan Blachowicz – Submission (2)

No one with a heart is going to hate me for adding Teixeira to this list.

While the Brazilian falls some way short of the best UFC fighter of the year for 2021, he was always going to get a shout-out from yours truly. He fought just once, sure, but what an achievement this man chalked off this year.

All truth be told, Glover’s incredible chronicle from light heavyweight gatekeeper to king of 205 goes back a couple of years. Losses to Anthony Johnson and Alexander Gustafsson kept the granite-chinned brawler away from title contention. But a win over Misha Cirkunov got him back on the horse.

Unfortunately for Glover, his win was followed up by a bitter decision loss at the hands of Corey Anderson in July 2018. That would be the last time we saw the veteran lose inside the cage.

In January 2019, the 39-year-old submitted Karl Roberson. From there on, he kept winning. And winning. And winning…

Opponent Win By Round Event Date
Jan Blachowicz Submission 2 UFC 267 October 30, 2021
Thiago Santos Submission 3 UFC on ESPN: Santos vs. Teixeira November 7, 2020
Anthony Smith TKO 5 UFC Fight Night: Smith vs. Teixeira May 13, 2020
Nikita Krylov Decision 3 UFC Fight Night: Cowboy vs. Gaethje September 14, 2019
Ion Cutelaba Submission 2 UFC Fight Night: Jacaré vs. Hermansson April 27, 2019
Karl Roberson Submission 1 UFC Fight Night: Cejudo vs. Dillashaw January 19, 2019

 Having beat the brakes off Thiago Santos and Anthony Smith, Teixeira finally got his second shot at the title. More than seven years from his loss against Jon Jones in April 2014.

And boy, did he rise to the occasion.

With his win over Blachowicz, Teixeira became the oldest first-time champion in UFC history at 42-years-old. He comes just behind the great Randy Couture (45) as the oldest fighter to ever hold the UFC gold.

What an achievement.

6. Islam Makhachev

Islam Makhachev
  • Rank: #4 Lightweight 
  • Record in 2021: 3-0
  • Defining Victory: Dan Hooker – Submission (1)

Making our way through the list of the top fighters of 2021 in the UFC, it’s going to be rare to see a fighter that has never, or does not, hold a title of some kind.

But how can you look past Islam Makhachev? The guy that is seen by many as the natural successor to the great Khabib Nurmagomedov looks a great bet to, at very least, challenge for the lightweight strap at some point in 2022.

A close friend of Khabib, as well as a fellow-Dagestani, Makhachev has proven himself to be more than just a hype job over the past 12 months. Back-to-back submission wins over Drew Dober and Thiago Moises in March and July certainly aided the 30-year-old’s cause.

But the biggest test of his career to date came against the very game, and super dangerous, Dan Hooker.

Some pundits were giving “The Hangman” more than a puncher’s chance against the Russian. The tall, lanky Kiwi certainly had the striking skills to compete on the feet.

Just over two minutes into the first round, it was all over. Makhachev had nailed his third consecutive submission and that was that.

Scary.

5. Max Holloway

Max Holloway
  • Rank: #4 Featherweight
  • Record in 2021: 2-0
  • Defining Victory: Calvin Kattar – Decision

2020 sucked for Max Holloway.

Back-to-back losses against the superb Alexander Volkaovski — the second of which was contentious at best — put “Blessed” in a precarious position. The featherweight great had not lost two on the bounce since defeats to Dennis Bermudez and Conor McGregor in 2013.

In typical fashion, the Hawaiian bounced back in style. Although facing a stern test against the super-durable Calvin Kattar, Holloway put on an absolute masterclass in striking, smashing multiple records in one of the performances of the year in January.

That night, the 29-year-old landed an absolutely incredible 445 significant strikes, ending the fight with 60% accuracy.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, the pumped-up Holloway was showboating for the cameras as well as the boss, registering one of the most exhilarating boxing displays ever witnessed inside the Octagon.

It would be so easy to hate this guy if he was an ass. And let’s be honest here — there are fewer fighters on the roster that could get away with being a colossal douche, if they indeed wished to go down that road.

Holloway, however, is the epitome of what a martial artist should be. Humble in victory and magnanimous in defeat, the guy just exudes class. All while being one of the greatest destroyers the promotion has ever seen.

