Ah, here we are. Finally, at last, the dismal year of Azrael 2020 has ended. Among some highlights of what was the worst year in most of our lifetimes was a global pandemic that forced us all inside, a presidential election that, somehow, still doesn’t feel over, and perhaps worst of all, apparently a Dana White sex tape exists. Yikes.
But, this is an MMA website. Sometimes, I forget that I even work here, because the end of 2020 was just… something else. But in the spirit of my evermore sparse writing schedule, I figured I ring in 2021 the best way I know how to: prognostication. Because who better to project ahead with MMA predictions than the self-proclaimed undisputed greatest MMA prognosticator in the world? Of course, all of these predictions will definitely come true, it’s just a matter of whether or not the fighters do what I proclaim they will. Got it? Terrific. Let’s begin.
Heavyweight Champion: Francis Ngannou
This one is really a matter of how soon Francis decides to return after he knocks Stipe Miocic’s head clean off his shoulders come springtime. At this very moment, I don’t think anyone at heavyweight can beat Francis Ngannou. Key words being “at this moment.” If Ngannou returns before the end of 2021, and fights his nightmare matchup- the prohibitive top contender Jon Jones- then it’s very feasible that he, not Francis, is on top of the heavyweight totem pole come New Year’s Eve. And even then, if Jon beats Francis in the late summer/early autumn period, he may return and fight Stipe (if he isn’t retired, which I believe he will be), who I think beats Jon. The top of heavyweight is wild, and a division that’s always been known for its advanced age amongst contenders, it’s certainly getting younger each year, something the division has needed for a long time.
Rising Star: Ciryl Gane
To piggyback off of the last point, newer, younger heavyweight contenders are emerging each year, and the argument could be made there hasn’t been one to emerge as talented as Ciryl Gane since perhaps his teammate, Francis Ngannou. After an injury-plagued 2020, Gane finally made his yearly debut last December when he viciously finished Junior Dos Santos at UFC 256. Gane enters 2021, realistically, about a fight or two away from a title shot. Keep in mind he has a grand total of eight fights in his entire mixed martial arts career to this point, but even the UFC brass can see just how special this French Adonis could be.
Biggest Question: How does Jon Jones fare?
I mean, this had to be obvious, right? Just by announcing his move into the heavyweight division, Jon Jones instantly became the fight at heavyweight. It’s the main reason why fans expect him, by default, to fight for the title right out of the gate. And if he does manage to wrest the belt from either Miocic or Ngannou (it will be Ngannou, see above), will that be enough to put the entire GOAT conversation to rest? Or, on the flipside, if he loses, what happens then? Does he retire? Does he go back down to 205 and tangle with Adesanya? The narratives surrounding Jones are some of the many things that have reinvigorated excitement in the heavyweight division.
Light Heavyweight Champion: Israel Adesanya
We already know the title picture at 205. Jan Blachowicz is making the first defense of his title against middleweight champion Israel Adesanya in March. And allow me to go on record, in January, as saying Adesanya will win. Comfortably. The only real question surrounding whether or not Adesanya holds this belt is whether or not he decides to make this a one-off and returns to middleweight to run roughshod over a series of favorable matchups that await him there. There is also, of course, the Jon Jones conundrum, but even if Jon does falter at heavyweight and returns to 205, my best guess is that we wouldn’t see it until spring 2022, at the earliest. To give a sense of how good Adesanya is, I already see him dominating light heavyweight the same way Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier did for almost a decade. Glover Teixeira presents an interesting matchup given his size, grappling acumen, and old man toughness, but unless he catches Adesanya on an off night, I can’t see him capturing the belt off him.
Rising Star: Jiri Prochazka
Amazing that he’s only had one UFC appearance and everyone, myself included, already sees Jiri as something of a specimen that has our mouths watering at the prospect of an inevitable title meeting with Israel Adesanya at some point in the near future. Prochazka has a matchup with former light heavyweight champion Dominick Reyes (yeah, I said it) in February that will determine just how serious a contender Prochazka is or could be in 2021.
Biggest Question: Who Will Emerge as the Most Serious Contender?
