The UFC begins its 2022 campaign on Saturday in Las Vegas, kicking things off with a fight card headlined by a featherweight banger for the second time in as many years, as Top 5 stalwart Calvin Kattar squares off with streaking kickboxer Giga Chikadze.
Last year was an incredible year inside the Octagon.
Welterweight titleholder Kamaru Usman claimed Fighter of the Year by defending his belt three times, stopping talented Brazilian Gilbert Burns before beating his two biggest rivals, Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington, each for the second time.
Valentina Shevchenko continued her dominant reign at flyweight, posting another two stoppage wins, while Glover Teixeira became the oldest first-time champion in UFC history when he claimed the light heavyweight strap just a couple days after turning 42.
In all, seven titles changed hands and two interim champions were crowned, and the action in non-title fights was just as compelling, exhilarating, and engrossing.
Justin Gaethje and Michael Chadler beat the holy hell out of one another at Madison Square Garden, Sean O’Malley continued climbing the bantamweight ranks with three more stoppage victories, and Conor McGregor fought twice, lost twice, broke his leg, and yet was as omnipresent as ever.
In my estimation, 2021 was one of the absolute best in UFC history by any measure or metric, and the year ahead has the potential to be better.
Here is a preview of some of the biggest fights on the horizon, emerging contenders to watch closely, and a pair of prospects with championship potential you’re going to want to pay attention to in 2022 and beyond.
FIVE MASSIVE TITLE FIGHTS AHEAD
This is the big one, literally and figuratively.
Ngannou claimed the heavyweight title in March by knocking out defending champ Stipe Miocic, who had thwarted him and shattered his confidence in their first meeting three years earlier. In their second encounter, Ngannou answered every question that remained from their first meeting and his subsequent appearances, showcased new elements of his game, and flashed his customary ferocious power to finally reach the top of the division.
Gane won the interim heavyweight strap a little over four months later, stopping Derrick Lewis in the third round at UFC 265 to push his record to 10-0. Three years and five days after making his MMA debut, France’s “Bon Gamin” (translation: Good Kid) stood astride Ngannou as the 1B to his 1A in the UFC heavyweight ranks.
And here’s where it gets interesting.
First, Gane’s fight with Lewis was made and the interim title was instituted because Ngannou was pushing to return in September, not August, but the UFC wanted to have Lewis fight for gold in his hometown of Houston and the early August date at Toyota Center was already booked.
Obviously, that decision created waves with Ngannou’s camp and throughout the MMA ecosystem.
Secondly, Ngannou and Gane used to be teammates, having both come up under the tutelage of Fernand Lopez at The MMA Factory in Paris.
Ngannou severed ties with the coach and the team following his loss to Miocic at UFC 220 and Lopez has never held back in critiquing the personality changes he saw in his former charge during his meteoric rise to stardom at the outset of his UFC career. And now here comes Gane, following a similar path with Lopez by his side, showing the skills and style that make him a very intriguing adversary for the punishing Ngannou.
And to add extra spice to things, Ngannou completely ignored Lopez and Gane at UFC 268 in New York, walking passed the duo without so much as an acknowledgement of their presence while they stood backstage with emerging middleweight contender Nassourdine Imavov following his win.
Heavyweight championship fights are always compelling and rife with tension, but this one is on a whole different level.
Thankfully, we only have to wait 10 more days to see how it will all play out.
Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker (UFC 271, February 12)
The first time Adesanya and Whittaker faced off at UFC 243, Whittaker was the reigning champion, Adesanya was the streaking interim titleholder, and the highly anticipated clash turned into a one-way beat-down, with Adesanya securing the second-round stoppage win to emerge as the undisputed UFC middleweight champion.
Now they’ll do it again in February, and everyone is curious to see how things might change.
While Adesanya has remained atop the 185-pound ranks, he did suffer the first loss of his career in 2021, coming up short in his attempt to claim the light heavyweight title at UFC 259 in March before returning to successfully defend his middleweight belt. Whittaker, meanwhile, took nearly a year off following his loss to Adesanya, clearing his head and regaining his passion for his craft before posting three straight victories to emerge as the No. 1 contender.
