21 really cool things that happened in MMA in 2021

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·14 min read
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  • Nick Diaz
    Nick Diaz
    American mixed martial artist
  • Glover Teixeira
    Glover Teixeira
    Brazilian mixed martial artist

The nature of mixed martial arts is such that trash talk and ugliness tend to dominate the news cycle, but plenty of cool stuff still happens in our sport.

As we get set to flip the calendar to 2022, here’s a look back at 21 really cool things that happened in 2021.

Enjoy.

GSP and Nick Diaz shake hands

The rivalry between [autotag]Georges St-Pierre[/autotag] and [autotag]Nick Diaz[/autotag] dates back to well before their UFC 158 title fight on March 16, 2013, and it was heated. In the years since St-Pierre’s unanimous decision win in Montreal, the bad blood continued on – certainly from the Diaz camp, which accused GSP of using performance-enhancing drugs.

Back in March, GSP told ESPN that he wished he could’ve “made peace” with Diaz, which made it even cooler when this happened backstage at UFC 266 prior to Diaz’s long-awaited return to the octagon:

The handshake between GSP and Diaz lasted all of three seconds, but it was easily the coolest three seconds of the year.

Glover Teixeira finally wins UFC gold

Glover Teixeira

Consider [autotag]Glover Teixeira[/autotag]’s UFC journey prior to 2019 for a moment:

  • He starts out 5-0 with the promotion (part of an overall 20-fight winning streak), which leads to a light heavyweight title shot vs. then-champion Jon Jones on April 26, 2014 at UFC 176.

  • Teixeira gets dominated by Jones, who wins by unanimous decision with 50-45 scores from all three judges. Six months later, Teixeira loses his next fight to Phil Davis at UFC 179.

  • Teixeira rebounds from back-to-back setbacks in a big way, though, by winning three fights in a row – all finishes – against Ovince Saint Preux, Patrick Cummins and Rashad Evans. That puts him right back on the doorstep of another title shot, but a devastating 13-second knockout loss to Anthony Johnson ends that.

  • Teixeira would alternate wins and losses for the next two years leading into 2019.

2019 is where the resurgence happens, with Teixeira rattling off five consecutive wins in the twilight of his career to earn a second – and probably his final – shot at UFC gold against Jan Blachowicz this past Oct. 30 at UFC 267. And what do you know? Teixeira, at 42 (!), chokes out Blachowicz in the second round to cap off the unlikeliest of runs to a UFC title.

For one of the real good guys in the sport, how could you not love that?

Good guy Dustin Poirier a good guy in defeat

I’m telling you, MMA doesn’t deserve [autotag]Dustin Poirier[/autotag]. The man had just been choked out by Charles Oliveira at UFC 269, he must’ve been so heartbroken to lose in his second bid to become undisputed champion, yet there he was giving his word to donate $20,000 to a charity of Oliveira’s choice.

I’m telling you, MMA doesn’t deserve Dustin Poirier.

Bisping, Rockhold squash their beef

Almost five years since [autotag]Michael Bisping[/autotag] pulled off a stunning upset of [autotag]Luke Rockhold[/autotag] to win the middleweight title at UFC 199, the bad blood was still there between both fighters.

At least that’s what we thought until this past March when Bisping walked into RVCA Sport in Costa Mesa, Calif., and encountered Rockhold, whom he once called a “fa**ot c**ksucker” after beating him.

What happened next, nobody could’ve expected, but it happened:

https://www.instagram.com/p/CL77wTvBRnE/

Bisping later told MMA Junkie what it was like seeing Rockhold that day:

“He’s training down there with (Jason) Parillo now at RVCA, so I still get in there now and again when I can get in, have a workout, and I was kind of half expecting him to be there one day. What am I gonna do? I’m gonna walk in and be a d*ck? No, it’s water under the bridge. We shared two fights. It’s weird, you have a, I wouldn’t say bond, but you definitely shared an unforgettable experience with that person.

“I always said if I was to meet Luke under a different guise or different circumstances, we’d probably get along because he’s friends with some of people that I have a lot of respect for like Daniel Cormier. Cormier is a smart guy. He’s a good judge of character. If he likes Luke, I’m sure he can’t be that bad. So I walked in and I saw him. What are you gonna do? Are you gonna talk sh*t? I just laughed, so we shook just hands quickly, and I kidnapped his dog and put it on social media and that was that.”

