Dana White wasn’t shy about discussing the UFC’s success in 2021. The company generated the most money in its history, with mega-sponsorship deals with the likes of Crypto.com and DraftKings, among others. It sold the most pay-per-views it ever has.
On the business front, it was a grand slam home run in 2021 for the UFC.
Thankfully, though, there was success in the Octagon, as well. As a collective, the UFC may never have had as many outstanding fights in a single 12-month period as it had in 2021.
But there were some downsides to the year in MMA, as well. COVID, of course, wreaked havoc with fight cards all over the world. Neither Jon Jones nor Joanna Jedrzejczyk fought in the year.
Here are some things I loved about MMA in 2021, others I wasn’t so keen on and things I’d like to see change in 2022:
Herb Dean got the yips
Veteran referee Herb Dean is probably shoulder to shoulder with John McCarthy as the greatest referee in MMA history. But in 2021, Dean had a bad year and he got what in golf is described as the yips.
For some reason, Dean became indecisive on when or whether to stop fights. He’d jump in, touch the fighters as if he were stopping a fight and then change his mind and let it go on.
Someone could get badly hurt in those scenarios.
Dean has always been decisive, authoritative and, more often than not, correct in his decisions on whether to stop a bout. That began to change in 2021. Hopefully, it was just a blip, because Dean is important to this sport.
There is a dearth of elite referees and he’s been the best of the best, the Michael Jordan or LeBron James of MMA refs. We need that guy back in 2022, not the indecisive, uncertain guy we inexplicably saw at times in 2021.
The inexplicable disappearance of A.J. McKee
After A.J. McKee made short work of Patricio “Pitbull” Freire and submitted him in the first round of their bout at Bellator 263 on July 31, there were plenty of highly knowledgeable MMA experts who were openly wondering if McKee were the sport’s top featherweight.
Bellator needs stars and McKee seemed to be one: An elite talent who was unquestioned and a charismatic personality that could make him the face of the promotion.
After that dynamic performance over Freire, McKee just faded away. There was talk in August about whether McKee was better than UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski. After Volkanovski defeated Brian Ortega in a compelling fight at UFC 266 in September, not much was heard of McKee.
Bellator needed to get McKee out there at least once more in 2021 and it did not. After fighting four times in 2017 and three times each in 2018 and 2019, McKee fought once each in 2020 and 2021.
This guy is a potential superstar and face of the promotion. He can’t be that if he fights once a year.
The rise of the UFC’s heavyweight division
The UFC has never had a deeper heavyweight crop than it has now. At the top is champion Francis Ngannou, interim champion Ciryl Gane and former champion Stipe Miocic.
Behind them are the always entertaining Derrick Lewis, now the UFC’s knockout king, Curtis Blaydes and Alexander Volkov. But young fighters like Tom Aspinall and Chris Daukaus emerged, and Tai Tuivasa was unleashed and was received as a fan favorite at UFC 269 in December.
And that doesn’t include Jones, the former light heavyweight champion who will compete at heavyweight in 2022, adding yet another superstar into the mix.
Ngannou and Gane will fight for the undisputed title at UFC 270 on Jan. 22, which should set the stage for an incredible year for heavyweights in 2022.
The importance of mixed in mixed martial arts
There was a time, not so long ago, where MMA fights were viewed as wrestler versus boxer, jiu-jitsu player versus kickboxer and so on.
But quick, what is Kamaru Usman? Yeah, he was an elite college wrestler, but after watching the way the UFC welterweight champion threw hands in 2021 against Gilbert Burns, Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington, are you going to say he’s just a wrestler? Nah. He’s a mixed martial artist.
We’re seeing that throughout the sport. Fighters are more well-rounded than ever and more versed in all aspects of the game.
Emergence of new talent in 2021
Several UFC fighters made big steps forward in 2021 and have the right stuff to be big stars and draws.
The most obvious is Sean O’Malley, who knows how to capture fan interest and who is showing more and more with each outing that he’s capable of doing big things.
Moreso than O’Malley, though, was the arrival on the scene of Jiri Prochazka, the Czech light heavyweight who only has two UFC bouts to his credit but who could win the light heavyweight title his next time out.
Prochazka is a dynamic striker whose spinning back elbow KO of Dominick Reyes in May is one of the best you’ll ever see. Like McKee, Prochazka needs to be more active, and if he is, he’ll be hugely popular.
Giga Chikadze has been in the UFC since 2019, but his wins over Cub Swanson and Edson Barboza in 2021 made a big statement and he’s going to be a significant featherweight factor in 2022.
German featherweight Ilia Topuria is only 24 and not as dynamic as Chikadze, but he’s already shown star-power. He’s 3-0 in the UFC with two KOs, including one against jiu-jitsu ace Ryan Hall.
Topuria could make a big name for himself in 2022.
Lightweight Rafael Fiziev is another unbelievable talent in the crowded lightweight division. After impressive 2021 wins over Bobby Green and Brad Riddell, look for Fiziev to be in the mix for bigger bouts next year.
Ian Garry, Paddy Pimblett, Erin Blanchfield, Sean Brady and Sean Strickland all are fighters who could take huge steps in 2022.
Khamzat is in a category by himself
Welterweight Khamzat Chimaev could have been one of the fighters included in the category above. But Chimaev, who missed much of the year while battling the side effects of COVID, is too unique and too good to be lumped with others.
He is incredibly strong physically and an amazing and powerful wrestler who hits hard enough to KO middleweights with one punch.
But he’s a superb smack-talker who knows how to play to the crowd. He’s only 4-0 in the UFC but will be fighting the elite of the welterweights in 2022.
Fights I want to see in 2022
• Nate Diaz versus Dustin Poirier.
• Jones versus the Ngannou-Gane winner.
• Conor McGregor versus Tony Ferguson.
• Covington versus Masvidal.
• McGregor versus Diaz III.
• Chimaev versus anyone ranked in the UFC's top 10 at welterweight or middleweight. The guy is awesome and so fun to watch.