The year 2021 produced tons of unforgettable fights that amazed us here at MMA Hive.
2021 offered many highlights, like the return of TJ Dillashaw after a two-year hiatus, a surprise opponent for Sean O’Malley, and even the introduction of former Bellator champ Michael Chandler.
I’ve pulled together eleven of the best UFC fights of 2021 and ranked them from least to best so you can be reminded of just how impactful this year was in fight history.
Let’s jump into the countdown!
Table of Contents
Best UFC Fights 2021
We’ll start our countdown with a dominant performance from the Czech “Denisa” Jiri Prochazka:
11. Jiri Prochazka vs. Dominick Reyes (UFC on ESPN 23)
Jiri Prochazka faced Dominick Reyes for the vacant Light Heavyweight belt in a UFC Fight Night held at the UFC Apex.
It was a two-round all-out war between the two.
The first round was a head-to-head battle between the two. Both fighters landed heavy counters and inside leg kicks. Reyes was even able to take Jiri down for a short time.
It was a back-and-forth brawl, but Reyes couldn’t find the perfect antidote for Prochazka’s unorthodox fighting style.
Entering the second round, Reyes and Prochazka look fresh and still ready to go. However, a noticeable redness on the face of Dominick is evident, showing the amount of damage he absorbed in the previous round.
As the second round progressed, Jiri continued to land stiff right hands, but Reyes remained relentless.
Blow after blow, Reyes’ red face became bloody, giving Jiri confidence to swarm him with strikes coming from all angles.
Prochazka landed a perfectly-timed spinning elbow to the temple that shut the lights off for Reyes.
An upset for most of the fans considering how Reyes performed during his Jon Jones fight, but a beautiful display of skill and power and starts off the top UFC events of 2021.
10. TJ Dillashaw vs. Cory Sandhagen at (UFC on ESPN 27)
The Sandhagen vs. Dillashaw matchup had a controversial split decision win in favor of the former Bantamweight champion, Dillashaw.
Both fighters gave it their all, but TJ was the busier fighter in the judges’ eyes despite the damage he received.
Dillashaw and Sandhagen didn’t waste any time as they tested each other to the limits in the first round. Cory even attempted to land his famous flying knee that had previously put Frankie Edgar to sleep.
TJ answers with a high volume of takedown attempts, but Cory does a good job rolling to counter it. Sandhagen locked a high-heel hook that hurt the knee of TJ but was luckily saved by the end of the round.
In round two, Sandhagen’s striking finesse shined as he kept dusting up TJ’s face with jabs and awkward hits.
Despite Dillashaw’s vision being compromised, he continued to press forward and rack up some points. A flying knee opened a deep cut on TJ’s right eyebrow.
Rounds three to five remained intense with non-stop action. Both fighters refused to back down.
TJ converted many takedown attempts that allowed him to have ground control for a considerable chunk of time, which likely influenced the judges.
The fight ended with a fresh-looking Sandhagen and Dillashaw with a bloody face. Despite that, TJ managed to snatch a split-decision victory and left many fans, including me, going “whaaa?”
9. Sean O’Malley Vs. Kris Moutinho (UFC 264)
Sean O’Malley faced Kris Moutinho at UFC 264, an event headed by the McGregor and Poirer matchup.
Just like in his last fights, Sean rained punches in a stylistic fashion. But to everyone’s surprise, the chin of Kris seemed like a diamond rock as he wasn’t phased and kept walking forward to push O’Malley.
The first round started with an immediate brawl. Both fighters go after each other, especially Kris, trying to close the distance quickly due to his reach disadvantage.
Sean did a great job utilizing his long jab to keep him away. At the end of the round, O’Malley scored a brutal knockdown immediately followed by a guillotine attempt, but the bell saved Kris from an early end.
Both fighters entered the second round hungry for more action.
Again, O’Malley continued to take advantage of his reach, footwork, and speed to land some kicks and punches that wore down Moutinho.
Kris continued to press forward while at the same time seemingly talking trash to Sean.
The third round was going better for Moutinho, finding his rhythm and using O’Malley’s fatigue to his advantage, successfully closing the distance to land some shots.
But Sean was well prepared and landed various combinations that wobbled Kris.
And the onslaught continued as O’Malley landed a sick seven-punch combo right on the chin that made Herb Dean stop the fight.
Kris immediately called foul, considering he was still standing and trying to fight, but Dean had seen enough.
The fans booed as it seemed like everyone, including Suga, thought Kris deserved to reach the decision. It was one of the best MMA fights of the year, simply thanks to the chin of Kris Moutinho.
8. Jared Cannonier Vs. Kelvin Gastelum at (UFC on ESPN 29)
Jared “The Killa Gorilla” Cannonier went head-to-head with Kelvin Gastelum to be one step closer to a Middleweight title fight.
