2020 saw three new UFC champions crowned, with Petr Yan, Deiveison Figueiredo and Jan Blachowicz all claiming gold. Despite just three changes this calendar year, the challengers continued to line up one after the other, proving to be stern and difficult tests.
It would be foolish to try and predict what the sport will look like twelve months from now, but who doesn’t love a trier? Without any further introduction, here is your list of fighters who could be UFC champions by December 31, 2021.
Strawweight (115 pounds)
Current Champion: Weili Zhang
Since Joanna Jedrzejczyk first swarmed the weight class, strawweight has been the premiere destination for women’s mixed martial arts, offering fans a high-level of skill along with multiple fun affairs. At the time of writing, the division has never looked sharper with numerous contenders aiming to earn their crack at the title in 2021.
The 115-pounders gained mass popularity in March when champion Weili Zhang and the aforementioned Joanna Jedrzejczyk went to war for five brutalizing rounds. For many, it stands as the ‘Fight of the Year’, and is undoubtedly the greatest fistfight exchanged between two female fighters. Asides from a FOTY candidate, Rose Namajunas returned to the win column against Jessica Andrade, and the fast-rising Amanda Ribas quickly entered the rankings; it truly was a huge year for the strawweights.
According to multiple sources, Weili Zhang will defend her title against either Rose Namajunas or Carla Esparza, two highly-repsected former champs. Whether she faces Rose, Esparza or both, I see Zhang walking away victorious and retaining her belt.
If the UFC were focused on increasing numbers – as they so often are – a fight between Zhang and fellow Chinese athlete Yan Xiaonan would sell tremendously well. Stylistically speaking, the fight would be terrific, and the fact Xiaonan is ranked #3 increases the likelihood of it happening.
I don’t see Weili Zhang being dethroned in 2021; she will remain a healthy and active champion.
Champion on December 31, 2021: Weili Zhang
Women’s Flyweight (125 pounds)
Current Champion: Valentina Shevchenko
If it wasn’t for featherweight, women’s flyweight would have the title of shallowest division in the UFC.
All jokes aside, the 125-pound division seriously lacks any depth or consistency, with the majority of its top 10 lacking skill in contrast to strawweight or bantamweight. Not much can be said on its current crop of contenders: Kaitlyn Chookagian was wiped out in her title effort last year and Jennifer Maia was recently defeated by Shevchenko. Only one clear cut challenger remains – Jessica Andrade.
Andrade moved up to flyweight following a two-fight skid 10-pounds south, where she needed only one round to dispatch of Chookagian and place herself in the top 3. Mere minutes after the win, fans were lining her up alongside Shevchenko; her reputation and fan-friendly style could be enough to earn her a fight with the champ. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on the two clashing horns within the first half of 2021 – that is if injuries don’t throw a spanner in the works.
If something were to spoil a fight between the two, 37-year-old Lauren Murphy would be next to fill the void. Riding a four-fight win streak, Murphy has been calling for a shot at Shevchenko for months now but has yet to beat someone of notoriety. This, however, is partly down to the weight class lacking notable figures.
Unless a superfight with either Zhang or Nunes is booked in the upcoming year, the thought of Valentina Shevchenko losing is unfathomable. Expect her to defend her title at least twice, but remain in the pole position at all times.
Champion on December 31, 2021: Valentina Shevchenko
Women’s Bantamweight (135 pounds)
Current Champion: Amanda Nunes
The longtime home of women’s MMA GOAT Amanda Nunes, bantamweight has featured many skilled athletes in recent years, with 2020 being no different.
Following a unanimous decision loss to Nunes late last year, perennial contender Germaine De Randamie got back to winning ways with a submission effort over Julianna Pena. This placed the Dutch kickboxer at #1 in spite of only having one recent win.
As has been the case for five years, Jacksonwink’s Holly Holm has been a key member of the weight classes top 5, currently occupying the number 2 spot. Holm has been collecting momentum in an effort to earn yet another chance at the gold, defeating hard-hitting Irene Aldana in October via a lopsided unanimous decision. While she sits behind De Randamie (one of five women to beat her), she certainly isn’t out of the title picture.
Now, this may seem like a very odd prediction to make, but here it goes: Amanda Nunes will retire in 2021. Yes, you read that correctly.
