Frankly, it still doesn’t make sense.
Rewind back to January 2022 and Alex Pereira wasn’t even in the picture. A contender only in the most whimsical sense, not only was the Brazilian terror unranked, he’d won just two MMA fights since 2017. The most impressive scalp hanging from his MMA mantelpiece? Andreas Michailidis, a woodwork figure who 99.9 percent of fight fans couldn’t even pick out of a two-person lineup. His exploits in kickboxing and past triumphs over Israel Adesanya made Pereira a fun sideshow to add to the UFC’s middleweight mix, no doubt, but at 34 years old, with a decade of in-ring mileage already on his odometer and a legion of new skills ostensibly still for him to learn, what really was the best-case scenario?
Even if he could somehow catapult his way to the top and secure his dream match with Adesanya, there’s no way Pereira could reasonably pull it off in the span of a year, right?
In truth, there is no historical comparison for this. Every past winner of MMA Fighting’s Fighter of the Year award started their campaign already as a main player. Daniel Cormier (2018) and Kamaru Usman (2021) were already UFC champions. Max Holloway (2017) already held an interim belt. Deiveson Figueiredo (2020) and Adesanya (2019) had already breached into title contention. But Pereira? He started the year fighting Bruno Silva, for God’s sake. Now he’s the man with the least MMA experience to hold a UFC strap since Brock Lesnar. So yes, if there is anyone who most defined the topsy-turvy ride that was MMA in 2022, it was the multi-sport monster who pulled off the improbable at every turn.
Only through a mix of matchmaking wizardry and standup savagery could we have even gotten here. UFC matchmakers knew what they had with “Poatan,” and his brutal two-minute knockout of Sean Strickland in July served as the shortcut they needed to set the stage for a story unlike any other. After all, Pereira was the boogeyman. The man who sent Adesanya packing from kickboxing. Once their series dropped to 2-0 in Pereira’s favor, Adesanya left the sport entirely and instead rose to stardom in MMA, a dominant champion, the second-most decorated middleweight in UFC history. He eclipsed Pereira, his fame lapping the Brazilian’s 100 times over. UFC 281 was supposed to be his capstone.
Revenge. The smiting of his boogeyman once and for all.
But the blood gods? They had other ideas.
In all three fights, Adesanya had the upper hand. He likely should’ve won a decision in their first meeting. The second, a Hail Mary comeback in the final round. And the third? Well, UFC 281 may as well have been a Hollywood script playing out in real time. Pereira’s furious rally in the final minutes cemented one of the most unique crossover rivalries in combat sports history — here was a man who hunted down an all-timer across two different sports and came out on top every single time. Poetic. More than a month later, it still defies belief.
There were plenty of awards that had worthwhile debates this year. But not this one. In a year where the weird and extraordinary arrived with regularity, there was never a doubt.
Alex Pereira is MMA Fighting’s 2022 Fighter of the Year.
2. ALEXANDER VOLKANOVSKI
Becoming the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world? Check.
Stacking up another pair of breezy title defenses? Check.
Chucking your biggest rival into the rear-view mirror for good? Check, check, check.
Ah yes, life is good for MMA’s preeminent king.
While the past 12 months may have been a year of chaos for other divisions, 2022 only served to reinforce what many knew to be true in the land of 145 pounds — when it comes to the featherweights, there’s Alexander Volkanovski and then there’s everybody else.
The 34-year-old champion is now 12-0 in the UFC after his back-to-back title defenses over Chan Sung Jung and Max Holloway, the former of which was a cold reminder of Volkanovski’s Terminator-like efficiency, and the latter of which silenced any lingering doubt about the No. 1 featherweight of this era. Volkanovski is now 3-0 against Holloway and it appears as if “The Great” is still improving every time out. That should be a scary proposition, not just for the next class of contenders at 145 pounds — beginning with Yair Rodriguez and Josh Emmett, who challenge for the interim title at UFC 284 — but also for anyone even vaguely situated around the champ’s orbit.
Because Volkanovski is no longer satisfied with just one belt.
Like past featherweight champions before him, Volkanovski is now dreaming a little bigger and putting the 155-pound title directly in his sights.
Will his shot at history in February turn out more like Conor McGregor’s coronation or Holloway’s ill-fated attempt? The next man on this list may have something to say about it.
3. ISLAM MAKHACHEV
They tried to warn us.