Max followed up his win over Kattar with another five-rounder over Yair Rodriguez. Although the performance was less impressive, the legendary featherweight punched in for another win, almost guaranteeing what should be a thrilling trilogy with Volkanovski at some point in 2021.

I, for one, cannot wait to see those two run it back.

Although not the 2021 fighter of the year in the UFC, Holloway deserves a mention among the top five.

4. Ciryl Gane

Ciryl Gane
  • Rank: UFC Interim Heavyweight Champion 
  • Record in 2021: 3-0
  • Defining Victory: Derrick Lewis – TKO (3)

Heading into 2021 with a record of 7-0, I marked Ciryl Gane as the top prospect in the UFC heavyweight division.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have my reservations about the Frenchman. I certainly thought “Bon Gamin” had a lot to prove before he could be ranked up there with the best at heavyweight. But with just a couple of weeks until the end of 2021, I’m happy to say that I have been pleased with his efforts.

Opponent Result Round Event Date
Derrick Lewis Win by TKO 3 UFC 265 August 7, 2021
Alexander Volkov Win by Decision 5 UFC Fight Night: Gane vs. Volkov June 26, 2021
Jairzinho Rozenstruik Win by Decision 3 UFC Fight Night: Rozenstruik vs. Gane February 27, 2021

One of the few fighters to compete more than twice this year, Gane put Jairzinho Rozenstruik and Alexander Volkov to the sword before being matched up against the powerful Derrick Lewis at UFC 265 in August.

The prize on offer was the UFC interim heavyweight title. In other words, a shot at knockout merchant Francis Ngannou for the title of “baddest man on the planet.”

Gane came away with the win by way of a TKO in Round 3 to take the strap.

With his doubters silenced, the Frenchman took off into the shadows to enjoy some family time before preparing for what could very well be the greatest heavyweight fight in history.

With the odds for Ngannou vs. Gane set at almost a pick ’em on the top MMA betting apps, fans are counting the days down until the unifier.

You can read all about it, below. Just keep in mind that the odds have changed since this piece was published.

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3. Rose Namajunas

Rose Namajunas
  • Rank: UFC Strawweight Champion
  • Record in 2021: 2-0
  • Defining Victory: Zhang Weili – KO (1)

Having suffered a disgusting pile-drive knockout in her strawweight title defense against Jessica Andrade at UFC 237 in 2019, Rose Namajunas bit down on her gumshield and accepted a rematch against “Bate Estaca.”

By then, Andrade had been blown out of the water by Zhang Weili, thus losing the title to the Chinese superstar. Nonetheless, the decision victory over Andrade would cement “Thug” as the #1 contender to the crown following Zhang’s victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk in an all-time classic in 2020.

In April, the two locked horns for the title in one of the most eagerly anticipated bouts in the history of the division. Rose entered as the underdog, with many believing the power of “Magnum” to be far too much for the technician to handle.

Just over one minute into the fight, Namajunas capitalized on an opening in Weili’s defense to deliver the deftest of head kicks to knock her opponent to the ground. She immediately latched on to the downed champion, delivering blows from the top to stop the fight.

In doing so, Namajunas became the first-ever strawweight champion in UFC history.

Some were still not satisfied that the Lithuanian American was legit, however. Thus, the fight was run back at UFC 268 in November.

To the surprise of her haters, Rose emerged with a split-decision victory to earn herself two wins on the bounce against a fighter many saw as unbeatable. In many ways, her performance in the rematch did more to satisfy fans than the thunderous stoppage in the first fight.

Namajunas is certainly a candidate for the fighter of the year in the UFC for 2021. Unfortunately for her, she has some very stiff competition in the form of these next two.

There’s no doubt that her stoppage of Zhang rates highly in my UFC KOs of the year, however.

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2. Charles Oliveira

Charles Oliveira
  • Rank: UFC Lightweight Champion
  • Record in 2021: 2-0
  • Defining Victory: Dustin Poirier – Submission (3)

Where do we start with this guy?

Has there ever been a stronger candidate for the best fighter of the year in the UFC to have missed out? Has there ever been a fighter in the promotion to emerge from the shadows with so many questions over his name, only to hit them out of the park like Babe Ruth on riot mode?

