B/R Staff Roundtable: Bold UFC Predictions for 2022
We're right in the middle of that strange period between New Year's Eve and the UFC's first event of the new calendar when the entire MMA industry grinds to a halt. Everything is slow and simple and nothing hurts.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
The UFC will return to our screens on Saturday, January 15, and will likely not slow down until this time next year. The promotion will produce dozens of events and hundreds of fights before then. Divisions will change completely. Established champions will fall. Hopeful contenders will have their dreams dashed. New stars will burst into existence. Legends will fade. There will be scandals. There will be scares. And by the time this year is over, we'll have witnessed a long list of shake-ups, shuffles and upsets that would be labelled impossible if they were forecasted now.
But that's just what the B/R combat sports team is here to do today. We've come together, as we do at the beginning of each new year, to gamble with our credibility and make the boldest UFC predictions we can for the coming year.
If we're wrong, feel free to laugh us out of town. Our bags are already packed. If we're right? Well, we told you so.
Valentina Shevchenko Suffers the Same Fate as Amanda Nunes
Tom Taylor: Valentina Shevchenko has been phenomenal since she captured the vacant UFC flyweight title with a decision win over strawweight legend Joanna Jedrzejczyk in 2018, rattling off title defenses against Jessica Eye, Liz Carmouche, Kaitlyn Chookagian, Jennifer Maia, Jessica Andrade and Lauren Murphy. Those impressive victories have given the 33-year-old Kyrgyzstani champion an aura of invincibility.
But nobody is invincible.
We got an emphatic reminder of that fact at UFC 269 last month, when Amanda Nunes, the long-reining UFC featherweight and bantamweight champion, was submitted by Julianna Pena. Prior to that stunning upset, Nunes looked even more untouchable than Shevchenko—in part because she holds two decision wins over the Kyrgyzstani star. By the time the fight was over, she looked as mortal as the rest of us.
I have a hunch Shevchenko will also crash back down to earth soon. I can't say who will beat her, but rising flyweights like Taila Santos, Alexa Grasso, Manon Fiorot, Casey O'Neill and Erin Blanchfield, all but the latter of whom are already ranked inside the division's top 15, all seem to have a decent shot. And of course, Pena proved that even unheralded veterans are capable of dethroning champions with the right game plan. So don't ignore the flyweight division's older fighters when scanning the field for potential Shevchenko foils.
Between the influx of new talent at flyweight and Pena's loud reminder that no champion is safe, it just feels like the stars are aligning for an almost unfathomable Shevchenko L.
My crystal ball says it happens before this year is out.
Conor McGregor Jumps the Line at Lightweight—And Takes a Beating
Scott Harris: If you don't believe in Charles Oliveira by now, you may be beyond all hope. Firmly ensconced as the king of the UFC's most potent division after his third-round submission of Dustin Poirier in December, Oliveira is now primed and ready to take on all comers.
The lightweight division has a glut of contenders—a good problem to have if you're a fight fan. The top contender on paper is super-brawler Justin Gaethje, who's fresh off waging and winning the best UFC fight of 2021. None other than UFC Prez Dana White has called Gaethje the division's top contender.
But the laws of MMA physics don't apply to Conor McGregor.
In one breath, White touts Gaethje for the shot. In another, he leaves the door open for McGregor to move to the front of the line when he returns this spring or summer. Oliveira himself has expressed a desire to face McGregor.
McGregor is not a bona fide contender in the eyes of any impartial observer, not after his left leg disintegrated on him in his rematch with Poirier back in July. That was his third loss in his last four contests, which were spread out over three years. But that's immaterial. McGregor doesn't need to be a contender. He just needs to continue to be the golden goose that he will always be.
McGregor will get the shot, but he will pay a stiff penalty for the privilege. Namely, he will lose. Oliveira has too many ways to win, including on the ground. He's patient, heavy-chinned and too smart a fighter to get sucked into a striking battle in the early going, when McGregor is most dangerous.
Gaethje may deserve the shot, but to quote Clint Eastwood, deserve's got nothing to do with it. As long as the McGregor slot machine keeps paying off, people are going to keep pulling the lever.
Khamzat Chimaev Smashes His Way to Welterweight Gold
Lyle Fitzsimmons: I'm told that fortune favors the brave.
I can't recall whether I learned that while being force-fed great literature as a high schooler in the '80s or if it's simply residue from Matt Damon's shilling for cryptocurrency during recent NFL games.
But either way, the sentiment holds.
So, following in the prognosticative footsteps of my learned colleagues dropping names like McGregor and Shevchenko, we'll use this space to ring up a couple of high-profile UFC'ers as well.
Namely, Kamaru Usman and Khamzat Chimaev.
Usman, for those unaware, is not only the promotion's reigning welterweight champion but also its flag-waver atop the pound-for-pound mountain. As for Chimaev, he's a Russian-born, Sweden-based chatterbox who's marauded his way through a pair of divisions since debuting 18 months ago.
His latest victory, a 196-second finish of Li Jinglaing—who'd been stopped exactly once, six years ago, in a career that began in 2007—moved Chimaev to No. 11 at 170 pounds, and his trajectory will only improve if he lands and wins a fight against the willing likes of Colby Covington, who's currently ranked No. 1.
But just toppling "Chaos" alone isn't the stuff of Damon's exhortations.
So we'll see that victory and raise it, suggesting that Chimaev not only gets the title shot he's been craving against Usman by year's end, but wins it.
Yes, wins it.
While no reasonable argument challenging Usman's credibility can be made, what I'm suggesting here is that Chimaev, at 6'2" and 170 pounds, is simply a different, and impossibly versatile, threat.
He uses freestyle wrestling to take foes down and is adept at immobilizing their legs before dishing out ground-and-pound or going for the type of submission (rear-naked choke, for example) that he notched against Jinglaing. Or, if the mood strikes him, striking works, too. Durable veteran Gerald Meerschaert went that route and was dispatched in 17 seconds by punches—as were four of six pre-UFC opponents, including former combat sambo world champion Ikram Aliskerov.
Usman claims to be the man. And he's proven so across six UFC title fights.
Chimaev, though, is just a little more man than him.