Some fighters take time to find their feet in the promotion, while others garner a lot of attention with a string of solid performances. However, a handful of fighters tend to transition from being just another fighter on the roster to potential title-contenders with a single performance.
In this list, we have ranked the top five best breakout performances of 2021 so far, wherein a fighter’s stock has skyrocketed after a dominant performance. Honorable mentions include Marina Rodriguez (against Mackenzie Dern), Merab Dvalishvili (against Marlon Moraes) and Rob Font (against Cody Garbrandt).
#5. Sean Brady (against Michael Chiesa at UFC Fight Night: Vieira vs. Tate)
Sean Brady has slowly but surely built a name for himself in the UFC welterweight division. The undefeated prospect joined the UFC in 2019 and made his debut at UFC Fight Night: Reyes vs. Weidman against Court McGee. He won via unanimous decision.
Brady went on to secure submission victories over Ismail Naurdiev, Christian Aguilera and Jake Matthews. The American quickly gained a reputation for being an extremely dangerous grappler in the UFC’s welterweight division, as well as being the owner of one of the most incredible back-tattoos in the game.
At UFC Fight Night: Vieira vs. Tate, Sean Brady took on UFC veteran Michael Chiesa in the co-main event. Given Chiesa’s grappling prowess, this match-up was a real threat to Brady’s perfect professional record.
However, he secured a unanimous decision victory over the No. 6-ranked welterweight to make a huge jump in the rankings. The fact that he outgrappled one of the best grapplers in the division and made it look easy showed that Brady is a force to be reckoned with at 170 lbs.
Now among the top 10 in the division, Sean Brady refused to make a callout following his win over Chiesa. Rather, the Philadelphia-native requested the UFC brass put him in a five-round main event, preferably in his hometown. In his post-fight interview with Daniel Cormier, Brady said:
“I want one of these main events everybody keeps getting. I want five rounds. I want to prove I can go five rounds. [I want] A top ten or a top five guy. It’s about to be a new year. We can go back to Philly [Philadelphia], go back to the Wells Fargo Center… Me, the Daukaus brothers, Andre Petroski, Pat Sabatini, all the New Jersey guys… We’ll pack that place.”
Watch Sean Brady’s post-fight interview below:
#4. Tom Aspinall (against Serghei Spivac at UFC Fight Night: Brunson vs. Till)
Tom Aspinall joined the UFC in 2020 and made his promotional debut against Jake Collier at UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs. Till on Fight Island, Abu Dhabi. The Englishman needed just 45 seconds to put away his opponent, earning the Performance of the Night accolade after securing a TKO finish.
Subsequently, the former Cage Warriors fighter took on Alan Baudot at UFC Fight Night: Moraes vs. Sandhagen and former heavyweight champion Andre Arlovski at UFC Fight Night: Blaydes vs. Lewis. A TKO victory over Baudot and a submission-win over Arlovski saw the Brit make his way into the UFC heavyweight rankings.
It was his next bout, however, that got the fans fantasizing about how a potential fight between Aspinall and the top heavyweights in the world would play out.
At UFC Fight Night: Brunson vs. Till, Aspinall took on Sergey Spivac in a bout that many believed would be a tough test for the Englishman. Aspinall made light work of the match-up, knocking Spivak out in the first round.
Aspinall was brought to tears later on upon finding out that he had won his third Performance of the Night bonus. Check out the heart-warming video below:
Tom Aspinall is part of a new breed of heavyweights who are taking over the sport. With the emergence of Ciryl Gane, the UFC interim heavyweight champion, many believe that heavyweights who move like welterweights and middleweights are the future of the division. At just 28, Aspinall has a bright future ahead of him.
Notably, he doesn’t appear to be in a rush to climb the rankings. Following his victory over Spivac, the Brit mentioned that he wants to take his time as he continues his MMA career. Speaking to his countryman Michael Bisping in his post-fight interview, Aspinall had this to say:
“I just want to fight someone ranked above me, you know? Like I say, I’m trying to move up this thing slow. And, if I’m No. 13, give me No. 12.”
#3. Beneil Dariush (against Tony Ferguson at UFC 262)
Beneil Dariush has been a part of the UFC roster for quite some time now. The Iran-born American joined the UFC in 2014 as an undefeated prospect, with a record of 7-0.
