UFC had a banner year in 2021, churning out events nearly every week at a tumultuous time in the world of sports. The Octagon served as a proving ground for many UFC fighters. New champions were crowned, existing titleholders defended their thrones and fallen heroes reclaimed glory once more.
The Fighter of the Year debate was fierce in 2021. Some came to prominence over the course of 12 months, while others expanded on legacy-building runs. Arguments over who deserved ultimate recognition were almost as fierce as the fights themselves.
A panel of CBS Sports experts sat down to vote on our picks for fighter, knockout and fight of the year, with some very interesting results. Take a look below at who was crowned the 2021 UFC Fighter of the Year.
Awards as voted on by Brian Campbell, Brent Brookhouse, Brandon Wise and Shakiel Mahjouri.
Fighter of the Year
Winner: Kamaru Usman — 3-0 (def. Gilbert Burns, Jorge Masvidal, Colby Covington)
Kamaru Usman spent 2021 closing the gap between he and Georges St-Pierre in the “Greatest Welterweight of All-Time” debate. Usman notched three impressive wins against Burns, Masvidal and Covington, showing off his championship mettle. Against Burns, he faced the early adversity of a knockdown before taking over the fight and finishing him. Against Masvidal, “The Nigerian Nightmare” delivered a picture-perfect knockout punch over one of welterweight’s best boxers. Finally, Usman again turned back Covington — who appears to be the clear second-best welterweight in the UFC — in a wildly competitive fight.
Second place: Charles Oliveira 2-0 (def. Michael Chandler, Dustin Poirier)
The 2021 Fighter of the Year battle was fiercely contested between Usman and Oliveira. This year’s award was a coin toss between two men deeply deserving of the honor. While Usman eked ahead among CBS Sports’ panel, there is no doubt Oliveira accomplished something remarkable. Oliveira made good on an 11-year UFC journey to lightweight gold. A decade-plus comeback was dotted with smaller comebacks in tough fights against Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier. “Do Bronx” was something of an afterthought in the lightweight title picture when Khabib Nurmagomedov retired in 2020. One year later, the dangerously diverse Oliveira is the undisputed king of 155 with meaningful wins over the division’s elite.
Third place: Rose Namajunas 2-0 (def. Zhang Weili x2)
Rose Namajunas tells herself she is the best and it is hard to deny the UFC strawweight champion. Namajunas showed renewed focus and fortitude with a head-kick knockout of Zhang Weili in April to reclaim her throne. Much like her two fights with Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Namajunas confirmed her status as head of the table in a competitive decision rematch against the powerful Zhang.
Others receiving votes:
- UFC interim heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane fell just shy of the top three, but impressive wins over Derrick Lewis, Alexander Volkov and Jairzinho Rozenstruik set him up for a massive 2022 should he dethrone heavyweight king Francis Ngannou in January.
- Shevchenko completed her third year of terror as UFC women’s flyweight champion. Wins over Lauren Murphy and Jessica Andrade placed her at No. 5 on the list, but the “more of the same” tone of her dominance may have contributed to her lower ranking.
- Julianna Pena top-and-tailed the year with rear-naked choke wins over Sara McMann and Amanda Nunes. It is the latter, dubbed by some as the greatest upset in UFC history, that pushed Pena into the 2021 Fighter of the Year running.