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Winfree’s 2021 Year End MMA Awards: Fight of the Year, Breakout Fighter, More

January 7, 2022 | Posted by Robert Winfree
UFC 267 Petr Yan Corey Sandhagen

Hello everyone and welcome to my 2021 Year End MMA Awards. I’m Robert Winfree, and since once again this seems like a good idea I’m handing out mostly non-existent awards in the world of MMA. These are the best, and worst, of the year as I see it. Usual disclaimer here: I can only rank what I have seen and I haven’t seen everything.

Ian McCall Memorial Worst Luck Award

Leon Edwards

Once again there was a lot of competition for this somewhat dubious award and I could easily have awarded it to any number of fighters. Chris Weidman had his leg shattered on a checked low kick, a darkly poetic mirror of what he did to Anderson Silva, and then had complications with his recovery. Raoni Barcelos nearly took this, the man has had 4 canceled fights this year (the most recent on the day of after several opponent changes) and to top it off his lone appearance all year was a majority decision loss that really should have been a draw. At this rate I’m just waiting for his fight on the 15th to fall apart.

So, with that in mind why is Leon Edwards the first back to back winner of the golden mustache trophy? Edwards fought twice this year, but he started it off by having two different fights with Khamzat Chimaev canceled. When he finally got into the cage in May of 2021 it was his first fight since July of 2019 and it ended 18 seconds into the second round when he poked Belal Muhammad in the eye resulting in a No Contest. That fight cost Edwards pretty badly, he’s on a long winning streak and by all rights should have fought for the title but that ignominious affair earned him a 5 round non-main event against Nate Diaz in June. Oh, that fight also had to be rescheduled from the original date. When it came to the Diaz fight Edwards fought incredibly well, handily winning the first four rounds and most of the fifth. But late in the fifth Diaz finally hit Edwards clean with a punch that wobbled him, and while Edwards survived and easily won the decision, all anyone remembers from that fight is Diaz hurting him. Once again Edwards did not receive the title shot, instead he was scheduled to fight Jorge Masvidal at UFC 269 only to see that fight fall apart as well. By any reasonable metric, Edwards should be fighting for the title, yet he languishes in near obscurity. Hopefully 2022 is a better year for Edwards, a threepeat would be genuinely shocking.

Worst Fight of 2021

5. Manel Kape vs. Alexandre Pantoja, UFC on ESPN+ 42

I give Manel Kape a lot of credit for rehabilitating his UFC run over his most recent couple of fights, but there’s no denying that he got off to a very rough start. This fight was a rough start not only to his run, but in the first round as well. Pantoja largely locked up Kape’s offense with kicks to the calf and body and over the first two rounds he just out worked Kape but don’t let that description fool you, the action in this fight was sparse over all three rounds. The fight was made all the worse by the expectation some of us had for Kape to finally make his way to the UFC.

4. Tanner Boser vs. Ilir Latifi, UFC on ESPN+ 47

Oof, this fight. Boser tried his best but had no answer for the clinch or any real urgency trying to get up after Latifi was able to get a takedown. The end result was a few flurries to try and break up long periods of fence wrestling or top control with rather anemic ground and pound from Latifi. Oh, and lest we forget, this was a heavyweight fight so after about 7 minutes both men were visibly gassed. A total chore at the best of times.

3. Sam Alvey vs. Wellington Turman, UFC on ESPN 30

Another year, another entry from Sam Alvey into the worst fight of the year discussion. I frankly have no idea why that man is still in the UFC, the man hasn’t won a fight since eeking out a split decision over Gian Villante back in 2018. Per usual for Alvey fights, he did a lot of circling while backing up and a metric ton of clinching, occasionally tried a flurry of punches, then threw a tantrum when the decision went against him. The man showed more fire calling the judges incompetent as he stormed around the cage after losing. Turman didn’t fare much better coming out of this, he was deducted 2 points in the third round because he kept poking Alvey in the eye. I can’t wait to see what Alvey will turn in for 2022, but at this rate I’d bet it shows up in this list again.

