Bleacher Report 2021 MMA Awards: Best Card

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2021

Fans await the next fight during a UFC 261 mixed martial arts event, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Jacksonville, Fla. It is the first UFC event since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to feature a full crowd in attendance. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)
Gary McCullough/Associated Press

It's been a good year to be a fight fan.

Not only has 2021 been filled to the rafters with high-end main events that delivered on their positioning, but there have also been several cards whose lineups yielded an entire night's worth of competitive combative titillation.

Fight Night shows topped by Max Holloway's defeat of Yair Rodriguez and Jose Aldo's win over Rob Font were noteworthy on premium cable, not to mention particularly compelling pay-per-view extravaganzas labeled UFC 257, 264, 266, 267, 268 and 269, respectively.

But there's something special about being first.

Though the UFC 261 card on April 24 was already the promotion's fifth pay-per-view (and 14th overall show) of the year, it marked the first time in precisely 413 days—since UFC 248 in Las Vegas on March 7, 2020—that a capacity crowd was in attendance to witness the bouts firsthand.

After that long a pause, Dana White and Co. were ready to pull out all the stops.

Fans arriving to the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, were greeted by a pre-show hype video that ended with a simple "Welcome Back," and by the time the perpetually tuxedoed Bruce Buffer arrived in the center of the Octagon, removed his mask and barked his trademark "We are live!" at 6:20 p.m., it was a good thing the roof's integrity wasn't in question.

Gary McCullough/Associated Press

Even in a not-yet-full building, it was a chill-worthy moment.

But it wasn't just ambience that made it 2021's best event.

The 13-bout show featured three title fights atop a crowded bill, including a welterweight championship rematch between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal that was a runback of a match on Fight Island that Masvidal famously took on less than a week's notice in July 2020.

In fact, the docket was so stacked that flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko's defense against No. 1 contender Jessica Andrade wasn't even the co-main event. That tag was saved for strawweight titleholder Zhang Weili, who was set to risk her belt against challenger Rose Namajunas.

Beforehand, the main card also had ex-middleweight champ Chris Weidman (against Uriah Hall) and former light heavyweight title challenger Anthony Smith (against Jimmy Crute) in the first two bouts, and the prelim portion featured the likes of Brendan Allen and Randy Brown.

Even Jake Paul, just a week after his dispatch of ex-UFC competitor Ben Askren, was in the building as the target of obscenity-laced chants from the crowd and a brief finger-pointing fly-by from Daniel Cormier. 

Turns out the fights were every bit as good as the names.

Usman's one-punch erasure of Masvidal in the second round of their encounter was the year's best KO in a pay-per-view spotlight setting, though it wasn't too far ahead of the leg-kick finish Namajunas laid on Weili to begin the second title run of her career after an 18-month reign from 2017 to 2019.

"Jacksonville, Florida, you all said you wanted violence. You're welcome," Usman said. "I told everyone I'm still getting better. The sky's the limit for me."

As for Shevchenko, she landed 32 significant strikes and completed seven takedowns in seven attempts in just more than eight minutes to make the fifth successful defense of her 125-pound belt.

"I like to surprise people. I can do everything," she said. "For anyone who's studying me and looking for a weakness, don't waste your time. There is none."

A positively ebullient Smith cruised to the cage to Mark Morrison's perpetually catchy "Return of the Mack," signing hats and mingling with fans before landing a late first-round kick behind Crute's left knee that prompted the Aussie to wobble back to his stool and ultimately rendered him unable to compete in the second.

It was the second in what's now a three-fight streak for Smith, who dropped a decision to Jon Jones at UFC 235 in March 2019.

"We're just building," he said. "Even at 32 years old and 51 fights in, I'm still out here getting better."

As for Weidman, his highlight was certainly memorable and undeniably painful.

He launched a right kick that Hall checked with his left knee, then screamed in pain as his lower leg appeared to cleanly break and sent him tumbling to the floor.

Medical personnel immediately entered and Weidman was taken away on a stretcher—giving Hall an anticlimactic TKO win after just 17 seconds over an opponent who had beaten him by knockout in 2010 before either made it to the UFC.

A replay was shown twice in the arena, and the crowd gasped at the gruesomeness of the injury, particularly as Weidman lurched forward and his leg flopped sickeningly under him.

"I got nothing but respect for Chris Weidman," Hall said. "It's crazy how we ended up here again. I wanted to put on a great performance. I hope he's OK. I wish the family well. I know they're watching.

"I hope he can come back."

Weidman's career status remains up in the air.

But by the time the arena lights dimmed in April, White himself suggested that Octagonal normalcy—at various points on the giddy/ghastly continuumhad already returned.

"I don't think it gets any better than tonight," he said.

"I mean, you couldn't have a better night than tonight. I mean, I don't know how you guys felt, but the whole night was a 'holy s--t' night.

"It was amazing. The crowd was amazing. The fights were amazing."