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MixedMartialArts.com's 2021 MMA fighter of the year

fighter of the year

In a decision that differs from some other sites' choice for MMA fighter of the year, The Underground forum army felt that UFC lightweight king Charles Oliveira was the best competitor in the cage in 2021.

This year several fighters had years they will never forget. Our breakout fighter of the year winner Ciryl Gane beat three top-10 heavyweights in route to becoming an interim champion. Over two title defenses, flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko once again proved why she was the GOAT of her division. Glover Teixeira defied the odds and gave the finger to father time by being the oldest man to ever win a UFC title when he choked out Jan Blachowicz at UFC 267.

And of course, welterweight king Kamaru Usman had an unforgettable 12 months in scoring victories over some of the best 170-pound fighters of this generation in Jorge Masvidal, Gilbert Burns, and Colby Covington.

2021 MMA fighter of the year: Charles Oliveira

mma fighter of the year

Dec 11, 2021; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Charles Oliveira celebrates his victory by submission against Dustin Poirier during UFC 269 at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

However, despite only fighting twice, there was something truly special about what Oliveira (32-8) did this year. Surely, his performances were memorable, but it is how he reached this point of greatness that makes his 2021 better than the rest. Because it wasn't that long ago where there was some doubt if the now-32-year-old would ever reach his potential.

"Do Bronx" entered the UFC as an absurdly young blue-chip prospect 11-years ago, and seemed like he might be the next big thing. Until he went winless in five of the next seven fights. A move down to featherweight offered a change in scenery, but that too failed when he was finished in fights against some of the best talent the division had to offer.

Oliveira's return to lightweight four years ago seemed like one last attempt at trying to unlock the key to his unlimited potential. After splitting his first two fights after returning to 155-pound it just seemed like he was meant to be a good but not great fighter. Then he won five straight and all of a sudden had a level of contender momentum he had never tasted before. He was always a talented submission artist and finisher, but now he was beating serious competition consistently.

Then he added on to his streak with wins over a former title challenger Kevin Lee and former champion Tony Ferguson to end 2020. He entered 2021 as a legit title contender deserving of a championship opportunity. But was he really world champion material? The man from Guaruja would get the chance to prove that against Bellator's greatest lightweight of all time Michael Chandler at UFC 262.

Oliveira went from contender to pound-for-pound superstar in 2021

Despite proving himself against UFC competition for over a decade, racking up records for submissions and finishes, and in the midst of an eight-fight win streak, Oliveira was not a big favorite in the fight. "Iron Mike" was considered a live underdog that many felt had an excellent chance to match Eddie Alvarez as the only fighter to hold Bellator and UFC gold.

The fight mirrored Oliveira's career in how he was knocked down and almost seemed on his way to another disappointing loss. However, he showed the mental fortitude that helped to turn his career around and he came back in the second with a fury. Turning the tables on his foe by hurting him with strikes and sending him to the canvas. The man that was viewed as one of the best grapplers in UFC history ended up becoming a champion with his striking. Who would have thought?

Despite now being the champion of the best division in the sport, the new king of the lightweight mountain still had naysayers. He entered his UFC 269 title defense against Dustin Poirier as the underdog. A nine-fight winning streak with eight finishes was not enough to sway opinions on Oliveira. Surely his early career shortcomings were a factor, but also Poirier scoring back-to-back finishes on the UFC's biggest star Conor McGregor moved the Louisiana native to the upper echelon of the sport.

Again, like the rough roads in his UFC career, the champion faced serious resistance. He was being hit with the same blows that fell 155-pound greats like McGregor, Justin Gaethje, and Alvarez. And although he was surely hurt at times, the Brazilian was undeterred by the storm and continued swimming in shark-infested striking waters. Until he eventually started smacking around Jaws and taking control of the fight.

Eventually, Oliveira would get to the pound-for-pound ranked star as he did 19 others before that night, and made his challenger say uncle and tap out.

In just two fights, Oliveira changed his career narrative from a doubted title contender to one of the best cage fighters on planet earth. And that is why he was selected as the 2021 MMA fighter of the year.