“The Lioness” is currently scheduled to defend her featherweight belt in March against Megan Anderson, a fight I and many of the sports spectators believe she will win. Succeeding this, she will once more drop to bantamweight to defend that title, only this time it’ll be her last outing.
While news of Nunes’ retirement will shock MMA to its core, the UFC will be quick in their search of a replacement, filling the ever-important role of a champion. Number 1 will meet number 2, as Germaine De Randamie and Holly Holm will square off in a rematch, four years on from their initial encounter. As you can see below, I predict De Randamie to collect another victory over Holm and capture the vacant belt, whether that be late next year or early 2022 (hence why ‘vacant’ is also an option).
Champion on December 31, 2021: Vacant or Germaine De Randamie
Women’s Featherweight (145 pounds)
Current Champion: Amanda Nunes
Women’s featherweight stands as the only division in the UFC not to have a full set of rankings, as it boasts no more than 10 official fighters. Due to this, the weight class will be axed once Amanda Nunes retires.
As this retirement will be a shock to all, UFC President Dana White included, featherweight will finish the year with no official champion. If this turns out to be the case, a rematch between Felicia Spencer and Megan Anderson is the logical next step. But with that being said, I estimate this won’t be in the promotion’s plans, as they will instead opt for a more financially-friendly option – axing the division.
Champion on December 31, 2021: Vacant
Men’s Flyweight (125 pounds)
Current Champion: Deiveson Figueiredo
From the brink of extinction to a booming hotbed of talent, the flyweight division has done nothing but prosper since 2018. When assessing the skill of its top 10, it’s remarkable how many can even string together a win streak due to its overall competitiveness; Kai Kara-France sits at #8, which puts into perspective how stacked 125-pounds presently is.
Reigning king Deiveson Figueiredo competed an incredible four times in 2020, with each outing being a title fight. After back-to-back maulings of longtime contender Joseph Benavidez, Figueiredo met Alex Perez in November, needing less than two minutes to latch on a guillotine and secure the win. Three weeks later he was back, putting on a ‘Fight of the Year’ candidate alongside Brandon Moreno.
2021 will be difficult, and is a year that will truly push the champion. A rematch with Moreno seems likely for the first half of the year and if successful, I’d expect to see Figueiredo back in action by December.
Former RIZIN champion Manel Kape is expected to make his promotional debut against Alexandre Pantoja, while top-ranked grappler Askar Askarov will be seeking to cement his status as no.1 contender against Joseph Benavidez. These two fights will go down before the summer, having big ramifications on the division.
Champion on December 31, 2021: Deiveson Figueiredo
Men’s Bantamweight (135 pounds)
Current Champion: Petr Yan
Arguably the most stacked division in the UFC, bantamweight is a murderers row of contenders vying for an opportunity of their own. Currently held under the grasp of Siberian striker Petr Yan, the division seemingly never grows old, routinely featuring talent year after year. 2020 was no different.
While Petr Yan and featherweight GOAT Jose Aldo battled it out in July to determine a new ruler (a FOTY candidate in its own right), the likes of Aljamain Sterling, Cory Sandhagen and Frankie Edgar made waves. Mixing elders such as Edgar and Aldo with today’s generation worked a treat, making for high-level fights and allowing the old dogs one last championship run.
Assuming you are familiar with bantamweight’s current landscape, little introduction is needed for Sterling and Sandhagen, the two principal challengers. But a few more men have positioned themselves well for potential title implications in the upcoming year.
New England’s Rob Font returned from a year-long absence with a terrific first-round knockout over Marlon Moraes, a man who came close to seizing the title not so long ago. This win shifted Font to #5, setting him up for a big next fight; Cody Garbrandt (#3), Jose Aldo (#6) or even TJ Dillashaw, the former champion set to return from suspension in January, would all make sense.
Despite the line of challenges that await Petr Yan, I remain confident that he will see them through for another 12 months. On paper, Sterling is shaping up to be his stiffest task to date, yet Yan should walk into their eventual meeting as a favorite and away from it with the belt.
Bantamweight really is a division I could discuss for hours, and that’s without mentioning up and coming savages such as Merab Dvalishvili and Song Yadong. 2021 will be a prosperous year for its fighters, with the top 10 shifting dramatically towards the final few months.
Champion on December 31, 2021: Petr Yan