This is an interesting question for a multitude of reasons. The light heavyweight top 5 has been tumultuous over the last few years, and for the first time ever, there isn’t a proverbial supervillain looming atop the division. At least, not yet. Even if Adesanya pulls off the win over Blachowicz, that win likely won’t immediately christen him as the same dominant force that his two most recent predecessors were. Therefore, the idea of “who’s next” creates for a more existential storyline than it did while Jones was atop the mountain. As aforementioned, Jiri Prochazka is already a fan favorite who could instantly be propelled into title considerations with a dominant win over Dominick Reyes. Aleksandar Rakic is another fast riser who will have his chance to keep his momentum rolling when he faces off with Thiago Santos in March, on the Blachowicz-Adesanya card. Light heavyweight will likeley be one of the primary divisions of focus in the early part of 2021.
Middleweight Champion: Robert Whittaker
Assuming Israel Adesanya beats Jan Blachowicz (he will) and defends his newly-minted light heavyweight belt as opposed to returning to middleweight, my best guess is the new middleweight champion will be the de facto second best middleweight on planet Earth, one Mr. Robert Whittaker. Without Adesanya in the way, Whittaker should run roughshod over the division, matching up well with all immediate title threats. A situation that could be imminent is an interim title fight, presumably featuring Whittaker against the likes of someone such as Paulo Costa or Marvin Vettori. A dark horse in this scenario could be Kevin Holland, who faces middleweight gatekeeper Derek Brunson in March. If Holland gets past Brunson, his brash and outspoken style could fast track him to a matchup with the elite of the division much more quickly than originally thought. Nonetheless, December 31st, 2021, again assuming Adesanya doesn’t come back down, Whittaker will be the guy at middleweight.
Rising Star: Kevin Holland
As mentioned above, nobody made more noise at 185 in 2020 than Kevin Holland. Holland went from being a promising up-and-comer to full-blown contender on the brink of a title fight, punctuated by becoming somewhat of a cult favorite amongst the hardest of MMA fans. Constituted, however, with good reason, as Holland now finds himself on the brink of some huge paydays against top flight middleweight staples. Assuming Holland gets past Brunson in March, look out. He could very well jump the line at 185.
Biggest Question: If Adesanya’s Gone, What Now?
As unfortunate as it may be, there had not been a true star to emerge in the middleweight division prior to Adesanya since Anderson Silva during his dominant reign. So the question becomes, who can keep the division in the spotlight if he’s gone? The easy answer would be Robert Whittaker, being a former champion and a favorite amongst the hardcore fanbase, but even then, Whittaker wasn’t a particularly “big star” when he was champion, and that was AFTER two amazing fights against Yoel Romero. Another possiblity, and I realize I’ve now invoked his name numerous times, is Kevin Holland. Holland has that bravado, the attitude, and most importantly the style that drives interest and popularity. As I mentioned above, if Holland gets past Derek Brunson, get ready for a serious blowup of stardom for the Fort Worth native.
Welterweight Champion: Kamaru Usman
The first installation of a current champ retaining at his own weight class happens to be the now-champion. Usman is in an interesting position being the most dominant champion in what is considered to be one of, if not the, best divisions in the sport right now. Usman already holds wins over three of the top five contenders in the class, and barring a loss to Gilbert Burns in February, is slated to continue to make his push towards being the greatest welterweight of all-time (a couple more defenses put him in GSP’s class). After the Burns fight, the logical next step would be the winner of March’s Leon Edwards-Khamzat Chimaev fight, or the winner of the yet-to-be-booked-but-forever-rumored grudge match between Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal. Either way, it’s Usman’s belt to lose.
Rising Star: Khamzat Chimaev
I really, really hesitate to put Chimaev here– not because he isn’t talented because he clearly is, but because he’s so unproven at the highest level. Chimaev has one win at welterweight, against Rhys McKee who’s 0-2 in the UFC. His most impressive win thus far has been against middleweight journeyman Gerald Meerschaert. Nonetheless, Chimaev has unsurprisingly drawn comparisons to Khabib Nurmagomedov due to his aggressive grappling styles in which he pursues mount and back control above all else. Topped off with the fact he clearly carries power as evidenced by the Meerschaert knockout, and you have a ripe candidate for a rising, perhaps soon-to-be-mainstream star. If he does find a way to beat a seasoned contender like Leon Edwards in his next bout, be ready to see him challenge the Usman-Burns winner very soon thereafter.