Will the second meeting be the classic we didn’t see the first time around? Can Whittaker claim a victory, draw level, and set up a trilogy bout? Will “The Last Stylebender” replicate his initial outing and turn back the former champion again?
All these questions will be answer in a little over a month’s time.
Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan (UFC 272, March 5)
This one combines the key elements of the first two bouts in this collection, as it is both a meeting between a champion (Sterling) and an interim champion (Yan), and a rematch.
These two first met last year at UFC 259, with Yan entering as the reigning champion and Sterling the No. 1 contender. Sterling started quickly, but was fading when Yan leveled him with an illegal knee late in the fourth round.
The fight was stopped, Yan was disqualified, and the title changed hands. A rematch was scheduled for UFC 267, but Sterling wasn’t cleared to compete following neck surgery, resulting in Yan besting Cory Sandhagen to claim the interim title, setting up this title unification grudge match in March.
Having spoken to each in the last couple months, I can tell you they really don’t like each other, which only ratchets up the anticipation. Sterling feels he’s at full strength after getting his neck issues fixed, while Yan showed again in his win over Sandhagen that he is a world-class talent, so this has the potential to be an absolute barnburner to determine the top dog in the bantamweight division.
Few believed Julianna Pena when she said she was going to defeat Amanda Nunes and claim the bantamweight title, and with good reason: Pena was 2-2 in her last four fights and Nunes was (and still is) considered the greatest female fighter of all time.
Yet there was Pena, sticking a jab in Nunes’ face early in the second round of their UFC 269 clash, frustrating “The Lioness,” getting her to throw the game plan out the window and fight on emotion, and I’ll be damned if the challenger didn’t capitalize and shock the world, forcing Nunes to tap out three minutes and change into the second round to claim UFC gold for the first time.
But she’s going to have to do it again if she wants to remain on top of the heap because Nunes has declared her interest in an immediate rematch.
Fights like this are fascinating to me because Nunes can offer up all the explanations and excuses she wants for how things went the first time around -- and they’re all probably true and valid -– but the fact remains she went out, got rattled, and ended up looking for a way out, and now she has to redeem herself. Conversely, Pena enters feeling like a million bucks, having backed up every word she said in the lead to the first fight, confident she can do it again whenever this rematch comes around.
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway (TBD)
Announced as the main event for UFC 272 last Wednesday, this trilogy bout between Volkanovski and Holloway was postponed on Thursday, as the Hawaiian challenger aggravated an injury in training.
Volkanovski appears like he will stay on the card and defend his title against someone else (likely “The Korean Zombie,” Chan Sung Jung) and should he retain the belt, he and Holloway will run it back later in the year.
This is one of those rare instances where the series is 2-0 Volkanovski, but a third fight is clearly warranted.
The Australian claimed the belt with a unanimous decision victory at UFC 245, and then successfully defended the title with a split decision win in the rematch seven months later at UFC 251 in what remains one of the most hotly debated decisions in recent memory. Since then, Holloway has earned dominant decision wins over Calvin Kattar and Yair Rodriguez, while Volkanovski added a victory over Brian Ortega, setting the stage for this third encounter between the top two men in the 145-pound weight class.
Volkanovski and Holloway are so evenly matched, so well paired as adversaries inside the Octagon that it feels impossible for them to have a boring fight, and the overall impact the result of this eventual third pairing, should it come to pass, would have on their respective legacies is immeasurable.
For the record: I think Volkanovski wins handily if and when they do meet for a third time.
CHAMPIONSHIP THREATS TO WATCH
Marina Rodriguez (Strawweight)
The Brazilian went 3-0 in 2021 to move into the Top 5 in the 115-pound weight class, starting the year with a second-round stoppage win over rising star Amanda Ribas before earning main event victories over Michelle Waterson and Mackenzie Dern.
