Bleacher Report 2021 MMA Awards: Best Fight

Tom Taylor@@TomTayMMAContributor IIDecember 21, 2021

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 06: (R-L) Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler trade punches in their lightweight fight during the UFC 268 event at Madison Square Garden on November 06, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

2021 has been kind to fight fans. Despite the ongoing challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, the year gave us multiple fights that will stand the test of time. We'll probably still be talking about some of them long after the pandemic has finally and mercifully come to pass.   

Flip back through the MMA calendar and you'll see what we mean. By the end of March, we'd already seen Max Holloway vs. Calvin Kattar and Dustin Poirier vs. Conor McGregor II. By the end of June, we'd enjoyed Jiri Prochazka vs. Dominick Reyes and Charles Oliveira vs. Michael Chandler. By September's end, we'd been treated to TJ Dillashaw vs. Cory Sandhagen and Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega.

Yet the fight that stands out as the best of 2021 didn't occur until the final quarter of the year. We're not talking about Petr Yan vs. Cory Sandhagen—though that was definitely an excellent fight. We're talking, as many readers undoubtedly guessed when they opened this article, about Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler. 

Gaethje and Chandler, the former World Series of Fighting and Bellator lightweight champions, respectively, met on the main card of the stacked UFC 268 event on November 6, inside New York City's hallowed Madison Square Garden.

The bout was Gaethje's first since he was choked out by Khabib Nurmagomedov in a failed bid for the lightweight title in late 2020. Chandler, meanwhile, had recently been knocked out in a fight with Charles Oliveira, failing in the process to claim the throne Nurmagomedov vacated when he retired after beating Gaethje. Given the circumstances, victory was crucial for both men, as a loss would send the vanquished fighter skittering right out of title contention. 

Despite the ramifications of defeat, Gaethje and Chandler fought as if they'd never heard the word before, crashing into each other within moments of the opening bell. Cage-side commentator Joe Rogan was forecasting a finish before the first round was over—without specifying who he thought would win, which should give you a sense of the kind of fight that was unfolding in the Octagon.  

"This may not last," Rogan said. "Gaethje and Chandler are throwing bombs."

Gaethje and Chandler continued throwing bombs into Round 2. Gaethje, however, was becoming the increasingly successful party, thrashing his rival's legs with kicks and even scoring a big knockdown with an uppercut. Yet Chandler never went away. The former Bellator champion continued to throw everything he had at Gaethje—even in the face of widening odds—and took everything Gaethje had to offer in return. By the time the 15-minute fight was over, the pair had attempted over 400 significant strikes combined and landed over 100 apiece.

"Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler are now connected forever," play-by-play commentator Jon Anik said at the conclusion of the 15-minute fight, as the two lightweights both paraded around the Octagon with their hands held high in triumph.

In the end, as most readers will know, Gaethje was awarded a justified unanimous decision win. Chandler, however, can't fairly be called a loser. He seems to recognize as much, too. 

"It's definitely the first time in my career that I didn't care whether I won or lost, for some reason," Chandler told ESPN a little less than a month removed from the fight.

"I also didn't hear my coaches for the entire 15 minutes," he added. "Could not hear a thing, so I was out there by myself, unfortunately, and when I'm left to my own devices, a lot of ill-advised things happen. But they were entertaining. So the fans won that fight." 

Gaethje and Chandler's wild aggression and toughness alone were enough to earn their fight a place on pretty much everybody's Fight of the Year list. What helped push it to the top of our list, however, is that it exceeded pre-fight expectations—expectations that frankly seemed impossible to meet ahead of time.

Gaethje and Chandler were both regarded among the most exciting fighters in modern MMA long before they ever collided in the Octagon in New York City this past November. Both men had proven, fight-ending knockout power. Both had flaunted incredible durability and bottomless heart in multiple fights. Knowing all of that, we all expected something truly incredible from their fight—to the point that it could have been pretty good and still left fans disappointed. But that's not what happened. Instead, this booking that looked like it could result in the best fight of 2021 ultimately became exactly that.

There's no two ways about it. Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler is Bleacher Report's 2021 Fight of the Year.