2021 MMA Fight of the Year: Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler an instant classic

The secret sauce that makes the UFC what it is is something that Dana White and Co. hold tight. Among the many things the UFC president has accomplished, he’s found a way to get his fighters to compete in the most fan-friendly style possible.

There was an old saying in boxing that some still live by: “Win today and look good tomorrow.”

White, though, scoffs at such a narrative and has found a way to get his fighters to lay it on the line more often than not.

He’s not telling for the same reasons the bosses of the Coca-Cola Company aren’t revealing the secret formula to the world’s most popular soft drink.

But 2021 was spectacular throughout MMA, though two fights stand well above the others.

Both, coincidentally, involve the same man, though in some ways and in some places, UFC lightweight Michael Chandler should be the Fighter of the Year.

Chandler, after all, is the guy who gave us a pair of epic bouts for the lightweight title. In May at UFC 262, he fought Charles Oliveira for the vacant title. It was back and forth for the entire fight. It was Chandler on top, then Oliveira, then Chandler and then Oliveira.

It was fast-paced, had plenty of near-finishes and had a dramatic ending.

Oliveira won and became lightweight champion when he knocked out Chandler early in the second round.

As good as that one was, though, it was only Chandler’s second-best fight of the year. The winner of the 2021 Yahoo Sports Fight of the Year was Chandler’s bout at Madison Square Garden at UFC 268 with Justin Gaethje.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 06: (R-L) Justin Gaethje punches Michael Chandler 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)
Michael Chandler and Justin Gaethje went toe-to-toe for three epic rounds at UFC 268 in November. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Gaethje won a decision in a typically wild Gaethje fight. Chandler tried to fight Gaethje’s frenetic, all-out, super aggressive style and while he pulled it off admirably, all he had for his efforts at the end of the day was another loss.

But it was a bout for the ages, one that ranks among the best UFC fights ever and had as many momentum changes and jaw-dropping moments as you’re likely to see in a month.

It’s one of those fights you’ll want to watch over and over.

MMA Fight of the Year honorable mentions

• Alexander Volkanovski retained the featherweight title with a unanimous decision over Brian Ortega at UFC 266, but it wasn’t easy. Ortega nearly choked Volkanovski out. Ortega went the distance despite broken bones in his face. The action was high-quality and fast-paced. One of the best fights in a long time.

• Sean O’Malley defeated Kris Moutinho with a unanimous decision at UFC 264. This is one of those fights that brought you out of your seat, if only to try to look closer and see if Moutinho is actually human. O’Malley hit him with everything but a sledgehammer and Moutinho kept coming, leading to a wild slugfest.

• Jiri Prochazka KO2 Dominick Reyes at UFC Fight Night on May 1: If you forget about the wild ending, which came when Prochazka caught Reyes with a spinning back elbow, it was still a sensational fight. Then you add in that wild and violent knockout and, well, it’s one of the best bouts of the year.

• Max Holloway won a unanimous decision over Yair Rodriguez at UFC Fight Night on Nov. 13: This fight had everything, fighting on the ground and on the feet, kicks, punches, knees, elbows, submissions of all types. It was fast-paced and didn’t end. If you want to make your skeptical friend an MMA fan for life, show them this bout.

• Max Holloway won a unanimous decision over Calvin Kattar at UFC on ABC 1 on Jan. 16: Much like O’Malley versus Moutinho, one of the lasting memories of this bout is how Kattar took the shots that Holloway doled out. It was one of the first fights of the year and stood the test of time as one of the best.

• Paul Daley KO2 Sabah Homasi at Bellator 257 on April 16, 2021: The bell rang and these two began trying, and nearly succeeding, to knock each other out. The KO finally came at 1:44 of the second round courtesy of a crushing left hook by Daley.

• Petr Yan UD Corey Sandhagen at UFC 267 on Oct. 30: Sandhagen fought a superb, high-energy fight, but Yan fought a better, even more high-energy fight. The action was endless and varied and had fans on their feet throughout.