Predicting every year-end UFC champion in 2022

A look at which title holders are most likely to make it through the year with gold still around their waists

Alex Pattle
Combat Sports Correspondent
Monday 09 May 2022 13:06
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A new year is upon us, and within a matter of weeks the first UFC title fight of 2022 will arrive.

In 2021, there were 20 championship bouts in mixed martial arts’ flagship promotion, with nine new title holders crowned – two of them interim champions.

Thirteen of the those fights ended via finish, with another ending by disqualification, and just six determined on the judges’ scorecards.

Only Kamaru Usman, Alexander Volkanovski and Valentina Shevchenko entered and exited 2021 as champions, with the former retaining his welterweight title three times, the latter retaining her flyweight belt twice, and featherweight champ Volkanovski competing just once.

Here is a look at every division in the UFC and which fighters Indy Sport believes will reign supreme atop each weight class at the end of 2022.

Heavyweight

Current champion: Francis Ngannou; year-end champion: Ciryl Gane

Interim UFC heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane

In the first UFC title fight of the year, Ngannou will defend his belt against interim champion and former teammate Gane. To oversimplify matters, it’s power in Ngannou versus technical ability in Gane. There’s a decent chance Gane will use his speed and slickness of movement – relative rarities at heavyweight – to dance around Ngannou and outpoint the French-Cameroonian. Even if Ngannou retains, though, he could leave the UFC this year. If so, Frenchman Gane will be favourite to beat any of the rest of the pack and claim the undisputed gold.

Light heavyweight

Current champion: Glover Teixeira; year-end champion: Jiri Prochazka

Light heavyweight contender Jiri Prochazka

Teixeira completed a fairytale run to the title in October, submitting Jan Blachowicz to become the second oldest champion in UFC history. While Teixeira, 42, has defied doubters in a number of consecutive fights now, his first challenger looks set to be the incredibly dangerous Prochazka. The Czech is just 2-0 in the UFC but holds an overall professional record of 28-3-1 and is unbeaten since 2015. While Teixeira has almost unrivalled nous and experience on his side, Prochazka is hardly short on ring time and – at just 29 – could be the archetypal young lion to take over the pride at light heavyweight.

Middleweight

Current champion: Israel Adesanya; year-end champion: Israel Adesanya

Israel Adesanya retains the UFC middleweight title for the third time

Adesanya suffered his first ever pro MMA defeat in 2021, moving up a division and unsuccessfully challenging then-champion Jan Blachowicz for the light heavyweight gold. The Nigerian-born New Zealander is still unbeaten at middleweight, however, and continues to look a level above the contenders at 185lbs. The only middleweight who looks remotely capable of dethroning “Stylebender” is Robert Whittaker, even though the Australian dropped the belt to Adesanya via knockout in 2019. Whittaker has since won three in a row against elite competition and is fully deserving of his scheduled rematch with Adesanya in February, but the natural consensus among fans and pundits is that the Kiwi will win again.

Welterweight

Current champion: Kamaru Usman; year-end champion: Kamaru Usman

Kamaru Usman retained his welterweight title three times in 2021

Usman fought more than any other UFC champion in 2021, successfully retaining his title three times. After stopping former teammate Gilbert Burns, Usman beat Jorge Masvidal for the second time and did the same against Colby Covington. In his own words, he is “lapping the competition”, and he’ll get another chance to do just that if his next title defence comes against Leon Edwards – whom he outpointed in 2015. The question on everyone’s lips, though, is whether rising star Khamzat Chimaev can keep running through opposition to get to Usman, and whether he can do so before the year is up. Even if he does, there’s no certainty he’s on Usman’s level, but it would be intriguing to find out.

Lightweight

Current champion: Charles Oliveira; year-end champion; Islam Makhachev

Islam Makhachev is seen by many as a champion in waiting

Oliveira’s remarkable career turnaround culminated in the Brazilian becoming lightweight champion last spring, knocking out Michael Chandler to claim the title vacated by Khabib Nurmagomedov. Oliveira then firmly established himself as the best 155lber on the planet by submitting Dustin Poirier in December. The division is one of the most competitive in the UFC, however, and a tough challenge against Justin Gaethje is likely next for Oliveira. Whether or not “Do Bronx” successfully navigates such a contest, Makhachev will likely be waiting in the wings for whoever wears the gold. The Russian, coached in part by childhood friend Nurmagomedov, is scheduled to fight Beneil Dariush in February, but he is fancied to win that bout – and would likely be favoured to defeat Gaethje and/or Oliveira.

