This past year saw some semblance of normalcy return to mixed martial arts following a 2020 during which the majority of events took place in front of sparse spectators in mostly-empty venues.
The UFC ended up holding 43 events in 2021 – many at sold-out arenas throughout the United States, while also frequently using the UFC Apex in Las Vegas and Fight Island in Abu Dhabi as host sites.
The year began with Max Holloway dubbing himself the “best boxer in UFC, baby!” in January and it was capped off by Derrick Lewis breaking the organization’s all-time knockout record in the final UFC bout of the year.
Packed between those two performances, fans watched the heavyweight, light-heavyweight, women’s bantamweight, men’s flyweight and women’s strawweight titles change hands, plus new champions crowned at men’s bantamweight and lightweight, thus filling the voids left by retired Henry Cejudo and Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The year wouldn’t’ve been complete without a few interim belts handed out, which is why Ciryl Gane and Petr Yan are walking around with gold draped over shoulder.
How many current champions will still hold their belts one year from now?
Here are some bold UFC predictions for 2022.
Chimaev replaces Usman as welterweight champ, top P4P fighter
Every so often in sports a phenom will emerge, dubbed a generational talent destined for greatness long before they turn pro. When those rare individuals then exceed even the loftiest of expectations, well, that’s when you have something truly special.
Khamzat Chimaev is the MMA equivalent of a first-overall draft pick and the most promising fighter the UFC has had on its roster in years. The rising welterweight contender is primed to take that next step in 2022.
The myth of Chimaev is spurred on partly by legendary gym tales of sparring dominance and partly by the sheer authority of his victories. He has six knockouts and four submissions in 10 pro fights and three of his submission victims went to sleep before they could tap out, including when he rendered Li Jingliang unconscious at UFC 267 in his return to action following a 13-month absence.
The 27-year-old, born in Chechnya but living and training out of Stockholm, is a statistical anomaly. He has landed 254 total strikes in his four UFC bouts and absorbed only two, both inconsequential shots in his organizational debut.
He has an unblemished freelance wrestling record and was a multiple-time Swedish national champion. None of his pro MMA bouts have lasted longer than 6:15. Chimaev has barely broken a sweat in the UFC.
“He’s one of the baddest dudes that I’ve ever come across. Nobody wants to fight this guy,” UFC president Dana White told Jim Rome in December. “Everybody wants to get out on social media and say this or say that but when it really comes down to it, nobody’s trying to fight Khamzat Chimaev. I don’t blame them.”
If Chimaev can stay healthy he’ll be as active as the UFC allows him to be. He says he’s coming for everybody and has already called himself the champ.
My crystal ball is showing Chimaev passing his next couple tests with flying colours against the Neil Magnys and Belal Muhammads of the world. Once he knocks off a contender or two, he’ll be at the centre of the 170-pound title conversation.
“Borz” caps off the year by putting Kamaru Usman to sleep either with a choke or knockout shot and simultaneously claims top spot on the UFC’s pound-for-pound list.
Anderson Silva KOs Jake Paul
Fine, this isn’t strictly a UFC prediction, but it involves a former UFC great so it totally counts. Whether fans like it or not, Jake Paul has become a top draw in combat sports after picking up highlight-reel knockout wins over Ben Askren and former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley.
Winning a decision over Woodley in August was one thing but his huge KO in the short-notice December rematch went viral and secured him at least one more massive fight against a big star from either MMA or boxing.
.@jakepaul JUST PUT THE WOOD IN WOODLEY
— SHOWTIME Boxing (@ShowtimeBoxing) December 19, 2021
Nate Diaz’s and Jorge Masvidal’s names were on Paul’s tongue after the win but setting up a fight with either of them would require Dana White and the UFC to play ball. Anderson Silva on the other hand? The longtime UFC middleweight champion isn’t under any contractual obligation.
Paul’s clubbing right hand might’ve gotten all the clicks, but Silva legitimately outboxing Julio Caesar Chavez Jr. in June and winning a decision (in Chavez’s home country of Mexico no less!) was the more impressive accomplishment from a professional boxing perspective.
Paul’s brother, Logan Paul, went the distance with Floyd Mayweather Jr., boxing’s GOAT, in 2021 so Jake going the distance or defeating Silva (considered by many to be MMAs GOAT) is a built-in storyline. Would that be enough to entice the soon-to-be 25-year-old YouTube superstar to take a fight with the 46-year-old Brazilian legend?
Woodley had knockout power, sure, but he is not a striker by nature. Silva is and has shown both a willingness and capability of putting hands on opponents with great precision whether in a cage or ring.
