Thursday, January 27, 2022

Best of Bellator MMA in 2021: AJ McKee and Sergio Pettis share Fighter of the Year honors

The Bellator cage was host to some incredible performances in 2021. From dramatic comebacks to shocking title-winning performances, several men and women made their mark in big ways. But there were two men who stood above the rest.

In fact, those two men, AJ McKee and Sergio Pettis, ended up in a tie when a panel of CBS Sports experts sat down to cast their votes for our year-end awards.

Let’s take a look at the final results of the vote.

Co-winner: AJ McKee 1-0 (def. Patricio Pitbull)

McKee only made it to the cage one time in 2021, but what a performance it was. After a nearly two-year journey through the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix, McKee faced featherweight champion and all-time Bellator great Patricio Pitbull in the finals at Bellator 263 in July. Facing Pitbull in arguably the biggest fight in Bellator history with the tournament’s $1 million prize and the championship on the line, McKee took less than two minutes to rock Pitbull with a head kick, drop him with follow-up punches and finish the fight with a guillotine choke.

The win was the perfect ending for McKee’s journey to the top of the Bellator food chain. Every fight of McKee’s professional career has taken place in Bellator, with a slow progression in level of competition from his debut in April 2015 until his dominant performance against Bellator’s G.O.A.T. McKee will now loo to build a championship legacy.

Co-winner: Sergio Pettis 2-0 (def. Juan Archuleta & Kyoji Horiguchi)

Unlike McKee’s storybook journey to the top of the game, Pettis was moments from disaster at the close of his 2021 season. Pettis became bantamweight champion in May with a dominant win over Juan Archuleta by unanimous decision. That was the moment where Pettis’ often-rocky journey to step out of the shadow of older brother and former UFC lightweight champion, Anthony. But, to truly feel like the champ, Pettis had to defend the belt against Kyoji Horiguchi, who had been forced to vacate the belt in 2019 due to injury.

Everything was going poorly for Pettis against Horiguchi, with the Japanese star looking nearly flawless in winning every striking exchange and taking Pettis down repeatedly. However, in the fourth round, Pettis missed with a head kick and threw a spinning backfist that landed flush and sent Horiguchi crashing to the canvas unconscious. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a show of championship-level heart from Pettis and one that left a tremendous mark in Bellator’s final fight of 2021.

Third place: Vadim Nemkov 2-0 (def. Phil Davis & Julius Anglickas)

Nemkov successfully defended his light heavyweight championship twice in 2021, both in Light Heavyweight Grand Prix action. The biggest win of Nemkov’s year was his April decision win over former division champ Phil Davis. In a rematch of a 2018 clash, Nemkov was able to get the best of Davis for a second time, taking a competitive unanimous decision victory. Nemkov followed that up with a kimura submission of Julius Anglickas in the semifinal. Two successful title defenses were enough to help Nemkov edge into third place in a competitive field.

Others receiving votes: Cris Cyborg, Yaroslav Amosov and Corey Anderson

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