Biggest Question: Will any of these Huge Rumored Fights Happen?
Welterweight is relatively easy to figure out. The only question regarding what comes next at welterweight is will the fights the fans truly want actually end up happening. Will we finally get Covington-Masvidal? Will we finally get Edwards-Chimaev, which is bordering on Khabib-Ferguson levels of annoyance regarding the number of times its been postponed? At least Usman-Burns is happening soon, and that, in my opinion, will establish the most dominant welterweight in the UFC indisputably.
Lightweight Champion: Conor McGregor
Yes, you read that right. The guy who is undoubtedly the biggest Conor critic on this website is anointing him the champion come New Year’s Eve. Why? Because after enough analysis, it’s seemingly clear to me he’s in the best position to once again reign supreme over the division he once captured in a dominant way when he outclassed Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205. Unlike some of the others on this list, there are legitimate names that could push McGregor in ways we’ve only seen a limited number of times. He first faces Dustin Poirier on the UFC’s first pay-per-view of 2021, UFC 257. I see Poirier having a decent shot in that fight, but my inclination is that McGregor will have his way with Poirier once again. Another name being floated is Charles Oliveira, who just dominated Tony Ferguson in a way we had not seen him beaten before. And make no mistake, given Oliveira’s unorthodox style and incredible ground acumen, a matchup with McGregor (which I see unlikely as occurring, in 2021 at least) could very well be the nightmare matchup McGregor is looking to avoid after recapturing the belt vacated by his arch rival.
Rising Star: Islam Makhachev
A bit of a curveball, perhaps, but given Khabib’s newfound absence from the division, Abdulmanap’s younger protégé is now on the forefront of Dagestan’s lightweight profile. Makhachev gets a matchup with Drew Dober in March that will prove to be his first against a powerful knockout artist with outstanding takedown defense. If Makhachev can pass that test, he will be in prime position to take on one of the lightweight’s top 7 elite, perhaps a revisiting of his matchup with Rafael dos Anjos? Regardless, Makhachev now carries the pride of Dagestan in the lightweight division, which by default puts him in prime real estate if he continues his current run.
Biggest Question: Will the New Champion be Stuck in Khabib’s Shadow?
This is a very complex question that can only be answered in time. Losing a figure like Khabib, not only because of his dominance as a champion but also because of his aura as one of the sport’s most enigmatic figures, can lead to another situation we saw at light heavyweight during Daniel Cormier’s reign, i.e. delegitimizing him as a champion because he never beat Jon Jones. Will the new champion, whoever that will be, be able to overcome that? My best bet is that the only one who can or will do so is McGregor, simply due to his massive superstardom and charisma in his own right. Would someone like Poirier, Gaethje, or Oliveira be able to accomplish the same? I highly doubt it.
Featherweight Champion: Alexander Volkanovski
Perhaps no surprise to those of you familiar with my work and opinions on the featherweight division, but Volkanovski seems to me the best featherweight, far and away, in the UFC at present moment. Many people still have a sour taste in their mouths over the controversial decision in the most recent fight with Max Holloway to appreciate the absolute technical mastery that Volkanovski brings into the Octagon every time he fights. Interestingly enough, I don’t truly believe he is unstoppable; I think Max Holloway could beat him if they fought a third time (I’ll get to that momentarily), but given the trajectory of how the division looks at the moment, as well as Volkonovski’s take on the matter of a third Holloway fight, it’s hard to see the Australian losing the belt in 2021.
Rising Star: Arnold Allen
I bet everyone was thinking I’d go in the direction of someone like Calvin Kattar (whom I love) or Sodiq Yusuff (also a great up and comer), but Arnold Allen is truly an unsung star at featherweight, getting overlooked despite his long lasting top 15 ranking. Allen suffered an injury-shortened and pandemic-limiting 2020, but coming into 2021, Allen is poised to jump into contendership with a win quickly into the year. The downside for Allen is that he doesn’t matchup particularly well with most of the top 6 at 145, but then again, very few do. Nevertheless, keep an eye on the Brit in 2021.
Biggest Question: Volkanovski vs. Holloway 3?
Some want it, many don’t, I’m in the group that doesn’t. The argument for it is obviously the razor thin margin of the last one, but once again this comes back to my argument as to why I loathe immediate rematches in most cases. My issue with this fight occurring again in 2021 seems relatively obvious but also seems to get overlooked frequently, and that is the prospects of a Holloway victory. If Holloway wins the third match, do we now have to do a fourth one? Since Volkonvski’s ahead 2-1, it’d only be fair, right? Except no, that’s not what would happen. What we’d get would be the same B.S. justification Dana White gave to give Jose Aldo a title shot off a loss, which is, “Everyone thought Aldo won, so we’re giving him the shot.” Now, replace the name Aldo with Holloway, and there you have it. Volkonvski gets screwed because of the opinion of a man who, ultimately, doesn’t determine the outcomes of fights, no matter how much he’d like to. Plus, there’s also the issue of Holloway losing the third fight. He would then have three (!) losses to the champ, and if you thought he was in limbo before, how would Holloway even justify continuing on at 145 at that point? He’d basically be forced to move up to lightweight, where, unless he bulks up dramatically, he’d likely struggle against the top of the weight class, as we’ve seen before. See why I don’t think this is a good idea?
Bantamweight Champion: TJ Dillashaw
Oh, I knew I’d catch you off guard with that one. Yes, TJ Dillashaw. Why? Well, simply put, when his suspension arose, he was on pace to blow past Dominick Cruz as the best bantamweight in UFC history. My guess as to what happens with Dillashaw is, he gets a fight with someone ranked in the 4 to 8 range, someone like Jimmie Rivera or Pedro Munhoz, which he’ll win easily, then get a title shot where I believe he’ll beat Aljamain Sterling, whom I believe beats Petr Yan in March. If we really want to get cute with it, I also think he defends the belt once before year’s end.
Rising Star: Rob Font
Rob Font flew under the radar for years until he knocked out Marlon Moraes in December. Font has quietly been building a rather impressive bantamweight resume before his explosive knockout, and make no mistake, he presents an interesting challenge to everyone in the top tier of the division. Given Dillashaw’s return, as well as Frankie Edgar’s continued upward mobility, there’s a good chance Font continues to be overshadowed in the top flight of the division. But again, doubt him at your own peril.
Biggest Question: Where does Dillashaw fit in?
We’ll have an answer to this one practically as soon as Dillashaw gets his return fight booked. People like me still believe Dillashaw is amongst the elite at bantamweight even after a two year hiatus. While it remains to be seen how the UFC moves forward with Dillashaw (he could jump right into a title fight, which I would disagree with), whatever they do with him will undoubtedly play a role in the immediate bantamweight title picture in 2021.
Flyweight Champion: Deiveson Figueiredo
This one should come as no surprise. Since his two dominating finishes over Joseph Benavidez in the first half of 2020, Figueiredo has undoubtedly put his stamp as the king of the flyweight division. Figueiredo’s coming off of a close draw with a potential new rival Brandon Moreno, preceded by a quick submission win over Alex Perez just a month earlier. Even though flyweight continues to grow and expand on its exemplary talent pool, there is no flyweight contender at the moment (other than maybe Moreno, and even there I have my doubts) who can pose a real threat to Figueiredo not holding onto his belt through the end of the year.
Rising Star: Jimmy Flick
For the first time on this list, the rising star isn’t currently ranked in the top 15 in his division. Jimmy Flick came into the UFC through the Contender Series and had a submission of the year nominee in his first Octagon appearance. Given flyweight’s relatively shallow pool (it’s growing, but it’s still shallow in comparison to their higher divisional counterparts), Flick is probably a fight or two away from meaningful flyweight contention. And he has the style to make every fight of his interesting.
