Champion: Rose Namajunas
In The Mix: Carla Esparza, Marina Rodriguez
Rose Namajunas reminded everyone (including herself) she is truly the best strawweight in the world with a pair of distinctly different wins over Zhang Weili, first with a first-round head kick and then with a grimy, close decision win at UFC 261 and UFC 268, respectively.
Her next challenge is another familiar face: Carla Esparza. The UFC’s inaugural strawweight champion has had a resurgence in the last couple of years and tallied a five-fight winning streak. Esparza submitted Namajunas a little more than seven years ago and presents a unique matchup in the division because of her wrestling talents. After that seemingly inevitable rematch, Marina Rodriguez seems lined up as the contender-in-waiting following three impressive wins in 2021. Rodriguez’ last two wins came in hard-fought, but definitive, main events, and her lone loss came to Carla Esparza in a razor-close split decision.
Names to Watch For in 2022: Mackenzie Dern, Yan Xiaonan, Virna Jandiroba, Amanda Ribas
Champion: Valentina Shevchenko
In The Mix: Taila Santos, Katlyn Chookagian, Jennifer Maia
Valentina Shevchenko continued her increasingly unparalleled run of dominance as the flyweight queen in 2021, defending her belt twice with a pair of finishes over Jessica Andrade and Lauren Murphy. Shevchenko shows no signs of slowing down, and the division is doing its best to churn out challengers quickly. Young prospects are rising quickly, but the newest face in this title mix is Taila Santos, who is riding a four-fight winning streak and is fresh off a submission win over Joanne Wood. Santos’ lone loss came via split decision in her UFC debut, and since then, she has looked like a well-rounded problem in the making. She is entering her fighting prime at 28 years old, and one more win could get her that title shot. Elsewhere, Katlyn Chookagian and Jennifer Maia are vying for a second crack at “Bullet.” They’ve bounced back from their losses to the champ well, and they’ll meet for a rematch to open 2022. If the timing works out, the winner may find themselves in a No. 1 contender fight sooner than later.
Names to Watch For in 2022: Manon Fiorot, Casey O’Neill, Erin Blanchfield
Champion: Julianna Peña
In The Mix: Amanda Nunes, Irene Aldana, Ketlen Vieira
My oh my, did this division get shaken up to end the year. Peña’s upset over Nunes course-corrected a lot of things that seemed like they had order, including any potential fights Nunes had her eyes on down the road. First, their rematch is likely to come. If Nunes recaptures her belt, maybe there is a trilogy fight, or maybe she moves on to the rest of the challengers rising like Irene Aldana and Ketlen Vieiera (more on them in a moment). Should Peña thwart Nunes, it rejuvenates a division full of Nunes’ vanquished foes, including a particular flyweight champion.
Whatever happens in the rematch, Aldana and Vieira have put together solid resumes for a title shot. Aldana has continuously showed off her strong boxing and one-punch power, and Vieira bounced back from some struggles to regain her top-tier form. They should feature in some high stakes fights in 2022.
Names to Watch For in 2022: Aspen Ladd, Raquel Pennington, Macy Chiasson
Champion: Amanda Nunes
In The Mix: Norma Dumont
After Amanda Nunes defended her 145-pound belt against Megan Anderson, there’s not a featherweight on the roster who has made themselves a clear contender. However, Norma Dumont has put together a few wins, and although she has had struggles making the bantamweight limit, she clearly has talent and the size to compete in a 145-pound contest. Elsewhere, maybe a bantamweight sees a path to the title if they fight at featherweight, but nobody has made a standout statement yet. Julianna Peña said she would rather stay at bantamweight for now, but she could be in the mix as well depending on how their bantamweight rematch goes.
Champion: Brandon Moreno
In The Mix: Deiveson Figueiredo, Askar Askarov, Alexandre Pantoja, Kai Kara France
Brandon Moreno capturing the flyweight title was one of the enduring emotional moments of 2021, and he gets to open 2022 with his first defense of that title in a third fight against Deiveson Figueiredo. Curiously, if Figueiredo wins, one could argue a fourth fight is in line, much to the division’s chagrin.
