There was something quite unique about stepping back into Florida’s VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena this past April for UFC 261.

The Jacksonville venue was familiar to UFC fans as the host of three incredibly important cards in 2020: the organization’s first live events since going on hiatus for nearly two months at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of those, “UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje,” was selected as MMA Junkie’s 2020 Event of the Year.

But there was one decided difference at UFC 261 – or perhaps more accurately, 15,269 decided differences.

The fans were back.

Some 413 days had gone by without a UFC card taking place in front of a sold-out crowd, and the excitement was palpable from the moment the doors opened. Fans were at a fever pitch before the first fighters ever stepped to the cage, with promotional stalwarts like Bruce Buffer, Jon Anik, Daniel Cormier and Joe Rogan all receiving electric ovations as they made their way onto the floor.

It felt like a truly special moment, but there was no way to anticipate what was still to come. The good news was it didn’t take long to start finding out.

Strawweights Ariane Carnelossi and Na Liang were the first two UFC fighters in more than 13 months to feel the adrenaline that pulses through your veins when competing in front of a raucous crowd, and they delivered an absolute banger – one of the best card-opening contests you’ll ever witness.

Flyweights Jeff Molina and Aori Qileng followed, and they delivered an epic brawl that earned each man $50,000 for the evening’s “Fight of the Night.”

Danaa Batgerel’s thunderous left hand. Brendan Allen’s clock-beating and scream-inducing ankle lock. Randy Brown’s “Submission of the Month” with a slick, one-armed rear-naked choke. Each of these moments was serenaded with an increasingly louder chorus of cheers.

And that was just the prelims.

The five-fight main card featured three championship matchups, which always sounds great on paper but can sometimes fail to deliver in terms of action. The infamous UFC 33 card in 2001 is perhaps the most extreme example, with three title fights all going a full five rounds in rather uninteresting contests that actually extended past the promotion’s broadcast window, leaving fans perplexed when the pay-per-view cut off during the night’s main event.

UFC 261 was the opposite of that with five violent finishes, three of which ended in just one round.

It started with Anthony Smith and Jimmy Crute duking it out before “The Brute” wasn’t allowed to answer the bell for the second round due to a wild foot drop that limited his mobility and left him flopping around as he tried to regain his footing.

It continued with a rather gruesome scene, as Chris Weidman threw a crushing leg kick that Uriah Hall checked, shattering his opponent’s limb. It was another wild scene made even wilder by Weidman’s involvement, considering it was his check that infamously broke Anderson Silva’s leg in their historic 2013 rematch.

Finally, it was time for the title fights.

Women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko started the run with a dominating TKO win over Brazilian powerhouse Jessica Andrade. Then it was Rose Namajunas, who was clearly repeating a mantra of “I’m the best,” creating a powerful scene of self-belief before stunning then-champ Zhang Weili with a vicious high kick just 78 seconds into the co-main event.

By the time welterweight champ Kamaru Usman and “BMF” titleholder Jorge Masvidal stepped into the cage for their highly anticipated rematch, it almost didn’t matter what happened next. The card had been one of the most action-packed of all time, and having a crowd in the building had only made it even more memorable.

Of course, Usman had something special planned for the night’s finale.

Just 62 ticks into the second round, Usman delivered a crushing right hand that sent Masvidal sprawling to the canvas, out cold. While Usman was favored to retain his belt that night, no one expected to see “Gamebred” delivered to the land of wind and ghosts.

It was a jaw-dropping moment, and one that would have been special regardless of circumstances. But for it to take place on the night the UFC welcomed fans back into the building made it even more amazing.

I remember sitting in my seat at the night’s post-fight press conference, waiting for the first fighter to arrive and catching the end of the pay-per-view broadcast. Cormier nailed it, describing what it was like to call UFC 261 after also being a part of the first show without fans in the exact same venue.

“We sat here at the end of the last show … and said, ‘Hey, it wasn’t that bad without the fans.’ We were completely wrong,” Cormier said. “The UFC needs the fans, from the walks to the fights. Imagine these reactions with nobody in here. They would have still been great, but that just adds a whole ‘nother level to it.”

For 13 months and 46 UFC cards, we got used to what MMA was like without fans. At UFC 261, we were reminded why the sport wouldn’t be what it is without them in the building, and the combination of highlights and history make it MMA Junkie’s 2021 Event of the Year.

Oh, and Jake Paul was there, too. But in life, nothing is ever completely perfect, right?


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