Gane’s polish belies his relative lack of experience in MMA. The undefeated Frenchman had a breakthrough in 2021, beating Jairzinho Rozenstruik and Alexander Volkov in back-to-back decisions, then fending off Derrick Lewis with punches to win the interim heavyweight crown in the UFC main event 265 on August 7. However, Gane has yet to pass his final exam. The 31-year-old will stake his perfect 10-0 record with undisputed champion Francis Ngannou on January 22, as their five-round unification fight makes headlines for UFC 270 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, in California.
The burgeoning Czech was seen as a potential candidate the minute he signed with the UFC, and he’s only improved his stock ever since. Easily one of the most entertaining fighters on the roster, regardless of weight, Prochazka delivered sensational finishes against Volkan Oezdemir and Dominick Reyes – the latter was a “Knockout of the Year” nominee – in his two revealing appearances in the Octagon and now finds himself on a career-best 12-game winning streak. Considered next on the list of outgoing 205-pound champion Glover Teixeira, the 29-year-old carries violent tendencies in his DNA.
Israel Adesanya remains virtually untouchable at 185 pounds, and as a UFC 271 rematch with well-regarded former champion Robert Whittaker looms, most expect “The Last Stylebender” to break through that hurdle with room to spare. What’s next for the reigning middleweight titleholder? Perhaps a showdown with Jared Cannonier, provided “The Killa Gorilla” can overtake rejuvenated Derek Brunson at UFC 271. Adesanya would be heavily favored against Cannonier in a couple that wouldn’t move the interest needle much. public. The UFC could also think outside the box and look to another dominant champion in a lower weight class. Would an opportunity to become a rare two-division simultaneous title holder pique Usman’s interest enough to leave his familiar haunts at 170 pounds?
Usman has made his home as the pound-for-pound king of the sport, and he’s found accommodation to his liking. Nominated for ‘Fighter of the Year’ in 2021, Usman turned down former Sanford MMA teammate Gilbert Burns, created a brilliant knockout of Jorge Masvidal, then improved to 2-0 in his head-to-head streak with archnemesis Colby Covington, as he claimed a five-round unanimous decision in their UFC 268 rematch. Now widely recognized as the sport’s most dominant champion, he will enter his first assignment in 2022 on a 19-game winning streak. Usman’s most urgent challenges at 170 pounds are expected to come from Leon Edwards and Vicente Luque, with the undefeated Khamzat Chimaev perhaps lurking in the distance.
Khabib Nurmagomedov’s protégé appears to have gone from a top prospect to a fully trained contender. His 2021 campaign was something to see, as he submitted back-to-back bids against Drew Dober, Thiago Moises and Dan Hooker to climb into the Top 5 at 155 pounds. Once a popular name to dodge, Makhachev has made himself impossible to ignore in the lightweight division. He will lead a nine-game winning streak and his 21-1 record in a high-stakes UFC Fight Night showdown with Beneil Dariush on February 26. With another win there, Makhachev would secure a title opportunity in one of the UFC’s deepest weight classes.
Holloway has arrived at a career-defining crossroads, as he prepares to meet defending featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski for the third time – Volkanovski holds a 2-0 record against him – in the main event of UFC 272 on March 5. Since his last encounter with the Australian dynamo resulted in a split decision loss, Holloway has looked better than ever in scoring masterful back-to-back wins over Calvin Kattar. In those two appearances, the Hawaiian landed 675 important strikes, a UFC record in a single fight, 445 against Kattar in Sherdog’s “Beatdown of the Year” in 2021. Legacy perspective , Holloway can hardly afford a third loss to Volkanovsky. Expect nothing less than an absolute barn burner.
He wields a ferocity few others can match, and Yan will have the chance to reclaim the undisputed bantamweight title when he takes on Aljamain Sterling in the UFC 272 co-feature on March 12. Their first meeting ended disappointingly 10 months ago when Yan was disqualified after connecting with an obviously illegal knee in the fourth round. The setback ended a 10-game winning streak for the Russian and increased the animosity that existed between the two participants. With Sterling on the set due to injury, Yan went on to win the interim 135-pound championship at UFC 267, where he beat Cory Sandhagen in five rounds on October 30. Their fight for unification offers a lot of intrigue.
Moreno flourished on the big stage, and the Entram Gym star reached the peak of his profession when he subdued Deiveson Figueiredo with a choke in the back in the second round of their UFC 263 rematch in June and clinched gold at 125 pounds. In doing so, he became the first Mexican-born champion in UFC history. The two rivals will complete their trilogy at UFC 270, where they meet for the third time on January 22, with the fate of the flyweight title on the line. The outcome could potentially dictate the course of the rest of Moreno’s career. Talent and youth are on the 28-year-old’s side, but persistence can be a difficult trait for any champion to find.
Featherweight Women: Amanda Nunes
The “lioness” still has a championship belt that she can put on her shoulder. Nunes suffered her first loss in over seven years when she subjected herself to a rear-end choke from Julianna Pena and ceded the women’s bantamweight crown to the winner of “The Ultimate Fighter 18” in the second round of their main co-event UFC 269 on Dec. 11. The staggering upheaval sent shockwaves through the world of MMA. It remains to be seen where Nunes will turn, though most expect an immediate rematch with “The Venezuelan Vixen” in an effort to reclaim the lost gold. She could also choose to simply forgo the 135-pound weight reduction and defend the featherweight title instead, especially if the UFC can draw two-time Professional Fighters League champion Kayla Harrison into free agency. Either way, it’s shaping up to be an interesting year for Nunes.
Nunes’ aforementioned upset by Pena sets the stage for ‘Bullet’ to once again attempt to become a historic two-division champion. Shevchenko had lost to Nunes twice already, putting an obvious barrier between her and the bantamweight belt for as long as the Brazilian was in power. That barrier has now been lifted, at least for the time being. If Pena manages to fend off Nunes a second time in an expected rematch, it could create a scenario in which Shevchenko jumps into the weight class again. The fact that she holds a previous victory over Pena – she sent it with an armband in 2017 – only increases the possibility of such a move.
It’s been evident for some time that Shevchenko, a matchmaker’s worst nightmare right now, has no equal at 125 pounds. She holds wins over five of the current Top 10 ranked women in the flyweight division: Jessica Andrade, Katlyn Chookagian, Lauren Murphy, Jennifer Maia and Jessica Eye. Only Maia was at competitive distance against her. From the current crop of contenders, Taila Santos appears to have the inside track on a title shot. The 28-year-old Brazilian rose to 19-1 at UFC Fight Night 198, where she subdued Joanne Wood with a choke in the back in their duo’s first round on November 20. Santos comes up with a new challenge, but she would almost certainly get into the cage against Shevchenko as a prohibitive underdog.
“Thug Rose” ran her business and established herself at the top of the 115-pound class on November 6, when she retained the undisputed strawweight title with a split decision over former champion Weili Zhang in their UFC rematch 268. Namajunas edged the Chinese star in the second, fourth and fifth rounds, excelled in all phases and managed to rack up seven minutes of testing time despite five losses in the 25-minute affair. Her road doesn’t appear to be any easier, as several viable suitors – including Carla Esparza, Marina Rodriguez, Xiaonan Yan and Mackenzie Dern – populate the line that has formed behind her. Namajunas’ first title defense in 2022 could come against Esparza, a woman responsible for one of her four career losses.