Predicting UFC Champions One Year from Now
In general, sports are a "what have you done for me lately" sort of business; but with MMA, there is a lot of "what can you do for me in the future" at play.
Feeling the ebb and flow of a fighter's career and guessing who is trending up and who is sliding down is an important part of the sport. This doesn't just apply to prospects, either.
Even at the top of the sport, it can be tough to guess how a fighter might improve, how they match with potential opponents and what toll Father Time might take. Naturally, this is reflected most at the championship level, where skills are already honed and regularly tested against the best of the best.
With that in mind, Bleacher Report broke out the proverbial crystal ball to peer into the future and break down who will be holding gold next year.
So what champions will survive? And who will force their way to the top?
Strawweight: Joanna Jedrzejczyk
Joanna Jedrzejczyk has been left in an awkward spot since losing the strawweight championship, but there's a strong chance this won't last much longer.
Though Rose Namajunas took the title from her in emphatic fashion and cemented her reign with a hard-fought victory in the rematch, she isn't positioned for a long, dominant stay at the top. She already has three losses on her record from wildly different fighters, and it's easy to wonder how focused she is on her MMA career after a long, self-imposed hiatus.
She returns in May for a fight with the surging Jessica Andrade, a tilt that has disaster written all over it. The hyper-physical Andrade is capable of neutralizing Namajunas' serious physical advantages and putting the kind of withering pressure on her that Carla Esparza did back in 2014. Even if she makes some mistakes along the way, a decision is a strong possibility for the Brazilian.
If Andrade gets the win, Jedrzejczyk is the on-paper top contender at 115 pounds and has all the tools needed to get her belt back.
Men's Flyweight: Henry Cejudo
Henry Cejudo's title reign got off on the wrong foot when the belt was basically stolen from Demetrious Johnson, but Cejudo embarrassed bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw last week. Questions about the future of the flyweight division still linger, but regardless, Cejudo is poised to be its final champion.
If he moves up to 135 pounds, the UFC will keep the division around in order to once again bill Dillashaw vs. Cejudo as a "champion vs. champion" fight. If he stays at 125 pounds? Well, nobody is particularly well-equipped to handle his rapidly evolving striking and gold-medal-winning wrestling.
The only serious threat to his reign in 2019 is the UFC closing down the division before the calendar runs out. Otherwise? He'll be wearing gold 12 months from now.
Women's Flyweight: Valentina Shevchenko
Valentina Shevchenko finally got herself a big, gold belt in 2018 when she bested Joanna Jedrzejczyk to become the flyweight champion, and she isn't going to lose it anytime soon.
Though she competes in a division of young up-and-comers and middling veterans, Shevchenko is a proven talent in her athletic prime. Her work in the bantamweight division suggests she is capable of thrashing any of the current crop of contenders, and there are no fast-rising prospects who look to prove a serious threat.
The only concern is that Shevchenko has not yet faced an especially formidable grinder. That cracks the door open, just a little, for somebody like Nicco Montano or Liz Carmouche (who actually beat Shevchenko back in the day). Odds are, though, Shevchenko is a Fighter of the Year contender come year's end.
Men's Bantamweight: TJ Dillashaw
TJ Dillashaw looked the fool at UFC on ESPN+. He looked even worse when he essentially threw a tantrum during the post-fight press conference. Still, he is the UFC bantamweight champion, and odds are that the belt stays put with him, in large part thanks to logistics.
His loss to Henry Cejudo, at least in this writer's mind, can largely be chalked up to Dillashaw's brutal cut down to 125 pounds. Dillashaw actually seems more bullish on the idea of a rematch at flyweight, and if that happens, the belt stays with him regardless of the outcome. If the rematch happens at 135 pounds? Dillashaw stands as the clear favorite.
A rematch with Cejudo would eat up most of 2019; from there, he'd only have to defend the belt once to hold onto it through the end of the year.
Dillashaw does have some stiff challengers ahead of him in Marlon Moraes and Raphael Assuncao. Both men are real threats to Dillashaw, but the Snake in the Grass is still an exceptional talent. While he may or may not be able to hold onto the belt for an extended length of time, it's hard to imagine his reign ending with only one title defense.
Women's Bantamweight: Amanda Nunes
Can anybody even realistically challenge Amanda Nunes for the women's bantamweight title? If so, who?
The official UFC rankings, as of this writing, list Germaine de Randamie, Holly Holm and Ketlen Vieira as the top three contenders for the title, but it's hard to imagine any of them taking a win off Nunes. Nunes technically has losses on her record from Cat Zingano and Alexis Davis, but Zingano is 1-4 since that victory, while Davis is fighting at flyweight, so neither is in the running for a crack at her. Precedent suggests the greatest threat to beat her is Valentina Shevchenko, but it's unlikely the UFC would book them for a third fight.
Nunes' title reign is clear sailing through calm waters at the moment. Aspen Ladd is looming large just over the horizon, though...
Men's Featherweight: Max Holloway
There were some serious concerns about Max Holloway's staying power at 145 pounds last year. Back-to-back-to-back withdrawals at UFC 222, 223 and 226 suggested the cutdown to the featherweight division was no longer agreeing with him physically.
