Impressive first impressions: The top 10 UFC debut performances of 2021

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Another year is in the books – and the UFC provided a number of memorable moments in 2021.

Numerous prospects, Dana White’s Contender Series signees, highly touted fighters, and even a former Bellator champion were brought in from other promotions made their UFC debuts in 2021 – but some were more memorable than others.

Here are the 10 UFC debut performances that stood out above the rest.

Note: Factors in determining the ranking included skills displayed, flare, by how much expectations were exceeded, potential ceiling of athlete, and level of statement made.

Casey O'Neill def. Shana Dobson via TKO (ground-and-pound) – Round 2, 3:41

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – FEBRUARY 20: Casey O’Neill of Australia punches Shana Dobson in a flyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on February 20, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

After a lifelong ascent toward greatness, [autotag]Casey O’Neill[/autotag] made her promotional debut at UFC Fight Night 185. Living up to the hype, O’Neill displayed a well-rounded arsenal en route to a second-round TKO of Shana Dobson.

Saidyokub Kakhramonov def. Trevin Jones via technical submission (guillotine choke) – Round 3, 4:39

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – AUGUST 21: (R-L) Saidyokub Kakhramonov of Uzbekistan punches Trevin Jones of Guam in a bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on August 21, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

For years, [autotag]Saidyokub Kakhramonov[/autotag] claimed he was UFC ready. It took some time for the powers that be to give him his opportunity at UFC on ESPN 29. But when it came, even on short notice, Kakhramonov capitalized on it with a statement win. Against the gritty and durable Trevin Jones, Kakhramonov showed a well-rounded display of skills which he topped off with a nasty submission in Round 3.

Jeremiah Wells def. Warlley Alves via knockout (punches) – Round 2, 0:30

Jeremiah Wells

A longtime well-kept secret of Renzo Gracie Philly, [autotag]Jeremiah Wells[/autotag] patiently took the scenic route to the UFC. In his promotional debut, Wells introduced himself to UFC audiences with a bang when he became only the second man to finish seasoned Brazilian fighter Warlley Alves – and he did so in violent fashion at UFC Fight Night 190.

Ian Garry def. Jordan Williams via knockout (punches) – Round 1, 4:59

Nov 6, 2021; New York, NY, USA; Ian Garry (red gloves) celebrates after defeating Jordan Williams (blue gloves) during UFC 268 at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Nicknamed “The Future,” [autotag]Ian Garry[/autotag] arrived with a lot of hype – and a nation behind him. Unfair or not, the Conor McGregor comparisons were brought out early. And while it took him a little bit of time to get going against Jordan Williams at UFC 268, Garry finished his UFC debut in the same fashion McGregor finished his: with a first-round, highlight-reel knockout.

Paddy Pimblett def. Luigi Vendramini via TKO (punches) – Round 1, 4:25

Few debuts in UFC history were more anticipated than [autotag]Paddy Pimblett[/autotag]’s. After years of buzz around “The Baddy,” Pimblett stepped into the promotion’s cage for the first time at UFC Fight Night 191. It was not a picture-perfect debut by any means, as his opponent Luigi Vendramini presented some problems early. However, that only made the rally more exciting as Pimblett took another step toward stardom with a comeback TKO in Round 1.

Manon Fiorot def. Victoria Leonardo via TKO (head kick and punches) – Round 2, 0:48

Manon Fiorot

It wasn’t a starching or a flashy submission, no. But [autotag]Manon Fiorot[/autotag]’s UFC debut was as complete of a performance as fight fans saw in 2021. Busting on to the scene as a relative unknown to larger audiences, Fiorot took it to then-recent Dana White’s Contender Series signee Victoria Leonardo at UFC on ESPN 20 – and won the fight via second-round head kick.

Chris Curtis def. Phil Hawes via TKO (punches) – Round 1, 4:27

Nov 6, 2021; New York, NY, USA; Chris Curtis (blue gloves) defeats Phillip Hawes (red gloves) during UFC 268 at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

“Comeback Fighter of the Year”? Maybe. “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year”? Possibly. One of the best debuts of the year? Definitely. [autotag]Chris Curtis[/autotag] retired multiple times before he finally did enough for a UFC contract offer. And at UFC 268, he told the world he’s not going anywhere any time soon. An underdog against Phil Hawes, Curtis finished the fight with punches in Round 1.

Ignacio Bahamondes def. Roosevelt Roberts via knockout (wheel kick) – Round 3, 4:55

It’s quite possible [autotag]Ignacio Bahamondes[/autotag] secured “Knockout of the Year” in his promotional debut. That’s how good his spinning wheel kick against Roosevelt Roberts at UFC on ESPN 29 was. It was a buzzer beater, with five seconds left on the clock – and perhaps one of the most violent knockouts in UFC history.

Alex Pereira def. Andreas Michailidis via TKO (flying knee) – Round 2, 0:18

A world champion kickboxer proved he’s a pretty solid MMA fighter, too, when he made his promotional debut at UFC 268 in November. Alex Pereira, who gained notoriety for a past win over UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, stepped into the UFC cage with just four pro MMA fights under his belt. After a round in which he displayed enough grappling intelligence to avoid being submitted, Pereira landed a devastating flying knee on Andreas Michailidis that sent a shockwave through the UFC middleweight division.

Terrance McKinney def. Matt Frevola via TKO (punches) – Round 1, 0:07

Jun 12, 2021; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Terrance McKinney moves in for a hit against Matt Frevola during UFC 263 at Gila River Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tough to come by a quicker finish than [autotag]Terrance McKinney[/autotag]’s promotional debut at UFC 263. In just seven seconds, McKinney stunned his opponent Matt Frevola – and the world – with a brutal knockout sequence. Fans who had stood up to cheer for the fight introductions in Phoenix barely had time to sit down before McKinney unloaded a series of punches that ended the fight seven seconds into Round 1 and skyrocketed his popularity on social media.

Michael Chandler def. Dan Hooker via TKO (punches) – Round 1, 2:30

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – JANUARY 23: Michael Chandler battles Dan Hooker during the UFC 257 event at UFC Fight Island on January 23, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Taking into account all of the criteria for a good and impactful UFC debut, [autotag]Michael Chandler[/autotag]’s stood out amongst the pack in 2021. Entering the promotion as a former Bellator champion, all eyes were on Chandler as he took on Dan Hooker in the co-main event of the Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier rematch-headlined UFC 257. Against a top contender, Chandler passed a huge test with flying colors when he finished Hooker with strikes at the midway mark of Round 1 – and set himself up for a crack at the vacant lightweight title in the process.

Honorable mentions: Casey O’Neill def. Shana Dobson, Ronnie Lawrence def. Vince Cachero, Jeff Molina def. Qileng Aori, Bruno Silva def. Wellington Turman, Melsik Baghdasaryan, Josiane Nunes def. Bea Malecki, Erin Blanchfield def. Sarah Alpar, Kamuela Kirk def. Makwan Amirkhani, Carlston Harris def. Christian Aguilera, and Lupita Godinez def. Silvana Juarez Gomez.

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