Rather than resting on her laurels and waiting for a championship opportunity that may not come, the 34-year-old has already signed to face Chinese contender Yan Xiaonan at UFC 272 in March. With another victory, Rodriguez would likely cement herself as next in line to challenge for the title, with the opportunity likely coming in the mid-to-late stages of the second half of the year.
Stylistically, the Muay Thai practitioner is a difficult matchup for whomever stands atop the division, as she is an excellent striker from range, has shown the ability to work at a solid clip for 25 minutes, and has continued to shore up her takedown defense, her ability to get back to her feet when taken down, and to land effectively off her back if needed.
After a breakout campaign last year, 2022 could be the year Rodriguez ascends to the top of the division.
Mateusz Gamrot (Lightweight)
A two-division champion in one of Europe’s top promotions, KSW, before joining the UFC roster, Gamrot lost his first fight in the Octagon by split decision, but rebounded with three consecutive stoppage victories in 2021 to establish himself as an emerging threat in the talent-rich 155-pound weight class.
In April, he hit Scott Holtzman with a pristine one-two 82 seconds into the second round to record his first UFC win. Three months later, he submitted promotional staple Jeremy Stephens with a kimura just 65 seconds in, and in December, Gamrotwrapped up his impressive campaign with a second-round stoppage win over Top 10-ranked Diego Ferreira, pushing his record to 20-1 with one No Contest verdict overall.
The 31-year-old Polish fighter is the total package, equally dangerous standing and on the ground, and believes he needs two more victories this year before getting the chance to challenge for championship gold in 2023.
If he keeps performing the way he did last year while continuing to climb the divisional ladder, there will be no way of denying “Gamer” a chance to compete for UFC gold.
TOP EMERGING TALENTS
Erin Blanchfield (Flyweight)
Blanchfield was the UFC equivalent of a September call-up that showed All-Star potential in a short amount of time.
The 22-year-old debuted in the fall, dominating Sarah Alpar to earn her first UFC win, and then thoroughly out-worked fellow up-and-comer Miranda Maverick at UFC 269 to close out the year, showcasing impressive strength, grappling ability, and tenaciousness in pushing her record to 8-1.
Blanchfield turned pro at 18, holds wins over UFC competitors Kay Hansen and Victoria Leonardo from her time under the Invicta FC banner, and her lone loss was a suspect split decision defeat to Tracy Cortez, who has since earned a place on the UFC roster with a victory on Dana White’s Contender Series and posted victories in each of her first three appearances inside the Octagon.
The Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt has been chasing down her professional fighting dreams since she was 12 and just might be the best prospect on the entire roster. She’s gritty on the feet, ultra-skilled on the ground, and only going to keep getting better as she continues to mature, develop, and gain more experience.
Honestly, get your seat on the bandwagon now because it’s going to fill up quickly as Blanchfield continues working towards the top of the division.
Jeff Molina (Flyweight)
Representing the Glory MMA & Fitness team in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, the 24-year-old Molina is one of those kids that radiates superstar potential when you watch him compete inside the cage.
Though he suffered a couple losses early in his career, “El Jefe” has rattled off nine straight victories, including a pair of wins in his first two UFC starts last year.
After taking a round to find his footing in his debut, Molina took the fight to his opponent, Chinese newcomer Aoriqileng, in the second and third, turning the close contest into a one-sided decision win. Six months later, his showcased the pop in his hands and his finishing instincts by dropping and stopping Brazilian Daniel da Silva just 46 seconds into the second round.
Molina has a style similar to that of his head coach, UFC veteran James Krause — both are long and rangy; crafty on the feet, but solid on the ground as well — and when fights get close and venture into the latter stages, his intensity, focus, and performance all raise up a couple notches. His Contender Series win two summers back and his debut win showed the kind of resolve he has, and the victory over da Silva highlighted his tremendous upside.
Flyweight continues to grow deeper every year, but Molina has the kind of skills to stand out in the 125-pound weight class, and if he keeps progressing on his current trajectory, he should be a Top 10 staple and a perennial contender — if not a UFC champion — in the next couple years.