Watson returns, rollin' with Bellator

How great was it to find out back in May that Burt Watson, the former UFC event coordinator of 14 years and one of the truly beloved figures of MMA, was back in the game? Bellator added the 71-year-old Watson to its staff as a site coordinator, and that was easily one of the promotion’s best signings of 2021.

Now we get to see and hear cool sh*t like this from him again:

'Khabib plz stop 4 photo'

Remember when a 66-year-old woman braved the blazing Las Vegas heat to stand outside the UFC Apex in hopes of getting a photo with [autotag]Khabib Nurmagomedov[/autotag]?

And remember when she got her photo with Khabib?

https://www.instagram.com/p/CRUq0Nqpx1h/

Yeah, that was great.

Moreno, Diaz and an unexpected bromance

Sometimes, all it takes is for two fighters to be seated next to each other for an unexpected bromance to begin. That’s what happened with Brandon Moreno and [autotag]Nate Diaz[/autotag] during the UFC 263 pre-event news conference.

What’s really great about this happening is that it led to Moreno and Diaz becoming friends and business partners.

Moreno makes UFC history for Mexico

Brandon Moreno poses for photos following his championship victory against Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 263. (Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

How many fighters get cut by the UFC but then get a second chance and come back to win a UFC championship? [autotag]Brandon Moreno[/autotag], that’s who.

Moreno, who an underdog heading into UFC 263, pulled off a stunner by submitting Deiveson Figueiredo with a rear-naked choke in the third round to claim the flyweight title and become the first Mexico-born champion in UFC history. It was so cool to see him soak in the moment before it finally hit him and brought him to tears.

The following week, Moreno received a congratulations message from legendary Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez, who spoke with MMA Junkie’s Danny Segura about the significance of Moreno’s win:

'The Last Emperor's' triumphant return

Even though it wouldn’t be my pick for Knockout of the Year, [autotag]Fedor Emelianenko[/autotag]’s finish of Tim Johnson back in October at Bellator 269 might’ve been my favorite knockout of 2021.

What an incredible moment it was to see the 45-year-old legend return after nearly two years away and score a vicious, vintage knockout in front of all his fans in Moscow.

Silva shines in boxing

Anderson Silva celebrates after winning against Julio Cesar Chávez Jr. as part of the “Tribute to the Kings” at Jalisco Stadium on June 19 in Guadalajara, Mexico. (Manuel Velasquez, Getty Images)

The way Anderson Silva left the UFC in late 2020 left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, so it was nice to see the former longtime middleweight champion find success in boxing in 2021.

First, Silva held his own against against former champion Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. to win an eight-round split decision on June 19 in Guadalajara, Mexico. Then Silva followed up that performance with a devastating first-round knockout of Tito Ortiz on Sept. 11 in Hollywood, Fla.

Silva’s first boxing win was a feel-good moment, but that second one was oh so satisfying. Watching him turn back the clock at 46 – even if it is boxing – was truly special.

USADA, NAC finally come around on marijuana

A lot of fighters have been suspended and fined a lot of money through the years because of the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in their systems from marijuana use, but thank God both the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and Nevada Athletic Commission finally came to their senses and realized in 2021 that weed isn’t a performance-enhancing drug.

First it was USADA in January:

Then Nevada got on board in July:

Rejoice!

Sanko debuts as cageside commentator

Laura Sanko

Laura Sanko has been a joy to watch as a roving reporter on UFC fight nights, but she began campaigning for an opportunity to work as a cageside commentator in late 2020. By 2021, Aug. 31 to be exact, the UFC gave her a chance when she debuted in the new role at Dana White’s Contender Series 37 alongside Dan Hellie and Paul Felder.

Sanko more than held her own. She shined that night and for the rest of her DWCS appearances in 2021. We’ll see if it leads to even bigger things for Sanko in 2022.

Weidman, Silva clear air after leg break

The freakiest thing to happen in 2021 was [autotag]Chris Weidman[/autotag] snapping his leg against Uriah Hall in April at UFC 261 the same way [autotag]Anderson Silva[/autotag] did when he fought Weidman back in December 2013 at UFC 168. It was unbelievable, really.

What came from that horrific injury, though, was something wonderful as three months later, Weidman brought Silva onto the first episode of his “Won’t Back Down” podcast to reflect on their shared experience and apologize to Silva for the way he reacted to Silva’s leg break and taking pictures with fans who asked him to pose as if he were checking a leg kick.

