By Matthew Curry
Not many can say that they had a good year in 2020. Dana White is one of the few exceptions. In fact, things couldn’t have worked out more perfectly for the UFC president last year. After ushering in the return of sports with UFC 249 in May (an event that some may say overperformed), the UFC never looked back. With UFC 252, 253, and 254 all exceeding 500 thousand pay-per-view buys, and the astonishing 1.3 million buys accumulated by the UFC’s first trip to Fight Island with UFC 251, 2020 was a great year for the UFC. So as we enter 2021, the question is, can they top that success? Can the UFC build off of their momentum? As we enter 2021, it looks like the answer to both questions is yes.
The UFC kicked off 2021 with an outstanding achievement: broadcasting an event on ABC. Headlined by a Featherweight bout between former champ Max Holloway and rising contender Calvin Kattar, the UFC’s debut on ABC delivered with an exciting main card topped off by Holloway putting on a masterful performance in the main event. A week later, the UFC held their first pay-per-view of the year including the return of the sport’s biggest star with UFC 257: Poirier vs McGregor 2.
Conor McGregor, the former two division champion who defeated Dustin Poirier in their first fight all the way back in 2014 at Featherweight (the rematch took place 10 pounds heavier at Lightweight), entered the rematch as a sizable favorite. However, Poirier shined bright when he silenced the doubters with a second round TKO over the sport’s biggest star. The pay-per-view brought in a reported 1.6 million buys, making it the second biggest event in the company’s history behind only UFC 229: Khabib vs McGregor in October 2018.
The second pay-per-view of the year, UFC 258 on February 13, lacked the name value of its predecessor with it’s main event being a Welterweight title clash between champion Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns. However, the fights delivered, with the main event exceeding expectations for as long as it lasted, with Usman winning by TKO in the third round. So, with the first three major events out of the way, it’s safe to say that the momentum is still going, but how will they continue to build off of it?
The next two pay-per-view cards in March are incredible. The first on March 6 includes not one, not two, but three title fights. The co-main event sees Amanda Nunes, unanimously considered to be the greatest female fighter of all time (what with her wins over Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg, and more), will defend her Featherweight title against Australia’s Megan Anderson. Should she win, Anderson will be the first Australian woman to win a UFC title. However, dethroning the Brazilian champion --who is currently an astronomical favorite -- will prove to be the toughest task of her career.
That fight will follow a highly anticipated showdown for the male Bantamweight crown. Russian champion Petr Yan, who won the vacant title with a win over former Featherweight champion Jose Aldo last July, will be making the first defense of his title against the man many believed should’ve fought Yan for the vacant title: Aljamain “The Funkmaster” Sterling. The number one ranked Sterling is coming off of five straight wins, most recently a submission of number two ranked Cory Sandhagen in just 1:28 of the first round back in June (the same Cory Sandhagen who’s produced highlight-reel finishes in his two fights since that loss). The top two Bantamweights in the world have had bad blood for years now, and will finally settle their differences when they clash for the title in June.
To top it all off, the main event sees Middleweight champion and budding superstar Israel Adesanya move up twenty pounds to face the Light Heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz. Adesanya has taken the MMA world by storm with his fun personality and super elite striking. After landing a spot on the cover of EA Sports UFC 4, Adesanya broke the “cover curse” when he won a grudge match with Brazil’s Paulo Costa at UFC 253 which brought in 700,000 pay-per-view buys. The fight, to the surprise of some, was extremely one-sided. On the same card, a battle for the Light Heavyweight title, which was vacated by Jon Jones earlier that year, took place between Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz. Reyes had just challenged Jones and came as close as anyone to beating him, making him a sizable favorite going into the bout with Blachowicz. However, much like the other title fight on that card, it was not competitive and Blachowicz scored a second round knockout to win the title. Now, Adesanya will look to become just the sixth fighter to hold two UFC titles simultaneously. Should he win, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he chases Jones all the way up to Heavyweight for a superfight. If he doesn’t, his 20 fight unbeaten streak will have been snapped.
March’s second pay-per-view will have two title fights. The first: a Featherweight clash between Alexander Volkanovski and number 2 ranked Brian Ortega. Volkanovski is not in the good graces of many fans, as his last win against former champion and fan favorite Max Holloway in their second fight was considered to be yet another example of bad judging in MMA, with the overwhelming majority of MMA fans and media, including UFC president Dana White, saying the decision should’ve gone to Holloway. However, two of the three people whose opinions mattered most on that night scored it for Volkanovski, and he is still the champion. His opponent, Brian Ortega, came off of a nearly two year layoff in October with an incredible performance in which he beat “The Korean Zombie” by a lopsided unanimous decision. No matter who wins, it’s been made clear that Holloway--who, as previously mentioned, is coming off of a dominant win over Calvin Kattar--will get the next title shot.
In the main event, the title of “baddest man on the planet” will be up for grabs when the greatest Heavyweight of all time Stipe Miocic defends his title in a rematch against number one ranked knockout artist Francis Ngannou. Miocic is coming off of two wins against Daniel Cormier in one of the greatest Heavyweight trilogies in the history of mixed martial arts. The most recent fight took place in August at UFC 252 which brought in 500,000 pay-per-view buys. Since losing the first fight to Miocic and picking up a subsequent loss to Derrick Lewis, Ngannou has put together four devastating knockout victories against top contenders and former champions alike. His last fight took place at the return of sports, UFC 249 last May. Miocic is shockingly a slight underdog in the rematch despite the one-sided first fight, but with how incredible Ngannou has looked since then, knocking people out cold by simply touching them, an Ngannou win is certainly possible. After the fight, Jon Jones, widely considered the pound for pound greatest of all time, will be awaiting the winner.
With the success of UFC 257 and 258, and their upcoming pay-per-views being blockbusters, it seems the UFC has no intention of slowing down in 2021; and with many more months and big fights to be made after that, it looks as though 2021 could be the UFC’s biggest year yet.