Biggest Question: When will Figueiredo Inevitably Move Up?
This might be a disparaging shot at the flyweight division, but keep in mind I try to maintain practicality when I write these articles. This is simply how the UFC is today. Seldom does it occur when a champion like Anderson Silva or Demetrious Johnson comes around anymore, i.e. one who cares about defenses as opposed to “legacy fights.” And Deiveson Figueiredo has already hinted that he’s interested in a bout with Petr Yan (or whoever the bantamweight champion is) at some point down the line. So I assume a better way to have phrased this question would’ve been when will Figueiredo, the division’s new superstar, move up AND will the division survive the same way it barely did when Cejudo departed? We may not get an answer to that in 2021, but I assume we’ll figure it out sooner rather than later.
Women’s Featherweight Champion: Amanda Nunes
This division is practically non-existent. Nunes is the only UFC caliber fighter in this class in the UFC, and that’s an argument I feel way too comfortable with. At this point, this division exists for the sole purpose of playing the waiting game in regard to both Claressa Shields and Kayla Harrison coming to the UFC and seeing if they have a chance against Nunes. Don’t try to sell me on Megan Anderson or Felicia Spencer being relevant enough to draw intrigue in this division. You’re just lying to yourself if you claim to believe that.
Rising Star: Danyelle Wolf
She has a professional MMA record of 1-0. She’s a rising star because this division is, well, not really a division.
Biggest Question: How Long will this Division Exist?
Like I mentioned above, my guess as to why women’s 145 is still a thing in the UFC is because the company’s holding out to see if Kayla Harrison or, more likely, Claressa Shields will come over and give it a shot of adrenaline (which, if we’re being honest, would be like giving an adrenaline shot to a dead animal). It also exists for the purposes of marketing Nunes as a double champ. So, yeah. Excitement in this division…
Women’s Bantamweight Champion: Amanda Nunes
Nunes will remain champ because it appears she has no intention of returning at the moment; she seems to be preoccupied giving the UFC a bit of justification in keeping a wasteland alive instead of feeding into a division that still has a fragment of life. If Nunes does choose to vacate the belt, Germaine de Randamie and Holly Holm would likely rematch for the vacant belt, in which case, I’d probably roll with de Randamie. But again, Nunes will probably hold onto it for no other reason than it gives the UFC justification to call her a double champ.
Rising Star: Pannie Kianzad
Chances are that unless you’re a massive hardcore like me, you probably didn’t realize that TUF 28 alumnus Pannie Kianzad is actually on a three-fight winning streak, which in this division is a MASSIVE deal. Her last win over Sijara Eubanks was particularly impressive given Sarj’s above average run in 2020 herself. Pannie has been shown to struggle when she takes a bit of a step up in competition, but her recent form may indicate that she’s ready to jump into contention soon in 2021.
Biggest Question: Will Nunes vs. Shevchenko 3 Happen in 2021?
I’ll give my opinions on this one occurring the same way I did earlier referencing Volkanovski and Holloway fighting a third time. Simply put, I don’t see any definitive positive that would come out of it. Nunes has already stamped herself as the GOAT, while Shevchenko has already established herself as the most dominant champion in the UFC today. We’ve also seen Nunes beat Shevchenko both times using the same strategy: clinch work and outmuscling. What’s to indicate anything would be different this time around? Sure, Shevchenko is now a champion in a subpar division (don’t worry, we’re getting to women’s flyweight in a minute) and has looked unstoppable. But… so has Nunes, in two weight classes albeit one without any meaningful competition. Regardless, since their most recent meeting in September 2017 at UFC 215, some of the names Nunes has beaten include Cris Cyborg, Holly Holm (both by knockout), Germaine de Randamie, and Felicia Spencer (both by dominating decision). Some of the names Valentina’s beaten include Joanna Jedrzejczyk (at flyweight, good not great), and… um… Katlyn Chookagian, I guess? See where I’m going with this? Can we put it to bed already? They’re the two best female fighters of all-time, let’s leave it at that.
