Predicting UFC Champions a Year from Now
Becoming a UFC champion is hard. Even getting into the UFC is hard, but to beat up enough of the toughest people on Earth to get to the top of the mountain is on a whole other level.
The years in the gym, toiling in obscurity and putting in the work nobody sees just to have 25 minutes in the cage and 12-pounds of gold around your waist—it's not for everyone.
Almost as challenging as making it to the top of the heap? Predicting who might be there a year from now.
MMA is a fast-moving sport, where opportunities present themselves out of nowhere and a pivot or slip in the wrong direction can undo a life's work.
Short-notice replacements can wreak havoc on contenders, and champions can be injured or simply abstain from fighting for a while; before you know it, someone you had never heard of last year is a world champion.
With that said, that's what this exercise is all about: trying to predict who will hold UFC gold a year down the line.
Women’s Strawweight: Joanna Jedrzejczyk
Joanna Jedrzejczyk is unquestionably the greatest women's 115-pounder ever.
From the time she became champion in 2015, she was a thunderbolt in the fledgling UFC weight class, trucking contenders with ease until she got tagged by Rose Namajunas at UFC 217 and lost her title.
The thing is, she's fixed to get an immediate rematch at UFC 223; and if you believe the horror stories of her most recent weight cut, you could also see a path to her cutting through Namajunas to become queen once again.
Jedrzejczyk is slick and technical and there's no reason to think she's shopworn in any way. She has never been one to take a lot of damage in her fights, and even in her loss to Namajunas, she only ate one big shot to end the fight.
A stronger, healthier Jedrzejczyk could easily outpoint Namajunas in a second go.
This prediction says she does that, regaining her title at UFC 223 and defending it in late 2018 in a rematch with Jessica Andrade before moving up to 125 pounds for a chance at becoming a two-weight world champion.
Speaking of which…
Women’s Flyweight: Valentina Shevchenko
Jedrzejczyk's kickboxing nemesis—the woman who beat her three times in those days—Valentina Shevchenko will hold gold a year from now.
In terms of individuals who are currently without a belt and will be this time in 2019, this one is as close to a sure thing as you'll find.
Shevchenko was nearly a champion at bantamweight, fighting well above her natural weight. In her flyweight debut, she dished out one of the most vicious beatings the sport has seen, trouncing Priscila Cachoeira so badly that many wondered how the fight was sanctioned in the first place.
A skilled athlete who has spent years refining her standup technique and developed a capable grappling game for her transition to MMA, Shevchenko might well find her way into the conversation for the best woman to compete in the sport one day.
Still only 29, she might be a year or two away from her peak and will probably enter it as a defending champion.
The likely path to that happening is her taking the title from Nicco Montano this summer, defending it late in 2018 against a proven flyweight such as Lauren Murphy or Roxanne Modafferi, then lining up against Jedrzejczyk for a champion-versus-champion bout early next year.
At 125 pounds, Shevchenko would have to be favored, and a win instantly propels her into the greatest-of-all-time talk. Be prepared for that conversation when it comes.
Women’s Bantamweight: Amanda Nunes
If you look at the contenders chasing the current champ at women’s bantamweight, one thing stands out: That champ probably isn't going anywhere for a while.
And that champ is Amanda Nunes.
The division itself is in something of a turnover phase, with the veterans starting to slide out of contendership and some new faces beginning to ascend. Names such as Raquel Pennington, Julianna Pena and Ketlen Vieira are on the rise, but nobody on that list is going to come close to taking Nunes' title from her.
Nunes has quietly carved out a niche as one of the most ruthless, brutal finishers in the women's game and every time out it appears her skills have evolved wildly.
The Brazilian is incredibly physical and has sharpened her technical acumen, and she now has ownership of both the clinch and boxing range in her fights. Add in her jiu-jitsu black belt, and opponents are not safe anywhere.
She is also another woman entering her athletic prime and has largely been seen as a prospect realized since her run of stopping Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey before decisioning Shevchenko last year.