Dariush endured a turbulent run in the lightweight division and struggled to find any consistency as he tried to make his way into the top 15 in the rankings. After securing wins over the likes of Michael Johnson, Jim Miller and James Vick, he suffered devastating knockout losses to Edson Barboza and Alexander Hernandez.
However, the pair of knockout losses flipped a switch inside Beneil Dariush, who bounced back in emphatic fashion. He put together an incredible six-fight win streak to set up a fight with former UFC interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson at UFC 262.
Dariush dominated ‘El Cucuy’ in the co-main event, winning every minute of every round en route to a unanimous decision victory. He even caught Ferguson in a nasty heel-hook in the second round, which caused the former interim champ to grimace with pain repeatedly.
Watch Beneil Dariush reflect on his win over Ferguson at the post-fight press conference below:
Now the No.3-ranked lightweight fighter in the UFC, riding a seven-fight winning streak, Dariush appears to be just one win away from a title shot. He is set to take on Dagestani prodigy Islam Makhachev in his next bout.
#2. Giga Chikadze (against Edson Barboza at UFC Fight Night: Barboza vs. Chikadze)
UFC featherweight Giga Chikadze plied his trade in the kickboxing world for almost a decade before transitioning to MMA. Nicknamed ‘Ninja’, Chikadze has emerged as one of the most dangerous strikers in the UFC since joining the promotion.
The Georgian made an appearance on season 2 of Dana White’s Contender Series, but lost to Austin Springer on the night. In response, he fought two more fights outside the UFC and won both by submission. This prompted the UFC to sign him anyway and he made his promotional debut at UFC Fight Night: Hermansson vs. Cannonier.
Chikadze defeated Brandon Davis in his UFC debut. He then put together a six-fight winning streak, comprising a head-kick KO of Jamey Simmons and a memorable liver-kick that effectively finished Cub Swanson.
The hype surrounding the 33-year-old Georgian continued to build as he was booked to fight UFC veteran Edson Barboza in a UFC Fight Night main event.
The mouth-watering matchup between the two lethal strikers was a sight to behold. Chikadze, however, proved to be truly elite in the stand-up realm as he secured a stunning third round TKO victory.
Like his teammate Beneil Dariush, he too could be one fight away from a title shot. Following his win over Barboza, Chikadze had this to say:
“Honestly, I’m here to fight the best fights. The biggest names. If it’s a title shot, I would love to cover the title short and be a replacement fight. If not, I would love to fight some Hawaiian [referring to Max Holloway]. He knows my name.”
Watch Chikadze’s full post-fight interview below:
#1. Khamzat Chimaev (against Li Jingliang at UFC 267)
Khamzat Chimaev is undoubtedly the hottest prospect in the UFC right now.
The Russian-born Swedish phenom made waves in the MMA community with a couple of dominant performances on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.
Subsequently, 'Borz' took on UFC veteran Gerald Meerschaert at UFC Fight Night: Covington vs. Woodley. Chimaev knocked Meerschaert out just 17 seconds into the bout, establishing himself as one of the most intriguing prospects in years.
Despite Chimaev's incredible 3-0 start in the promotion, there wasn't much talk of him competing for a championship as he was still unranked. The three opponents he faced were unranked as well with two of them no longer being a part of the UFC.
His red-hot start was halted after he contracted COVID-19. A lengthy bout with the virus disheartened the Chechen fighter, who even considered retirement as a result of the effects of the virus.
Following his recovery, he was booked to fight No.11-ranked Li Jingliang at UFC 267 on Fight Island. Many believed that the durable Chinese welterweight, who had never been finished in the UFC, would pose a threat to Chimaev and that the bout would be a conclusive litmus test to show whether he was a legitimate title contender.
Chimaev secured a double-leg takedown and effortlessly choked out Jingliang in the first round.
There was no doubt after the bout that Khamzat Chimaev is a real threat to Kamaru Usman's reign as the UFC welterweight champion. His background in sambo-style wrestling, coupled with his underrated striking and relentless approach to fighting, will prove to be a real handful for anyone in the 170 lbs and 185 lbs divisions.
In his post-fight interview with Daniel Cormier, 'Borz' seemingly put the entire division and roster on notice.
Poll : Can Khamzat Chimaev beat Kamaru Usman?