We’re doing the Fight Game Media Awards a little differently this year. We’re breaking up the awards into multiple posts. Our MMA writers Ryan Frederick and Paul Fontaine are the panel. They also host the In The Clinch podcast on the Fight Game Media Network.
Here’s our first award of 2021:
Breakout Star of the Year
Paul Fontaine: Tai Tuivasa
This heavyweight contender has incredible momentum heading into 2022 and was someone who benefited greatly from the return of fans. He’s always been popular and after coming into UFC with a perfect 7-0 record, he rattled off wins in his first 3 bouts to run that to 10-0 and gained fame as a popular undercard fighter for his unique propensity for shoe-ies where he drinks beer out of a shoe. He then lost his next 3 fights against tougher competition and was at a crossroads. After knocking out Stefan Struve in October 2020 to end that skid, he picked up knockout wins in all three of his UFC fights in 2021. The last two happened in packed houses in Las Vegas and his final fight of 2021, in particular, was memorable. After downing a shoe-ie in the ring, he was bombarded with beer from fans all the way back to the dressing room as the crowd went nuts and he appeared to be having the time of his life. If he can keep this going for a few more fights, it has the potential to carry over to a more mainstream audience and he’s already being looked at for fights with top contenders after four straight knockout wins.
Ryan Frederick: Ciryl Gane
Coming into 2021, I thought Ciryl Gane would be a strong contender for this award, but I also thought he would end the year as one of the top contenders for the UFC Heavyweight Championship. I didn’t think he would hold gold at the end of the year, albeit an interim title, and be in one of the biggest heavyweight title fights in UFC history to start 2022. That just shows how meteoric his rise was during the year. He ended 2020 with an impressive finish of Junior Dos Santos, putting him just inside of the top ten of the heavyweight rankings with a perfect 7-0 record. He was expected to get some big fights, but he ended up with three main events during the year, including one on pay-per-view, and has a UFC title on his mantle. He starts 2022 off big with a title unification bout against Francis Ngannou, and his wins over Jairzinho Rozenstruik, Alexander Volkov and Derrick Lewis during 2021, all ranked inside the top-five at the time, put Gane as the true breakout star of the year.