After back-to-back record-setting years, UFC is ready to get things kicked off in 2022 this week. The first fight card of the year means it’s time to consider where things stand in the sport with many of the champions already booked for title defenses. But there’s plenty of unanswered topics still on the table as Dana White and company look to break more records for a third straight years.
While we don’t know exactly how things will play out over the coming year, the CBS Sports experts sat down to give our answers to some of the burning questions before the 2021 UFC calendar gets underway. Read on to see our thoughts on how the year will play out for some of the biggest stars in the sport.
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Let’s dive right in now to the questions and predictions from “Morning Kombat” host Brian Campbell as well as staff writers Brent Brookhouse and Shakiel Mahjouri.
Which champion will be the first to fall?
Brian Campbell: Israel Adesanya
Adesanya’s two-plus years as middleweight king have produced a trio of title defenses and a losing bid to become 205-pound champion that ended via close decision. But even though Adesanya is set to rematch a fighter he once knocked out in the first round to initially claim the title in 2019, it’s clear Robert Whittaker isn’t the same fighter from their first meeting. The former champion’s recovery from injury and mental strain that dominated his final days as champion have arguably left him as dangerous as he has ever been. Whittaker showed every aspect of his well-rounded game in decisions wins over Darren Till, Jared Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum. Should Whittaker regain his crown, an eventual trilogy bout between Adesanya and Whittaker wouldn’t be out of the question to close the year.
Brookhouse: Francis Ngannou
While I personally hope to be wrong, Ngannou is in a bad spot to start the year. He’s arguably the biggest one-shot power puncher in the most dangerous division in the world but he’s up against Ciryl Gane, who is a master technician with a style that’s yet to be cracked. With Gane’s defensive tactics, it’s not hard to see him methodically picking apart Ngannou to take a decision. Of course, it only takes one shot from Ngannou to negate every bit of strategy and defense. Still, this is a highly difficult fight for the champion.
Mahjouri: Aljamain Sterling
I won’t argue with anyone banking on Ciryl Gane, a true modern-day heavyweight, to pick apart a distracted Francis Ngannou at UFC 270. That fight is a genuine pick’em, but Sterling is the safe choice. “Funkmaster” is a fantastic fighter and I favored him heading into the first fight against Petr Yan. That is not how it played out. Sterling opened strong, but Yan had clearly taken over prior to landing an illegal knee that awarded Sterling the title. Additionally, Sterling has dealt with ongoing injuries and will enter UFC 272 on March 5 one day short of a one-year layoff.
Who emerges as the next breakout star?
Campbell: Islam Makhachev
While it seems fair to suggest there will never be another Khabib Nurmagomedov given the former pound-for-pound king’s unbeaten record and sustained dominance until his abrupt retirement, Islam Makhachev might be the closest facsimile. At 30, the native of Dagestan, Russia, who just so happens to be trained by Nurmagomedov, has figured out his own path to dominance throughout a nine-fight win streak over the past five years that has Makhachev (21-1) closing in on a title shot. Like Nurmagomedov, his protégé has a huge gas tank and a wrestling heavy attack. But Makhachev is certainly his own man. Should he break free from the pack to become champion in 2022, he’ll likely have beaten enough big names to secure Fighter of the Year honors along the way.
Brookhouse: Bruno Silva
I’m going to go a bit more on the longshot side of things. Breakout stars are made of stoppages and that’s very on-brand for Silva, who has won seven straight fights, all by KO or TKO. Silva has 19 knockouts in 22 career victories. Against Andrew Sanchez, Silva showed the ability to come back from bad spots in fights. Silva is set up for a chance to make a huge leap in his career when he fights Alex Pereira in a massively high-risk fight. If he can keep his run going by beating a kickboxing star? Silva is going to be in line for a shot at the middleweight belt sooner than later.
Mahjouri: Magomed Ankalaev
He may be the No. 6 ranked UFC light heavyweight, but he is not getting the buzz he deserves. Ankalaev has more than made up for the mental lapse in his UFC debut against Paul Craig, handily winning the fight before succumbing to a Hail Mary triangle choke at 4:59 of Round 3. Ankalaev has rattled off seven consecutive wins with six finishes, including consecutive knockouts of Ion Cutelaba and decision wins over Volkan Oezdemir and Nikita Krylov. Expect Ankalaev to position himself for a UFC title run by the year’s end.
Will Francis Ngannou re-sign with UFC or walk away?
