The UFC had one of the strongest groups of champions it has had in its history as 2021 ended. Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, for instance, is not only the pound-for-pound best active fighter in the world, but a strong argument can be made that he’s surpassed Georges St-Pierre as the greatest welterweight of all time.
Pound-for-pound queen Valentina Shevchenko is either the greatest, or second-greatest, women’s fighter in MMA history.
It goes on and on like that.
But history has taught us that things will be vastly different at the end of 2022 than they are at 2021. It was difficult to imagine at the end of 2020 that Amanda Nunes wouldn’t end 2021 as the UFC’s women’s bantamweight champion, as well. But she was upset at UFC 269 by Julianna Peña.
So there will be different faces among the athletes who hold a UFC title belt on Dec. 31, 2022, than there were on Dec. 31, 2021.
I’m going to make a guess at who a good long-shot choice in each division might be to hold the crown at end of the 2022. I’m not going to choose someone who has held a belt before, who is ranked in the top five or who has a fight scheduled for the title already.
Rather, I’m going to pick one dark horse fighter in each of the eight men’s divisions and each of the four women’s divisions who could potentially hold a belt at the end of 2022. This is not to predict that a champion in any particular weight class will be dethroned. It’s just to identify some fighters to watch who may not be talked about as championship material now but could surprise and hold a belt at the end of 2022.
UFC women’s divisions
Strawweight: Rose Namajunas is the reigning champion and will defend against former champ Carla Esparza next. There aren’t a lot of great long shot options in this division, but I’ll go with Amanda Ribas. Ribas is No. 9 and has shown oodles of talent but some vulnerabilities. She lost two fights ago to Marina Rodriguez, who is the fighter most likely to face the Namajunas-Esparza winner. Rodriguez, though, is No. 3 and doesn’t quality as a dark horse, so I’ll go with Ribas.
Flyweight: Shevchenko is the reigning champion and if I had to bet, she’ll remain champion at the end of 2022. Given how dominant Shevchenko has been, even the No. 1 contender could be viewed as a long shot. I thought long and hard about tabbing Casey O’Neill, who has the talent to be champion. But I think she’s too young and inexperienced at this point. I’m going to choose 31-year-old Manon Fiorot, a karate specialist who is now ranked No. 14. She’s 3-0 with two finishes in the UFC and has the kind of skill to make a quick jump.
Bantamweight: If there is a change at champion by the end of 2022, it’s almost certainly going to be Nunes who holds the belt, regaining it from Peña. But I’ll pick No. 14 Julia Avila. She was highly disappointing in a loss to Sijara Eubanks, a fighter frankly one with championship dreams should handle. But Avila has a good mind for the game and a varied skill set. A lot would have to happen for her to get there, but if we’re looking to pull a rabbit out of the hat, she’s as good a dark horse as anyone.
Featherweight: Nunes is the champion here and there isn’t even a ranking, the division is so shallow. So I’ll tag someone who may not really be a long shot, but since she isn’t even in the UFC now, I deserve some slack for picking her. I have Kayla Harrison, the PFL lightweight champion, as my choice here. She’s my No. 3 pound-for-pound fighter and is really the only other option besides Nunes.
UFC men’s divisions
Flyweight: Brandon Moreno will meet Deiveson Figueiredo for the title in a rubber match on Jan. 22, but they won’t fight a fourth time any time soon. Manel Kape lost back-to-back fights at one point in 2021, but seemed to get back on track and looked outstanding in his next two. He qualifies since he’s not on the championship radar at this point, and those ahead of him either don’t meet the qualifications or aren’t going to win a title.
Bantamweight: This is a tough division to choose a long shot because so many veterans are at the top. Aljamain Sterling is the champion and Petr Yan is the interim champ. Then there are former champions Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz, who don’t qualify, and nor does Cory Sandhagen or Rob Font as they’ve had huge fights and are near the top. So I’ll go with Merab Dvalishvili, who is ranked sixth and who has the wrestling game to make him a factor.
Featherweight: Champion Alexander Volkanovski and ex-champion Max Holloway have dominated this division, and probably will through 2022. I debated whether to choose Giga Chikadze, but he’s fighting Calvin Kattar on Jan. 15 and he’s too near the top to qualify under my criteria. So I’ll go with Arnold Allen, who is on a 10-fight winning streak and sits in a nice spot at No. 7.
Lightweight: This is the hardest division to do this exercise in given the big names at the top: Champion Charles Oliveira and then guys like Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier, Beneil Dariush and Islam Makhachev are right there waiting. Plus, ex-champion Conor McGregor doesn’t deserve a title shot yet, but he may get one because he’s such a big draw, making this even more difficult. So I’ll go with Rafael Fiziev, who has the talent but with the number of big names ahead of him may not get the opportunity. But he’s a guy who could take advantage if he gets it, so I’ll tab him.
Welterweight: No. 9 Sean Brady is the choice here. I’d choose Khamzat Chimaev in a heartbeat, and at No. 11, he’s two spots behind Brady, but I think he’s too mainstream/obvious already to qualify. He wouldn’t be a long shot if he ended the year as champion. So I’ll go with Brady, who has a diverse game and knows how to win.
Middleweight: Champion Israel Adesanya and ex-champion Robert Whittaker will rematch in February. If Whittaker wins that, there’s probably a rubber match between them. So my dark horse has to be close enough to the top that one win may get him the title opportunity, two at the most. I think Sean Strickland is that guy. He’s making a lot of noise for his crazy comments but the guy can fight and he is coming off a steam-rolling of Uriah Hall.
Light heavyweight: Venerable champion Glover Teixeira will make his first defense against Jiri Prochazka. But to pick a long shot, it never hurts to take a Dagestani wrestler. That’s what I’ll do by taking Magomed Ankalaev. He’s won seven in a row since a defeat to Paul Craig in his UFC debut. And at No. 7, he’s positioned well.
Heavyweight: Champion Francis Ngannou and interim champion Ciryl Gane will meet on Jan. 22. Former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is expected to debut at heavyweight in 2022, and former heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic will merit another shot at the belt with one more win. So while recognizing the opportunity for an upstart to make that leap in this division may not be there, I’ll tag No. 10 Tom Aspinall as my man. I like his progress, he’s a smart guy and he could do it if the cards fall right for him.