Featherweight

Current champion: Alexander Volkanovski; year-end champion: Alexander Volkanovski

Alexander Volkanovski has retained the featherweight title twice

Volkanovski survived numerous submission scares against Brian Ortega in September for a second successful defence of the belt he took from Max Holloway in late 2019. In his first defence, Volkanovski outpointed Holloway for the second time in a row – in summer 2020 – though many fans believe the Australian was fortunate to get the nod on the judges’ scorecards. Volkanovski seems destined for a third showdown with the Hawaiian, who has impressed greatly with two straight victories since his second loss to the current champion. While a trilogy bout between the rivals would likely be another close contest, it’s hard to bet against Volkanovski right now.

Bantamweight

Current champion: Aljamain Sterling; year-end champion: Petr Yan

Interim bantamweight champion Petr Yan

Sterling won the title from Yan in 2021 when the Russian was disqualified for an illegal knee. Sterling had started very fast but was rapidly fading as Yan began to pull clear prior to his naive mistake. As such, many fans still see Yan as the true champion at 135lbs, especially since the Russian claimed the interim title against Cory Sandhagen in a fight of the year contender in October. A unification bout between Yan and Jamaican-American Sterling is surely next for each fighter, with Yan favoured to actually emerge victorious this time. It is hard to see him losing to any other bantamweight any time soon, too.

Flyweight

Current champion: Brandon Moreno; year-end champion: Askar Askarov

Moreno followed his draw against Deiveson Figueiredo in late 2020 by submitting the Brazilian in a compelling display last June. The rivals will round out a trilogy this month, with Moreno the slight favourite to come out on top. Whether he does or Figueiredo regains the gold, there are a number of hungry, dangerous challengers awaiting. Chief among them is second-ranked Askarov. He is set to be busy this spring, but if he comes through an expected meeting with Kai Kara-France, he’ll be well positioned to challenge whoever has the title. With no losses to his name and a previous draw against Moreno, Askarov will be tough to bet against this year.

Women’s featherweight

Current champion: Amanda Nunes; year-end champion: Amanda Nunes

Women’s featherweight champion Amanda Nunes recently lost the bantamweight belt

Nunes retained her featherweight title twice across two years between her two most recent bantamweight defences – the latter of which saw the consensus women’s GOAT lose that belt to Julianna Pena in a huge upset in December. It seems Nunes’ 2022 will be more centred on regaining her bantamweight strap than worrying about the featherweight title, so don’t be surprised if she doesn’t defend the belt at 145lbs at all – especially given how shallow the division is.

Women’s bantamweight

Current champion: Julianna Pena; year-end champion: Valentina Shevchenko

Women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko

This is definitely the boldest call in this article. Pena, having upset Nunes to become champion in December, will almost certainly defend the belt against the Brazilian in her next bout. Nunes is favoured to reclaim the title, but a Pena victory cannot be ruled out. Whoever wins, Shevchenko should be their next challenger. The flyweight queen has been untouchable at 125lbs and has now eclipsed Nunes as the UFC’s pound-for-pound No1 across the women’s divisions.

Shevchenko was twice outpointed by Nunes during a spell at bantamweight, but the second fight was as close as they come. “Bullet” could be backed to capitalise on the flaws Nunes exhibited against Pena, and she would certainly be favourite against Pena herself.

Women’s flyweight

Current champion: Valentina Shevchenko; year-end champion: Valentina Shevchenko

Taila Santos is the key contender to keep an eye on in the women’s flyweight division, but it’s near-impossible to see anyone at 125lbs overcoming Shevchenko. There’s little else to say here – although many had similar faith in Nunes before her loss to Pena...

Women’s strawweight

Rose Namajunas beat Weili Zhang twice in 2021 to regain and defend the strawweight belt

Current champion: Rose Namajuanas; year-end champion: Rose Namajunas

Namajunas’ biggest struggle in the past was seemingly with pressure, but the American seems to be over that issue. She knocked out Zhang Weili in style in April to regain the strawweight belt, before outpointing the Chinawoman in a hard-fought contest in November to keep hold of the gold. A rematch with Carla Esparza seems to be next, and Namajunas has shown enough improvements over the years to suggest she could avenge her 2014 submission loss to her compatriot. Other capable contenders lie in wait, but right now the safe bet is to back Namajunas.

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