It was a back-and-forth war between the two, rocking each other constantly.
The opening round can be described as where both fighters carefully observe each other’s movements before diving in. Many tactical faints and jabs are thrown to find a power shot opening or measure the distance.
The second round is where the action started. Kevin became busier with some heavy combinations matched with some switch stances.
In the middle of the round, Kelvin managed to land a crisp one-two that rocked Jared badly.
Cannonier stayed calm and collected enough to make it through and returned stronger in the third. Jared scored a knockdown that could’ve ended Gastelum’s night early.
In the end, Cannonier won the judges’ hearts and went home with a decisive win via unanimous decision after some sweet brawling.
This was one of the top UFC fights to watch at Middleweight if you wanted to find out who had what it takes to challenge the then-champ, Israel Adesanya, stylistically.
7. Edson Barboza Vs. Shane Burgos (UFC 262)
Edson Barboza fought Shane Burgos at UFC 262, an event headed by the Oliveira vs. Chandler fight.
This fight showcased one of the creepiest knockouts that a UFC fan can see inside the octagon.
Round one was all about Barboza throwing all the calf kicks available in the world while Burgos was working his way in close with some vicious body shots to slow down Edson.
Burgos looked exceptional in the first round silencing Barboza with his high-level boxing skills and understanding of the main threats of Barboza.
But Edson started to dominate the whole second round as soon as it began. Burgos was still throwing punches, but it became dwindled by Edson’s output which hit a new level.
Barboza suddenly mixed his kicks with slick punch combos left unanswered by Shane.
Barboza entered the third round confident from the previous, yet Burgos looked relentless while still putting pressure on the aggressive Barboza.
Edson landed a quick jab followed by a hook to the forehead. In the first couple of seconds, it didn’t seem to affect Shane, but soon his equilibrium seemed to jolt off course, with his legs wobbling out from under him and hitting the canvas.
It resulted in an odd knockout where Barboza claimed victory.
6. Petr Yan Vs. Cory Sandhagen (UFC 267)
Yan and Sandhagen had a co-main event war at UFC 267—a close battle of damage dealers for the interim UFC Bantamweight belt.
This co-main event felt like the main focus for some fans, with high expectations of displays of striking skill.
Entering the matchup, both fighters mix it up with unpredictable jabs, straights, spinning back fists, and knees. However, Yan’s touching up Sandhagen more regularly.
Cory changed his game plan in the next round and started changing levels. Unfortunately, Petr successfully defended takedown attempts and allowed him to land more shots to punish Cory.
The fight nearly ended in the third round as Cory found himself at the receiving end of a spinning back fist which wobbled Cory to a knockdown.
Petr then swarms Cory to attempt to finish from the ground and pound, but Cory displays the heart of a champion to survive the onslaught and push to the next round.
A similar story was true for rounds four and five, where Cory pursued the takedowns and continued to fail badly while Petr kept his hands busy dealing the most damage he could to Sandhagen.
In the end, Petr won via unanimous decision. It wasn’t Sandhagen’s greatest display to deal with Yan, but we got to see such a mixture of level changes and striking that made it one of the best fights of 2021.
5. Max Holloway Vs. Yair Rodriguez at (UFC Fight Night 197)
Max “Blessed” Holloway went toe-to-toe with Yair “El Pantera” Rodriguez to be a step closer to the UFC featherweight gold. An elite boxer vs. an elite kickboxer meant maximum highlight potential.
After destroying Calvin Kattar with his boxing technique, Holloway entered the octagon oozing with confidence.
Max said he wanted to repeat his impressive record or beat it with this fight. Little did he know, the up-and-comer Yair wouldn’t make it so easy.
Round one started hot, with both fighters pushing the tempo. Max brought his boxers mindset, but Rodriguez matched those efforts with his own striking, and Taekwondo kicks.
The second round was all about the calf kicks of Yair. One after the other, Max’s inner calves began to show swelling and damage.
But being one of the most experienced fighters in the division, the former champ remained relentless and continued putting pressure on the young Rodriguez without letting the discomfort slow him down.
The third round saw Max landing a well-timed flying knee that hurt Yair. The striking war between the two continued with back-and-forth damage in the final rounds.
It looked like the match could go either way, with Holloway taking some significant damage and swelling around the leg and face — something we haven’t seen him suffer for a while up to this point.
The fight ended with the two looking like they could still fight for ten more rounds together, loving the opportunity to display their riveting fighting styles.
But Holloway went home with the unanimous decision win, throwing a ton of respect toward Yair’s abilities.
4. Alexander Volkanovski Vs. Brian Ortega (UFC 266)
Alexander “The Great” Volkanovski defends the Featherweight gold against one of his toughest challengers, Brian “T-City” Ortega.