2. Norma Dumont vs. Aspen Ladd, UFC on ESPN+ 53

Essentially the entire month of October was a wasteland, sacrificed so that the back to back offering of UFC 267 and UFC 268 could be stacked to the rafters with great fights. One of the casualties for that was UFC on ESPN+ 53, resulting in a rather dismal main event at women’s featherweight which doesn’t even count as a real division. This fight could easily have taken the top spot on this list as they spent the first three rounds doing nothing but circling while Dumont landed jabs and kept Ladd stalled out. The most interesting thing about this fight was Ladd’s coach desperately trying to get her into gear, which she somewhat did way too late only cleanly taking the fifth on the back of takedowns and some control but with minimal damage inflicted. This was dull, listless, repetitive, in a pointless pseudo division, languishing during a stretch in the schedule that was a chore to get through. One of the worst main events of the last few years, and for me the worst main event of the year.

1. Cheyenne Buys (Vlismas) vs. Montserrat Ruiz, UFC on ESPN 21

Ugh, this fight. It’s a minor miracle either of them got another fight in the UFC after this comical showing. Buys showed decent strikes on occasion but had no real cage craft and was not only constantly clinched but hit with headlock throws then stuck in the scarf hold position. Ruiz showed a bit of gimmickry in that spot, but once it was clear Buys wasn’t going to get caught in a silly hold all she could do was maintain position and ride out the clock. Put that sequence on rise and repeat and you’ve got this fight, it was amateurish as Buys had no answer to the position and Ruiz had no ability to translate into a finishing sequence. It was all the more comical because of Buys threatening to “follow Ruiz home” where I assume she’d get headlock throw and held all over again. This was a totally dull, dismal, boring, and painfully drawn out affair.

Breakout Fighter of the Year

Breakout or breakthrough categories are tricky because there’s a variety of criteria to be weighted. For me the big one is distance covered, who went the farthest over the time frame, with level attained being essentially a tie breaker. With that in mind, here’s the fighters I felt made the most headway.

Honorable Mention: Manon Fiorot, who went 3-0 on the year and might finally be injecting life into a stagnant women’s flyweight division. She falls a bit short of the top here because her level of competition was weak, and her final outing of the year while successful wound up leaving some question marks about her current ceiling.

5. Sean Brady

Sean Brady had started making some waves in 2019 and in 2020 as he debuted in the UFC, this year he only fought twice but both represented increasing levels of competition. He started the year dominating then submitting Jake Matthews and then to close the year he took a decision from top contender Michael Chiesa. Brady entered 2021 as a slightly intriguing prospect, he enters 2022 as a legitimate contender looking to force his way into the title picture.

4. Rafael Fiziev

Making headway in the lightweight division is a tough task, it’s no worst than the second best division in the sport. Fiziev entered 2021 with some momentum after knocking out Renato Moicano to close 2019, he only fought twice in 2021 but both were the kinds of performances that kept people talking. First he took on the always awkward Bobby Green and the two had a fun striking battle that saw Green close the gap in the third round but he was too far behind on points. To close the year Fiziev took on fellow striking expert Brad Riddell and scored an impressive wheel kick finish in the third round. Fiziev enters the new year as one of the hottest rising contenders in the crowded lightweight division.

3. Jiri Prochazka

It’s hard to rank Prochazka this high on the back of just one fight, but boy was it a big one. Prochazka debuted in the UFC last year and stopped Volkan Oezdemir but Oezdemir has long been a bit spotty. In his lone fight for the year Prochazka took on former two time title challenger Dominick Reyes, and the two combined for a wonderfully violent fight through just under 2 rounds and the brutality of the knockout when Prochazka landed a spinning back elbow will be showing up a bit further down. The KO earned Prochazka a title shot, and he definitely qualifies as a breakthrough fighter for the year.

2. Sergio Pettis

Sometimes a breakthrough fighter isn’t a newcomer but an older vet who finally rises to the occasion. Sergio Pettis not only won the Bellator bantamweight title this year, he defended it with a spinning backfist knockout that will show up in the knockout category later. While Pettis struggled mightily before stopping Kyoji Horiguchi to defend his title he ultimately succeeded and finally seems to be establishing himself as a top talent rather than just Showtime’s little brother.

1. Julianna Pena

Up until the last UFC event of the year this top spot was in flux, then Julianna Pena persevered through extreme physical abuse, kept a jab in the face of the seemingly unstoppable Amanda Nunes and wore Nunes out by dragging her into a brawl while Pena was able to survive. Once Nunes started gassing out Pena was able to get her down and become the first person to stop Nunes since Cat Zinagno in 2014. Pena scored a deeply unimpressive win earlier in the year over Sara McMann, but closed it with one of the biggest upsets in MMA history.