If Jake Paul is keen on taking out increasingly more skilled former UFC stars and decides he’s ready for someone like Silva, that’s when his streak ends. Silva opened as the odds-on favourite to be Paul’s next opponent, so a matchup between these two is well within the realm of possibility.
Shevchenko becomes double-champ
Valentina Shevchenko has eased her way through the flyweight division like a hot spoon through coconut oil ever since dropping down to 125 pounds nearly four years ago. Shevchenko has been so dominant, in fact, that moving back up to the division she began her UFC career in might be her best move going forward.
Shevchenko’s only two losses in the UFC were decisions to Amanda Nunes – the second of which was a contested split decision – and Nunes is no longer viewed as an unstoppable force. Shevchenko holds a previous win over Julianna Pena, who just won the 135-pound title by submitting Nunes at UFC 269.
There is a dearth of viable contenders in the women’s flyweight division save for perhaps No. 5-ranked Taila Santos and No. 14-ranked Manon Fiorot down the line, neither of whom carry much star or drawing power currently.
Shevchenko, 33, has a growing mainstream following thanks to her continued dominance plus a starring role in the 2021 Halle Berry Netflix movie Bruised.
Pena and Nunes are expected to have a rematch but Shevchenko should call out whoever wins the rematch because she’ll beat whoever holds the belt.
Polarizing stars McGregor, Jones both return victorious
Conor McGregor is the biggest star in UFC history and Jon Jones is the organization’s top all-time talent, yet the reputations of both former champions have taken significant hits – most of their career wounds self-inflicted.
McGregor’s best days might’ve already been behind him prior to his left tibia and fibula shattering underneath the weight of his body at UFC 264. The double-champ, who did what the bleep he wanted and backed everything he said up in the cage, might be a distant memory, however that’s not to say the former featherweight and lightweight champion is washed. Far from it, in fact. His skill set remains sharp and, depending on style matchup, he should be capable of defeating ranked opponents.
McGregor’s only win since 2016 was his quick finish of an overwhelmed Donald Cerrone two years ago. At this stage for McGregor, though, it qualifies as bold to predict the Irish superstar will have his hand raised at any point inside the Octagon regardless of the opponent.
Whether it’s a trilogy bout with Nate Diaz (bold), a rivalry reignited with Nurmagomedov’s successor Islam Makhachev (bolder), an undeserving title shot against Charles Oliveira (boldest), or something less challenging, McGregor gets his hand raised in 2022.
So what date am I fighting Oliveira?
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) December 13, 2021
When it comes to Jones, the former light-heavyweight kingpin’s out-of-cage antics have garnered more attention than his in-cage accomplishments for years (plural). The 34-year-old hasn’t fought since February 2020 but has been bulking up and training as a heavyweight ever since relinquishing his 205-pound title almost a year-and-a-half ago.
Jones essentially cleaned out two eras of light-heavyweight contenders during his title reign and, in theory, he is still in his prime. A move to heavyweight has been teased for years – two of his most notable wins were against Daniel Cormier, who eventually won the heavyweight title – and Jones would in all likelihood be favoured to beat every heavyweight on the UFC roster outside of perhaps champion Francis Ngannou and interim champ Ciryl Gane.
Although Jones would warrant an immediate title shot based on his career achievements, look for him to compete in one “tune-up” fight to prove he’s just as dangerous fighting the most physically intimidating athletes on the planet.
Jiri Prochazka becomes LHW champion: Maybe not the boldest prediction here but Prochazka is going to win the belt in such spectacular fashion that he’ll become an overnight sensation.
Alex Pereira beats Israel Adesanya…again: Pereira shone in his UFC debut. If he keeps winning, a rematch of his and Izzy’s 2017 kickboxing match will be put together and Pereira will get his hand raised a second time.
Paddy Pimblett becomes a top draw in the UFC: Paddy “The Baddy” will build off his memorable UFC debut by finishing Donald Cerrone and cementing himself as a new fan favourite and headline act well before he’s a legitimate title contender. The most electric moptop scouser since the lads who made Abbey Road.
— danawhite (@danawhite) September 4, 2021
The UFC champs at the end of 2021 will be…
Strawweight: Zhang Weili
Men’s flyweight: Askar Askarov
Women’s flyweight: Valentina Shevchenko
Men’s bantamweight: Petr Yan
Women’s bantamweight: Valentina Shevchenko
Men’s featherweight: Alexander Volkanovski
Women’s featherweight: Division gets dissolved
Lightweight: Islam Makhachev
Welterweight: Khamzat Chimaev
Middleweight: Andre Muniz
Light-heavyweight: Jiri Prochazka
Heavyweight: Ciryl Gane