5. Ray Cooper III
There was some fierce competition for this spot. I’d initially whittled it down to either Rose Namajunas for her two wins over Zhang Weili or Chris Curtis for his two massive UFC upsets, but I think I have to give it to “Bradda Boy.” Four wins in six months, three of them upsets over beasts like Nikolay Aleksakhin, Rory MacDonald and Magomed Magomedkerimov, the last of whom had beaten Cooper in the 2018 finals. Can’t argue with that kind of resume.
4. Ciryl Gane
“Bon Gamin” has long looked like the Next Big Thing (tm) at Heavyweight, but a series of fight cancelations in 2020 blunted his momentum. It’s safe to say that he made up for lost time this year, going undefeated (3-0) against some of the most dangerous customers in the division.
Even if most of us would rather forget that fight with Jairzinho Rozenstruik.
Gane thankfully put on more of a show against Alexander Volkov, outworking the towering Russian to a unanimous decision win in their June main event. He truly shined in his subsequent interim title fight against Derrick Lewis, however, as he thoroughly dismantled one of the most dangerous men in the game en route to a third-round stoppage.
His upcoming “unification” clash with Francis Ngannou is easily among the best on the schedule, and it will be fascinating to see whether Gane’s technical wizardry can match his countryman’s power. No matter the outcome, he’ll have an incredible 2021 to look back on.
3. Julianna Pena
I doubt it surprised many when “Venezuelan Vixen” pulled off a comeback rear-naked choke finish of Sara McMann in January, as the former Olympic silver medalist has some of the most consistently ineffective submission defense in the game. The same can’t be said about her stunning war with Amanda Nunes this month, which saw Pena defy some of the most lopsided odds in modern history to tap “The Lioness” late in the second.
It’s been eight setback-filled years since Pena ran the table on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 18. To see her finally claim gold in such an unexpected fashion is impressive, to say the least.
2. Charles Oliveira
Speaking of slow burns, how about “Do Bronx” finally putting it together after a decade in the Octagon? Oliveira bounced back from 2-4 (1 NC) and 2-4 skids to emerge as the undisputed ruler of arguably UFC’s most stacked division.
The “how” is even more impressive. Oliveira had long been a frontrunner, prone to collapse in fights that slipped away from him, but he put that habit firmly behind him by surviving knockdowns from both Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier en route to stoppage wins. You cannot question this man’s heart anymore.
It’s so rare to see a prospect seemingly flame out, only to finally fulfill the potential we saw in them so long ago. Well done, Charles.
1. Kamaru Usman
Was there any doubt?
Usman was the only UFC champion to make three defenses of his title, all of which came against some of the best in his division. He put the borderline indestructible Jorge Masvidal to sleep with a “Knockout of the Year”-worthy right hand, beat a surging Gilbert Burns into submission, and turned aside a spirited effort from his greatest rival in Colby Covington to end the year strong. It was an absolute banner year for the “Nigerian Nightmare,” who more than earned his place at the top of this list.
- Rose Namajunas
- Islam Makhachev
- Valentina Shevchenko
- Chris Curtis
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