Bleacher Report 2021 MMA Awards: Best Fighter

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterDecember 30, 2021

Kamaru Usman
Kamaru UsmanLeon Bennett/Getty Images

There's no need to bury the lede. In MMA, 2021 was the year of Kamaru Usman. He is the fighter of the year from any conceivable non-trolling point of view.

Take a look at the evidence; the argument makes itself. And yet there's a lot more to it than what's captured in the proverbial box score.

But let's start with the hard numbers: three fights on the year, a busy one by any measure, all against the elites of the welterweight division, and three successful title defenses to show for it. It brought his overall record to 20-1 and 15-0 in the UFC. With the three W's, Usman leap-frogged Georges St-Pierre into second position on the list of longest UFC winning streaks. He's now just one behind the legend Anderson Silva for the longest streak ever.

The year Usman had placed him comfortably atop the MMA mountain, sitting No. 1 on every major pound-for-pound ranking, including Bleacher Report's.

But as we noted, the pure factual evidence doesn't do it justice. Usman made career highlights and exorcised nagging demons, both personal and professional. Each fight told its own story.

Who could forget his first fight of the year back in February? Usman kicked off his year by reducing Gilbert Burns to helpless tears. It was a little jarring to watch the mahogany-carved Burns, one of the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu players in the world, sobbing uncontrollably on the shoulder of his friend and former training partner.

Even after that impressive third-round TKO, Usman felt the need to do a little salesmanship on the mic.

"I'm the varsity guy," Usman said. "My fight IQ is different."

Usman had long fought with a chip on his shoulder, perpetually engaged in a Jordanesque feud with The Haters, those dastardly malcontents who wouldn't put respect on his name no matter what he did. To be fair, although his beef with the world sometimes felt a little forced, throughout his career plenty of people have labeled Usman "boring" thanks to his clinch-heavy style. With his destruction of Burns, Usman went a long way toward shaking that monkey off his back.

In April, he shook it all the way off.

Usman was widely expected to dispatch Jorge Masvidal in their rematch, which served as the main event of UFC 261. Usman won the first go-around, albeit with a lot of wrestling and control (i.e., "boring") time—more than half of each round, UFC data show. That's extremely impressive, but it's not going to land you on many highlight packages.

That made UFC 261 a natural opportunity for Usman to amend the record.

And amend he did, with extreme prejudice, burying the rivalry and Masvidal himself deep underground with a second-round overhand right from the outer solar system. You don't see the street-fighting legend Masvidal knocked clean out often—in fact, this was only the second time anyone's done it—but Usman got it done.

Usman (right) hits Masvidal
Usman (right) hits MasvidalGary McCullough/Associated Press

"With my fundamentals, I am the pound-for-pound best fighter on the planet right now," Usman said afterward.

He was stating a fact. At this point, any remaining haters were quietly exiting out the back, melting into the woodwork to await another, more vulnerable victim.

Even UFC President Dana White, who has publicly taken issue with Usman before, was quick to give the champ his flowers.

"[Usman is] one of the best ever, and he's on his way to probably being the greatest of all time," White said after the fight. "When you go in and you beat the guys who are looked at as the best in the world at that time and you beat them twice and you beat them convincingly, it's all part of cementing that legacy that this guy is going to have some day."

(Regarding White's best-ever comment, Usman is in the unfortunate position of competing in the same bracket as St-Pierre, who gets many votes in the MMA GOAT conversation. It could be that for all his greatness, Usman is not even the all-time best in his own weight class, at least not yet. But that's a topic for another day.)

Rivalries added yet another layer of intrigue to Usman's year. The crushing of Masvidal was just the first. The other, of course, was the grudge match with Colby Covington, whom Usman out-gutted in November for a close but clear unanimous-decision win.

This may have been the toughest fight of the three. Usman won the original with a fifth-round TKO, but not before Covington fought well enough to take rounds off the champ—probably the last person to do so unless you're a slightly toasted Masvidal fan watching their initial encounter.

The Athletic @TheAthletic

Usman dropped Covington TWICE in Round 2 👀 #UFC268 🎥 @ufc https://t.co/kB2gcBEDEl

Let the record be clear: there was genuine bad blood between these fighters. Whereas the Masvidal rivalry was renewed for the cameras and paychecks, Usman-Covington II rode a natural wave of mutual disdain.

Covington challenged Usman every step of the way, taking multiple rounds on two of the three judges' scorecardsUsman knocked down Covington early, but the challenger hung in there, showing toughness and endurance to outland the champ for long stretches, including a clear win in the fourth round. Usman did enough to get his hand raised, though, taking a 48-47, 48-47, 49-46 decision.

"I gotta give it up," Usman said when addressing Covington after the fight. "There's a lot of trash talk. There's a lot of bad blood here, and I'm sure there's still going to be some after tonight, but this guy's a tough son of a b---h. He's tough as s--t."

There was a little something for everyone in Usman's year, wasn't there? Two big knockouts, and near-misses in the other. A sky-high fight IQ that, if it still results in the deliberate at times, now has a demonstrated nose for blood when presented with even a faint whiff of opportunity.

For every hole in Usman's legacy, one of these wins was the perfect spackle. Victories came against friends and enemies alike. Not one but two rivalries ended with his hand in the air. And all of it occurred in UFC pay-per-view main events. The glare from those lights gets awfully bright, but in 2021 Usman kept his shades in place. That means staying power.

Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

That's why Usman is an absolute lay-up for fighter of 2021. This was a wild year in MMA, with great fights and new fighters and memories at every turn. Usman and his greatness were the constant. You have to wonder who can stop him in 2022, or if he can somehow match or even exceed the remarkable year he's just had. It will be every fight fan's privilege to find out.