If you held a UFC title to start 2021, there’s a fairly good chance it didn’t survive to 2022. That’s because last year was a year of chaos unlike few others. Of the 12 UFC beltholders who began 2021 with gold wrapped around their waists, just five managed to escape to 2022 unscathed. That mark tied the record for the largest championship turnover in promotional history, and delivered the MMA world a slew of unexpected title reigns.
It also made for a veritable minefield if you’re in the business of prognostication. Who can predict turnover of that scale, especially in as volatile of a sport as MMA? Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a brand new year, it’s (basically) a brand new slate of UFC champions, and two of our scribes are ready to make fools of themselves all over again by taking a stab at it.
Yes, the annual contender draft is back! This year Shaun Al-Shatti is joined by Jed Meshew to try to answer our age-old question: Which three non-champions have the best chance of ending 2022 wrapped in UFC gold? And to do so, they’re turning back to the format of kings: The fantasy draft.
Good luck, fellas. Let us begin.
Al-Shatti: Well, well, would you look at this. Welcome to my arena, Jed. Please make yourself at home. This is the fourth year we’ve done this little competition, but I know you’re the rookie here, so before we get rolling, let’s help you out — and anyone who’s catching us for the first time — by quickly laying down some ground rules.
1. The goal, as always, is to build the three-fighter team who you believe will end 2022 will the largest share of UFC gold. In other words, if you can magically go 3-for-3, you’re a guaranteed winner (and I’d love to get some stock tips from you), but usually two or one is enough to suffice. Trust me, this exercise is much harder than it looks.
2. We’ll do so with a three-round snake draft. For those unfamiliar with the term, that means the team who gets Pick 1 also gets Picks 4 and 5, while the opposing team gets Picks 2, 3, and 6.
3. The pool of available fighters is strictly limited to names who are not currently the champion of the UFC division you’re selecting them for. Former champions or champions of other divisions who you expect to claim double gold are, of course, fair game.
4. In order to push us to be more intrepid with our picks, each of us will only be allowed to select one fighter from the pool of names who are already either scheduled or rumored to be the next title challenger. That means only one selection each from these fighters: Ciryl Gane, Jiri Prochazka, Robert Whittaker, Leon Edwards, Justin Gaethje,
Max Holloway, Petr Yan, Deiveson Figueiredo, Amanda Nunes, Taila Santos, and Carla Esparza. We mention it ever year, but this is meant to be an exercise in prognostication, not fight prediction.
[Ed. note: This draft was done before Friday’s news broke about the cancellation of Volkanovski vs. Holloway 3, though it wouldn’t have affected things.]
And with that, let the fourth annual contender draft commence! I am nothing if not a magnanimous veteran, Mr. Meshew, so I cede the first pick to you. Godspeed.
Team Meshew is on the clock! And with the first pick of 2022 contender draft ... at lightweight ... it’s Islam Makhachev!
Meshew: I feel like Roger Goodell, only instead of being dumb and everyone hating me, I’m universally beloved and widely considered to be brilliant. And it’s for those very two reasons that I use the first overall pick of this draft on the best player available, one Islam Makhachev.
If you go to the MMA Fighting Global Rankings, you will see that one daring panelist had the moxie to rank Mr. Makhachev as the top lightweight in the world — and, spoiler alert, it was me! Why did I do this? Because, simply put, I think he IS the best lightweight in the world. If we were to “Game of Thrones” trial by combat for our lives tomorrow and we could choose any lightweight in the world to be our champion, I’d snap up Islam Makhachev and put a flower on your casket at the funeral.
Islam is a certified badass who has looked nothing short of terrifying in his last few outings. He’s basically Khabib Nurmagomedov only slightly less athletic but with slightly more refined striking. Even if that means he’s ultimately only 80 percent as good as Khabib, that still makes Islam roughly 45 percent better than every other lightweight on Earth right now. But perhaps most important is Mr. Nurmagomedov himself.
All the hardcore fans of MMA (well, most) knew that Khabib was the best lightweight in the world for nearly FOUR YEARS before he finally got the belt. It was exceedingly obvious from the moment he schooled Rafael dos Anjos (who then became the champion) that Khabib was THAT DUDE, but circumstances (i.e. injury and Conor McGregor) conspired to keep the title away from him. Then after he finally did get the belt, he became a global superstar and was gone just two years later. It’s one of the great lost opportunities in UFC history. And now, the UFC has Khabib 2.0, the hand-picked successor of Khabib himself, and one who has been adamant that he has no plans on walking away from the sport anytime soon. Do you think the UFC is really going to squander that a second time? No chance.
Charles Oliveira and Gaethje will settle up their business this spring and then, after Islam mangles Beneil Dariush next month, the Dagestani Knucklegame Cartel will reclaim the title Khabib walked away from, and Father’s grand plan will be concluded.
And the board turns to Team Al-Shatti ... the second pick is in ... what’s that? ... It’s the scourge of the welterweights ... Khamzat Chimaev!
