Forecasting UFC Champions, Class of 2021

By Brian Knapp Jan 2, 2021
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Even as the outside world wandered about in a fog of chaos and uncertainty, the title picture in the Ultimate Fighting Championship remained unusually stable throughout 2020. In fact, no sitting champion suffered a defeat during the calendar year, and the only three belts to change hands—light heavyweight, bantamweight and flyweight—did so when a titleholder either vacated his throne or outright retired. Perhaps it was the calm before the proverbial storm, as the next 12 months shape up to be far more tumultuous than their predecessors. Who will be the last men and women standing when the calendar flips to 2022? A look into the crystal ball:

Heavyweight: Jon Jones

Jones fought only once in 2020, as he retained the light heavyweight crown with a five-round unanimous decision over Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 on Feb. 8. The Jackson-Wink MMA standout later vacated the title to make his long-awaited move to the heavyweight division, and while he has yet to debut in his new weight class, he figures to climb quickly as one of the sport’s biggest superstars. Jones undoubtedly has current champion Stipe Miocic in his sights.

Light Heavyweight: Israel Adesanya

The undefeated Adesanya improved to 20-0 with victories over Yoel Romero and Paul Costa in 2020, strengthening his grip on the 185-pound weight class. One of MMA’s more flamboyant characters, “The Last Stylebender” will set his middleweight title to the side in a bid to become a rare simultaneous two-division champion. Adesanya’s draws his next assignment at UFC 259 on March 6, when he challenges Jan Blachowicz for the undisputed light heavyweight crown. Oddsmakers have already installed him as better than a 2-to-1 favorite.

Middleweight: Israel Adesanya

Even as he goes big-game hunting at 205 pounds, Adesanya appears to have the situation in the middleweight division well under control. The City Kickboxing cornerstone has not yet “cleaned out” the weight class, but a rematch with former champion Robert Whittaker can wait a while longer, and rising contenders like Marvin Vettori and Kevin Holland are not yet in position to make a run at the title. Because of Adesanya’s light heavyweight pursuits, the 185-pound champion could remain on ice deep into 2021.

Welterweight: Kamaru Usman

Usman has emerged as the first truly dominant welterweight champion since Georges St. Pierre. The Sanford MMA export extended his winning streak to 16 fights in 2020 with a lopsided unanimous decision over Jorge Masvidal at UFC 251 in July. None of Usman’s 12 bouts inside the Octagon have been particularly competitive, and while teammate Gilbert Burns poses a clear and present danger at UFC 258, “The Nigerian Nightmare” shows no signs of slowing down at the age of 33.

Lightweight: Charles Oliveira

Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement has created a dizzying array of possibilities for the 155-pound weight class. Many, including Nurmagomedov, expect the Ultimate Fighting Championship to declare the lightweight crown vacant ahead of the UFC 257 rematch between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor on Jan. 23, perhaps clearing the way for their main event to decide the fate of the title. No matter what direction the promotion chooses to go, Oliveira looms. The Brazilian registered his eighth straight victory at UFC 256, where he routed Tony Ferguson on Dec. 12, and now carries as much momentum as anyone in the division.

Featherweight: Brian Ortega

In his only appearance of 2020, Ortega looked sharper than ever in cruising to a five-round unanimous decision over Chan Sung Jung at UFC Fight Night 180 on Oct. 17. “T-City” knocked down Jung twice, executed three takedowns and outstruck him by a 129-64 margin, setting the stage for a potential crack at reigning featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski in the first half of 2021. Volkanovski will not be an easy mountain to climb, as the 5-foot-6 Aussie has not tasted defeat in nearly eight years—a run highlighted by back-to-back victories over Max Holloway.

Bantamweight: Petr Yan

Yan has been a buzzsaw since he joined the UFC roster two-plus years ago. The Russian completed his climb to the top of the bantamweight division in 2020 when he put away Jose Aldo with fifth-round punches at UFC 251 in July and laid claim to the vacant 135-pound title. Yan expects to face Aljamain Sterling in his first turn as champion and figures to do so as a substantial favorite. The 27-year-old has won 10 fights in a row: five by knockout and five by unanimous decision.

Flyweight: Deiveson Figueiredo

No man did more to raise his profile in 2020 than Figueiredo, who captured the undisputed flyweight championship, rose to pound-for-pound prominence and emerged as Sherdog’s “Fighter of the Year.” The Brazilian fought four times in 10 months, scoring dominant wins over Joseph Benavidez (twice) and Alex Perez before settling for a majority draw with Brandon Moreno—a third-round point deduction for a low blow cost “Deus da Guerra” a victory on the scorecards—at UFC 256 on Dec. 12. A rematch with Moreno figures to kick off Figueiredo’s 2021 campaign, which could see the 33-year-old further entrench himself as one of the sport’s sure-bet champions.

Strawweight: Weili Zhang

Zhang’s only 2020 appearance resulted in a career-defining performance, as she outlasted Joanna Jedrzejczyk to a split decision in Sherdog’s “Fight of the Year” at UFC 248 on March 7. The two women combined to throw nearly 800 strikes at one another—they landed 366 of them—in an unforgettable five-round battle that saw Jedrzejczyk leave the cage temporarily disfigured by a massive hematoma that stretched from one side of her forehead to the other. Zhang expects to meet Rose Namajunas sometime in the first or second quarter of 2021, with a rematch against Jedrzejczyk or a showdown with countrywoman Yan Xiaonan possible later in the year. It makes for a treacherous road for the reigning strawweight champion.

Flyweight: Valentina Shevchenko

In terms of divisional dominance, Shevchenko has few equals anywhere in the sport. “Bullet” retained the undisputed flyweight championship on two occasions in 2020, as she wiped out Katlyn Chookagian with punches and elbows at UFC 247 on Feb. 8 and earned a unanimous decision over Jennifer Maia at UFC 255 on Nov. 21. Shevchenko appears to have only two viable challengers left at 125 pounds: Lauren Murphy and Jessica Andrade. A former champion at 115 pounds, Andrade wrecked Chookagian with punches to the body in her flyweight debut at UFC Fight Night 180. Murphy, meanwhile, has recorded consecutive victories over Mara Romero Borella, Andrea Lee, Roxanne Modafferi and Liliya Shakirova.

Bantamweight: Amanda Nunes

A shortage of contenders kept Nunes away from the 135-pound weight class in 2020. Nevertheless, she continues to cast an ominous shadow over the division. Nunes has not lost a fight in more than six years, carving through the vast majority of her contemporaries—Shevchenko (twice), Miesha Tate, Ronda Rousey, Raquel Pennington, Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie—during a remarkable run that has earned her widespread acclaim as the greatest female mixed martial artist of all-time. No serious threats appear anywhere on the horizon, at least not at bantamweight.

Featherweight: Amanda Nunes

Nunes holds sway over two weight classes, and she will make her next appearance at 145 pounds when she defends her featherweight title against Megan Anderson at UFC 259 on March 6. Though stranger things have happened in MMA, no one outside of Anderson’s inner circle expects the Aussie to have much luck with the “Lioness.” Nunes has gone 2-0 as a featherweight, having stopped Cristiane Justino in 51 seconds at UFC 232 two years ago before taking a unanimous decision from Felicia Spencer at UFC 250 on June 6. Oddsmakers have installed her as a -1100 favorite against Anderson. Advertisement


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