Attention has now turned to a fight with Pennington this summer at UFC 224, and if she wins there, she will sit at the top of the women's side of the sport without question. That might set her up for a featherweight superfight with Cris Cyborg before long.
In any event, it's hard to imagine a lady knocking her from her bantamweight perch in the next 12 months.
Women’s Featherweight: Cris Cyborg
Another woman who isn't going anywhere is Cris Cyborg. The Brazilian bomber has been obliterating opponents for a decade, and her skill level and the lack of competitive talent in her weight class mean she will have another year on her reign before long.
The fact of the matter is the UFC seems happy to promote her as something of a special attraction: Every few months she shows up and smokes some poor lady, people rejoice, and she disappears back to the gym to sharpen up for the next one.
Since coming to the UFC, it's been a steady stream of bantamweights blowing up to 145 to take their chances against her, but none have been particularly competitive.
As of this writing, there appears to be some appetite in the promotion to pit her against bantamweight champion Nunes, but there's no telling when that fight might happen. It seems possible for the end of the year, and the boorish Cyborg would have to be the favorite defending her natural class from another undersized interloper.
Perhaps the only thing that will get in the way of a Cyborg featherweight reign is her occasionally strained relationship with the UFC, which seems to have been repaired to some extent by her willingness to jump in and save UFC 222 on short notice (another one-sided win over an overmatched bantamweight, for what it's worth).
If the sides can stay on the same page in the future, look for Cyborg to defend against natural featherweight Megan Anderson and also Nunes by this time next year, still holding strong as the promotion's featherweight champion.
Men's Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson
Yet another world champion who simply isn't going anywhere soon.
Not unlike Cyborg, he's the ruler of a thin weight class; very much unlike Cyborg, he's already cleaned it out. Most of the top contenders have already suffered defeat in trying to take his throne, with some of them suffering defeat a couple of times.
It's gotten to the point now where the only option appears to be finding a superfight for him or squaring him off against another champion.
Talk has been that bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw is going to make the drop, and Johnson has grown increasingly interested in the idea, so you'd have to figure that's next.
Should Johnson compete against Dillashaw at flyweight, there are too many unknowns to bet against him.
He's already proved to be the best 125-pounder alive and one of the best fighters of all time. Even against a bigger guy, you would have to figure between his own talents and the questions surrounding Dillashaw making his debut at the weight that Johnson will come out on top.
That should chew up the summer months for him, with another defense against a not-quite-ready contender early in 2019 coming after. This time next year, Mighty Mouse is still the man.
Men's Bantamweight: TJ Dillashaw
It’s interesting that Dillashaw's legacy will likely be intertwined with Johnson over the next few months, because no matter the outcome, you would have to imagine he'll still be holding gold at bantamweight.
His prospective drop to flyweight for a legacy fight with Johnson would see him put up nothing of his own while he stands to gain everything, and it's hard to envision him staying at the lower, unhealthier weight for any amount of time.
When he returns to his natural class, there are some tasks awaiting him. Cody Garbrandt and Dominick Cruz both have unfinished business—both with Dillashaw and one another—and the winner of Marlon Moraes and Jimmie Rivera is going to set himself up to be hot on the tails of those three elite athletes.
For his part, Dillashaw has been the best 135-pounder alive for a number of years now, arguably even during the downtime when he wasn't holding the title.
His path to gold was built on multiple destructions of then-indestructible Renan Barao, he narrowly lost to Cruz when they fought, continued to perform expertly in the interim, and then blasted Garbrandt to the moon to become champion again.
He's still in his prime at 32 and has only recently rounded into his final form, so you can expect to see that continue over the course of the next year. He may not beat Johnson, but he will defend his bantamweight title in early 2019 and still be holding it a year from now.
Men's Featherweight: Max Holloway
The sky is the limit for Max Holloway, the young and hungry fighting champion that the featherweight division, and probably the broader UFC as well, have been asking for.
