Welcome to part two of our 2022 preview series! In part one, our own Shaun Al-Shatti and Jed Meshew peered into their magic crystal balls to select a team of non-championship fighters they believe will have captured the largest share of UFC gold by the end of 2022. Today, our scribes are turning the question on its head by predicting which current UFC titleholders are staring at the hardest roads ahead as we set off into the new year.
Let’s dive in.
Al-Shatti: Here we are once again, Mr. Meshew. I’m happy we’re still able to have a little friendly debate after getting those competitive juices flowing yesterday. So quickly, before we begin, let’s lay out for the people the parameters we’re using to make these picks.
What is the perfect year for a UFC champion? For the purposes of this exercise, let’s use Kamaru Usman’s 2021 campaign as our baseline: Usman went 3-0 last year with three title defenses against three different opponents en route to winning the only Fighter of the Year award that matters. That’s about as good as it gets. So that shall be our guide: If a champion defends their title three times in 2022, how difficult will that slate of opposition be?
Obviously we can make exceptions for titleholders who just competed at the end of 2021 — it’d be both wild and impressive if Charles Oliveira or Julianna Pena fought three times this year after winning just a few weeks ago — but you get the general point.
And just for fun, we’ll rank our three picks in descending order in terms of strength of schedule, ending with which of the UFC’s 12 current champions we feel is about to pull the unluckiest draw of the upcoming slate. So with that being said, my number No. 3 is...
Yes, it was inevitable that Aljamain Sterling was going to end up on this list, so I’ll just rip off that Band-Aid first. Look, the truth is “Aljo” hasn’t gotten much of a fair shake since the whole Petr Yan episode in March, to the point now where he’s actually incredibly underrated. Remember, this is a man who choked out Cory Sandhagen in 88 seconds less than two years ago. He’s no chump.
But Sterling does happen to have several forces working against him as we kick off the new year. One, is that he’s luckless enough to reign over a weight class that has fast become one of the deepest in the UFC. Compare the murderer’s row of 135 pounds today to how the division looked in the era of Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber, and it’s virtually night and day.
Two, is that the interim champion Sterling is scheduled to face at UFC 272 is a massive part of why this division suddenly feels so intimidating. Yan is a stone-cold killer, Jed, and I’m guessing you don’t need me to tell you that considering he was an integral part of Team Meshew in yesterday’s contender draft. We already saw what a matchup between Sterling and Yan could look like, and it wasn’t exactly pretty for Long Island’s own.
All of which brings up factor No. 3: Are we even sure the Sterling of 2022 is a better version of the Sterling of 2021? Think about it. The neck issues “Aljo” was forced to deal with throughout most of last year were crippling. You’re telling me that bloodthirsty Russian is the welcome party waiting at the gates to greet Sterling after what was probably the least physically active year of Sterling’s adult life? No, thank you.
Add to that what could lie ahead for Sterling if he does manage to exact his revenge at UFC 272 — an ultra-motivated T.J. Dillashaw, then perhaps either Jose Aldo or even longtime teammate Merab Dvalishvili in the type of matchup that inevitably happens when two friends are finally unable to avoid each other once legacy and life-changing money are on the line — and I can’t lie, the year looks bleak for the UFC’s most maligned champion.
Meshew: I’m in no way surprised that Aljamain Sterling is on your list, but I will admit to being surprised he just barely makes it in at No. 3. Given the total lack of respect you and many of our other colleagues have given the UFC bantamweight champion vis-à-vis the MMA Fighting Global Rankings, I would’ve assumed you’d have Aljo and his impending defeat to Yan much higher. And hell, I can’t really argue with that, Yan will probably win the rematch next month. BUT, for as good of a division as bantamweight is, if Aljo does manage to retain his title over Yan, I actually think his slate after that is pretty good for him — Aljo and Merab will never fight each other, and Dillashaw and Aldo are both real wildcards given their ages in the division.
So, given all that, I think the more correct No. 3 choice is...
3) Rose Namajunas
I know what you’re thinking right now: Rose Namajunas just beat Weili Zhang twice in a row, this man is insane! But no, I’m just seeing the forest while y’all are all looking at the trees.
Rose’s greatest asset is her sneaky speed and power. In her first fights with Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, she caught both women off guard with her speed and power and finished the night early; however, in both rematches, Rose had a much tougher go of things, even though she managed to pull out the wins. And that was against women who largely were willing to engage with her on her terms. Carla Esparza will not.
Esparza has been overlooked in the division for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that she is not an impressive fighter; however, being impressive and being effective are two very different things. Esparza excels at taking people down and smothering them, and as we saw in the rematch with Weili, that remains a bit of a weakness of Rose’s. Given that she’s already faced Rose before and Esparza knows this is her last shot at the belt, “The Cookie Monster” is a very dangerous opponent for Namajunas. However, as dangerous as I think Esparza is for Rose, there is someone else who presents an even bigger threat: Herself.