This title defense showcased just how ‘great’ Alexander is as the Featherweight champ.
He dominated rounds one, two, four, and five with his superb striking skills that seemed to shock Ortega, who is usually the flashy puncher.
In the third round, Ortega was able to show some of his talents, knocking down the champion with a solid left hand after catching a kick.
And let’s not forget how Brian jumped onto the neck of Alexander, attempting to steal the win with a guillotine choke.
It seemed like it was a surprising end for Volkanovski, with the choke lasting for what felt like hours, but he managed to maintain composure, somehow breathe through the struggle, and eventually break free.
Volkanovski escaped the guillotine, controlled the ground, and dominated the remainder of the fight. The dramatic moments in this matchup made it one of the best UFC fights to watch, certainly from each fighter’s history.
This assertion of dominance allowed Volkanovski to defend his belt via unanimous decision. Judges scored the fight 49-46, 50-45, and 50-44, all in favor of Alexander.
3. Michael Chandler Vs. Charles Oliveira (UFC 262)
Former Bellator Lightweight champion, Michael Chandler, makes his first title shot at UFC 262 against the dominant Charles Oliveira, one of the top finishers in UFC history.
Primarily by submissions, but nonetheless, impressive.
“Iron” Michael Chandler nearly finished Oliveira in the first round with a sudden knockdown, followed by a barrage of punches.
But Charles managed to get grab Chandler and use grappling to hold him in position and see out the round.
The buzz built up a lot of energy for the following round, where they thought Chandler might just come hard at Oliveira and secure a knockout.
But while Charles is a submission specialist, he’s no novice with his hands either, and he caught Michael with a short left hook that dropped him, and “do Bronx” didn’t waste any time to get the finish on the ground.
It was full of mad excitement since it felt like it could have gone either way at any point, making it one of the best fights in the UFC, especially for crossover fights when one athlete comes from another promotion.
2. Max Holloway Vs. Calvin Kattar (UFC on ABC 1)
Max Holloway makes his fight island debut against Calvin Kattar. Everyone expected this to be a good fight, one that perhaps even was in Kattar’s ability to win, and it exceeded all expectations.
Max Holloway destroyed Calvin Kattar from the first minute of round one to the last second of the fifth.
From this fight alone, Max obliterated current UFC records for total significant strikes landed as well as total strikes landed in a single fight.
Two amazing things happened in this fight:
Holloway showed how many fast strikes he could land in a five-round fight, and Kattar showed he is one of the toughest athletes in the promotion, considering how much damage he took during the fight.
It was the origin of Holloway’s now famous line, “I’m the best boxer in the UFC!” after screaming it towards the commentators while no-look slipping Calvin’s punches and countering them.
With the striking on play in this matchup, it was so close to becoming the best UFC fight of 2021 for us, but there’s one more that slightly pulls it out of the bag (next).
1. Justin Gaethje Vs. Michael Chandler (UFC 268)
Justin Gaethje went to war with Michael Chandler at UFC 268.
Their performance looked like the actual main event. Their colossal match-up makes it our 2021 UFC fight of the year!
During the pre-fight press conference, both fighters promised to stand up against each other and deliver an entertaining fight for the fans. And they certainly delivered.
Once the first round bell rang, both fighters immediately launched bombs at each other recklessly. No jab setups or time-wasting.
Every throw seemed like a haymaker until the last second of the third and final round.
Chandler managed to wobble Justin in the first round, but Gaethje landed a clean uppercut while backing up that wobbled Chandler.
Justin knocked Michael down in the second round with another crisp uppercut right on the chin.
Chandler survived the knockdown, and both fighters continued to beat the living hell out of each other to force the matchup into a decision.
In the end, Gaethje won unanimously and gave us and fans plenty of reasons to like the UFC fresher Michael Chandler and continue loving Justin Gaethje.
More on UFC best fights in 2021
What a year for fans worldwide 2021 was, with the UFC pulling out all stops they could to improve on their highs from 2019.
But there’s more to say about this unique year:
Who is the best UFC fighter of 2021?
Despite not making any of our top fights for the year, Kamaru Usman stands out as the best UFC fighter in 2021, considering his back-to-back wins.
Usman fought three times in 2021 against three of his top rivals, whereas most champions might only compete once or twice in a year.
Firstly, he fought and defeated his teammate Gilbert Burns and silenced any doubters against his run and ownership of the Welterweight championship belt.
Next, he handled Jorge Masvidal with a clinical one-punch knockout victory — something we rarely see from the fighter.
And finally defeated Colby Covington via decision and showed that he was at his absolute peak form during 2021.
Read these next
Now that we’ve handled the top 2021 UFC fights, these next articles will be ideal follow-up reads: