This has been one of my annual columns for ESPN for a while now, and it’s always fun to look back at the previous year’s list to see which prospective fights, if any, came to fruition.
So, before getting into the MMA fights I want to see in 2022, let’s take a look at last year’s list.
My No. 1 pick was Israel Adesanya vs. Jon Jones, which, alas, was never close to reality. Adesanya might have pressed the issue had he defeated Jan Blachowicz to become a double champion back in March, but once he lost that light heavyweight title fight and returned to middleweight, the Adesanya-Jones beef was pretty much dead.
My hope for Rose Namajunas vs. Zhang Weili came through — twice, actually. And I for one would say it lived up to expectations. Namajunas’ “I’m the best, I’m the best” mantra in that first title fight in April stands out as one of the best moments of the entire year.
Another matchup that came to fruition was Bellator’s bantamweight title fight between Patricio “Pitbull” Freire and A.J. McKee — and what a result that one produced. The reason I loved that fight so much was that it had hints of Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor. It was a well-established champion against a brash, dynamic, fast-rising title challenger. It really forced you to take a side. The guy who had been there versus the guy who looked like he belonged there. And just like in Aldo-McGregor, the new guy won in dominant fashion.
Two of my other picks for 2021 — Jorge Masvidal vs. Colby Covington and Dominick Cruz vs. Cory Sandhagen — did not happen this year, but it’s very possible both could happen in 2022. (Spoiler alert: You might even see them on my list again this year.)
Remember, these aren’t necessarily fights I’m predicting will happen. But in a perfect world, I’d love to see them in 2022. Here we go, in order of my preference:
1. Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones
This was No. 3 on my list last year. It jumps to No. 1 for 2022. And as is the case with a lot of these fights, certain things must fall into place for it to happen. Ngannou would have to successfully defend his title against Ciryl Gane on Jan. 22 — which is far from a given — and Jones would have to actually compete at heavyweight, something the longtime light heavyweight champ has teased for a long time but still never done.
The appeal of this is so clear: If Ngannou were to go out and beat Gane with yet another knockout at UFC 270, and Jones were to agree to be his next challenger, this would be my most anticipated fight of the year. The baddest man on the planet against arguably the greatest of all time. That is hard to beat.
2. Kamaru Usman vs. Khamzat Chimaev
I’ve been covering this sport since 2008 and I can’t recall witnessing anything like Chimaev. I mean, this doesn’t happen. Not that long ago, the UFC wasn’t interested in signing this guy because it was unfamiliar with his talent. He didn’t have enough fights. Now he’s one of the biggest hype trains the company has ever seen. And he might just have all the skills necessary to back it up.
If this fight is made, you’d have the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world facing one of the hottest, fastest-rising title contenders we’ve ever seen. It’s a rare combination, and it would captivate the MMA world.
3. Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 3
Dana White discusses the process of securing Nate Diaz his next UFC fight, the final on his current contract.
It’s time, right? Like, for real. The trilogy has been waiting to be completed ever since the second fight ended in 2016 — and honestly, it’s possible that booking this third fight might take a while, maybe forever. But it’s always gonna make sense.
McGregor had two chances to set himself up for a title fight in 2021, and he got finished by Dustin Poirier both times. When he returns from his broken leg, he could fight someone such as Michael Chandler, which would offer McGregor an opportunity to reassert himself as a title contender. But I think it’s time to put the McGregor championship story on the shelf for a minute and bring him back into the Octagon with this long-awaited trilogy fight.
McGregor and Diaz have kind of played hard to get with each other in recent years, always wanting the idea of a third fight to come from the other side. Well, let’s all just acknowledge the obvious: Completing the trilogy, which is tied at one win apiece, makes sense. It’s the most lucrative fight the UFC can make, despite the fact neither guy managed to secure a win in 2021. Why continue to put it off? As a fan, this is the matchup I want to see most for both fighters.
4. Conor McGregor vs. Max Holloway 2
Conor McGregor posts a video of himself pacing his living room and staring down Max Holloway before Holloway’s fight.
Like I said, McGregor vs. Chandler is the fight to make if McGregor is trying to set up a lightweight title shot. But, in reality, fighting Holloway could probably do the same for McGregor. We don’t have to speculate whether Holloway would step up and fight McGregor, who beat him back in 2013. I’ll tell you right now that if McGregor wants this fight, Holloway would be in. It’s just a matter of whether McGregor wants it more than all of his other options.
Personally, as a fan, this is one of the top fights involving McGregor I’d want to see. The banter would be tremendous leading up to the fight, and the fight itself would be incredibly entertaining. It just offers a lot of fun, which is why it comes in as No. 4.
5. Jorge Masvidal vs. Colby Covington
Daniel Cormier and Ariel Helwani discuss the magnitude of a potential Jorge Masvidal vs. Colby Covington grudge match and whom Nate Diaz should fight next.
It feels like this is the year. It’s been brewing for a while. Former teammates/roommates who can’t even be in the same room anymore? Everyone around the situation says the beef is very real. All emotions and grudges aside, it makes sense in the rankings, as Covington is the UFC’s No. 1-ranked welterweight and Masvidal is No. 6. There would be a tremendous amount at stake.
These two would make for great coaches on “The Ultimate Fighter,” but I don’t know if Masvidal is interested in that kind of commitment at this stage in his career. And in all honesty, I don’t need to see a reality show build up the rivalry between these two. The heat is already there. Let’s see the fight.
6. Charles Oliveira vs. Justin Gaethje (in Brazil)
Let’s go. Oliveira is truly the undisputed king of this lightweight division after finishing Poirier at UFC 269. Gaethje is the obvious candidate for his next defense. Oliveira deserves to defend his title in his home country, and the scene would be terrific. He is a man of the people, going from truly humble beginnings to the biggest stage. Gaethje wants to go to Brazil, because he’s Justin Gaethje and embraces chaos. This would be wild.
7. Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone retirement fight
Donald Cerrone jokes that he’d be willing to fight in all three UFC events in Jacksonville, but admits that he sees the end of his career within the next few years.
All great things must come to an end, and I think that finally applies to the career of Cerrone. I will just say that personally, I have loved covering Cerrone’s career. So many aspects have made it great. He’s an entertaining fighter, obviously. He has a sense of humor. He’s unique. He’s been active to the point of self-sabotage. He has spoken his mind. He battled demons, he conquered demons. His relationship with his grandparents and now his own children. How can you not love Cowboy Cerrone’s career?
And now it’s time to find a suitable way to end it. I don’t know what that is. Maybe if Nick Diaz wants to fight again, and can prepare well for it, that might make sense. Maybe it’s Jim Miller again, as they are neck and neck for the UFC records for most bouts and most wins. I can’t say the answer for sure. But I’d love to see it in Colorado, where Cerrone is from and so many of his moments have happened. But I guess what I’m asking for on this 2022 wish list is a bona fide “retirement fight” for Cerrone, one in which we know what it is going in, and can celebrate him leading up to and after the bout itself.
8. Petr Yan vs. TJ Dillashaw
Regardless of whether Yan is champ, interim champ, whatever — this is just a matchup I want to see. And the sooner the better. Dillashaw doesn’t look like he’s slowing down, but he is almost 36 and coming off two shoulder surgeries and now a knee injury in 2021. He’s not getting any younger, is what I’m saying. And when you look at Yan’s résumé, he’s fought a lot of the top bantamweights already. I want to see him fight Dillashaw.
I like the clash in styles. I want to see how Dillashaw’s striking, which once felt like it was very ahead of its time, matches up against Yan’s absurdly strong fundamentals. I want to see if/how the legitimate threat of Dillashaw’s wrestling throws a wrench into all of it. The division needs the Aljamain Sterling vs. Yan rematch to move forward, but regardless of what happens in that title fight, I’d like to see Yan vs. Dillashaw in 2022.
9. Dominick Cruz vs. Cory Sandhagen
As I mentioned off the top, this was on my list for 2021. So how could it not be on my list for 2022? Especially because it probably makes even more sense now than when I asked for it a year ago. Sandhagen is on the record as saying he borrowed a lot from Cruz’s style and approach to the game. They have similar traits in movement, cardio and fight IQ. If Cruz were to beat Sandhagen, that’s a great story — and if Sandhagen were to beat Cruz, that’s a great story as well. It’s either the original finds a way to upset the new breed, or it’s a passing-of-the-torch moment. Either way, I like it.
10. Julianna Peña vs. Amanda Nunes 2
It’s got to happen. It will happen. And it will obviously be a massive rematch when it does. We never got to see Ronda Rousey take on Holly Holm a second time. Not that this is the exact same as that, but there are similarities. I want to give the new champion her due, but if I’m being honest, the big appeal in this rematch is around Nunes. How does she respond to the upset loss? She said all the right things after the fight and seems to be handling it very well, but there will be a lot of pressure on her in this next fight. She’s in a situation now that is so foreign to where she’s been for so many years. We have to see how she responds.
11. Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Zhang Weili 2
I really want to put Namajunas on this list, simply because I love watching her fight. But this is not a list of fighters I want to see in 2022, it’s a list of fights — and the potential one that stands out to me at 115 pounds is a Jedrzejczyk-Zhang rematch. For starters, I’d really like to see Jedrzejczyk back, period. She is a special talent. The sport is better when she’s competing. She hasn’t fought since her split-decision loss to Zhang in March 2020 and she looks very content with her life outside the Octagon, but if an opportunity arises that makes sense for her, I believe we’ll see her again. And a rematch of one of the best fights of 2020 is a great option for a return.
Although Namajunas holds two wins over both of these women, I could see her fighting either one of them a third time at some point down the road. After Namajunas, these are the two top fighters in the division right now, but neither of them is in a position to face Namajunas because of the losses to her. So, can we see them fight each other?
12. Sean O’Malley vs. Marlon Vera 2
All right, some of you are gonna dig this. Others won’t. I am very curious to see how O’Malley does against ranked opponents. From what we’ve seen so far, he has all the potential in the world. And if you say he doesn’t, you’re hating. He possesses this combination of confidence, power and instinct that sets him apart. Love him or hate him, he’s got that. Now, can he wrestle with the elite bantamweights? Can he find ways to win when the fight immediately doesn’t go his way? Can he do the little things that take you from interesting prospect (and fantastic self-promoter) to legitimate title contender? We’ll find out in 2022.
I think the appropriate next step in finding out is to book this rematch. The UFC got it right the first time with this matchup. It’s fire. It’s a damn fun fight. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see all that much of it. And while Vera deserves credit for winning that fight, all of us can acknowledge what happened in their first meeting — O’Malley’s foot was numbed by a Vera kick, leading to a first-round TKO — was a rare result. I think we were robbed of a good fight.
When I look at the 135-pound division, there are a lot of fights I want to see O’Malley in. But some feel rushed, others not as exciting as the others. This one feels right. There’s a backstory. There’s heat. The rankings say it makes sense. And the fight itself could be incredible. Make it five rounds, O’Malley’s first main event.