At her best, Rose Namajunas is one of the most compelling and dangerous female fighters alive. Unfortunately, “her best” is an elusive proposition for the champion. Rose has spoken openly about how losing the title was somewhat of a relief to her the first time and has frequently shown a general disinterest in fighting. Even after her most recent title defense, Namajunas was far more interested in building Earthship academies than in fighting. That’s not the sort of thing that goes away over time; if anything, it amplifies.
If your heart isn’t fully committed to the sport, it’s incredibly difficult to stay at the top of the game, and Namajunas, maybe more so than any other champion in the sport, appears to view fighting as a means to an end, rather than the destination. That’s a really healthy way to go through life, but a really horrible way to ensure multiple title defenses — and with other contenders like Marina Rodriquez and Mackenzie Dern waiting in the wings, that internal struggle is going to be as difficult as any other champion has this year.
Al-Shatti: As one of the lead drivers of the Carla Esparza bandwagon in 2021, I can’t quibble much with that pick. People are sleeping on Carla to a dangerous degree. You hit the nail on the head, Jed: She may not be the most fun or impressive fighter to the naked eye, but this game is about matchups, and “The Cookie Monster” has the skill set, toughness, and experience to present Namajunas a different kind of challenge than she’s faced a long, long time. Reminder: “Thug Rose” has only fought three women over the last five years — Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Jéssica Andrade, and Weili — and none of them do what Carla does best.
That being said, I’m afraid I have no choice but to make my No. 2 pick...
2) Glover Teixiera
This one pains me, Jed. It really does. I need you to know that. Glover Teixeira’s improbable late-career surge to a UFC title was, in my eyes, the single-most inspiring story in a year overflowing with inspiring MMA stories. No one with a heart wants to see the old warhorse fall now that he’s Hail Mary’d his way to the top.
But I also think most of us, if we’re being honest with ourselves, recognize that this title reign — much like Michael Bisping’s serendipitous run in 2016-17 — isn’t built to last. Teixeira will turn 43 years old in 2022 and already rode his once-in-a-lifetime confluence of events to a legacy-changing night. Everything from this point on is gravy. In many ways, what happens next no longer matters.
On the other hand, Teixeira’s likely first challenger to his light heavyweight strap, Jiri Prochazka, is the exact type of fighter you’d create in a lab to seize this kind of moment: Big, powerful, explosive beyond belief, a certified lunatic with a violence streak that’d make most fighters look like Marie Kondo by comparison. He’s a 29-year-old madman in his athletic prime who punches trees 500 times a day just for fun. That’s a tall task to ask of anyone, much less the oldest active fighter in the UFC’s 205-pound division.
Then you throw in the names that could await Teixeira if he somehow manages to keep this magical mystery tour alive — maybe it’s Aleksandar Rakic, maybe it’s the sport’s latest Dagestani terror Magomed Ankalaev — and I don’t think it’ll shock anyone if 2022 winds up being the year the 20-year veteran actually retires. Thus is the MMA circle of life.
No matter what though, Glover, we’ll always have 2021.
Meshew: Frankly, I don’t have anything to counter what you’ve said above. Glover is 42 years old and obviously not as good as he once was, plus he’s got a pair of young killers on the come up. The only slight nit I could pick is that despite being the Methuselah of 205, Teixeira does still have the ability to take people down and tap them out, and Jiri gets a little wild. Maybe that’s all it takes. Really though, I’m on board with this choice.
But in the interest of mixing it up, my second pick is...
2) Francis Ngannou
Before the first punch of the year has even been thrown, 2022 is already exceptionally weird for the simple fact that the heavyweight divisions is one of the hottest in the sport! With much of the the last four years being dedicated to the Miocic-Cormier trilogy, and with an influx of young talent to the division, the title of Baddest Man on the Planet has arguably never been more interesting. It seems a cruel joke that after Ngannou had to knock out half of the top 10 just to get another opportunity at the belt, he is still somehow facing a murderers row of contenders now that he’s finally claimed it.
In a few weeks time, Ngannou will make his first title defense against his former teammate Ciryl Gane in a bout that is fraught with peril for the champion. Simply put, Gane is a much better striker than Ngannou. Ngannou, of course, has that reality-warping power in his strikes, but he still has to land them, and bull-rushing Gane with his best Todd Duffee impersonation — a la the Jairzinho Rozenstruik fight — is most likely going to result in Ngannou getting pine-boxed. Honestly, the more I’ve thought about this fight the more I think it is an atrocious matchup for Ngannou.
But, let’s say I’m wrong and the champ puts that much-lauded power to good use and keeps his belt. What then? Then all he has to do is fight the man who many people consider to be the greatest fighter of all-time! Jon Jones has spent the past two years bulking and preparing to move up to heavyweight and fight Ngannou, and this year, it’s finally going to happen. Granted, we don’t know what super-swole JBJ looks like in the cage, so its possible he is terrible. But the FAR more likely scenario is that we’re about to shown a world-beating juggernaut of elder-god proportions, especially since he got away from Mike Winkeljohn, the former glass ceiling on Jones’ limitless potential.