Should Moreno successfully defend, a trio of challengers are jockeying for the inside track on the next shot. Askar Askarov has quietly dominated in the UFC and drew with Moreno back in 2019. Alexandre Pantoja boasts a win over Moreno from 2018 and racked up two big wins in 2021 over Manel Kape and Brandon Royval. Perhaps the loudest win came via Kai Kara France, whose knockout of Cody Garbrandt at UFC 269 shot him back into the title mix with plenty of shine. He is probably still one more win away, but he’s certainly in the conversation. Whatever happens in the coming months, flyweight has fleshed out to become one of the more entertaining divisions in the UFC with a growing roster of young and exciting talent.
Names to Watch For in 2022: Manel Kape, Brandon Royval
Champion: Aljamain Sterling
In The Mix: Petr Yan, TJ Dillashaw, José Aldo
Frequently referred to as the deepest division in the UFC, bantamweights delivered banger after high-level banger in 2021, but it also provided some messiness at the top, as well. In Petr Yan’s first title defense, he lost his belt via disqualification when he kneed a grounded Aljamain Sterling. Sterling then went on to have a surgery that eventually scratched their rematch, and Yan captured the interim title in a fun fight against Cory Sandhagen.
Eventually, Sterling and Yan will fight to unify the belts, and then they can turn their attention to a pair of established stars primed to fight for gold once again. TJ Dillashaw returned from his two-year suspension with a split decision win over Sandhagen to immediately throw himself into the title picture, and José Aldo got his feet under him in the division, tallying a pair of wins in 2021. They could find themselves fighting one another for the next title shot if the timing is right, but as we’ve seen in the division in years past, anything can happen at 135.
Names to Watch For in 2022: Merab Dvalishvili, Marlon Vera, Sean O’Malley, Cory Sandhagen
Champion: Alexander Volkanovski
In The Mix: Max Holloway, Brian Ortega, Yair Rodriguez, Calvin Kattar, Giga Chikadze
The featherweight division didn’t produce much in terms of a frequency of high stakes fights at the top of the class, but when the best did step in against each other, they put on some of the best fights of the year. Namely, Alexander Volkanovski’s title defense against Brian Ortega was one of the best title fights the division has seen in recent memory. Just go back and watch that third round if you need an adrenaline rush.
Meanwhile, Max Holloway bolstered his case for a third crack at the Aussie. He likely earned the chance when he put on a historic performance against Calvin Kattar to open 2021, but he stamped it with a five-round war against Yair Rodriguez, who also looked sharp in his return. Kattar and Giga Chikadze are opening the 2022 slate with a main event, and whomever comes out victorious might be a win away from a shot at whomever holds the belt after the eventual trilogy fight between “The Great” and “Blessed.”
Names to Watch For in 2022: Josh Emmett, Arnold Allen, Bryce Mitchell, Movsar Evloev, Dan Hooker
Champion: Charles Oliveira
In The Mix: Justin Gaethje, Beneil Dariush, Islam Makhachev, Dustin Poirier
Charles Oliveira filled the vacuum Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement left in spectacular fashion in 2021. First, he came back from a tough first round against Michael Chandler to earn the vacant title at UFC 262, and he put any doubt to rest when he submitted Dustin Poirier in the third round at UFC 269. The win over Poirier halted the Louisiana-native’s march to glory after “The Diamond” beat Conor McGregor twice in the year, but he’ll need to build back up for another chance at the elusive belt. Justin Gaethje is next in line after he outdueled Michael Chandler in 2021’s Fight of the Year, and he is a rock-solid matchup for Oliveira. If Gaethje wins, that opens things back up for Poirier as he has a win over Gaethje from 2018.
Two fighters who rose immensely in 2021 were Beneil Dariush and Islam Makhachev. They’re set to fight at the end of February, and the winner could have first dibs on a title shot after Oliveira and Gaethje settle their score.
Names to Watch For in 2022: Michael Chandler, Conor McGregor, Rafael Fiziev
Champion: Kamaru Usman
In The Mix: Leon Edwards, Vicente Luque, Belal Muhammad, Khamzat Chimaev
Kamaru Usman defined 2021 in many ways. UFC.com’s Fighter of the Year defended his title in spectacular fashion three times in the year, taking out Gilbert Burns, Jorge Masvidal (also UFC.com’s Knockout of the Year), and Colby Covington. He doesn’t have much time to sit back, though, as another wave of contenders is prepared to challenge his throne.