Campbell: The one result that would make this decision a lot easier for all parties is Ngannou doing what he does best by knocking out Cyril Gane to hand the interim heavyweight champion his first pro defeat. Not only would the result trigger contract options on Ngannou in UFC’s favor, it’s not hard to imagine winning being the kind of catalyst that leads to compromise between both parties. Plus, a dominant victory over Gane would leave Ngannou too dangerous and marketable for the UFC to let go without making him happy behind the scenes. An Ngannou loss could have the exact opposite result, of course, although UFC president Dana White recently shared publicly he had a productive talk with Ngannou without his management team present that could go a long way in making this a moot debate.
Brookhouse, Mahjouri: Ngannou and his management have every right to advocate for financial terms that satisfy the UFC heavyweight champion, but do not expect the UFC to budge. Dana White and company likely won’t meet Ngannou’s demands. At best, they’ll give “The Predator” just enough to apathetically sign-on. The answer to this question likely resides in the outcome of UFC 270. Should Ngannou win, his contract will be extended one fight according to White. If Ngannou loses, he’ll give up his leverage as well. Prediction? Ngannou defends his title and sits out for the rest of the year. — Mahjouri
What happens with Jon Jones?
Campbell: Unable to make the UFC bend to his financial demands, Jones has decided to take his time adjusting to the new weight before making his long-awaited heavyweight debut. It’s likely Jones finally does that in 2022 at least one time. What will be most interesting, however, is whether he allows himself a non-title fight to test the waters and gauge where he’s at as a heavyweight or wait out the result of Francis Ngannou-Cyril Gane to prepare to face the winner. The latter is more likely with the good news for fans being a Jones return of any kind in the new year provided he’s mentally sound to do so following more legal trouble outside of the cage.
Brookhouse, Mahjouri: I’d love to think that what happens with Jon Jones is that he gets serious professional help and straightens himself out. That’s probably outside of reality and the UFC is going to want to get Jones in the Octagon at some point to test out his skills and heavyweight and to put his marketability to work. Heavyweight is incredibly thin on intriguing and fresh contenders for Gane or Ngannou, which gives the UFC extra need for Jones. Assume Jones gets in the cage once around late summer or early fall, and assuming he wins, is fighting for the heavyweight title in early 2023. — Brookhouse
What happens with Conor McGregor?
Campbell: Title fight or biggest name available
The easy bet in this case is that McGregor will return to the Octagon in 2022 as soon as his body is physically cleared to do so. But will he win, upon return in his quest to snap a current skid that includes three stoppage defeats in four fights? That depends upon the UFC’s decision when it comes to matchmaking. Should McGregor be allowed to cut the line and instantly face defending champion Charles Oliveira, the odds aren’t in his favor. But a more lateral move would be a trilogy bout against an aging Nate Diaz or any other proper comeback bout for a fighter not just nursing recent defeats but a serious leg injury suffered in his own trilogy with Dustin Poirier in July. Knowing McGregor, who has recently been open to the idea of a Max Holloway rematch on social media, he’ll take the biggest stage available to him and likely the highest amount of risk. In that sense, McGregor has a lot of work to do to restore faith that at age 33, he’s still capable of consecutive victories against the sport’s reigning elite.
Mahjouri: Nate Diaz trilogy or Tony Ferguson bouts
The fight game is cruel and McGregor has experienced his fair share of career disappointments. McGregor, still the sport’s biggest draw, only has a win against Donald Cerrone to his credit in the last five years. “Cowboy” is sandwiched between a submission loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov, a knockout loss to Dustin Poirier and a leg break suffered in the Poirier trilogy fight. He is itching to rebuild his confidence and there are three reasonable choices. The least advisable is the fourth fight against Poirier, who has generally shown to be the better fighter across two fights last year. A Nate Diaz rematch will always be a grueling, big-money fight. Finally, a clash with wild man Tony Ferguson is likely the most favorable match-up for a McGregor that could use some calibration in 2022.
Brookhouse: Diaz trilogy and/or title bout
McGregor has been sort of bulletproof for years and remains as such today. Everyone wants their big-money fight with McGregor, which is why Charles Oliveira has stressed his willingness to defend his title against McGregor despite the Irishman not having a win at lightweight since November 2016. And the UFC certainly wouldn’t be opposed to McGregor getting that title shot. I do figure the UFC tries to put together a get-right win for McGregor before throwing him in a title fight. With that in mind, a trilogy fight with Nate Diaz would make sense, even if it isn’t at lightweight. After that, a fight for the title would be quickly put together for McGregor, likely before the end of 2022.