The first three months of the year are nearly in the books, but which UFC fighters have surprised and stood out most thus far? More importantly, are they here to stay?
The heavyweight division looks to be making way for new stars, as Tai Tuivasa survived a rock fight with Derrick Lewis last month to fast-track his way toward a title shot. Also, Curtis Blaydes threw out his old playbook and slugged his way into a conversation with Stipe Miocic after finishing Chris Daukaus on Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio.
While some have surprised with their outstanding performances, others have come into 2022 with more questions that need answering. Will legendary stars Conor McGregor and Jon Jones ever return to the Octagon? Can former champions Tony Ferguson, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Max Holloway find a pathway back to the title? Will standouts Israel Adesanya and Colby Covington have to consider changing weight classes to keep growing in the spot?
Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim examine some early-season storylines, including which rising stars outside the UFC are most likely to join the promotion in the near future.
Which fighter’s success has surprised you most thus far in 2022?
Raimondi: Tai Tuivasa. Not too long ago, the shoey-downing Aussie was thought to be nothing more than an exciting fighter with a great personality that would be an excellent addition to any pay-per-view card. Tuivasa established himself as more than that by knocking out Derrick Lewis at UFC 271 last month in Houston, Lewis’ adopted hometown. That was the biggest win of Tuivasa’s career and solidified him as a legitimate, top-five heavyweight in the UFC. This is a guy who lost three straight in 2018 and 2019 and nearly got his walking papers. But he refocused, worked on his wrestling and became an elite fighter — a pretty cool story.
Okamoto: I was not too surprised by Calvin Kattar‘s decision win over Giga Chikadze in January — but I was surprised at how dominant he was in that fight. Kattar was a decent-sized underdog going in, which made sense to me. He hadn’t fought in a year, and he was coming off a one-sided loss to Max Holloway. Stylistically, it looked like a tough fight for Kattar. His boxing is outstanding, but Chikadze was looking like arguably the cleanest striker in the division. And Kattar just walked him down and beat him up for 25 straight minutes. In this sport, one loss can get you written out of title contention — and that’s kind of what happened to Kattar after that Holloway fight. I think the sport fell asleep on him a bit. Well, Kattar is still right up there in that division, and his performance against Chikadze reopened a lot of people’s eyes regarding how good he is.
Wagenheim: I’m going with Tuivasa, too. Before he knocked out Lewis, I viewed the Aussie as a big-brawling lug with an intoxicating celebration gimmick. And you know what? That was enough for me to love watching him perform. But nowadays, I no longer consider Tuivasa merely a sideshow attraction. The rock-’em-sock-’em win over Lewis, a top-five heavyweight and former title challenger, was Tuivasa’s fifth knockout in a row. That makes this 29-year-old a, um, shoo-in for a spot among the division’s elite contenders. If you agree, take one of my size 11.5s, and let’s toast the bloke!
What fight are you most excited to watch that’s booked so far in 2022?
Raimondi: Probably Rose Namajunas vs. Carla Esparza because of the history there. In December 2014, they fought in the inaugural UFC strawweight title bout after advancing to The Ultimate Fighter 20 tournament finals. Esparza won that battle, submitting Namajunas with a rear-naked choke in the third round to capture the title. Fast-forward nearly eight years later and Namajunas is a two-time champ, while Esparza has clawed her way back to the promised land after dropping the belt to Joanna Jedrzejczyk in 2015. Esparza represents a tough matchup for Namajunas because of her excellent wrestling skills.
Wagenheim: Each of the next three UFC pay-per-view events has a pair of championship bouts at the top of the bill, but none stand up to May 7’s Charles Oliveira vs. Justin Gaethje. Oliveira has won 10 in a row in the lightweight division, and the challenges keep coming. And any Gaethje fight is a tingly, no-way-I’m-sitting-down, must-see event.
I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t think outside the eight-sided box and also acknowledge Bellator’s April 15 main event, a rematch between featherweight champ AJ McKee and the man he violently dethroned last summer, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire. Can McKee steamroll Pitbull again and state his case as the best of all MMA featherweights?
Okamoto: Oliveira vs. Gaethje at UFC 274. This was No. 6 on my list of “Fights I Want to See in 2022.” And it’s the only fight on the list that’s currently on the books. Both lightweights are all action. They each take risks. They are each deadly when it comes to finishes. I don’t know what will happen in this one — so much is at stake. Gaethje has deserved this title shot for a long time, but was forced to wait on it — simply because he had the misfortune of losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov right before his retirement. Gaethje’s leg kicks. Oliveira’s Muay Thai and submissions. The heart that both possess. I wanted to see this fight in Brazil (so did Gaethje, actually), but I’ll take it in Phoenix.
What is your bold prediction regarding a current UFC champion in 2022?
Wagenheim: Just as 2022 was getting underway, I took a look at the UFC’s 12 weight classes and predicted that four of them would have new champions by year’s end. But the boldest prediction I made was about a division that I believe won’t see a changing of the guard. I will lean into that forecast again by reiterating that I believe Oliveira will get through the year as lightweight champion. What’s so bold about that? Oliveira is a little over a month away from being given all he can handle (or more?) by the buzzsaw known as Justin Gaethje. Here’s his likely reward if the champ passes that test: a date in the Octagon with Islam Makhachev. If Oliveira can make it to New Year’s with the belt still in his possession, he will have earned the right to party with festive hats and noisemakers all night.