Even outside of those two fights, the rest of the road isn’t easy for “The Predator.” A trilogy fight with Stipe Miocic is still lingering, and though Ngannou won cleanly in the rematch, the blueprint for Stipe is still there. Plus there’s Derrick Lewis, who also has a victory over Ngannou, and may be the only man alive who can go bomb-for-bomb with the champion.
Any way you slice it, Ngannou’s path forward is absolutely brutal. There’s a reason only one man in history has defended the heavyweight title more than twice.
Al-Shatti: Another fine pick, my friend, although I’d contend that the road for your No. 3 choice, Namajunas, may arguably be more imposing than Ngannou’s. Ciryl Gane is the real monkey wrench in this equation; after that, though, I find myself more confident in Ngannou’s chances against a ballooned-up Jones and in a Miocic rubber match than I am for Namajunas’ ability to continue to fend off the threats she may face at 115 pounds.
But I digress, because the real answer to the question at hand belongs to my No. 1...
1) Julianna Peña
Speaking of improbable UFC title reigns, is there really any other way to end this list? Because for as impressive as 2021’s “Upset of the Year” was, it boils down to just two names.
That’s it. Because that right there, Jed? That’s the schedule Julianna Peña is likely staring at if she wants to leave 2022 with a UFC title still strapped around her waist. Yikes.
We already know Nunes is next. She publicly demanded a rematch, and when the greatest women’s fighter of all-time demands to run it back after six years of unrivaled dominance across two divisions, you give her that rematch. One has to think Nunes will come into the second fight infinitely more motivated than she’s been in years, especially after gassing out and succumbing to a no-hooks choke by the sole person who has ridiculed her at every turn. UFC 269 was about as rough of a setback as we’ve seen an all-time great suffer — there’s no way that doesn’t fuel “The Lioness” to try to prove it was a fluke.
But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume Peña does indeed have Nunes’ number. Considering how uninspiring the bantamweight ranks are right now, would it really be a shock if the UFC capitalized on the moment and allowed Valentina Shevchenko to leap back up to 135 pounds to face an opponent she already submitted inside two rounds? Shevchenko has been hamstrung to a certain degree by her 0-2 record against Nunes, but Pena’s arrival opens that door back up to champ-champ glory.
“The Bullet” is already a well-regarded champion at 125 pounds. Now imagine the heights she could reach if she was suddenly the unimpeachable queen of two divisions.
All I’m saying is if your road ahead in 2022 features likely matchups against the two greatest female champions in UFC history, you probably deserve to be the top name on this list.
Meshew: As I, the one person in MMA media who actually predicted that Peña would pull off the greatest upset of all-time, noted yesterday, when long-reigning champions finally lose their titles, they almost never reclaim them. That’s simply not how the sport works. Nunes is objectively a better fighter than Julianna Peña and yet, when they rematch, Peña still has an excellent opportunity to do the damn thing again. No argument with the Shevchenko call though. Valentina is going to stunt on Peña, if Dana White gives her the chance.
So, with that being said I’m going to round this exercise out with the clear and obvious choice...
1) Charles Oliveira
There are some people out there who claim that bantamweight, or featherweight, or even welterweight are the best divisions in MMA. Most of those people are well-meaning but all of them are stone stupid. It’s lightweight. It’s always been lightweight. It always will be lightweight; 155 pounds is the marquee division of MMA, and if you ever question that, remember that Charles Oliveira had to rattle off eight wins (seven finishes) AND have a champion retire, plus the next guy in line pass in favor of a money fight, just to be given a title shot.
In March, Islam Makhachev and Beneil Dariush — on nine and eight-fight win streaks respectively — are going to fight each other, and the winner STILL might not be guaranteed a title shot! And so, for that reason alone, Charles Oliveira has the most difficult road ahead of him in 2021, because 155 pounds is always the most difficult road (unless you’re Khabib, because that dude was unreal).
But aside from the abstract difficulty of being the lightweight champion, which is tremendous, Oliveira specifically has a series of daunting tasks ahead of him. Next up will be Justin Gaethje, the most exciting, violent fighter in the sport, who also is probably the biggest puncher in the division. If Oliveira thought Michael Chandler hit hard, just wait to Gaethje cracks him.
Even if Oliveira does manage to beat Gaethje, he’s not going to do so without leaving a piece of himself in the cage — no one aside from Khabib has — at which point the now-diminished Oliveira will more than likely have to fight Islam Makhachev. As I said yesterday, Makhachev may only be 80 percent of the fighter Khabib was, but that still makes him considerably better than every other lightweight in the world, especially if the lightweight in question just had years taken off his career by fighting Justin Gaethje.
All of that is a lot to ask out of a guy who has lost eight times in the UFC, most of them ugly. Oliveira has undoubtedly turned some sort of corner in his career over the past couple of years, but that’s the thing about 155, there are monsters around every corner waiting to send you back and take everything you worked for, and for Charles Oliveira this year, they are almost certainly going to succeed.
Which UFC champion has the toughest road ahead in 2022?