Leon Edwards returned in 2021 to mixed results. His return bout against Belal Muhammad turned out to be anticlimactic due to an accidental eye poke that led to a no contest, but he did look good against Nate Diaz at UFC 263. Edwards controlled that fight for 24 minutes before Diaz shook Edwards late but couldn’t finish the job. Edwards hasn’t lost in six years – his last defeat coming coincidentally to Usman. Vicente Luque is in top form, as well, and few are lining up to fight “The Silent Assassin.” He might need one more big win to earn a shot, but he also might have a case as it stands. Belal Muhammad turned in a dominant, breakout performance against Stephen Thompson, so he figures to play a heavy part in the title picture in 2022.
Khamzat Chimaev is the biggest question mark heading into the next year. Chimaev has been utterly dominant so far, and he passed his biggest test against Li Jingliang with flying colors. He seems like he’s on a fast track up the division, so how he decides to leap up the ladder might be determined by who wants to take that fight.
Names to Watch For in 2022: Gilbert Burns, Sean Brady, Geoff Neal
Champion: Israel Adesanya
In The Mix: Robert Whittaker, Jared Cannonier, Derek Brunson
After an attempt at double-champ glory, Israel Adesanya continued his dominant reign over the middleweight division when he cruised to a decision win over Marvin Vettori at UFC 263. “The Last Stylebender” likely continues a run of rematches in 2022, starting with Robert Whittaker, who racked up his third-straight win after beating out Kelvin Gastelum in the spring. They’re scheduled for their rematch in February at UFC 271.
That same night, Jared Cannonier and Derek Brunson are set to do battle for the next shot down the road. Cannonier has been close to a shot for a while now, and a win over the streaking Brunson, who has won five in a row since losing to Adesanya, could be the statement he needs to get the title call.
Names to Watch For in 2022: Marvin Vettori, Paulo Costa, Sean Strickland, Nassourdine Imavov
Champion: Glover Teixeira
In The Mix: Jiri Prochazka, Jan Blachowicz, Aleksandar Rakic, Anthony Smith
Glover Teixeira capturing the light heavyweight title at 42 years old is one of the most heartwarming stories of the year, and all signs point toward his first defense coming against Jiri Prochazka, the Czech wildman who has knocked out Volkan Oezdemir and Dominick Reyes in two UFC outings.
Right on the precipice of title shots are Aleksandar Rakic and Anthony Smith. Rakic added another main event win to his name with a decision victory over Thiago Santos, but some felt underwhelmed by his performance. He can pick up a signature win early in the year, however, if he can put away former champion Jan Blachowicz, who is keen on getting his belt back sooner than later. Someone who also has eyes on Rakic is Anthony Smith, who bounced back from losing to Rakic with three straight wins (all first-round finishes) and an emphatic callout of Rakic. That fight hasn’t come to fruition just yet, but “Lionheart” is firmly back in the title picture.
Names to Watch For in 2022: Magomed Ankalaev, Jamahal Hill, Dominick Reyes, Paulo Costa
Champion: Francis Ngannou
In The Mix: Ciryl Gane, Stipe Miocic, Derrick Lewis, Curtis Blaydes, Jon Jones
Free from the trilogy between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier, Ngannou finally captured the title with a knockout win over Miocic in March. It seemed like a new era was set to begin in the division, but Ngannou did not fight again in 2021. Instead, an interim title was created, and Frenchman Ciryl Gane emphatically took that at UFC 266 in Houston after he knocked out Derrick Lewis. Gane and Ngannou are set to unify the titles at UFC 270 in January, which is a razor-close fight on paper.
Depending on who comes out on top determines what’s next. Derrick Lewis might have a shout at another title shot if Ngannou retains the belt considering Lewis holds a win over Ngannou. If it’s Gane, the door is much more open for Curtis Blaydes, who has only lost to Lewis and Ngannou in the UFC. Of course, the impending heavyweight run of Jon Jones still lingers, but it’s unclear if and when “Bones” will decide to return to action.
Names to Watch For in 2022: Chris Daukaus, Tom Aspinall, Tai Tuivasa