If someone had predicted 10 years ago that in 2020 China and Kyrgyzstan would be home to Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholders at the same time and that Nigerians would hold the same number of championships as fighters from Brazil and the United States, you probably would have called them a lunatic. Yet that is the situation in which mixed martial arts finds itself.
MMA’s global spread has drawn new athletes to the sport while increasing the depth and quality of its talent pool. As a result, champions are finding it increasingly difficult to stay in power. Only two current UFC titleholders, Amanda Nunes and Jon Jones, have made more than three successful title defenses. The sport has never been more dynamic and unpredictable. Within the next six months, Brazil and the United States will get at least seven chances to crown new champions.
Since Jose Aldo surrendered the featherweight title to Max Holloway in 2017, Brazil has not had a male champion. Only Nunes has represented the country at the pinnacle of her profession. However, that could change by the end of 2020. Four Brazilians are expected to challenge for UFC championships: Aldo (bantamweight), Deiveson Figueiredo (flyweight), Gilbert Burns (welterweight)—pending his recovery from COVID-19—and Paulo Henrique Costa (middleweight). Aldo and Burns are first in line at UFC 251 on July 11. While Burns challenges Hard Knocks 365 teammate Kamaru Usman for the welterweight championship, Aldo will face Petr Yan for the vacant bantamweight belt. A week later, Figueiredo will rematch Joseph Benavidez for the unclaimed flyweight crown. According to UFC President Dana White, Costa will take on reigning middleweight champion Israel Adesanya sometime in September or October, providing the promotion with one of its most anticipated fights of the year.
Though Figueiredo is the only aforementioned Brazilian who is considered a favorite by oddsmakers, his countrymen remain optimistic about repeating Brazil’s feat of 2012, when four Brazilians—Aldo, Renan Barao, Anderson Silva and Junior dos Santos—were champions. Ironically, the United States had the same number of UFC titleholders at that time, with Jones, Demetrious Johnson, Dominick Cruz and Benson Henderson. Meanwhile, Canada was home to welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre.
Needless to say, the sport has undergone significant changes over the past eight years. The United States emerged as MMA’s chief power, while Brazil saw Russia, England and Canada all emerge to nip at its heels. Thanks to the interest generated by Ronda Rousey, the UFC instituted four new divisions: women’s strawweight, women’s flyweight, women’s bantamweight and women’s featherweight. It afforded Brazil a better opportunity to hang onto its position as the sport’s second superpower, first with Jessica Andrade, then with Cristiane Justino and now with Nunes, who holds UFC titles at 135 and 145 pounds.
While the sport extends beyond the UFC, the Las Vegas-based organization remains the premier destination for mixed martial arts. If the sport were scored on an Olympic-style country-by-country basis, the United States, Brazil and Nigeria would sit atop the leaderboard. However, if it became necessary to institute a tiebreaker, a fighter-to-champion ratio for instance, Nigeria—with only five fighters on the UFC roster—might be considered the sport’s top dog, followed by Brazil (99) and the United States (262).
Considering the forthcoming slate of events, the UFC’s current pantheon of champions could look much different by the end of the year. Americans will have at least three chances to capture divisional gold, as Holloway meets Alexander Volkanovski for the featherweight title at UFC 251, Benavidez faces Figueiredo for the flyweight championship at UFC Fight Night 173 on July 18 and Justin Gaethje confronts Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight crown at UFC 253 on Sept. 19. The light heavyweight (Jones) and heavyweight (Stipe Miocic) divisions are already occupied by fighters from the United States.
Of course, in a sport this unpredictable, the power could shift elsewhere. If Yan and Nurmagomedov win their respective bouts, Russia will earn its seat at the table, alongside Brazil, the United States and Nigeria. Moreover, it would not surprise anyone if Cameroon and Francis Ngannou join Nigeria as the only African countries with UFC champions.
All we can do is wait and see what happens. The only certainty is that the next six months will provide plenty of excitement and surprises for fans.
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