UFC fighters produced a dizzying array of classic fights in 2021. These remarkable athletes tested the breaking points of their body, mind and spirit in pursuit of fame, fortune and glory.
Dozens of fighters deserve standing ovations for crafting the sort of violence that even the most conditioned fans winced at from the comfort of their couches. The lower end of this year's top nine was ultra-competitive. One fight, however, knocked out all other contenders for 2021 Fight of the Year honors.
A panel of CBS Sports experts sat down to vote on our picks for fighter, knockout and fight of the year, with some very interesting results. Take a look below at which combatants put on the 2021 Fight of the Year.
Awards as voted on by Brian Campbell, Brent Brookhouse, Brandon Wise and Shakiel Mahjouri.
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Fighter of the Year
Winner: Justin Gaethje def. Michael Chandler -- UFC 268
Terminator vs. Terminator. Gaethje vs. Chandler delivered and exceeded fan expectations in their main card opener in November. Gaethje and Chandler bludgeoned each other repeatedly over the course of 15 minutes, regularly reducing each other's legs to rubber. Each man's power was opposed by the other's chin. Chandler clipped Gaethje early in Round 1; but "The Highlight" won back portions of the round with his combinations. Gaethje rattled off a seismic uppercut in the middle frame that nearly did Chandler in. Chandler threw tactics out the window in Round 3 and squared up to Gaethje with his hands down. It was a terribly misguided approach, but the sheer mettle of Chandler is commendable. Ultimately, the judges submitted a unanimous decision (29-28, 29-29, 30-27) in favor of Gaethje.
Gaethje (22-3) has notched Fight of the Night honors in 66% of his UFC fights, 10 total performance bonuses in his first nine UFC fights and is the first fighter to earn a post-fight bonus in each of their first seven UFC fights. Fights against Dustin Poirier, Eddie Alvarez and Michael Johnson have been lauded as Fight of the Year in past years. UFC 268 marked Chandler's first UFC Fight of the Night honor; however, he was arguably snubbed by the promotion in a fight you will read about shortly. He also boasts a performance bonus for his debut knockout of Dan Hooker in January.
A Gaethje or Chandler fight is always worth salivating over. But Gaethje vs. Chandler was decadent.
Second place: Alex Volkanovski def. Brian Ortega -- UFC 266
Volkanovski continued to build on his status as king of the UFC featherweight division for the foreseeable future. Ortega showed major improvements since his loss to Max Holloway, paired with his trademark toughness and hazardous submission game. Volkanovski was generally the superior fighter over the course of five rounds; however, "T-City" was a worthy opponent on the feet. A dramatic third round likely secured this fight as No. 2 on the Fight of the Year list.
Ortega dropped Volkanovski and jumped on his neck like a rabid dog. The champion flailed and trashed for his life, barely escaping a guillotine choke that would have severed him from UFC gold on any other night. A subsequent triangle armbar nearly got the job done for Ortega, but Volkanovski replied with a flurry of ground-and-pound punches to close out the round. The Australian looked renewed in the championship rounds, driving the challenger off his territory. Volkanovski mashed Ortega's face with ground-and-pound for a significant portion of Round 4. The official scorecards read 49–46, 50–45, 50–44 for the defending champion.
Volkanovski had earned his place as the UFC's top featherweight with consecutive victories over Holloway. What Ortega gifted the champ, however, was a much-needed profile boost in the form of a Fight of the Year contender.
Third place: Charles Oliveira def. Michael Chandler -- UFC 262
Oliveira made a strong case for Fighter of the Year in 2021 and also notched himself a potential Fight of the Year against the aforementioned Chandler. It was fun for as long as it lasted with both men nearly being finished over the course of 5:19. Oliveira, MMA's premier submission artist, and Chandler, a power puncher with iron in his fists, defied expectations early. Chandler snatched a viable guillotine choke and survived a back take. Oliveira then survived a knocked down and extended beating, shockingly dropping Chandler after a brief rest between rounds. Oliveira claimed the vacant UFC lightweight title officially at 0:19 of Round 2 to actualize an 11-year-long journey in the UFC.
In the aftermath of former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov's retirement, the division's title picture has reemerged as one of MMA's most exciting and competitive.
Others receiving votes:
- T.J. Dillashaw reminded the world that he is still a top-flight bantamweight in a closely contested split decision win over Cory Sandhagen following a 30-month layoff in July.
- Shane Burgos and Billy Quarantillo beat the stuffing out of each other for 15 minutes at UFC 268. The fight, which was scored as a unanimous decision for Burgos, would have been guaranteed Fight of the Night at any other event. Just not the same card as Gaethje vs. Chandler.
- Holloway maintained his status as the clear second-best active UFC featherweight against a game Yair Rodriguez in November, the latter of whom showed potential as 145's future champion.
- Merab Dvalishvili barely survived an early onslaught from bantamweight slugger Marlon Moraes in September. Dvalishvili answered emphatically with his trademark grappling to secure the closing moments of round one and subsequent two rounds.
- Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington 2 continued where the first fight left off, further building the legacy of an all-time great UFC welterweight rivalry in November. Usman remained champion at UFC 268, but another competitive outing leaves room for a trilogy fight down the line.
- Sandhagen looked strong in the opening rounds of his UFC 267 fight against Petr Yan for the interim UFC bantamweight title. It was another case of close but not quite as Yan's power and timing turned the tide in round three.