Al-Shatti: Oh Jed, I can’t believe you let me do this. You, of all people, the driver of the Khamzat Chimaev bandwagon, the lunatic who indefensibly has this man ranked No. 2 on your personal welterweight rankings, just somehow handed me this gift.
If I’ve learned anything from doing these drafts over the years, the biggest factor that ultimately wins out is opportunity. You can pick the most talented prospect in the world, but if they don’t actually get a chance to challenge for gold, all that talent ends up being pointless for our purposes. So Islam? Hey, it’s a great pick. You’re right: He very well might be the best lightweight in the world right now. But Charles Oliveira just defended his belt a few weeks ago, and let’s say Oliveira vs. Gaethje takes place in the summer — knowing how Gaethje’s fights tend to go, there’s a real chance the winner isn’t seen again in 2022.
That’s also without me even mentioning the eternal looming specter of Conor McGregor. Would it be absurd if Conor swooped back into an instant title shot? Of course. Is it out of the question, knowing the UFC? Not in the slightest. Oliveira is already asking for it, for God’s sake. That’s one too many risks for my taste for a No. 1 pick.
But Khamzat? Oh lordy, lordy, Jed — you and I both know the UFC can’t wait to fast-track this man.
I’ll go out on a limb and guess everyone reading this already knows the stats — 4-0 in the UFC, 254-2 in total strikes, 112-1 in significant strikes, 11:56 to zero in control time, all of which was done across two different weight classes — so I won’t dawdle on about credentials. The point is, all it’s going to take it one, Jed, just one more win against a peripheral contender of Neil Magny or Belal Muhammad’s caliber — both of which are entirely winnable fights — and UFC matchmakers are going to trip over themselves with the speed they’ll book the Chechen wolf against whoever holds that belt. And you know what? Depending on who it is, Chimaev may even be favored.
It takes a special prospect to command that kind of respect from the oddsmakers, but this is a special case. One round in and I’m already feeling good about my chances.
Team Al-Shatti is back on the clock! With the third pick of the 2022 contender draft … oh my … could it be? … It’s her! … It’s Amanda Nunes!
Al-Shatti: Wow. I have to say, Mr. Meshew, I really did not expect this. Nunes and Chimaev were the top two names on my draft board, but I never actually expected to land both. The GOAT falling to the second round? What a life. I’ll take this one with glee.
After all this time, it’s still a little surreal that Nunes is even in this conversation. Maybe it was inevitable. Maybe “The Lioness” snuck beyond her better days right underneath our noses. There’s only so long a champion can stay on top in any sport before complacency settles in. That certainly seems to have played a role into what we saw at UFC 269, but also maybe Julianna Pena is just a bad matchup for Nunes. Maybe, after six years of historically unparalleled dominance across two divisions, Nunes finally ran into her kryptonite with a tough-as-nails pressure fighter who was never going to be intimidated by the aura of one of the greatest MMA champions of all-time.
None of that is out of the realm of the possibility. But even still, I was at UFC 269, and I can’t erase from my mind how truly … weird … it all felt. As soon as Pena was left standing at the end of Round 1, Nunes had the look of someone who never even conceived of this being an option. The dazed, wide-eyed, thousand-yard stare of a fighter used to going through the motions, someone who’d grown a bit too accustomed to easy nights. As if she’d finally gotten drunk off her own Kool-Aid and forgotten that every player in this mercurial game is mortal, no matter how extraordinary or without parallel their legacy might be.
You probably saw it too, Jed. We all did.
After everything we’ve learned about Nunes over the last six years, it’s hard for me to believe one of the fiercest women alive could allow herself to trip into that same pit twice. So, hey, you’re telling me I’m getting an ultra-motivated, ultra-pissed-off version of “The Lioness” here who finally feels like she has something to prove? Yes please.
The board is yours, my friend.
Team Meshew is now sprinting to the stage to make its selection ... it appears they can’t believe he fell this far despite being Shaheen Al-Shatti’s top-ranked bantamweight ... Petr Yan!
Meshew: Are you sure I’m the rookie here? Because you are making some Day One mistakes, buddy. You call me a lunatic for putting this world-beating elder-god of a fighter in the top two and then proceed to suggest he’s going to unseat the best fighter in the world right now? The reigning pound-for-pound king and one of the greatest, most dominant fighters of all-time? Something is amiss. Look, I love me some Khamzat. As you noted, I have him ranked number two in the division. But the thing about being number two is IT’S NOT NUMBER ONE, and Kamaru Usman is not a man to be trifled with.
At least the Nunes choice is more defensible but, as the one person in MMA media who actually predicted that Peña would pull off the greatest upset of all-time, I’m going to stay away from putting my money behind a woman who we saw get thumped up by a good chin and a horrendous jab. When long-reigning champions finally get unseated, that almost always signals a changing of the guard and not merely a one-time lapse. Could Amanda Nunes reclaim the title this year? Absolutely! But she’s still vulnerable and history is against her. Not to mention that if she does reclaim it, a trilogy would probably be next up.
