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In the unpredictable world of MMA, our expectations for fighters at the beginning of the year often don’t end up looking anything like what we end up observing. However, it is often clear when fighters reach pivotal moments in their careers, moments where their fortunes are likely to turn for the better or the worse depending on how a few fights go. Heading into 2022, these are fighters for whom the coming campaign is likely to be particularly crucial, albeit for very different reasons.
The Rising Star: Khamzat Chimaev
The first name is an obvious one. Chimaev has built up as much buzz as anyone in the Ultimate Fighting Championship with his level of experience. The way he has rolled through the competition has convinced his supporters that he is destined for the upper echelon of the sport. With that said, many fighters have looked great in their initial UFC fights before being thrown in with the top fighters in their weight class and struggling. There is a lot of curiosity about just how well Chimaev will do when he takes the step up in competition. The good news? That’s pretty much certain to happen in 2022. Potential fights with Leon Edwards and Nate Diaz have fallen through, but the UFC is well aware of the interest in Chimaev and will continue to look to get him a major fight or two this year. The fact that the company tried to make Chimaev-Diaz when Diaz was on the last fight of his contract was a major tell, as the hope was clearly that Chimaev would get an impressive win to increase his star power while simultaneously giving Diaz less momentum in leaving the company. With the right wins, Chimaev could finish the year on the verge of a title shot. If he loses, he could end up on a completely different track.
The Champion: Francis Ngannou
The UFC heavyweight champion has enough to worry about just focusing on the challengers gunning for his throne. In the case of Ngannou, his concerns go well beyond simply his defense against Ciryl Gane later this month. His contract has one fight left, and negotiations with the UFC have not gone well given the acrimony between his talent agency CAA and the UFC ownership group and rival talent agency Endeavor. Among the issues: financial terms, whether Ngannou will be able to box outside the UFC and the enforceability of a championship clause should he beat Gane. If things break the right way for Ngannou, he could set himself up as one of the highest-paid fighters in the sport. If Ngannou loses to Gane and the UFC makes no effort to re-sign him afterwards out of spite, his next contract might not look nearly so enviable. The financial stakes are extremely high, and there are surely plenty of nerves from different players involved waiting to see how everything unfolds.
The Former Champion: Jan Blachowicz
It was a storybook run for Blachowicz in 2019 and 2020, when he won five straight fights, captured the UFC light heavyweight title and handed Israel Adesanya his first MMA loss. That all came to an end with a surprisingly one-sided submission loss to Glover Teixeira. In a lot of cases, a champion’s career is pretty well defined after he or she loses the title. With Blachowicz, there remains a lot of uncertainty. Blachowicz was a quality veteran fighter for much of his career but not someone considered by most to be a championship-level competitor. He then had his great run. The big question is whether his run of success was an anomaly, preceded and followed by a lower level of performance, or whether Blachowicz put it all together in the middle of his career and transitioned from a good fighter to a great one. The follow-up to his title defeat is likely to go a long way in defining how he is perceived.
The Former Star: Rory MacDonald
A deceptively young 32 years old, MacDonald has been a well-known and highly regarded competitor since he was in his early 20s. Even when he left the UFC on a two-fight losing streak to Robbie Lawler and Stephen Thompson, the perception among most was that he would continue to be among the best welterweights in the world for years to come. His Bellator MMA run was a bit of a disappointment overall. While he captured the Bellator welterweight title, he only went 3-2-1 overall and rarely performed as well or better than expected. However, he left Bellator still in a relatively good position and looked to capture one of the Professional Fighters League’s million-dollar tournaments in 2021. That’s when things went south for MacDonald. It is not an overstatement to call MacDonald’s consecutive losses in the PFL to Gleison Tibau and Ray Cooper III stunning. MacDonald was a heavier betting favorite against Tibau than Amanda Nunes was against Julianna Pena. The Tibau fight was at least competitive, while the listless performance against Cooper produced unanimous 30-27 cards for the Hawaiian. Given his age, MacDonald can still rebound and have another nice run, ala Vitor Belfort or his former opponent in Lawler. However, 2022 is likely to tell us a lot about whether MacDonald’s heart is still in the game. If he isn’t motivated by what happened in the PFL, what could have that effect?
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