We're just under four months into 2021 and fans have already been treated to some of the most incredible moments and exciting fights in UFC history.
The year started with another stint on "Fight Island" and the return of the promotion’s biggest star Conor McGregor. With nine title fights booked to take place before we hit May and the return of fans set for UFC 261, 2021 has started strong for MMA’s leading promotion.
Before we get to the top five UFC stars of 2021 so far, it’s worth noting a couple of honorable mentions.
The first is bantamweight contender Cory Sandhagen. Years don’t start much better than the devastating flying knee knockout of UFC legend Frankie Edgar. The 28 second win was topped with a $50,000 performance bonus. A victory over the returning TJ Dillashaw would put "The Sandman" in an early conversation for Fighter of the Year.
The other contender who narrowly misses out is Derrick Lewis. The sheer conviction and convincing nature by which he dealt with Curtis Blaydes is a moment I often go back to. The unpredictability of that knockout has made for one of the year’s standout moments so far.
Now, on to the top five…
#5 Max Holloway
The first entry to this list is the very first main event of 2021. To put it simply, it was the resurrection of Max Holloway. After three defeats in his four fights prior, back-to-back losses to Alexander Volkanovski and being beltless for the first time since 2016, the stakes were high.
The term "delivered" does not do justice to what Holloway did. Not only did the Hawaiian deliver what was required, he delivered letters to every single MMA fan around the world. They read, “I’m the best boxer in the UFC…”
Holloway, 29, faced Calvin Kattar. "The Boston Finisher" entered the year off the back of wins over Dan Ige and Jeremy Stephens in 2020. His defeat to Holloway proved many things, namely his toughness.
Kattar might just be the most resilient fighter in the UFC. Beaten and bloody from 445 strikes, the Methuen-born featherweight returned fire right up to the 25-minute mark.
It's rare that such a one-sided fight on the scorecards can be a classic, but Holloway’s technical masterclass, combined with Kattar’s persistence, made it just that.
#4 Michael Chandler
Michael Chandler’s UFC debut was one of the most anticipated fights coming into 2021.
The former Bellator champion signed with the UFC last September. Chandler [22-5] served as back-up for the UFC 254 main event between Khabib and Justin Gaethje. Needing time following his weight cut in Abu Dhabi, fans had to wait until the new year to see “Iron Mike” in action. It was worth the wait.
Dan Hooker accepted the task of welcoming Chandler; a task that was completed in just over two minutes. It didn’t go how the Kiwi had planned.
Chandler, 34, looked about as good as a UFC debutant could. He landed a vicious left-hook to down “The Hangman” before brutal ground and pound forced Marc Goddard to stop the fight. It was one of the most impactful debuts yet.
Chandler’s 2021 is just getting started. Khabib’s retirement means he’ll fight Charles Oliveira for the vacant UFC Lightweight Championship at UFC 262 on May 15.
Can he start the new chapter at 155 lbs on top?
#3 Kamaru Usman - UFC Welterweight Champion
Kamaru Usman boasts the longest active winning streak in the UFC. With wins in all 13 of his UFC fights, he sits behind only Anderson Silva in the promotion’s history. Since demolishing Tyron Woodley at UFC 235, he’s become the most dominant champion in the UFC.
With those facts, it’s hard to comprehend why a portion of the sport’s fanbase still doubt his credentials. Recency bias was in full effect after “The Nigerian Nightmare” defended his title in a grappling heavy display at UFC 251 last summer.
Some were quick to forget the stand-up skills and excitement he brought to his TKO win over Colby Covington just seven months earlier. Usman’s first fight of 2021 sent a clear reminder to his doubters.
Defending his belt for the third time, Usman entered the Octagon with Gilbert Burns. Since a 2018 loss to Dan Hooker, the Brazilian had built a six-fight winning streak leading up to UFC 258.
“Durinho” was touted by many as the one who would dethrone the welterweight king. An early knockdown stoked that prediction. A third round striking clinic killed it.
Under the tutelage of the great Trevor Wittman, Usman looks unstoppable. Jorge Masvidal will look to challenge that at the second time of asking.
#2 Dustin Poirier
Dustin Poirier shocked the world in front of the third highest PPV viewership in UFC history (1.6 million).
You’d have been hard-pressed to find many expecting “The Diamond” to beat Conor McGregor at UFC 257. But being underestimated and branded as the underdog makes the 32-year-old thrive.
To beat the Irishman as emphatically as he did was barely even in the conversation. The former Interim UFC Lightweight Champion became the first man to knockout the UFC’s biggest superstar.
His performance was cool, calm and collected. Just another day at the office. Poirier established himself as one of the top fighters in the lightweight division, if not the best.
To make his 2021 even better, Poirier has the chance to do it for a second time and secure the trilogy win. McGregor vs. Poirier 3 is in the works and rumored to be for UFC 264.
#1 Jan Blachowicz - UFC Light Heavyweight Champion
The rise of Jan Blachowicz has been staggering. Since his defeat to Patrick Cummins in 2017, the 38-year-old has transformed from an average name to a champion.
The Pole has found a winning formula. 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.
He was expected to lose to Dominick Reyes, he destroyed him. He was the underdog against the unbeaten Adesanya this year, he won convincingly. The UFC 259 main event saw Blachowicz’ name etched on the record of "The Last Stylebender" as his first blemish.
A lot of talk has centered around “Polish Power”, but what about “Polish Skill”? The Cieszyn-born fighter did what the likes of Robert Whittaker, Yoel Romero and Paulo Costa couldn’t.
The question begs as to whether Blachowicz can be dethroned by any contender in the light heavyweight (LHW) division. Should he defend against Glover Teixeira, it stands to reason Jon Jones returning to the division could be the only way the title changes hands anytime soon.
Not only has 2021 marked Blachowicz’ first defense, but it’s also elevated him to one of the UFC’s best. One of the top champions in the promotion. One of the top LHW’s in the world.