No, I’d rather use my one current challenger pick on a much safer bet: Your top-ranked bantamweight, Petr Yan.
I would argue that there is no one in MMA who has been more anti-Yan than me. You play stupid games, you win stupid prizes, and Yan did a very stupid thing against Aljamain Sterling and lost his belt as a result. It was a fair and just decision. But there is also a difference between winning a fight and winning a fight, and while Yan unequivocally did not do the former, he was pretty obviously doing the latter before he get himself DQ’ed, and I expect he will do the same when he and Aljo finally settle up at UFC 272. Yan is simply too good, too diverse, and too tactical for Aljo to hang with him for 25 minutes, and having now lost his title due to blatant idiocy, there’s minimal chance Yan does anything similar this time.
Team Meshew now with the wheel and they’re taking their time with this one ... it appears there is some internal debate going on ... oh wait, I believe the pick is in ... wow, out of nowhere ... Magomed Ankalaev!
Meshew: Which brings me to my final selection, and this one is where I’m going to be digging deep. With my first two choices, I feel very confident that both fighters are the best in their respective divisions and will get their chance to prove it. But for my third choice, I’m less certain. Aside from bantamweight and lightweight, the reigning champions or next contenders all appear to be well-situated to retain their belts into 2023. But, I came into this exercise with two overarching draft philosophies: 1) Pick the best man or woman in each division (always bet on talent), and, 2) when in doubt, go with a Russian.
Fortunately, Magomed Ankalaev may satisfy both.
Look, all of us are high on Ankalaev’s future at 205. Ankalaev happens to both not suck and be younger than 30, which makes him a freaking unicorn in the garbage fire that is the light heavyweight division. For crying out loud, I know it was the feel-good story of 2021, but Glover Teixeira is 42 years old (!!) and clearly not as good as he once was, yet he is the light heavyweight champion in 2021. If they fought tomorrow, I would heavily favor Ankalaev to win the title.
Of course, the question with Dagestan’s light-heaviest son is whether he will even get that opportunity in the first place. Though he’s on a seven-fight win streak in the organization and ranked sixth in the UFC’s rankings, Ankalaev does not have a tremendous amount of name value to the casual fan. Perhaps he can change that when he runs through former title challenger Thiago Santos in March, but there’s no guarantee Ankalaev will get a title shot off that.
Still, given my confidence in Ankalaev should he get the opportunity, and the dearth of contenders lined up at 205 after Teixeira and Jiri Prochazka fight sometime this year (incidentally, I favor Prochazka but think Glover has a chance, and would favor Ank-Man over both), putting some more chips behind the Dagestani Knucklegame Cartel feels like a decent option.
And the board swings back to Team Al-Shatti! ... With the final pick of the 2022 contender draft ... wait a second ... no, it can’t be ... is that Jon Jones’ music?!?
Al-Shatti: Yes! It is! This, my man, is an opportunity pick at its finest. I never imagined I could’ve left this draft with two potential GOAT candidates on my squad, not to mention the biggest intrigue in the whole dang sport, yet here we are. I’m not mad about it.
Look, I haven’t been shy with my thoughts on Jon Jones over the last few years. His outside-of-the-cage issues are long past the point of being excusable, his murky history with performance-enhancing drugs is questionable at best and legacy-damning at worst, and it’s totally possible he slipped past his fighting prime sometime around 2019. If eking out an uninspiring decision over a no-legged Thiago Santos wasn’t rough enough, Jones absolutely should’ve lost his belt to Dominick Reyes at UFC 247. That decision remains the gift of all gifts, given the circumstances. One look at MMADecisions.com says it all.
But very little of that matters for our purposes, because ol’ “Sexual Chocolate” is still who he is, and winning UFC titles is still what he does best.
Jones didn’t put in all this work to bulk up to 255-plus pounds over the last two years simply to spend the rest of his career languishing on the sidelines. One way or another, he’s going to fight again in 2022, and there’s a zero-percent chance that fight doesn’t have some sort of UFC hardware on the line. Jones might not end up getting paid the type of money he’s asking for to do that, but I refuse to believe the competitor inside him will allow Jones to slink off into the sunset without actually testing the fruits of his labor.
Is he capable of defeating either Francis Ngannou or Gane at this point in his career? Your guess is as good as mine. But he’ll get his chance to try — and that’s all I can ask for from my final pick.
And thus concludes the 2022 contender draft! Let’s take a look at our final rosters.
Team Al-Shatti: Khamzat Chimaev, Amanda Nunes (135 lbs.), Jon Jones
Team Meshew: Islam Makhachev, Petr Yan, Magomed Ankalaev
Who won? Vote in the poll and let your voice be heard in the comments below.
Whose team is more likely to capture a bigger share of UFC gold in 2022?
This poll is closed
Team Al-Shatti: Khamzat Chimaev + Amanda Nunes (135 lbs.) + Jon Jones
Team Meshew: Islam Makhachev + Petr Yan + Magomed Ankalaev