New contenders, ex-champs rebound, contract squabbles: What to watch for in every division in 2022

MMA

Mixed martial arts is an ever-evolving, rapidly changing sport. And yes, the only thing we enjoy more than looking back on a night of fights is looking ahead to the next one.

The same goes for the impulse to look ahead to the calendar year to come. Last year was awesome. We enjoyed it. We’re certainly not about to forget everything that happened. But now it’s time to talk some 2022. Respect to what we just saw, but how about what we’re about to see?

Here’s something to watch for in every division in the new year.

Strawweight: Marina Rodriguez

Carla Esparza will be the next title challenger for Rose Namajunas, but Rodriguez is on deck — and regardless of who is champion when Rodriguez reaches the top, she could be a problem. She fought Esparza in 2020 and lost a split decision that easily could have gone her way. She has the skill set to be a difficult matchup for Namajunas, too. If this division gets a major shake-up in 2022, it will be a Rodriguez takeover.


Women’s flyweight: Youth

Valentina Shevchenko is the No. 1 figure to watch in this division, no doubt, because she’s a near-perfect martial artist. But the other thing to watch for is young talent, because Shevchenko needs new challenges. No one in the next generation of 125-pounders is likely to reach the top within the next 12 months, but right in front of us is the emergence of Maycee Barber (23 years old), Mariya Agapova (24), Miranda Maverick (24), Casey O’Neill (24) and Erin Blanchfield (22). They all need time, but they’re all fantastic, young prospects.


Men’s flyweight: Deiveson Figueiredo

Brandon Moreno had quite the coming-out party last year. He went from a significant underdog in his first fight against then-champ Figueiredo (a majority draw in December 2020), to a slight underdog in the rematch (a submission win by Moreno in June to earn the title), to now a favorite for the completion of the trilogy Jan. 22. If Figueiredo loses to Moreno again? The division will be in great hands if Moreno successfully defends the belt, and he’ll have all kinds of options laid out. We know that. What we don’t know is what Figueiredo would do next. So, going into this year, my biggest question at flyweight is how Figueiredo will look at UFC 270 and how that night’s result will impact his future at the weight class.


Women’s bantamweight: Amanda Nunes

This one is obvious: How does Nunes respond to the Julianna Peña upset? That’s the million dollar question. Dana White believes the rematch will be the biggest fight in women’s MMA history. Whether it ends up being the biggest or even close to the biggest, it will be massive. Nunes will be under more pressure than she’s experienced in a long time. Can she win the title back? And even if she does, was December a hiccup or a hint at something bigger? Perhaps that she’s losing motivation to remain in the sport? We’ll see.


Men’s bantamweight: Sean O’Malley … and Sergio PettisKyoji Horiguchi 2?

“Here goes the media, always hyping Sean O’Malley!” I can hear the naysayers complaining already.

But O’Malley has done his job, OK? He’s dominated the level of competition he’s fought thus far in the UFC and he’s developed a huge following in the process. Now, the check is due. He’s 27 years old. He had his 10th pro fight less than two years ago. It’s not like he’s been fighting tomato cans for 10 years. His level of competition has been appropriate. Now it’s time for a jump, and the sport can’t wait to see what happens.

In Bellator MMA, the Bantamweight World Grand Prix will be a storyline all year. I won’t be able to stop myself from watching with an eye on what it will take to set up the Pettis-Horiguchi rematch, because I’d love to see it.


Women’s featherweight: Any challenges for Cris Cyborg?

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Cris Cyborg tells Ariel Helwani why she’s happy to be competing in Bellator MMA.

If you’re looking for something of interest in this division, you have to look toward Bellator — because realistically, this division doesn’t exist in the UFC beyond its champion, Nunes. We’re five years into the UFC’s leap into women’s featherweight, and the company still doesn’t even have enough 145-pound women on the roster to create a top-10 ranking. There’s nothing to talk about there.

In Bellator, the thing that draws interest is that familiar old question: Will anyone challenge Cris “Cyborg” Justino? Cat Zingano? Leah McCourt? Doesn’t seem likely in 2022, but we never know.


Men’s featherweight: Giga Chikadze

We won’t have to wait long to get our first 2022 look at Chikadze, as he’s headlining the first UFC Fight Night of the year on Saturday against Calvin Kattar. That’s a heck of a fight that could go either way. Going in, there is definitely more of a curiosity factor around Chikadze, though. What’s his true ceiling? He is 7-0 in the UFC. He comes from a strong camp, Kings MMA. And he has among the best finishing ability in the division. If he can keep a fight standing, is there anyone he can’t beat? I can think of a lot of questions to be answered in this division in 2022, and “How good is Giga Chikadze?” is right at the top.


Lightweight: Islam Makhachev era?

Will this division go from one era of Dagestani dominance (Khabib Nurmagomedov) to another (Makhachev), with a short break in between? I can give you a ton of lightweight talent to keep an eye on in 2022 — this division is always saturated with it. But the biggest thing to watch at 155 pounds is the potential dominance of Makhachev. If he’s as good as everyone around him says he is, we’re looking at a multiyear title reign by a Khabib protégé. Clearly, a lot has to happen before that’s a reality — and 2022 will be telling on the matter.


Welterweight: Khamzat Chimaev

Chimaev is one of the top fighters in the entire sport, regardless of weight class, to keep an eye on in 2022, although I do want to give Leon Edwards his due. That man has done more than enough to have his shot at the title and to get some attention and respect. But that said, Chimaev is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. And who knows? It might come crashing down. There’s always the chance of that. But from what we’ve seen so far, there is no limit to what he might accomplish and the hype he will create in doing so.

In fact, I’ll say it: If you pay attention to only one thing in 2022, pay attention to Khamzat Chimaev.


Middleweight: Israel Adesanya … on the mic

This is assuming Adesanya does what he does inside the Octagon. Stay with me here. If Adesanya continues to dominate his 185-pound competition — far from a given, because he’s got a tough matchup with Robert Whittaker on Feb. 12 — pay attention to what he’s saying. What does Adesanya try to build? This man is a genius when it comes to building his next fight. He did a great job of building up fights against Paulo Costa and Marvin Vettori, and he’s even done an amazing job of building fights that haven’t happened — Jon Jones and Darren Till. If Adesanya keeps winning, I’m curious to see what he’s going to want. Fortunately, he’ll tell us.


Light heavyweight: Jiri Prochazka

Obviously, this division is still feeling the impact of Jon Jones. When you have a dominant champion for that long — light heavyweight was essentially ruled by Jones and Daniel Cormier for 10 years — it takes a minute to sort some things out. Just when it looked like Jan Blachowicz was emerging as the man to beat at 205, 42-year-old Glover Teixeira upset the apple cart. At this point, if there is going to be a dominant force at light heavy, it’s likely going to be Prochazka. He has the most potential to do it. If not, this division will be volatile — upsets, surprises, belts changing hands. And if that’s the case, it will hold allure for someone such as middleweight champion Adesanya to take another crack at a second belt.


Heavyweight: Francis Ngannou‘s contract

The UFC and its heavyweight champion are in a rare position going into the title fight on Jan. 22. Ngannou is not locked up in a long-term deal. In fact, the fight with Ciryl Gane is the last on the champ’s contract. If he loses to Gane, Ngannou immediately moves into free agency, which is stunning to think about. If Ngannou wins, though, he remains with the UFC under a champion’s clause, and then we’ll be left to see if the two sides can come to an agreement to extend him. Whatever happens, 2022 is going to be a hugely definitive year in the career of Francis Ngannou.

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