While the sport transformed into a permanent jockeying for money fights and undeserved title shots over the past few years, Holloway began building his legacy the old-fashioned way—by actually beating people up.
Where that leaves him today is as one of the top champions in the game, a gifted talent who started with plenty of tools and has refined himself on his way to a title.
His fights with Jose Aldo were each a masterclass, developed and executed in entirely different ways, showing the Hawaiian has the fight IQ and intangibles to back up his physical acumen.
Featherweight is finally starting to round back into form after the hurricane of Conor McGregor passed through, leaving Aldo as a paper champion and a smattering of half-hearted contenders chasing him.
Holloway was the man to jump up and seize the mantle, but now he's on top, there are guys such as Brian Ortega and Jeremy Stephens also ascending and old dogs like Aldo and Frankie Edgar still floating around.
Look for Holloway to meet up with Ortega this summer and narrowly top him, setting up a surefire competitive rivalry that will shape the division over the next few years.
He will then defend again late in the fall and perhaps have his rematch with Ortega booked but not completed by this time next year.
Men's Lightweight: Khabib Nurmagomedov
For too long, Khabib Nurmagomedov and his next opponent, Tony Ferguson, have had their careers tied to one another and to the whims of Conor McGregor.
That will change at UFC 223, when they meet for the UFC lightweight title and McGregor is simultaneously stripped, making the new champion official once a winner is declared.
Now at this point, that fight is more or less a pick 'em. Nurmagomedov's grappling and relentlessness will be a tireless challenge for Ferguson, whose go-for-broke approach might be the kryptonite the undefeated Dagestani has never seen.
Ferguson is maybe a little more savvy, and that might be the difference. Skill for skill, though, it's about as narrow a margin between fighters as the promotion can pair together.
But here's the thing: No matter what happens with UFC 223, there's a good chance Nurmagomedov holds the gold this time in 2019.
With a loss to Ferguson, he will only be bumped down a spot or two in the rankings and there isn't going to be another soul at lightweight who can handle a motivated Nurmagomedov coming off his first-ever loss. He will blitz whoever the UFC gives him and do it so convincingly that he'll earn a second title fight. He'll make good on that.
Should he beat Ferguson, he's going to square off with McGregor. And while the Irishman has dynamite in his hands, he has been shown as susceptible to an aggressive wrestling attack.
Nurmagomedov has unparalleled prowess in that area and a gas tank to make McGregor's life a nightmare, and it could be that he defends his gold with relative ease if that fight happens.
Make no mistake, 2019 will be the year of The Eagle at lightweight.
Men's Welterweight: Rafael Dos Anjos
Welterweight is a curious mess these days, with a whole bunch of transitional contenders floating around a longstanding champion who hasn't ever really blown people away—in the cage or out of it—in Tyron Woodley.
Guys such as Robbie Lawler and Stephen Thompson are still floating around, while names like Colby Covington and Darren Till are promising prospects, but there's no clear path to predicting what the division might look like this time in 2019.
That is until one considers the blistering pace at which Rafael Dos Anjos has worked his way up the welterweight ranks and the convincing manner in which he's laid claim to top contendership.
The former lightweight champion has been utterly dominant since returning to 170 pounds, most recently dissecting Lawler on network television before setting his sights on Woodley.
There was some talk Woodley might fight Nate Diaz, but even if that comes together, you can expect Dos Anjos to wait for his chance at a title shot. The lure of becoming a two-weight world champion will be too great, as will the money and opportunity that comes with it.
And he can beat Woodley. He can beat Diaz too, if it was required.
Dos Anjos is unheralded, but he remains an excellent kickboxer with good finishing instincts, as well as an elite jiu-jitsu black belt who has developed a strong, aggressive wrestling game.
No matter who he sees across the cage for a potential welterweight title shot, he poses problems because he does everything exceptionally well and has big fight experience to go with it.
He'll be the guy a year from now.