Raimondi: UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya will move up to light heavyweight on a semipermanent basis. If Adesanya takes out his next challenger, likely Jared Cannonier, there won’t be much more for him to do in the division. The Last Stylebender has already beaten Robert Whittaker and Marvin Vettori twice. There are few deserving, fresh matchups for Adesanya at 185. Maybe Sean Strickland will work his way up. I don’t think Adesanya necessarily drops the middleweight belt. But I think he’ll give light heavyweight a more serious go after losing to then-205-pound champ Jan Blachowicz last year.
Okamoto: Glover Teixeira will finish the year as the UFC light heavyweight champ. This shouldn’t be a bold prediction anymore, but it is. Teixeira is already a betting underdog for his June title defense against Jiri Prochazka. And I believe that if he wins, he’ll be a betting underdog again against whomever he faces next. He’s been an underdog in his last three fights, and each of those turned into dominant wins. I just don’t think we can use “age” as a reason to doubt Teixeira anymore. Why would we at this point? The skills are real. The athleticism is still real. When I saw this latest title fight booked, a piece of my brain immediately said, “Prochazka will win.” We are all so quick to doubt Teixeira. But in rethinking it, I’m picking Teixeira to win in June, and I’ll pick him again to win after that, regardless of whom he’s facing.
Which rising star outside of the UFC is most likely to sign with the promotion in 2022?
Okamoto: There aren’t a whole lot of rising “stars” outside of the UFC. Bellator MMA featherweight champion AJ McKee qualifies, as does two-time PFL lightweight champ Kayla Harrison. But McKee is a Bellator champion and Harrison just re-signed with PFL, so neither will likely join the UFC this year. In terms of recognizable, established talent, there aren’t many big-time names for the UFC to grab at the moment. There is no “Michael Chandler” of 2021. But I would love to see Bellator bantamweight Kyoji Horiguchi back in the UFC. Again, that’s not going to happen, because Horiguchi just signed with Bellator last year. And it should be noted, Bellator is a good home for him. The promotion has its 135-pound Grand Prix going on this year. The truth is, I don’t see a “star” outside of the UFC who will join its ranks this year. So, I’ll just say one who I wish could, and that’s Horiguchi.
Raimondi: It seems like only a matter of time before Roberto Soldic signs with the UFC. Soldic, 27, is arguably the best prospect coming out of Europe. He’s the current welterweight and middleweight champion for KSW in Poland. And he is also undefeated in pro boxing (4-0, 4 KOs). Soldic is the exact kind of fighter the UFC wants — he’s exciting, a finisher and never afraid to stand and bang. The Croatian fighter has stopped six of his last seven opponents via KO/TKO. He recently met with UFC brass in Las Vegas, and it would be a surprise if he didn’t sign this year.
Wagenheim: AJ McKee is already a star, but that star would rise and brighten if there were more eyeballs on him and a more robust, deeper roster of adversaries to stand across the cage from him. Therefore, it makes sense that the UFC would be a possibility for McKee when his Bellator contract expires. But as the owner of the featherweight belt, McKee is reportedly tied to Bellator by a champion’s clause. If the money is right, he could very well re-up with the fight company that has nurtured his 18-0 pro MMA career from its very beginning. And yet the UFC — with its 145-pound division stocked with Alexander Volkanovski, Max Holloway and other elites — is still out there, teasing dream matchups.
Which fighter desperately needs a big win in 2022?
Wagenheim: Curtis Blaydes, Colby Covington, Robert Whittaker, Max Holloway, Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk all have two things in common: They are top-five contenders in their division, yet each probably will have a lengthy wait for a title shot. Why? Because they’ve all lost twice to the current reigning champion. It might not be enough for these roadblocked fighters to keep winning, and their desperation might have to spill over into rooting for “a big win” by some other title challenger — to get the champ out of the way and open a door that has been slammed shut. Sometimes a success story has to be authored by someone on the outside looking in.
Raimondi: On one hand, you could say Conor McGregor doesn’t need to win to remain a massive star and household name. There is an element of truth to that. McGregor will be a big draw, even if he loses in his comeback fight. However, how different will things look for McGregor and the UFC heading into 2023 if McGregor is coming off a triumphant victory in returning from a broken leg? It will be enormous if he beats whoever his opposition is later this year. Maybe McGregor doesn’t need a win in the same way others would to keep their UFC roster spots, but McGregor has won just once since 2016. Who at that level could use a victory more than him at this stage?
Okamoto: Tony Ferguson, without question. McGregor feels like the obvious pick, but Ferguson needs a win much more than McGregor. Jorge Masvidal needs a win. Not as bad as El Cucuy. No one has fallen harder in recent memory than Ferguson. He’s gone from being booked for a must-see matchup against Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2020 to three consecutive losses. Two years ago, Ferguson was considered the man to challenge one of the best of all time in Nurmagomedov. Then that fight fell apart because of COVID-19, and nothing has gone right for Ferguson since. Unlike McGregor — and perhaps to a lesser extent, Masvidal and Nate Diaz — Ferguson will not be able to maintain his level of popularity if he continues to lose. And if, heaven forbid, he fails to pick up a single win in 2022, I guarantee there will be calls for his retirement. He faces Michael Chandler on May 7 in a very challenging fight.