Submission of the Year

Submissions weren’t quite at the premium they were last year, we had some incredibly memorable submissions in terms of uniqueness and some of the bigger wins of the year came via tap out rather than knockout.

Honorable Mentions
Glover Teixeira’s rear naked choke vs. Jan Blachowicz, UFC 267 – This wasn’t a bit of technical mastery, it was just fundamental back control and a solid choke from an old warhorse who’s been doing that for a long time. It gets an HM here because it also netted Teixeira the UFC light heavyweight title in a non-trivial upset.

Brandon Moreno’s rear naked choke vs. Deiveson Figueiredo, UFC 263 – Figueiredo himself was on this list last year for his brutal submission of Joseph Benavidez, this year he’s on the receiving end. These two fought to a hotly contested draw in 2020, here in the rematch Moreno was as dialed in as anyone has ever been, everything he did was sharp and he just had Figueiredo’s number. All of that culminated in a choke to give the UFC it’s first Mexican champion.

5. Julian Marquez’s anaconda choke vs. Maki Pitolo, UFC 258

Pitolo and Marquez got into a pretty wild brawl here, and the way Marquez came back after being badly hurt to get the finish is certainly noteworthy. The finish saw Marquez hurt Pitolo with punches along the fence, Pitolo try a desperation takedown only to get sprawled on. Marquez then tried for a guillotine choke, then switched to an anaconda as Pitolo defended and that got the submission.

4. Charles Oliveira’s rear naked choke vs. Dustin Poirier, UFC 269

It’s no surprise that Charles Oliveira found a spot on this list, the man might have the best jiu-jitsu for MMA game in the sport right now. He wore down Poirier with body work and his much improved takedown game, then in the third round was able to sneak around to the back and jump to the backpack spot. Oliveira might be the last person in the entire sport you want on your back, and he demonstrated why here with a slick choke to retain his lightweight title.

3. Islam Makhachev’s arm triangle vs. Drew Dober, UFC 259

I can’t stress enough how physically strong you have to be to pull off an arm triangle from half guard on the wrong side. There are technical things required as well of course, a strong frame around the head and a good base with your legs, but you still need a ridiculous squeeze to pull that off even with the technical stuff. Islam Makhachev turned a kimura attempt from Dober into an arm triangle and look at the drive he gets on the finish. You can see every muscle in his back pop and he’s driving all the way from his toes to force every bit of compression possible into the choke.

2. Andre Muniz’s armbar vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, UFC 262

This could easily take the top spot, and frankly I don’t object to any list that puts it there. I said last year of Fabricio Werdum’s armbar over Alexander Gustafsson that armbars from the back are criminally underused in MMA, but here comes Andre Muniz to help turn that tide. This is made all the more impressive as he hit this armbar against Souza, a man who had never been submitted in MMA. As a personal plus, I’m kind of a gorehound so Muniz breaking Souza’s arm here is a plus for me. This was a wonderful bit of technique and brutality from Muniz, who has emerged as a legit player at middleweight.

1. Anthony Hernandez’s seated arm triangle choke vs. Rodolfo Vieira, UFC 258

For me, this was just insanity to witness. Vieira is maybe the best sport jiu-jitsu competitor of his generation, and while he was clearly a somewhat one dimensional MMA fighter the one area you’d expect him to continue shining was the grappling. Vieira gassed himself out rather badly in the first round of this fight, but even exhausted it was utter madness to see Hernandez stuff a bad shot and transition to the seated arm triangle choke then get the tap. The odds on a Hernandez submission win were something like 30 to 1, and for the sheer unexpected nature of this submission it gets the top spot.

We had a lot of good submission work this here, he’s a small sampling for your enjoyment.

Knockout of the Year

There was a ton of brutality last year, I mean for crying out loud this happened back in March.

Just look at that craziness. Refining this down to my top five was a difficult exercise, and frankly the order of most of these could be shuffled around and you’d still have a perfectly acceptable ranking.

