TGIFighting: Our Midyear MMA Awards—Best Fighter, Fight, Beatdown and More

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJuly 2, 2021

Kamaru Usman
Kamaru UsmanAlex Menendez/Getty Images

Welcome back to TGIFighting, where we typically preview the weekend's combat sports action and make wry observations about the relevant MMA news of the day. Ready? Let us proceed. 

With the July 4 holiday rolling in, and with no UFC or other major card on the docket this weekend, it's time to break out the hot dogs and the apple pie and hoist a can of something cold in honor of the best MMA fighters and performances of the first half of 2021.

These are our picks for the best fighter, fight, knockout, submission and beatdown of the year. So light up a sparkler and enjoy.


Fighter of the year: Kamaru Usman 

Kamaru Usman (19-1) sits atop the Fight Matrix pound-for-pound rankings for all of MMA. At the beginning of the year, he was No. 3 on the same list. That's a pretty significant rise, as it's not so easy to leapfrog other fighters in that rarefied air.

In February, the UFC welterweight champ chewed up and spit out buddy and former training partner Gilbert Burns (19-4), the jiu-jitsu champion who is sitting at No. 2 in the official UFC division rankings. Usman switched stances and pumped a heavy jab to help set up the huge right hand in the third round that marked the beginning of the end. It was so intense that Burns literally wept on his old friend's shoulder after the bout's conclusion. 

UFC @ufc

Once friends, then foes. Usman & Burns embrace at the conclusion on #UFC258 🤝 https://t.co/uwPdtWQfHT

But Usman wasn't done. After the fight, he called for (and subsequently received) a rematch with Jorge Masvidal (35-15). That bout saw the same end result as the first, only this time Usman didn't need all five rounds to wear down Masvidal with wrestling. This time, he ended things in the second round with another one of those monstrous right hands.

Masvidal always talks a good game, but he didn't have much to say after this one, noting simply that Usman's "got my number, man." If you know anything about Jorge Masvidal, you know how hard it must have been for him to say that, how utterly out of options he must have been for that thought to even occur to him as a personal realization, much less a public soundbite. 

Usman (left) hits Jorge Masvidal
Usman (left) hits Jorge MasvidalAlex Menendez/Getty Images

There are other claimants. Rose Namajunas (10-4) continued to inspire with her underdog head-kick knockout of Zhang Weili (21-2) to capture the UFC strawweight title. New lightweight champ Charles Oliveira (31-8 1 NC) has a case as well, as does Brandon Moreno (19-5-2), whose win over Deveison Figureido (20-2-1) made him the flyweight champ and the first Mexican-born fighter to hold a UFC title.

But none of them hold a candle to Usman, whose two knockout title defenses in the span of six months solidified him as an all-time legend in the sport. 


Fight of the year: Beneil Dariush vs. Diego Ferreira

When Beneil Dariush (21-4-1) and Diego Ferriera (17-4) squared off in February, it was a clash of two men looking to get over the hump of relative anonymity and step into the limelight. 

It was a back-and-forth affair, with standout grappling at its core. But that's not to say there weren't electric striking exchanges. This one had a bit of everything. Dariush crumpled Ferreira with a nasty body shot in the first. 

Diego Ferreira (left) and Beneil Dariush
Diego Ferreira (left) and Beneil DariushChris Unger/Getty Images

But Ferreira stormed back with his own barrage. In the second, which took place mainly on the ground, Ferreira went for submission after submission, with Dariush's own grappling wizardry just enough to keep him out of the danger zone.

The third was a pure slugfest. With both men gassing, they emptied their tanks for a nailbiting finish to the pivotal round. The final judges' scores were 29-28, 28-29 and 29-28 for Dariush.

All Access MMA @AllAccessMMA247

These guys are swinging early as Dariush hurts Ferreira to the body. Excellent fight on the main card! #UFC #UFCVegas18 https://t.co/LAoIaGprYL

The stakes played themselves out when Dariush springboarded to a co-main event with fan favorite and top contender Tony Ferguson (25-6), another great fight Dariush went on to win by unanimous decision.

This fight increased the stock of both men, though, as both took home a $50,000 bonus and now sit solidly within the lightweight division's official top 15. (Dariush at No. 3 and Ferreira at No. 12). Ferreira also may get his own turn with Ferguson next.

Cory Sandhagen (left) lands a knee on Frankie Edgar
Cory Sandhagen (left) lands a knee on Frankie EdgarHandout/Getty Images

KO of the year: Cory Sandhagen vs. Frankie Edgar

Landing a flying knee is impressive enough in its own right. Using one to score a knockout is a rare and beautiful flower indeed. Using one to score a knockout of a former champion is on another level.

That's where Cory Sandhagen (14-2) found himself after starching Frankie Edgar (24-9-1) back in February in only 28 seconds of the first round. 

Eng. Al Audhli العوذلي @alaudhli

Another angle of Cory Sandhagen’s KO against Frankie Edgar at #UFCVegas18 https://t.co/gDGdPEfJrj

Upon contact, Edgar stiffened and toppled over like an old mailbox in a wind storm. It was savage enough to earn Edgar a trip to the hospital and temporary memory loss. 

That's MMA for you, I guess. Inside the cage, Sandhagen's knee was art, a peerless expression of the violent grace this sport can provide. And as such, he deserves his flowers. We'll see how he does on July 24, when he faces former champion TJ Dillashaw (16-4), arguably the best bantamweight of the past five years.

Paul Craig (bottom) locks up the arm of Jamahal Hill
Paul Craig (bottom) locks up the arm of Jamahal HillJeff Bottari/Getty Images

Submission of the year: Paul Craig's Armbar From Hades

I've watched thousands of fights in my day, but I've never seen anything like the arm of Jamahal Hill (8-1 1 NC) after Paul Craig (15-4-1) was finished with it.

It dangled like a dying fire hose, with Hill actually having to hold it up with his other arm. Thankfully it was "only" a dislocation, with nothing broken, but I'm still a little mystified as to how that could have been the case.

Jamahal Hill after the armar from Paul Craig
Jamahal Hill after the armar from Paul CraigJeff Bottari/Getty Images

Credit to Hill for his toughness, but even more props to Craig for the gnarliest submission of 2021 to date.

Max Holloway (left) hits Calvin Kattar
Max Holloway (left) hits Calvin KattarJeff Bottari/Getty Images

Best beatdown: Max Holloway and poor Calvin Kattar

"I'm the best boxer in the UFC, baby!" 

Not only did Max Holloway (22-6) make that claim, he did so directly to the UFC broadcast team. During the fight. As he was evading Calvin Kattar's (22-5) punches. Without looking.

Are you going to argue with Holloway on this? Because I'm not going to. Especially after remembering that he landed a titanic 445 significant strikes in the contest, per UFC stats. That's a record. Another record? The shockingly lopsided judges' scorecards—50-43, 50-43, 50-42—tied a record set by the immortal Rich Franklin back in 2006.

UFC Canada @UFC_CA

"I''M THE BEST BOXER IN THE UFC!" Max Holloway is an ANIMAL 😤 #UFCFightIsland7 #InAbuDhabi @VisitAbuDhabi https://t.co/HvLUHzjwoH

Give Kattar credit for gameness in the face of this styling. He landed 133 strikes of his own, which is pretty hard to overshadow. But Holloway did it. It could have been anyone, bro. The former featherweight champ seemed bent on reasserting his presence at the top of the division. Well, mission accomplished.


The Stone Cold Lead Pipe Lock of the Week will return when there are MMA cards to bet on again. Try not to weep too much.