I can’t recall a fighter that has managed to achieve what Charles Oliveira has in decades of watching MMA. We’re approaching twelve years since “Do Bronx” made his debut in the promotion, yet things have only clicked for the Brazilian in 2021.

We all knew he had the talent, but it just seemed as though something was missing with this guy. No one doubted his venomous submission game, but his striking, heart, and commitment were often topics that polarized die-hard fans.

Early-career losses to the likes of Donald Cerrone, Frankie Edgar, Max Holloway, and Anthony Pettis were hardly disgraceful. But some defeats left even the most derisive of pundits puzzled for words.

A decision to move up to lightweight looked to be an auspicious move for Oliveira, with a win over Will Brooks a surefire positive. But a loss to Paul Felder quickly brought him back down to earth.

Something must have twigged in the mind of the Brazilian after that fight, as he embarked on an eight-fight win streak that earned him a shot at the vacant UFC lightweight title.

Rocked early against his opponent, Michael Chandler, the doubts of fans once again began to creep in. But rather than folding, Oliveira held firm and came back stronger, blasting the multiple-time Bellator lightweight king away for a second-round TKO win.

The real test, however, would be holding on to the strap. Against the exceptional Dustin Poirier, Oliveira was once again rattled. With his detractors expecting him to fold under the power of the “Diamond,” Brazil’s lightweight king, once again, proved ’em wrong.

Oliveira would have walked this list as the UFC fighter of the year for 2021. If not for this next guy, that is.

1. Kamaru Usman

  • Rank: UFC Welterweight Champion; UFC Pound-for-Pound #1
  • Record in 2021: 3-0
  • Defining Victory: Jorge Masvidal – KO (2)

What a year it has been for Kamaru Usman.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that “The Nigerian Nightmare” is the king of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the UFC on the male roster this year.

Given all that has happened in 2021, that’s pretty incredible. I mean, we have had one of the greatest years in the history of the promotion, with numerous fighters putting their hands up and delivering stunning feats.

But again, the top fighter in the UFC in 2021 is undoubtedly Kamaru Usman. How anyone can even begin to disagree with that is a mystery.

Usman started the year off with a bang by stopping Gilbert Burns at UFC 258 in February. Once regarded as a solid wrestler with great cardio, he made a mockery of his doubters by planting the tough Brazilian out with a jab.

Yes, a jab.

The UFC welterweight champion then answered the call of Jorge Masvidal for a rematch that would go down in Florida. It would be an unwise move for “Street Jesus,” who suffered one of the most brutal one-punch KOs I’ve ever witnessed inside of a cage.

Fuggedaboutit.

If that wasn’t enough to establish the all-time great as the man, he took a rematch with Colby Covington and outclassed the former NCAA All-American to make it 2-0 against the only man considered capable of beating him.

Although there are many fighters on this list with a claim to being the UFC fighter of the year for 2021, Usman claims it. And by some distance. In fact, I’d say this is the most surefire winner of any ranking or competition since Hans Moleman’s Man Getting Hit by Football.

“This contest is over. Give that man the $10,000…”

Collage of Kamaru Usman fighting in the ring

Wrap Up of the Best UFC Fighter of 2021

Look, it was always going to be Kamaru Usman. And there is nothing you can say that will change my mind.

Although, please feel free to try. The comments section below is open, and I’m always open to having my ear bent about all things UFC. Especially if we’re talking about what might happen next year.

2021 was not all about Kamaru Usman. But The Nigerian Nightmare sure did make a solid case for greatness. Whether he can keep the pace up in 2022 is something that we will just have to wait to see.

In the meantime, feel free to check out the latest mixed martial arts odds, bets, and insight on our MMA blog. If you liked this piece, you’re sure to find something else that will catch your eye.

Boxing, like the UFC, has enjoyed an incredible year. If you’re keen to have a gander, I’ll leave you with my rankings for the top boxer of the year for 2021.

Catch you soon!

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Adam Haynes

Adam is a sports writer and tipster with a strong background in MMA, boxing, and combat sports.

When Adam isn't writing about those, as well as politics, rugby, and Gaelic Games, he can be found working on methods and strategies to beat the bookies.

For his troubles, Adam is a fan of Leinster Rugby, Glasgow Celtic, and trusting the process.

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