Honorable Mentions
Marlon Vera’s front kick vs. Frankie Edgar, UFC 268 – Frankie Edgar had a bad year, this isn’t the first time he’ll be appearing on this list. This gets an HM because of the still shots that were taken, Vera turned Edgar’s face into that of Moe Syzlak for the briefest of moments.

Rose Namajunas’s head kick vs. Zhang Weili, UFC 261 – This was a nice little bit of work from Namajunas, she’d probed with the lead leg a fair bit and Zhang has a bad habit of trying to pull her legs back while leaving her head forward. The end result was a nice read from Namajunas, who flicked a lead leg high kick up to the head and dropped Zhang leading to an almost perfunctory stoppage a few moments later.

Chris Barnett’s wheel kick vs. Gian Villante, UFC 268 – A man of Chris Barnett’s proportions hitting a wheel kick that looked this nice probably shouldn’t happen, but it did. Finally getting rid of Gian Villante was a nice bonus.

5. Sergio Pettis’s spinning back fist vs. Kyoji Horiguchi, Bellator 272

The fact that so many outlets are giving this KO of the year but it ranks 5 for me should tell you how much high quality violence there was. I don’t even object at all to anyone giving this the top spot. The full context of this moment helps push it higher for other people, Pettis was losing every minute of this fight handily before catching Horiguchi with this spinning attack as they exited a clinch. It’s a thing of beauty to be sure.

4. Ignacio Bahamondes’s wheel kick vs. Roosevelt Roberts, UFC on ESPN 29

I think this KO wound up being slept on just a bit as the year wore on, but it’s a thing of beauty. Bahamondes starts southpaw, then switches to orthodox which encourages Roberts to step a bit to his own right. The spinning attack that follows is very fast, and Roberts anticipates a body attack which leaves a window for the kick to strike through the jaw.

3. Kamaru Usman’s punch vs. Jorge Masvida, UFC 261

While a lot of the first round wasn’t pretty from Usman, the finish here was picture perfect. Usman baits a check hook response from Masvidal, then uses his lead hand to trap and parry Masvidal’s right which leaves a straight lane for his right hand. This was like a boxing KO in terms of punch impact, watch the sweat fly from Masvidal’s head as the punch lands. This is another one that could easily be at the top of a list, and deservedly so.

2. Jiri Prochazka’s spinning back elbow vs. Dominick Reyes, UFC on ESPN 29

Fun fact, this is the first UFC event I didn’t cover in many many years. I was at my father’s wedding and wound up breaking my very long streak. Consequently I missed this bit of utter insanity. Prochazka has one of the most wild, bizarre, and strangely effective fighting styles going. His fight with Reyes was wild for as long as it lasted, and this absolutely brutal spinning elbow closed the show late in the second round.

1. Cory Sandhagen’s flying knee vs. Frankie Edgar, UFC on ESPN+ 42

Style over substance putting this at number 1? Maybe. The way Sandhagen stepped back as he switched stances, the immediately launched into the air anticipating the pressure from Edgar was superbly timed. I also still can’t quite get over just how cool the final visual is, it’s the closest we’ll ever get to the old anime trope of two fighters clashing, standing facing away, then the loser slowly collapsing to the ground. All of it was enough to net this the top spot, but as mentioned you could completely randomize the top 5 here and still get a perfectly accurate and defensible list.

We had a lot of high quality violence this year, there’s some below but hardly all of it. Definitely a great year for finishes all around, and this is just a small sampling.

Fighter of the Year

This was a very competitive category this year, with the top spot up for grabs until the final event of 2021.

5. Glover Teixeira

The old warhorse finally got the belt. Teixeira only had the one fight, and there are several other fighters you could put in this spot and I wouldn’t argue with you. In fact this spot probably should belong to Dustin Poirier, who was in position to take the top spot before losing his title fight. But seeing someone overcome what he’s overcome, keep pushing despite some pretty brutal setbacks, and finally climb to the top of the mountain was a great moment. I doubt he retains the belt for any length of time, but it was an incredible moment and I don’t feel bad about giving him this spot.

4. Rose Namajunas

Two fights, two wins, and a bit of history. Rose Namajunas became the first woman in UFC history to regain a title after losing it when she knocked out Zhang Weili to reclaim the strawweight title. I couldn’t put her higher, partially because I scored the rematch against her, but there’s no denying that Rose Namajunas had one of the better years.

