Julianna Pena, Kamaru Usman and Alexander Volkanovski all showcased their talents inside the octagon in 2021. (Photos: UFC/Twitter)

Iconic submission escapes, shocking upsets, devastating knockouts - check out who featured prominently in our MMA awards for 2021.

With the sport of MMA reaching new heights in 2021, award categories have been overflowing with nominees for excellence in a variety of fields.

As another sensational year of fights approaches, it is only fitting that we highlight the best performances from the past 12 months. To do so, we’ve given our picks for nine different awards in our inaugural end of year MMA wrap up.

While it seems we have focused largely on the UFC, fighters from all major organisations have been considered.

In a similar vein, each award has its own criteria. For example, ‘debutant to a major promotion’ looked at which fighter in their first shot at fighting in the ‘big leagues’ had the best run. This meant that Michael Chandler crossing to the UFC, or Antonio Carlos Junior winning the PFL Light Heavyweight tournament were not considered.

By far the broadest category, ‘comeback of the year’ covered career resurgences, as well as literal in-fight rallies by combatants.

Without further deliberation, here are The Inner Sanctum‘s 2021 MMA awards.

Male Fighter of the Year – Kamaru Usman

Kamaru Usman catapulted himself into a league of his own in 2021, defending his Welterweight crown three times. Each outing showed he was leaps and bounds above his competition, re-matching opponents and winning fights in dominant fashion.

One of the most active UFC champions in 2021, Usman showed the evolution in his game this year, specifically in the striking department under the tutelage of new head coach Trevor Wittman.

Usman opened 2021 with a third-round stoppage of former teammate Gilbert Burns, where he weathered early adversity before knocking down Burns multiple times, ultimately finishing him with ground and pound.

Next, a rematch with Jorge Masvidal at UFC 261 where Usman had his most impressive performance to date, knocking Masvidal out in devastating fashion with a perfectly timed right hand in the second round. Following the fight, Usman became the new number one ranked pound for pound male fighter in the UFC.

To finish off a remarkable year, Usman met bitter rival Colby Covington in the main event of UFC 268 at Madison Square Garden.

While the fight was more competitive than his previous fights in 2021, it was clear that Covington was more wary of the power of the ‘Nigerian Nightmare’. Usman controlled the first half of the fight, knocking Covington down twice en route to a unanimous decision victory.

Post-fight, questions started to be raised of whether Usman had passed Georges St-Pierre as the Welterweight ‘GOAT’ with UFC President Dana White calling him the greatest Welterweight of all time.

Honourable mentions: Charles Oliveira; Cyril Gane; Max Holloway; Islam Makhachev

Ben Filosi

Female Fighter of the Year – Rose Namajunas

Despite having only two bouts in 2021, Rose Namajunas reminded the MMA world that she is without question, one of the best female fighters on the planet. 

After avenging her title loss against Jessica Andrade in 2020, it was announced that ‘Thug Rose’ would get a chance to regain her Strawweight title in April against champion, Zhang Weili.

Weili had a lot of momentum entering the contest, returning from her first successful title defence and 2020’s fight of the year, against Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

Just 78 seconds in though, Namajunas delivered a beautiful lead head kick to knock Weili out, solidifying herself as the best 115 pound fighter in the world.

In November, the pair would meet again at UFC 268. Although their second bout proved to be much more competitive, it was Namajunas who retained the title by a split decision.

With her renewed love for fighting, Namajunas showed in 2021 that she belongs among MMA’s elite tier of fighters. It will be interesting to see how 2022 plays out for the now two time champion.

Honourable mentions: Kayla Harrison; Valentina Shevchenko; Julianna Pena; Marina Rodriguez

Lewis Moss

Fight of the Year – Alexander Volkanovski vs Brian Ortega

Having appeared as coaches on The Ultimate Fighter, the build-up for the UFC Featherweight championship fight between Alexander Volkanovski and Brian Ortega was long and intense. 

The animosity between the pair led to a palpable crescendo at UFC 266, a fight for the ages to decide the 145 pound king. 

The first round was close. Ortega threw several leg kicks and also cut open the Australian’s face, but it was Volkanovski’s round. The following stanza was equally tense, ending with both fighters exchanging words and needing to be separated by referee Herb Dean. 

Enter the third where possibly the greatest escape that the UFC has ever seen occurred. Ortega managed to knock down an unbalanced Volkanovski and performed a mounted guillotine choke, tight enough to defeat anyone. 

It was tight. Really tight. So tight that the champion’s head started to turn purple. 

But, miraculously, he escaped.

Fans around the world barely had time to pick their jaws up off the ground before Ortega secured a triangle choke. Again, it was extremely tight, but somehow the great escape was completed for a second time and Volkanovski found himself laying heavy ground and pound into a tired Ortega. 

The fourth and fifth rounds continued with Volkanovski laying heavy punches into Ortega, who was examined by the doctor in the final two breaks. 