If you never watched it, here you go:

Ngannou receives hero's welcome in Cameroon

Francis Ngannou with the UFC heavyweight title belt in Douala. (Daniel Beloumou, Getty Images)

[autotag]Francis Ngannou[/autotag] took the long, tumultuous road to the UFC. Ngannou, who grew up in poverty Cameroon, was jailed for illegally crossing the Morocco-Spain border by sea and left homeless upon arriving in Paris where he hoped to chase his fighting dream.

Considering his inspirational story and what he’s had to endure, that made it so much more awesome to see him bring the UFC belt back to Cameroon after winning the heavyweight title from Stipe Miocic back on March 27 at UFC 260.

Ngannou received a deserving hero’s welcome upon his return. Check this out:

Sanchez breaks free of Fabia

If it wasn’t for the School of Self-Awareness founder and overall weirdo Joshua Fabia, [autotag]Diego Sanchez[/autotag] probably would still be in the UFC right now. Instead, Sanchez was released in April after Fabia went on a crusade against the UFC over Sanchez’s medical records, which involved secretly recording the promotion’s chief legal officer, Hunter Campbell, (big no-no) and then releasing their conversation.

This was not the unceremonious exit from the UFC that anyone wanted to see for Sanchez, the original Season 1 winner of “The Ultimate Fighter” who gave his blood, sweat and tears to the company for 15 years. The only good thing to come out of it was that Sanchez finally woke up and broke free from Fabia, firing him as his coach and manager after a tumultuous few years associated with his cult-like personality.

Thank God.

Schaub rescues kids from deadly crash

[autotag]Brendan Schaub[/autotag] was on his way to dinner with his girlfriend when he drove up on a horrific scene after an SUV slammed into an 18-wheeler because a husband intentionally drove the wrong way on a Los Angeles freeway with his wife and four children inside, resulting in the death of the mother.

Schaub recounted the harrowing details of rescuing the kids from the wreckage, which raised eyebrows and incurred doubt from the masses on social media – until MMA Junkie spoke with a woman who corroborated Schaub’s version of events.

This was an absolutely tragic story, but Schaub deserves kudos for springing into action in that moment. Not all heroes wear capes. Some are just podcast hosts.

Paul puts his money where his mouth is

Jake Paul. (Katelyn Mulcahy, Getty Images)

OK, so you hated [autotag]Jake Paul[/autotag]’s impact on MMA in 2021 and how he had so many fighters on the UFC roster calling him out and MMA media’s coverage of him. We get that. You probably even hate that he makes this list.

But an especially noteworthy cause Paul shined a light on this year was the issue of fighter pay. He talked about it constantly, much to the chagrin of UFC president Dana White. Paul didn’t just talk, though. He put his money where his mouth is and donated $5,000 to UFC fighter Sarah Alpar’s GoFundMe campaign she started to pay for training camp fees and living expenses.

Alpar said she was “so grateful” for Paul’s generous donation. How can you hate on that?

Valentina Shevchenko goes Hollywood

[autotag]Valentina Shevchenko[/autotag] was out there living her best life in 2021.

Not surprisingly, she kicked ass in 2021 with her fifth and sixth defenses of her UFC women’s flyweight title, but neither of those fights was her biggest win of the year.

That’s because Shevchenko starred alongside Halle Berry in the Netflix film “Bruised,” which premiered in November and put the Hollywood limelight on the charismatic UFC star.

You love to see it.

Dr. Pepper vs. Reese's

[autotag]Adrian Yanez[/autotag] and [autotag]Randy Costa[/autotag] gave us an entertaining fight in July at UFC on ESPN 27, with Yanez rallying to win by second-round TKO, but the real entertainment was their pre-fight interview with MMA Junkie’s Nolan King.

Dr. Pepper vs. Reese’s! If you missed it, check this out:

American Top Team takes over AEW

[vertical-gallery id=1347564]

I know that a lot of MMA fans frown upon professional wrestling, but the American Top Team takeover storyline on AEW in the second half of 2021 was tremendous.

If nothing else, we learned that ATT founder Dan Lambert knows how to cut a killer promo!

UFC fighters on 'Hot Ones'

2021 was the year of the UFC fighter on “Hot Ones” trying to eat 10 spicy wings of death, and it was fun to watch.

Dustin Poirier

Kamaru Usman

Derrick Lewis

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