After fighting through the height of the pandemic, the MMA world returned to full blaze in 2021. The peak was this past summer in Las Vegas, where a packed house watched Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier deliver five fiery minutes, followed by a chaotic aftermath.
But there was no shortage of highlights throughout the year. Francis Ngannou finally overcame Stipe Miocic. Charles Oliveira seized control of the UFC’s lightweight division. Jan Blachowicz bullied Israel Adesanya into his first-ever MMA loss. Then Glover Teixeira (at 42!) made quick work of Blachowicz and won the UFC light heavyweight title.
And the list goes on. AJ McKee captured an emphatic victory against Patrício “Pitbull” Freire. Alexander Volkanovski had the fight of his life against Brian Ortega. Demetrious Johnson suffered his first loss in three years. Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler traded lethal shots at Madison Square Garden. And Kamaru Usman became the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. In case you forgot, Amanda Nunes also tapped out, losing her undefeated streak and her UFC bantamweight title to Julianna Peña. And even though the pandemic persists, making a ferocious goal-line stand this winter, the fight world continues to beat on.
As the calendar turns from 2021 to 2022, here are five fights I would love to see in the new year:
5. Dominick Cruz vs. José Aldo
Dominick Cruz is healthy. At 36, while undoubtedly a step or two slower than he was a decade ago, Cruz is making one more run at UFC’s bantamweight title. After a controversial loss to Henry Cejudo (a bout stopped far too quickly), Cruz looked solid against Casey Kenney and then defeated an extremely tough opponent in Pedro Munoz.
José Aldo is only 35, though it feels as though he has been active in MMA since birth. He is coming off an impressive win against Rob Font, reeling off three victories in a row. Prior to that, it had appeared he was in the twilight of his career after dropping three in a row, but the obituary on his career was premature.
Both of these fighters are closer to the finish line than they are the start, but a bout between these two–with the winner getting that much closer to a title shot–would be a highlight of 2022.
4. Kamaru Usman vs. Khamzat Chimaev
Over the past 12 months, Kamaru Usman became the top ranked fighter in the world. He did it by defeating three dangerous opponents–Gilbert Burns, Jorge Masvidal, and Colby Covington–all in a convincing manner.
Covington is somewhat of a deceiving fighter because of the manner in which he constantly jaws at his opponents. That overshadows his skill in the cage, which is second to only Usman. Their November fight at Madison Square Garden was deemed a unanimous decision victory for Usman, but it was an extremely close fight. Usman fought the best in the world, and he came out on top. If he is to do that in 2022, he will need to do so against Khamzat Chimaev.
Chimaev’s beatdown of Li Jingliang (a ranked opponent) at UFC 267 was a sight to behold. And while Usman is still likely to win this bout, the heavy burden of the title can sometimes become too much. Chimaev is the biggest threat to end Usman’s title reign.
3. Charles Oliveira vs. Islam Makhachev
Charles Oliveira overcame every inch and shred of doubt in 2021. Even after defeating Michael Chandler for the vacant lightweight title, he still entered his recent bout against Dustin Poirier as the underdog despite the fact that he was champion. But after using his striking to knock out Chandler, and then his submission artistry to force Poirier to tap, there will be no more question marks hanging over Oliveira in 2022.
Outside of a lone knockout loss six years ago, Islam Makhachev has controlled his other 21 bouts. He can strike with Oliveira and possesses the grappling skills to exert his will on the mat. This is another must-see fight, one that would cause a changing of the guard if Makhachev is victorious.
2. Conor McGregor vs. Jorge Masvidal
A meeting of Conor McGregor against Jorge Masvidal for the ceremonial BMF title is a perfect scenario for both fighters.
McGregor would be heavily favored to win. Masvidal flourishes in the role of underdog, which is exactly what he would be here, and he would benefit from the matchup even if he did lose. The increased exposure from the McGregor spotlight, and Masvidal’s ability to cut tremendous interviews, would make him even more of a household name. If Masvidal were to win, it would be the single biggest win of his career.
McGregor needs victories if he is still serious about a shot at the lightweight title, making Masvidal an opponent he should seriously consider. He should also continue to hold off on the trilogy fight against Nate Diaz until he is out of title contention. For now, Masvidal is the best opponent for McGregor–and it is a fight where the buildup and the action in the Octagon would be equally captivating.
1. Francis Ngannou vs. Stipe Miocic
Ever since Francis Ngannou won the UFC heavyweight gold this past March, the focus immediately became a highly anticipated bout against Jon Jones. And yes, that would be outrageously compelling. But what about Miocic?
Permitting Ngannou defeats Ciryl Gane in January, which I think he will, Miocic should be next in line.
The former two-time heavyweight champ, Miocic has a tendency to be forgotten about. Perhaps I am showing my bias in favor of a great heavyweight title fight–the two times Miocic fought Ngannou (they split those two fights) have been excellent. I was there in 2018 when Miocic executed a better game plan, and it was a joy to watch Ngannou solve the Miocic puzzle a few months ago and win the title. The rubber match will not have the same kind of hype without Jon Jones, but it could very well be a better fight.
For now, Jones can wait. This is the title fight I want to see in 2022.