The ability to maneuver in small spaces and have the stamina to lay heavy punches showed why Bruce Buffer was able to scream “And Still!” after the final air-horn blasted. 

There is no question that this was the fight of the year.

Honourable mentions: Justin Gaethje vs Michael Chandler; Max Holloway vs Yair Rodriguez; Petr Yan vs Cory Sandhagen; Ok Rae Yoon vs Christian Lee

Jack Molloy 

Knockout of the Year – Cory Sandhagen KO 1 Frankie Edgar

In a year filled with devastating knockouts, Cory Sandhagen’s flying knee against future UFC Hall of Famer Frankie Edgar stood out as one of the most brutal.

After back to back losses at Featherweight, Frankie Edgar closed 2020 with a bang when he moved down to 135 pounds and defeated fifth ranked Pedro Munhoz.

After the performance, many people began to wonder how far ‘The Answer’ could go at 135. Soon he was matched up against the always dangerous top contender, Cory Sandhagen.

Edgar started fast and pushed the pace early. Just 30 seconds in however, Sandhagen timed a level change from Edgar with a beautiful flying knee that knocked the veteran out before he hit the canvas.

After the fight, Edgar told ESPN that he didn’t even recall even walking to the cage and had to be reminded by his trainers who he had fought.

Without a doubt, one of the scariest knockouts we saw in 2021. 

Honourable mentions: Sergio Pettis KO 4 Kyoji Horiguchi; Jiri Prochazka KO 2 Dominick Reyes; Rose Namajunas KO 1 Zhang Weili; Ignacio Bahamondes KO 3 Roosevelt Roberts

Lewis Moss

Submission of the Year – Anthony Hernandez Sub. 2 Rodolfo Vieira

While other submissions might have had greater implications on overall careers or title pictures, the sheer shock attached to Anthony Hernandez’s guillotine choke of jiu jitsu ace Rodolfo Vieira was simply too hard to overlook. 

When oddsmakers set their lines for UFC 258, Hernandez closed as a significant underdog. More importantly, the odds of the man known as ‘Fluffy’ pulling off a submission were as wide at 30 to 1 and given virtually no chance of happening. 

A decorated jiu jitsu artist, Vieira was expected to have all bases covered in the grappling realm. On paper, the 2015 ADCC World champion’s accomplishments suggested to all that his prowess on the mat would be too much for his opponent to handle if the fight hit the floor. 

Yet, the variables of MMA ultimately decided to interject. 

After surviving three takedowns and over three minutes of control time in the first, Hernandez rallied in the following round.

In keeping the fight standing, the 28-year-old began to wear on a now exhausted Vieira, handily winning the striking battle by a margin of 25 total strikes to just two during the period. 

In a last-ditch effort to make his jiu-jitsu a factor, Vieira secured a takedown halfway through the round, but was too tired to launch a serious threat. Soon after, the Brazilian succumbed to a fresher fighter, as purple-belt Hernandez locked in a guillotine choke that completely stunned the MMA world. 

Honourable mentions: Brandon Moreno Sub. 3 Deiveson Figueiredo; Andre Muniz Sub. 1 Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza; Islam Makhachev Sub. 1 Dan Hooker; Vicente Luque Sub. 1 Michael Chiesa

Liahm O’Brien

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Upset of the Year – Julianna Pena defeats Amanda Nunes to become UFC Bantamweight champion

When it was announced that Amanda Nunes would be next defending her Bantamweight title against Julianna Pena, many MMA fans thought another ‘sacrificial lamb’ was about to be fed to the unstoppable champion.

Originally scheduled for August 7, Nunes tested positive for COVID and the fight was moved to December. Coming into the contest, Pena was a 13 to 2 underdog, with supposedly no chance of winning.

Nunes started off strong, showcasing the clear difference in power. However when the fight went to the ground, Pena held her own by using great submission defence, as well as offence while on her back.

Although Nunes had clearly won the first round, Pena did not look outclassed.

As round two began, Pena shockingly started to move forward and take the fight to Nunes. After repeatedly getting tagged with punches, Nunes started to get frustrated and started to fire back with power shots.

This ultimately fatigued ‘The Lioness’ to a point where Pena was easily able to secure a takedown and submit her with a rear naked choke to become the new champion.

Pena has had a long road to the UFC title since winning The Ultimate Fighter back in 2013, which makes her title win that much more satisfying.

Her victory against Nunes, who had been unbeaten since 2014, is definitely the upset of the year, if not the biggest upset in the history of women’s sports. 

Honourable mentions: Gleison Tibau takes decision over Rory MacDonald; Adriano Moraes KOs Demetrious Johnson; Ben Parrish KOs Christian Edwards; Jan Blachowicz takes decision over Israel Adesanya

Lewis Moss

Storyline of the Year – New Zealand government imposes harsh restrictions on nation’s MMA fighters

Out of all the crazy storylines to unravel in 2021, the battle between Auckland Gym, City Kickboxing and the New Zealand federal government was easily the most fascinating.