Men's Middleweight: Robert Whittaker
Another young champion who took his throne during the UFC's transition year of 2017, Robert Whittaker is everything the promotion could want: He fights out of a market that loves MMA but can still grow in Australia, is handsome enough to be a model in his spare time, thoughtful outside of the cage in his media obligations and brings the business in the cage.
After beating Yoel Romero for an interim middleweight title last summer, Whittaker was bumped up to being the real deal when Georges St-Pierre beat Michael Bisping for the legitimate title and promptly vacated it.
He was supposed to defend his title against Luke Rockhold at UFC 221, but injury forced him off the card, leaving Romero to swoop in, stop Rockhold and earn another title shot.
If he beats Romero again—and he likely will, as he is a bad stylistic matchup for the Cuban—the most dangerous contender in the division will be no more.
There are other guys floating around and trying to climb the ranks, but outside of Chris Weidman and Kelvin Gastelum there don't appear to be any imminent threats to his reign.
Look for him to beat Romero in the summer and one of the other in late 2018 or early 2019. By then, we will all be talking about a fight with whichever contender hasn't had their chance yet, probably with some excitement over watching the first great middleweight champion since the days when Anderson Silva held the belt.
Men's Light Heavyweight: Daniel Cormier
Daniel Cormier always keeps it interesting.
From his saga with Jon Jones to his no-contest-leading-to-the-return-of-a-belt-he-lost to beating the brakes off of Volkan Oezdemir at UFC 220, the former Olympian has had one of the more memorable runs in MMA history over the past few years.
And now, in an effort to one-up even himself, he's going to jump back up to heavyweight for a shot at holding two titles simultaneously. Only Conor McGregor has done that, but should Cormier better Stipe Miocic at UFC 226, he will get to say he did it too.
In a way, this opportunity to hold two titles would be sweet consolation for the man who suffered the most at the hands of Jones' indiscretions, and he honestly might do it. He's a vastly improved kickboxer over what he was even a few years ago, has experience at heavyweight and is one of the top handful of wrestlers in MMA today.
He will absolutely give Miocic a handful, and he may well beat him.
Even if he does, though, he won't stay at heavyweight. He will drop back down and let his teammate and best friend Cain Velasquez get back into the heavyweight title picture.
The deed will be done then, Cormier's legend will be secure as a simultaneous titleholder. He'll go back to 205 and work over one or two more contenders before retirement.
Cormier has stated his 40th birthday will mark the end of his competitive career, so look for him to book a swan-song title fight around that time.
He might give Alexander Gustafsson a crack if their schedules line up, or maybe even Jones for a third time if the former champ's USADA punishment isn't too harsh (it will be, so maybe don't count on that one).
Men's Heavyweight: Stipe Miocic
Stipe Miocic is already the most decorated, successful heavyweight champion in UFC history.
Although he's only defended his title a meager three times, that stands as a rousing accomplishment in the notoriously unruly waters of the heavyweight division, where one wrong move leaves you looking up at the lights.
Most recently, Miocic defused the bombs of Francis Ngannou, showing he could win a tireless grind just as effectively as he can a slugfest. The American is smart and calculated in his approach to the game, a trait that is often lost during the consumption of his highlight reel of violent knockouts.
He'll face Cormier this summer, and the outcome is no sure thing. The light heavyweight champion is good at everything and won't shy away from mixing it up with Miocic. That will challenge Ohioan and bring the best out of him, or it will cause him to wilt and bring an end to his run.
There's no reason to believe it will be the latter, but even if it is, one must consider Cormier will not be a permanent heavyweight. He'll either be back at 205 or exiting MMA entirely, which leaves Miocic as one of the top two or three heavyweights with a vacant title available.
The UFC will put him back in a title fight, probably against Cain Velasquez or Fabricio Werdum (either of whom he would also find himself defending against this year if he beats Cormier), and it's hard to see him losing two in a row right now while he's so obviously at the top of his game.
All roads lead to Miocic holding the heavyweight title this time next year.
Follow me on Twitter @matthewjryder