Women’s Flyweight Champion: Valentina Shevchenko
Again, no surprises here. Valentina is far and away miles ahead of her nearest competition in this incredibly sorry excuse for a weight class. No, I shouldn’t say that. There are many talented women in this division, I just don’t know if half of them are really UFC caliber, and I honestly don’t know if I can express the absolute oceanic trench that really does separate Shevchenko from the rest of the weight class. I mean, the gulf in talent is like none other we’ve seen in a UFC division. And notice I said “division”, this isn’t counting the three fighters not named Amanda Nunes at featherweight.
Rising Star: Jennifer Maia
I struggled with this one. I don’t know if you can call someone who just fought for a UFC title a “rising star”, I suppose it’s because she wildly outperformed expectations. I mean, she literally took a round (!) from Shevchenko. If your name isn’t Amanda Nunes, I’ll be damned if you can’t call that impressive. Truthfully, I don’t think she’ll ever beat Shevchenko, nonetheless, taking a round from the UFC’s seemingly most untouchable champion is a feat in and of itself.
Biggest Question: Which Elite Strawweight will Come Down and Challenge Shevchenko Next?
We already know Jessica Andrade is in line for the next title shot, and honestly, Andrade may be Shevchenko’s toughest fight yet, solely because of her toughness, strength, and knockout power. But even then, Shevchenko will probably buzzsaw right through her like she has everyone else. No, I’m talking about two ladies in particular to make the trek up to 125 to potentially challenge Shevchenko in a legitimate way. The first one is the obvious choice, the strawweight champ Zhang Weili. I’ve long thought Zhang had the best chance to beat Shevchenko at 125, but even being the biggest Zhang fan in the world, I’ll be the first to admit she needs a few more convincing title defenses at 115 first. The other is, barring health concerns, Tatiana Suarez, due to her labor intensive, Khabib Nurmagomedov-esque grappling style. Even though there’s nothing indicating Shevchenko wouldn’t roll through them as well, their styles make for intriguing challenges that we have yet to see Shevchenko face from a flyweight thus far.
Women’s Strawweight Champion: Zhang Weili
Ahh, yes. In my opinion, no women’s title will switch hands in 2021. But as much as this pangs me to say, because I love Weili Zhang, this belt undoubtedly has the biggest chance of all the women’s titles of flipping hands in 2021. That’s not an indictment of Zhang’s skills by any stretch, more of a tip of the cap to the shark tank that is women’s 115. Far and away, the top women’s division in the sport. In my personal opinion, a top three division in the sport, behind lightweight and welterweight. I love this division, the champ is routinely the female fighter I follow the most, and the current queen Zhang Weili epitomizes why this division is so great.
Rising Star: Yan Xiaonan
Up there with some of the top fights that can be made in the sport right now is, in my opinion, the potential for an all-Chinese strawweight title fight between Zhang Weili and Yan Xiaonan. Xiaonan is coming off a compelling win over perennial contender Claudia Gadelha, which now primes her potentially in a position for a title fight in her next bout. If not, she’s no more than one away, being ranked third in the incredibly deep strawweight division. Think of her as a quicker Joanna Jedrzejczyk. A fight between she and Weili would be a repeat performance of the show stopper we saw at UFC 248.
Biggest Question: Who does Weili Fight Next?
In what may seem like a very mundane question asking something incredibly direct, it’s worth noting that at the time of this writing, we don’t have an answer to this question, and we’re hearing numerous different names– Rose Namajunas, Carla Esparza, and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. So why is this the biggest question? Because Zhang Weili is on the verge of a superstar breakthrough, and an encore performance of what we saw against Jedrzejczyk would undoubtedly help her get to that point. Believe it or not, whatever the company books next could lead to a domino effect that either makes or breaks its burgeoning Eastern warrior.
So, there you have it. Take it to the bank, bet on it, debate it, have at it what you will. But just remember, if you lose money, don’t blame me. And if you win any, I’m owed 75% plus escrow. Choose wisely.■
Follow Johann on Twitter: @thejohanncastro
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