UFC 2022 Preview: Rising Stars, What to Watch, and More
The UFC will promote its first event of the year this Saturday, putting an end to a four-week lull. Saturday’s event, an under-the-radar Fight Night headlined by featherweight contenders Calvin Kattar and Giga Chikadze, isn’t exactly a blockbuster. But it will kickstart UFC 2022, which has a packed schedule of fights that likely won’t slow down until this time next year.
As MMA fans the world over wait for the UFC’s hectic calendar to get underway, we decided to put together a quick primer for the year ahead. Here’s everything you need to know about the UFC this year.
UFC 2022 Preview: What to Watch This Year
The UFC promoted 43 events in 2021, including 13 star-studded pay-per-views. By the time the year was done, UFC president Dana White was proclaiming it the best in the company’s history.
“It was the best year we ever had,” White told the Las Vegas Review-Journal earlier this month. “We’re popping on every metric you can imagine. Sponsorship is through the roof. Social media, our numbers on pay-per-view, our numbers on television, arena records. This business is on fire.”
Now the stage is set for an exciting 2022. The UFC has twelve divisions: eight for men and four for women. Those divisions are currently ruled by twelve undisputed champions and two interim champions. (You can view the full rankings on the UFC website.)
Rising Stars to Watch
The UFC’s champions might be the ones driving pay-per-view sales, but it’s the up-and-comers who keep the promotion’s product interesting year after year. The UFC 2022 roster is packed with intriguing prospects, and some are already being hailed as future champions. Here are a few rising stars to keep an eye on.
Ireland’s Ian Garry (8–0) is already drawing comparisons to another Irishman you may have heard of: former two-division UFC champ Conor McGregor. In fact, after winning his UFC debut with a first-round knockout of Jordan Williams at UFC 268 in November, Garry actually borrowed one of McGregor’s most famous soundbites.
“A wise Irishman once said before me—he stepped in this very cage and he said, ‘We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over,’” Garry told Daniel Cormier in his post-fight interview. “This is the takeover part two.”
Brazilian middleweight Alex Pereira (4–1) generated a ton of hype heading into his Octagon debut at UFC 268 in November. The 34-year-old is an experienced kickboxer, and he even holds a knockout victory over reigning UFC middleweight champ Israel Adesanya in kickboxing competition.
To say Pereira lived up to the hype would be an understatement. The Brazilian ended up giving us one of the best knockouts of 2021 as he decimated his opponent, Andreas Michailidis, with a second-round flying knee.
Pereira is likely still some distance from a title shot, but it feels like only a matter of time before he’s in that conversation.
The women’s flyweight division is currently home to several promising young fighters, but none of them have a brighter future than 22-year-old Erin Blanchfield (8–1). After a successful run through Invicta, an all-women’s MMA league, she made a successful UFC debut in September by defeating the more experienced Sarah Alpar in a unanimous decision. Blanchfield then picked up another win before the year was out, dominating fellow prospect Miranda Maverick to an impressive unanimous decision triumph.
Blanchfield has yet to debut in the flyweight top 15 but will probably do so if she wins her next fight. From there, she’ll be just a few wins away from a showdown with dominating flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko.
Paddy Pimblett (17–3) has been a favorite among hardcore fight fans for a years, but he didn’t make his UFC debut until September 2021. The 27-year-old British lightweight couldn’t have made a louder statement in his debut, as he weathered some early adversity to turn the lights off on Luigi Vendramini with a swarm of first-round hooks.
Pimblett previously won the Cage Warriors featherweight championship in Europe. It won’t be easy to repeat the feat in the UFC lightweight division—arguably the toughest division in the sport—but many believe the Brit can pull it off.
Storylines to Watch
Conor McGregor’s Crossroads
Conor McGregor (22–6) remains the biggest star in MMA, but his credibility is hanging by a thread. The Irishman is riding back-to-back stoppage losses to Dustin Poirier, the second of which left him with a broken leg. He’s now down to 2–3 in his last five fights.