City Kickboxing boasts one of the most star studded rosters in the MMA world with the likes of Israel Adesanya, Alex Volkanovski, Kai Kara-France, and Dan Hooker amongst its stable.

With a strict quarantine system and visas becoming incredibly hard to obtain, the New Zealand government allowed some exemptions for sport stars and teams entering the country. The All-Blacks and English Netball teams were notably allowed in and out of the country when other citizens weren’t even being considered. 

Arguably on par, if not more popular than the All-Blacks, UFC Middleweight champion Adesanya became the first of many Kiwi fighters struggling to come in and out of the country for their upcoming fights. He would later confirm he is moving to America and “will never fight in New Zealand again”.

This strange battle between the MMA fighters and government came to the forefront of the MMA world when Dan Hooker’s visa was continually delayed and put his fight with Nasrat Haqparast in massive doubt.

Hooker was left with no other option but to reach out to the US Embassy on Twitter, which granted him a visa mere days before his massive fight.

City Kickboxing founder and current coach, Eugene Bareman suggested in late September that his gym may have to move countries in order to become fully functioning again. 

With the global rise of MMA and the UFC, as well as playing host to a gym that trains two of the top three ranked pound-for-pound fighters in the UFC, the New Zealand government was continually critiqued for not showing MMA fighters the same courtesies as other athletes.

This situation may escalate to the point that New Zealand loses its homegrown talent and consequently, all of the benefits associated with being at the forefront of a rapidly growing sport like MMA.

Honourable mentions: Fans return to live events at UFC 261; Francis Ngannou’s stand-off with the UFC and the battle over fighter pay; Brandon Moreno wins UFC Flyweight title after being cut in 2018, Charles Oliveira wins UFC Lightweight title 

Dominic Criniti

Comeback of the Year – Charles Oliveira rallies to defeat Michael Chandler 

After Khabib Nurmagomedov retired and subsequently vacated the UFC Lightweight title, a fight was made between Charles Oliveira, riding an eight-fight win streak, and promotional newcomer Michael Chandler to determine who the next 155 pound champion would be.

Both fighters had their moments in the early parts of the opening round, with Chandler catching Oliveira in a guillotine choke while Oliveira was able to get Chandler’s back and threaten a submission.

With just under two minutes left in the first round Chandler clipped Oliveira with a a left and a right, putting the Brazilian down. He then proceeded to follow up with an onslaught of ground and pound and the fight looked close to being stopped, however Oliveira was able to survive the round.

The fact that Oliveira was able to persevere showcased the growth he had made as a fighter. Despite being one of the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts in the UFC, Oliveira had a history of succumbing to adversity, tapping out to many submissions from lesser credentialed opponents. 

It did not take long in round two for a new champion to be crowned, with Oliveira nailing Chandler with a left in the opening seven seconds of the round. From there, ‘Do Bronx’ followed up with knees and two heavy right hands which sent Chandler back down before the referee stepped in to stop the fight.

With many setbacks in his 10 plus years and 27 fights in the UFC, Oliveira finally became an undisputed UFC Champion, showing great heart to weather the storm in the first round and comeback to win in emphatic fashion.

Honourable mentions: Merab Dvalishvili survives round one to defeat Marlon Moraes; Brandon Moreno wins UFC Flyweight title after being cut from the promotion in 2018; Glover Teixeira wins UFC Light Heavyweight title at 42 years old; Sergio Pettis knocks out Kyoji Horiguchi after being dominated for three rounds

Ben Filosi

Debutant to a Major Promotion of the Year – Paddy Pimblett 

When former Cage Warriors champion Paddy ‘The Baddy’ Pimblett was announced to have signed a UFC contract, fight fans around the world licked their lips at the prospect of him competing in the world’s top MMA organisation. 

Soon paired with Luigi Vendramini for his first fight, a man with a UFC record of 1-2, the world looked on to see if the eccentric ‘Scouser’ could live up to the hype.

Put simply he did, in one of the best overall debuts in a major promotion this year.

The fight itself didn’t all go Paddy’s way, with Vendramini clipping him multiple times in the first round. Instead of crumbling under pressure, Pimblett showed enormous heart, finishing his opponent with a flurry of punches at the end of the first round.

He had promised a first-round stoppage, and whilst he may have been hit a few more times than he would have liked, he delivered on it.

Whilst his fight was extremely impressive, his post-fight interviews took the performance to the next level.

Whether it was a confident post-fight chat with Michael Bisping, or his hilarious comments in proceeding interviews, he gave everyone something to savour that night.

Whilst there have been better debuts in the cage, people who have collected more wins and more spectacular knockouts, Pimblett showed this year that he is the whole package. On the microphone or in the cage, he truly does have the potential to be the UFC’s next big thing.

And for that reason, he wins our award for debutant to a major promotion of the year.  

Honourable mentions: Casey O’Neill and Manon Fiorot (UFC); Usman Nurmagomedov (Bellator); Ok Rae Yoon (ONE Championship)

William Makepeace

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