Four months into the year, it’s safe to say 2021 has been strong. From new prospects to new contenders, the UFC’s roster has looked as promising as it has ever been. Couple that with a host of dominant champions, you’d be hard pressed to find a card this year without a host of impressive names and fights.
January started with the return of the self-proclaimed “best boxer in the UFC” Max Holloway and finished with Dustin Poirier knocking out Conor McGregor.
February turned the heat up with a statement-making title defense from Kamaru Usman at UFC 258 and highlight reel KOs from Cory Sandhagen and Derrick Lewis.
March was the most star-studded month yet. Four cards and four championship fights saw Jan Blachowicz hand Israel Adesanya his first loss and Francis Ngannou bring heavyweight gold to Africa.
UFC Fighter of the Year
As we enter the fourth calendar month, we’re beginning to see a clearer picture of who might be in the running for certain awards come the end of the year. With that said, here are five early predictions for this year’s Fighter of the Year nominees.
#5 Cory Sandhagen
Cory Sandhagen couldn’t have made much more of an impact on his first walk to the octagon in 2021. Years don’t start much better than the devastating flying knee knockout of UFC legend Frankie Edgar. It was brutal.
Becoming just the third person to finish Edgar, “The Sandman” got the finish in just 28 seconds. The KO of the Year contest might as well be declared over. It will take something truly remarkable to surpass Sandhagen's effort.
Despite being 39-years-old, Edgar last fought for the title in 2019 against Max Holloway. A decision loss, followed by a TKO defeat to Chan Sung Jung, signaled his end at featherweight.
“The Answer” looked impressive in his first fight as a bantamweight, beating top-10 Pedro Munhoz in a Fight of the Night main event. His second bout at 135lbs went very differently.
For Sandhagen, the victory represented a second memorable win in a matter of months. Marlon Moraes was the first victim last October, falling to a spinning wheel kick.
It seems the 28-year-old’s year is only just getting started. In a second fight before 2021’s halfway stage, Sandhagen is set to welcome former-bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw back to the UFC. The former training partners will main event UFC’s May 8 card.
Two wins before June against opponents like Edgar and Dillashaw will leave Sandhagen in the running for the title of Fighter of the Year.
#4 Michael Chandler or Charles Oliveira
It seems pretty clear the winner of UFC 262's main event will be a strong contender for Fighter of the Year. With official confirmation (finally!) of Khabib Nurmagomedov's retirement, Charles Oliveira and Michael Chandler will go five rounds for the vacant UFC lightweight championship. Both men have the potential for a stellar year.
Chandler’s UFC debut was one of the most anticipated bouts heading into 2021. The former Bellator champion joined the UFC in September. “Iron Mike” traveled to Abu Dhabi as a back-up for the UFC 254 main event.
Needing time after his weight cut, the MMA community was forced to wait to see the 34-year-old in action. It was worth it. Dan Hooker accepted the task of welcoming Chandler. The task was completed in just over two minutes.
Chandler looked as good as a UFC debutant could. A vicious left-hook downed “The Hangman” before brutal ground and pound forced the stoppage. It was one of the most impactful debuts the UFC has ever seen.
For Charles Oliveira, people have been sleeping on the Brazilian for far too long. A win over Kevin Lee last year extended his winning streak to seven. A dominant victory over the great Tony Ferguson at UFC 256 in December made it eight and put him in line for a title opportunity.
A win for either man at UFC 262 and perhaps a title defense later in the year will put the future champion in a strong position to be the UFC’s Fighter of the Year.
#3 Dustin Poirier
At the first pay-per-view of 2021, Dustin Poirier shocked the world. In front of the third highest PPV audience in UFC history (1.6 million), “The Diamond” became the first man to knock Conor McGregor out.
You’d have been hard-pressed to find many expecting Poirier to beat McGregor, but being underestimated makes the Louisiana-born lightweight thrive. To beat the Irishman as emphatically as he did was barely even considered an option. Given the stakes and Khabib’s expected retirement, Poirier’s performance was incredibly calm and collected. Just another day at the office.
Having reportedly turned down a chance at the vacant 155lb belt, Poirier will look to secure a trilogy win over McGregor at UFC 264 in July. With the possibility of two wins over the UFC’s biggest superstar and perhaps a championship fight later in the year against Chandler or Oliveira, not much could take the Fighter of the Year title away from Poirier.
#2 Jan Blachowicz
The rise of Jan Blachowicz has been special. Since a loss to Patrick Cummins in 2017, the Pole has transformed from just another name in the light heavyweight division to a champion.
The 38-year-old has discovered a winning formula. Whatever it is, it’s working a treat. It’s taken him from four defeats in five fights to nine wins in the following 10. Blachowicz continues to push beyond the career bar many attempted to restrict him to. 2021 has been no different.
At UFC 259 last month, Blachowicz’ name was written onto the record of Israel Adesanya as the middleweight king’s first MMA loss. A lot of talk has been focused on “Polish Power”, but what about “Polish Skill”?
Blachowicz accomplished what the likes of Yoel Romero, Paulo Costa, Derek Brunson and Robert Whittaker couldn’t; he beat “The Last Stylebender.”
The Superfight victory has made Blachowicz one of the stars of the year so far. It stands to reason his next defense will be against Glover Teixeira. Should the Pole be victorious, he'll be a strong contender for 2021's top spot.
#1 Kamaru Usman
Kamaru Usman entered the octagon for the first time this year in February. Defending his welterweight championship for the third time, Usman faced his former training partner Gilbert Burns. Since a loss to Dan Hooker in 2018, “Durinho” had built a six-fight winning streak leading up to UFC 258.
The Brazilian was touted by many as the one who would dethrone the welterweight king. A third-round striking masterclass left that prediction in tatters.
It’s hard to understand why a portion of the MMA fanbase doubt Usman’s credentials. Recency bias was in full effect after the 33-year-old’s grappling-heavy title defense at UFC 251 last July. Usman’s first bout of 2021 sent a clear reminder to his doubters.
“The Nigerian Nightmare” has started the year strong. Usman will have the chance to keep the momentum going with a second defense before the end of April. At UFC 261, Usman will welcome fans back alongside Jorge Masvidal at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.
With two championship defenses before the summer against a couple of the division’s best, Usman will perhaps be just one more victory away from becoming the clear choice for Fighter of the year.
See Here: Complete List of UFC Champions