That turned on a dime at UFC 231, when he utterly demolished Brian Ortega.
Ortega would have been viewed as a serious challenge to Holloway at any point during his reign, but many were picking him to best the seemingly wounded champ. Instead, Holloway posted what might be the single best performance of his career by thrashing Ortega for 20 minutes, prompting a rare doctor stoppage between rounds.
With that, his longevity at 145 pounds and his status as one of the pound-for-pound best fighters in the sport was renewed.
There are interesting challenges out there in Renato Moicano, Alexander Volkanovski and Frankie Edgar. Ultimately, though, Holloway feels pretty much untouchable at this point.
Women's Featherweight: None
It's no secret the UFC women's featherweight division was, essentially, slapped together in order to host Cris Cyborg. It's also no secret that despite her relative popularity, she has never really gotten along with UFC brass.
Dana White could hardly contain his glee when discussing Cyborg's loss to Amanda Nunes at the UFC 232 post-fight press conference and dismissed the notion of an immediate rematch against Nunes. Nunes, meanwhile, seems completely disinterested in a rematch. Topping all that off is the fact that Cyborg's UFC contract is reportedly nearing its end.
The UFC isn't going to give Cyborg the chance to get her belt back without signing a long-term contract extension, and odds are the company won't be willing to pony up enough cash to keep her.
Cyborg has done a great job of getting her name out there across the entire combat sports world, and there are plenty of opportunities for her in boxing, kickboxing, pro wrestling and MMA. The UFC is stingy to a fault and would likely rather let Cyborg walk than pay her what she could make as a freelancer.
Lightweight: Khabib Nurmagomedov
Odds are that Khabib Nurmagomedov won't rack up many title defenses. That isn't because he's not good; the lightweight division is just too jam-packed with talent to expect anyone to face elite competition and rack up any kind of streak.
Still, Nurmagomedov is going to exit 2019 as the UFC lightweight champion in large part because there is a strong chance he doesn't fight by year's end.
Ramadan will keep him out through June, and Nurmagomedov is still lined up for a decent suspension from the Nevada State Athletic Commission for starting a brawl following his win over Conor McGregor at UFC 229. Add to that the simple fact that the UFC is willing to put him on ice for an indefinite length of time in order to force his hand in contract negotiations, and you have all the makings for an extended layoff.
Oh, and he could always get injured and take a year off. Nurmagomedov still has a tendency to do that.
If he does fight in 2019, odds are he only fights once, which is a manageable task for him.
Welterweight: Tyron Woodley
Tyron Woodley is easily the most underrated fighter in MMA today. He has the wrestling, the grappling, the striking, the savvy and the pure physicality to take on any and all comers, and he looks and fights like somebody much younger than 36 years old.
Granted, Father Time can move slow and then hit fighters all at once (see: former welterweight champ Johny Hendricks), but at this moment? It doesn't feel like anybody can take that belt from him.
Woodley is currently set to face Kamaru Usman at UFC 235. From there? He'll likely fight once more later this year against Colby Covington or Santiago Ponzinibbio, neither of whom stand much of an on-paper chance against him.
Middleweight: Israel Adesanya
Israel Adesanya is one of the most intriguing talents seen in MMA in years, and he has already established himself as a top-notch talent at 185 pounds. He's positioned to challenge for the title with a win over Anderson Silva at UFC 234, and from there, he will take on the winner of the main event between champion Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum.
Though Adesanya is still relatively unproven, he stands as a stylistic nightmare for both men. His wins over Brad Tavares and Derek Brunson suggest he has the savvy and wrestling defense to keep the fight at a manageable distance, and from there, his elite-level kickboxing will let him piece up either man.
Granted, a lot of this is theoretical. There is limited data when it comes to Adesanya, and plenty of other "next big thing" fighters have fizzled over the years. Still, the clarity of his future and the juiciness of these matchups make him a strong candidate for this category.
Light Heavyweight: Jon Jones
Jon Jones is back, and unsurprisingly, he's still amazing at MMA. He bested Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232 to reclaim the UFC light heavyweight title, and there's no reason to think he's going to drop it anytime soon.
The first title defense in this latest reign will come opposite Anthony Smith at UFC 235, and that is all but a slam dunk for the champ. Past that, there aren't really any candidates who could fare any better.
Expect Jones to keep his belt and have little trouble doing so.
Heavyweight: Jon Jones
As stated, Jon Jones is going to have little trouble holding on to the UFC light heavyweight title. Still, while the safest fights for him are at 205 pounds, the biggest are at heavyweight.
The biggest fight available to Jones right now, by more than a mile, is with Brock Lesnar. Next to that would be a three-match with heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. After? Probably a fight with Stipe Miocic.
Though there is certainly appeal in the idea of Jones staying at 205 pounds and just racking up victories, this is still the prize-fighting business. Fans can expect the UFC to make the biggest fights possible, and Jones to win those fights. That should organically lead Jones to the heavyweight title and, in all likelihood, culminate in his becoming the next UFC champ-champ.