McGregor’s superstardom means he can take more losses than most fighters. Even so, he’s not immune to the effects of a prolonged losing streak. If the 33-year-old hopes to remain a legitimate player in the sport that made him famous, he needs to win his next fight.
It remains to be seen when he’ll fight next, but he recently told his Twitter followers that he hopes to be sparring by April and back in the Octagon soon thereafter.
Francis Ngannou’s Future
UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou (16–3) is set to headline UFC 270 on Jan. 22. He’ll be taking on the division’s interim champion Ciryl Gane—who happens to be his former training partner.
Every UFC title fight is important, but this one is particularly significant for Ngannou. The 35-year-old French-Cameroonian is in the midst of a heated contract dispute with the UFC, and he’s angling for more money and the freedom to moonlight as a professional boxer.
If he defeats Gane, his negotiating power will skyrocket. If he loses, he can wave goodbye to the contract he’s hoping for. He’s gambling on himself, and time will tell if it pays off.
Redemption for Amanda Nunes
Amanda Nunes (21–5) looked invincible until UFC 269 in December, when she ran into Julianna Peña. Despite entering the cage as a gargantuan betting favorite, the 33-year-old Brazilian was battered to a second-round submission loss, surrendering the UFC bantamweight title in the process. It was a shocking end to one of the most dominant championship reigns in UFC history.
The good news for Nunes is that she’s expected to get a chance at redemption against Peña soon. Her previous dominance all but guarantees her that opportunity. Since UFC 269, there has been rampant speculation that Nunes wasn’t at her best that night—even UFC president Dana White contributed to the rumors. Peña, meanwhile, is adamant that she’s Nunes’s superior.
The rematch should answer those questions one way or the other.
Khamzat Chimaev’s Rise
Chechen-born Swede Khamzat Chimaev (10–0) took the MMA world by storm in 2020 and 2021 with four seemingly effortless victories across the middleweight and welterweight divisions. His last, a first-round submission defeat of Chinese welterweight contender Li Jingliang, was particularly impressive, and it earned him the No. 11 spot in the welterweight rankings.
At this point, it feels inevitable that Chimaev will end up challenging for the UFC welterweight title, which is currently the property of Kamaru Usman. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Chimaev contend for the middleweight title sometime thereafter. Of course, both of those things depend on his continued success in the Octagon.
Is Chimaev the real deal or a flash in the pan? 2022 should tell us a lot about the UFC’s newest superstar.
Fights We Hope to See This Year
Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz III
Conor McGregor (22–6) and Nate Diaz (20–13) have been tied with a win apiece since 2016. Fans have been clamoring for a tie-breaking trilogy fight ever since McGregor won their second encounter by majority decision, yet the UFC has thus far kept it off the schedule.
At the start of 2022, the trilogy makes as much sense as ever. McGregor is riding back-to-back losses to Dustin Poirier. Diaz came up short against Leon Edwards and Jorge Masvidal in his last two fights. Both guys are in desperate need of a win and low on options. Why wait any longer?
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway III
UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski (23–1) is 2-0 in fights against Max Holloway (23–6), the division’s former champ, but both victories were very competitive decisions. The second was particularly close—in fact, it was downright controversial.
Today, it’s abundantly clear that Volkanovski and Holloway are the two best featherweights in the UFC. What isn’t clear is which of them is better. A third fight would answer that question.
The UFC actually tried to book that bout for UFC 272 on March 5, but the fight fell through after Holloway was injured. Hopefully the promotion takes another stab at the matchup once the former champ is recovered.
Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones
There was a period in early 2021 when all signs pointed to a titanic showdown between Francis Ngannou and Jon Jones. Ngannou, arguably the hardest puncher in combat sports today, had just captured the UFC heavyweight title with a star-making knockout of Stipe Miocic. Jones, the most dominant fighter in light heavyweight history, had recently vacated the division’s throne with ambition to move up to heavyweight.
Unfortunately, the fight fizzled out before it ever got off the ground. Considering Ngannou’s ongoing contract dispute with the UFC and Jones’ legal troubles outside the cage, it’s doubtful they’ll fight each other any time in the near future. But if we’re really lucky, we might just see it before the year is out.