Despite the many setbacks and cancellations throughout the sports world in 2020, mixed martial arts found a way to thrive in the chaos.
As the NHL, NBA and many soccer leagues were on indefinite hiatuses, and before the MLB and NFL seasons got underway, it was the UFC that took centre stage and increased its market share in the crowded mainstream sports landscape.
The UFC held an empty-venue event in Brazil in mid-March before a six-week pause as Dana White and Co. figured out the logistics of getting back to business as quickly and safely as possible.
In the face of plenty of media criticism — criticism White clearly won’t soon forget — White and the UFC resumed holding empty-venue events with new health and safety measures in place. After three events in Jacksonville, Fla., they settled in at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas for five events in five weeks. Then there was the whole unveiling of Fight Island.
Not long after the UFC set up shop in Abu Dhabi, their top competitor also returned to action.
Following a five-month hiatus, Bellator MMA president Scott Coker and his staff returned in July and ended up holding an additional 15 events, most of which out of the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Bellator also held multiple events in Italy and hosted France’s first major MMA event since the sport was legalized in the country.
White, Coker and other MMA promoters who were able to safely return to holding events deserve plenty of praise because although there were fewer fights overall in 2021, the quality of competition was excellent.
We saw UFC champions Henry Cejudo and Khabib Nurmagomedov announce their retirements after defending their titles. Future Hall of Famers Daniel Cormier and Anderson Silva also competed in the UFC for the final time.
Jan Blachowicz, Petr Yan and Deiveson Figueiredo each became first-time UFC titleholders, while Stipe Miocic, Israel Adesanya, Kamaru Usman, Alexander Volkanovski, Amanda Nunes, Valentina Shevchenko and Weili Zhang all began and ended the year as champions.
The sport is constantly evolving and a new wave of fighters are hoping to carve out their own legacies. We can only imagine what fight fans will be blessed with next year.
With that in mind, here are five bold MMA predictions for 2021.
1. McGregor regains the lightweight title
Staunch Conor McGregor supporters won’t think of this as a bold prediction. To them it’s merely a matter of time before the Irish superstar has UFC gold wrapped around his waist for a third time.
McGregor returned to the Octagon this past January and beat Donald Cerrone in 40 seconds, but the UFC didn’t book McGregor another fight. McGregor, a former 155-pound titleholder, is set for a rematch with former interim champ Dustin Poirier on Jan. 23, and with Nurmagomedov out of the picture the winner of this fight would be in a position to fight for the vacant belt later in 2021.
McGregor already holds a knockout win over Poirier and is favoured to beat him again, and matches up well with Justin Gathje and many of the other top lightweights. McGregor competing in title fights makes the UFC crazy sums of money so they’ll make it happen so long as he beats Poirier. McGregor is still only 32 and remains capable of beating any lightweight in MMA on any given night.
2. Jones becomes heavyweight champ AND beats Adesanya
Dana White said the one fight he’d want to see more than any other in 2021 would be Jon Jones vs. Israel Adesanya. It appears as though Adesanya’s first fight in 2021 will be against Jan Blachowicz for the light-heavyweight belt – the same belt Jones vacated before deciding to make the move to heavyweight.
Francis Ngannou is next in line for heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic, and it wouldn’t be right for Jones to leapfrog Ngannou. But Jones could and probably should fight the winner. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say there isn’t a heavyweight on the planet that can beat Jon Jones or even go the distance with him right now. He’s also only 33, which is actually young for the heavyweight division. Jones knows it, too.
Meanwhile, if Adesanya, the 20-0 middleweight champ, can beat Blachowicz to become the UFC’s latest two-weight champ, it would set up the Jones showdown. The two elite talents have developed a heated rivalry that could headline a blockbuster event. If Jones sees Adesanya wearing his old belt, that could be enough to get Jones to go back down to his old weight class to prove a point.
3. Harrison, Shields become bona fide MMA stars
Both Kayla Harrison and Clarissa Shields are legends in their respective fields. Both women won Olympic golds at London 2012 and Rio 2016 – Harrison for judo and Shields for boxing. They’re two of MMA’s most notable prospects.
Harrison is 30 and already boasts an 8-0 MMA record. She went 7-0 in the Professional Fighters League (PFL) women’s lightweight division and recently made her featherweight debut, bloodying Courtney King at Invicta 43 FC in November. Harrison is the one fighter right now that many are eyeing as the person to eventually end UFC double champ Amanda Nunes’s reign atop the women’s 145-pound division.
Shields signed a contract with PFL in November but hasn’t debuted yet. She is only 25 and very green when it comes to wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and all the grappling aspects of MMA. She has been training alongside Holly Holm, Michelle Waterson, Jon Jones and others at Jackson Wink MMA. If you’re going to learn MMA, why not learn from the best?
Athletic, learns fast and has a crazy work ethic, Clarissa could be a problem pic.twitter.com/WABMPTkFlk
— BONY (@JonnyBones) December 6, 2020
4. Dillashaw returns to championship form
The UFC bantamweight division is as deep and exciting as it has ever been, and having a former champ like TJ Dillashaw back in the mix only adds to the intrigue. Dillashaw was suspended for two years after testing positive for a banned substance prior to his flyweight title fight against Henry Cejudo in January of 2019. That suspension ends Jan. 18.
Dillashaw was the bantamweight champion when he cut down to 125 pounds to challenge for Cejudo’s flyweight belt. Even though the last time we saw him compete he lost in 32 seconds, Dillashaw never actually lost his belt at 135 pounds. He was stripped of it after his suspension was levied. The Dillashaw that Cejudo beat was a depleted version of the fighter that knocked out Cody Garbrandt twice in a row to claim top spot in the division.
The 34-year-old is a dynamic striker with a sound wrestling base, and he’s on a mission to prove he didn’t need PEDs to become a champion at 135 pounds – he never failed a drug test as a bantamweight. Dillashaw was recently challenged by Jose Aldo. That matchup would be electric, and a win over Aldo could be enough to get Dillashaw back into a title fight.
5. Bellator challenges the UFC to a champion-vs.-champion event
Bellator’s numbered events will catch up and pass the UFC’s numbered events at some point early in 2021. Is that completely arbitrary? Absolutely, but it’ll result in some fun hypothetical UFC-vs.-Bellator talk. With the Bellator roster stronger than it has ever been, Coker could issue a friendly challenge to White, who has been notoriously opposed to co-promoting events over the years.
Many fight fans, especially the casual ones, still ignorantly write off Bellator as a clear step down from the UFC when that simply isn’t the case. The UFC has significant roster depth on their side, but I’d wager a crossover event like this would be far more competitive than one might think and that at least three Bellator champions would beat their UFC counterparts. While a hybrid UFC/Bellator card is extraordinarily unlikely, don’t be shocked if we see Coker conduct some more business with RIZIN or another international promotions like he has in the past.
BONUS PREDICTION: The UFC champs at the end of 2021 will be…
Strawweight: Yan Xiaonan
Men’s flyweight: Askar Askarov
Women’s flyweight: Valentina Shevchenko
Men’s bantamweight: TJ Dillashaw
Women’s bantamweight: Amanda Nunes
Men’s featherweight: Brian Ortega
Women’s featherweight: Vacant
Lightweight: Conor McGregor
Welterweight: Khamzat Chimaev
Middleweight: Israel Adesanya
Light-heavyweight: Jon Jones
Heavyweight: Jon Jones