3. Ciryl Gane

At times Gane was higher on this list, but he’s stuck back in third due to only claiming an interim title rather than a full one. Gane only had one fight in 2020 and I specifically wished for him to be more active when I ranked him among the best breakout fighters last year. Well he definitely gave me my wish, Gane went 3-0 in 2021, all of them 5 round fights, and he closed the year by almost comically outclassing Derrick Lewis then stopping him in the 3rd round to claim the interim heavyweight title. Gane now has a date with Francis Ngannou for the full title, and frankly I like his chances.

2. Charles Oliveira

Charles Oliveira has been with the UFC since 2010, he wasted a lot of time down at featherweight during that time, but currently is on one of the best runs in the sport. Last year Oliveira fought twice, won twice, won the lightweight title in his first fight then defended it in his second. You could make the case for him getting the top spot, I’d disagree but there’s a real case to be made.

1. Kamaru Usman

Three fights, three wins, three title defenses, two violent stoppages. Kamaru Usman is pretty close to surpassing Georges St-Pierre as the welterweight GOAT, and he was an easy top spot in this category once Dustin Poirier lost to Oliveira. Had Poirier won, I’d have given him this spot partially because I scored Usman vs. Covington 2 for Covington and at that point it would have come down to finer details. Absent that, Usman pretty much runs away with this award.

Fight of the Year

We has some absolutely amazing fights this year, a few of the cuts made here were incredibly difficult and I’m still not convinced the order is correct. 2021 produced some high quality fights, and a few that might make the list of all time classics.

Honorable Mentions
Max Holloway vs. Calvin Kattar, UFC on ABC 1 – A few of these fights can’t quite rise higher in the rankings because they’re too one sided for my personal tastes. That said, Holloway turned in a historic effort here, breaking a handful of his own records along the way. The moment in the final round as Holloway yells while looking at the commentary team and almost blindly dodges punches from Kattar before hitting him back still gives me goosebumps.

Max Holloway vs. Yair Rodriguez, UFC on ESPN+ 55 – I can’t tell you how weird it is not to have a Holloway fight on the final list, but this fight in particular just didn’t resonate with me the way it might with others. I give Rodriguez a ton of credit, he showed a lot more guts and technical acumen here than at any point before, but Holloway proved too much. Holloway’s boxing didn’t quite get the job done, and contending with the kicks of Rodriguez was a challenge, so he proved himself once again a well rounded fighter by wrestling. He out wrestled Rodriguez, controlled him for stretches of the fight, and secured a decision that looks to have earned Holloway a third fight with Alexander Volkanovski.

Dominick Cruz vs. Pedron Munhoz, UFC 269 – For a three round fight this was a lot of fun. Munhoz was able to crack and hurt Cruz in the first, but Cruz recovered and proceeded to show the very best of his skills. The combinations, footwork, high pace, and bits of drama all combined to make this a thoroughly satisfying fight.

5. Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega, UFC 266

If I gave a round of the year award, it would go to round 3 from this fight. The fight in totality can’t rank any higher because it’s ultimately too one sided. Despite being the shorter man Volkanovski controls this fight with his jab and kicks, which set up nice power punches. The third round is the stuff of legend, Ortega finding some success with punches then jumping for a guillotine and rolling into a mounted guillotine that Volkanovski somehow survived. Volkanovski got on top, only to be snagged in a triangle choke, only to once again remain calm, defend himself, and close the round dropping bombs from top position. This was a nice reminder of how dynamic Volkanvoski is, especially after back to back fights that were highly engaging technical battles with Max Holloway.

4. Cory Sandhagen vs. TJ Dillashaw, UFC on ESPN 27

I’d love to have ranked this higher, but the incorrect decision hurts it. Sandhagen proved a stern test for the returning Dillashaw, tearing up his knee with submissions during the fight, and out striking the former champion. Dillashaw found himself relying on his wrestling, specifically fence wrestling for control time, to slow down his opponent and squeak out a hotly debated split decision. Overall the pace, adjustments, and technical skill of both men make this a worthy addition to this list though.