Yes, Islam Makhachev was hailed as the future of the lightweight division from the moment he first stepped foot in the UFC’s octagon. The last man standing. The heir apparent to the greatest lightweight of all-time. The sole inheritor of Father’s Plan. They were right, of course, all those people who promised this was coming. Yet even the staunchest of believers couldn’t have foreseen the ease with which inevitability would become reality.
Because the Makhachev era arrived in precisely the same fashion the Nurmagomedov era left. Consider this: Charles Oliveira landed more significant strikes at UFC 280 than anyone else has on Makhachev over the past seven years in the UFC — and that sounds impressive until you realize that Oliveira’s record-breaking tally stood at a mere 19. That’s how dominant, how terrifying, how flat-out-otherworldly Makhachev’s run to the belt really was.
Lightweight is a division of volatility unlike few others, to the point where three title defenses remains the UFC record. Will anyone be shocked if Makhachev crosses that bridge with ease? He’s already more than a 3-to-1 favorite at UFC 284 over the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the sport (and the No. 2 fighter on this list), enemy territory damned.
Dagestan’s first title reign may have been cut prematurely short. But with Makhachev just 31 years old and seemingly hitting his prime, the second may very well make up for lost time.
4. ZHANG WEILI
Without a doubt, 2021 was the worst year in the career of China’s first UFC champion. Zhang Weili’s back-to-back losses to Rose Namajunas — the first courtesy of a brutal 78-second knockout, the second after a five-round war — signaled a swift end to a reign many thought could come to define the 115-pound discussion. Not only had Weili never been finished prior to losing the belt, she hadn’t even tasted defeat since her professional debut.
But if 2021 was the nadir for China’s 33-year-old powerhouse, the past 12 months were just what the doctor ordered.
From the worst campaign of her career to the best, Weili reestablished herself in 2022 as one of the most dominant forces in women’s mixed martial arts. Her spinning backfist knockout that retired Joanna Jedrzejczyk still stands as one of the most brutal highlights of a brutal year, a grisly capstone to a rivalry that featured 2020’s Fight of the Year (aka one of the greatest fights of all-time). From then on, there was never any doubt.
By the time Weili sauntered into UFC 281 as an overwhelming betting favorite over a sitting champion, it was a foregone conclusion for the belt to return home to China, yet somehow Weili’s six-minute romp over Carla Esparza still exceeded expectations. Hell, this is the same woman who hoisted Francis Ngannou over her shoulder like a toddler. Is it really a surprise anymore when she demolishes a two-time champ as effortlessly as a casual Sunday stroll?
Nowhere else in the UFC is a rock-paper-scissors dynamic felt more strongly than at strawweight, but if there is anyone who’s going to break that cycle, it may be Zhang Weili.
5. LEON EDWARDS
If Leon Edwards fought more than once this year, it’s very likely this would’ve been his award to lose. Still, it’s telling enough that the pride of Birmingham’s lone performance of 2022 was enough to land him on this list — a seismic, history-altering, out-of-nowhere upset over one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. Even the movies couldn’t have penned a more dramatic turnaround than the last-chance Hail Mary that felled Kamaru Usman and transformed a down-on-his-luck welterweight into one of the most inspirational UFC champions to come along in years.
Maybe it had to happen this way? Consider who Edwards was before UFC 278. He was the Milton Waddams of the 170-pound division. The afterthought. The punchline. The hard-luck everyman who somehow seemed to lose more in victory than others did in defeat. An oft-abused butt of the joke who had to stack together a 10-fight unbeaten streak to even begin to sniff the conversation, Edwards walked a Sysphyian path, ridiculed and written off by MMA’s elite, a contender with zero cache and even less respect passed over time and time again for retreads and sexier names.
In the end, though, he was the champ whose self-belief never wavered. And that belief carried him just as the world had written him off. With 56 seconds left on clock and defeat staring him straight in the eyes, “Rocky” summoned his strength for one final stand, washing away a career’s worth of frustration by toppling the reigning 2021 Fighter of the Year and thrusting a “1” into Usman’s record-breaking 15-1 UFC run. The welterweight division goes through Leon Edwards now. Perhaps it always did and we just didn’t realize.
Still, one question remains: Was it a fluke, or is that just more of the same old disrespect?
The answer lies in a rubber match sure to be one of the biggest fights of 2023.