3. Santiago Ponzinibbio vs. Miguel Baeza, UFC on ESPN+ 47

This is a fight that’s largely been forgotten during the year, and that’s a crying shame. This was nearly the best three round fight of the year (more on that further down). Miguel Baeza had been looking like a can’t miss prospect while the years and miles were catching up to Ponzinibbio. The first round seemed to bear that out, the slick punches and calf kicks from Baeza constantly scoring on Ponzinibbio and largely stifling his offense. Then in the second round Ponzinibbio seemed to finally wake up, and turned the fight into an ugly but thrilling brawl. Credit to Baeza for standing firm and fighting back in the face of Ponzinibbio’s offense, but he was ill equipped for that style of fight and Ponzinibbio secured a hard fought decision. If you missed this fight when it aired, do yourself a favor and look it up.

2. Jose Aldo vs. Rob Font, UFC on ESPN 31

This is the one I’m least secure in on this list, but that’s also because I think it should be one spot lower (more on that in a second). That said it was a very good fight, Font looked good early with his slick boxing but the lack of power was a problem and when Aldo landed some power punches late in the round it was clear the tide was turning. Font kept up his attacks but the power difference was clear, and Jose Aldo is still Jose freakin’ Aldo. Aldo was able to slip and counter nicely, landed some leg kicks to keep Font off balance, and even secured takedowns then showed off his incredibly slick passing game. Aldo won the fight despite being at a negative striking differential, but I also don’t think there’s any doubt he was the rightful winner.

1. TIE: Petr Yan vs. Cory Sandhagen, UFC 267 & Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler, UFC 268

A cop out to include both of these here? Maybe, but it’s my list and just hear me out. These two fights represent two sides of the same coin, opposite but integral to each other. Both are contested at a high pace, both display so much of what makes current MMA so great, both reach the core of what it means to enjoy this violent, crazy, wonderful sport. But they do it in very different ways. Gaethje vs. Chandler is a pure blood and guts war, two utter madmen engaging in car crash after car crash trying to end each other but with neither man falling. Both men got hurt, but Gaethje’s variety in offense gave him the edge as the grueling contest wore on. Chandler tried to wrestle at one point, only for Gaethje to granby roll out of a slam and come up calling for the fight to return to the feet. Leg kicks from both men, punches to the head and body, Chandler threw some serious rib roasters in there, and Gaethje finding uppercuts on the ducking Chandler that really hurt the former Bellator champion. This fight leaned heavily on heart and blunt force, but was a thrilling ride for as long as it lasted.

By contrast we have Yan and Sandhagen. What I said about Gaethje and Chandler is true here as well, but where Gaethje and Chandler lean into heart, blood, and almost wild violence Yan and Sandhagen lean into technique, adjustments, and we got a fight between two men operating on the bleeding edge of what MMA has to offer. Sandhagen started strong, Yan being a bit of a slower starter, and his movement but the longer the fight went the more Yan came on. Yan is a bit like Max Holloway in the sense that once he finds a weakness he relentlessly punishes it, he finds a crack in your game then like water fills and erodes it. A crack starts to drip, a drip starts to flow, the flow becomes a stream, the stream becomes a torrent, and before you know it you’re under Niagara Falls. In this fight that was a combination of stance switching, body work, and Yan getting a feel for the timing of his counters. This fight had momentum swings, incredibly high technique, an almost impossible variety of offense from both men, and some sickening body shots from both men. Sandhagen’s jab was working early, but Yan got a read on it and was able to start countering. This fight is the current high watermark for MMA, this is the very best of current understanding being brought to bear, two men who constantly adapted to each other, attacked all levels of the body, used every discipline to find any advantage they could, and put on a staggering display of skill.

Ultimately I couldn’t choose between these two fights because they represent the same thing, just in different ways. These fights show everything I love about MMA, both involve technique, heart, violence, adjustment, skill diversity, and the thrill of momentum swings. Each one leans into different aspects more than others, but at the conclusion of each all I could do was bask in the afterglow of enjoying something profound. You might have a preference for one over the other, but I think it is just that. . . preference. Both fights achieve the same goal, they just take slightly different paths to do so.

Do you disagree? Please leave a comment, just please be civil about it.

As we move into 2022, what are you most curious about in the world of MMA? Have any predictions for the year in MMA? I’ll be here most weekends covering all the action and I hope you’ll join me.

Robert Winfree is a libra, longtime host of the 411 Ground and Pound Podcast, covers all UFC events and WWE Smackdown for 411mania