After back-to-back record-setting years, UFC is ready to get things kicked off in 2022 this week. The first fight card of the year means it’s time to consider where things stand in the sport with many of the champions already booked for title defenses. But there’s plenty of unanswered topics still on the table as Dana White and company look to break more records for a third straight years.
While we don’t know exactly how things will play out over the coming year, the CBS Sports experts sat down to give our answers to some of the burning questions before the 2022 UFC calendar gets underway. Read on to see our thoughts on how the year will play out for some of the biggest stars in the sport.
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Let’s dive right in now to the questions and predictions from “Morning Kombat” host Brian Campbell as well as staff writers Brent Brookhouse and Shakiel Mahjouri.
Who ends 2022 as lightweight champion?
Brian Campbell: Islam Makhachev
If UFC brass finally rewards him for his dominant 10-fight winning streak, the answer is Islam Makhachev. The student and longtime training partner of retired legend Khabib Nurmagomedov is the closest thing UFC has to a successor for “The Eagle.” Makhachev also presents a uniquely troubling style matchup for the dangerous theatrics of champion Charles Oliveira. While Makhachev can certainly handle himself on the ground in a manner worthy of comparison to Nurmagomedov, he’s a much more advanced striker and appears to have the mental strength and intangibles to climb the mountain at 155 pounds.
Brookhouse, Mahjouri: Charles Oliveira
Oliveira has a ridiculous skillset right now. He can face absolute killers and survive damage before exploiting an opponent’s weakness. Dangerous on the feet and on the ground, he’s become an incredibly difficult puzzle to solve. Oliveira is angling for a fight with Conor McGregor and the UFC likely loves the idea, as ridiculous as it is that is considering McGregor has a 1-3 record since 2018 and has lost his three most recent lightweight bouts. McGregor could win the fight on the feet, but he’s incredibly susceptible to submissions and has serious gas tank issues, which only get worse as he adds more and more muscle to his frame. Assuming Oliveira vs. McGregor is the direction things do go, I have to favor Oliveira. — Brookhouse
There is no denying Oliveira’s greatness. His two-pronged offense of dynamic strikes and perilous submissions have overwhelmed almost every UFC lightweight champion, including interim titleholders, of the last five years. The only omissions are two men he has never faced: Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor. There are three viable challengers at present: Islam Makhachev, Beneil Dariush and McGregor. Makhachev’s top control and McGregor’s pinpoint-accurate power are reasonable threats, but Oliveira excels in more facets of the game. Dariush is a submission threat with knockout power and Fight of the Night tendencies but hasn’t mastered that style quite as Oliveira has. — Mahjouri
Will the English invasion continue?
Campbell: These are clearly the glory days in the decorated history of MMA in the United Kingdom, which owes a lot of its past success to the likes of former middleweight king Michael Bisping. But the pool today of rising fighters from that area only continues to grow, including welterweight title contender Leon Edwards and rising heavyweight Tom Aspinall, who appears to be closing in on his own shot at UFC gold. But can the current invasion lead to a consistent pipeline of top talent into the UFC? In this case, a wait-and-see approach is the more sober decision. Both Paddy Pimblett and Molly McCann could prove to be more bark than bite despite how well they have captivated crowds on both sides of the pond. And while U.K. MMA has been fun to watch grow in recent years, this isn’t a takeover anywhere close to the impact that Russia – in particular, the region of Dagestan – is having on the sport over the same time period.
Mahjouri: Aspinall and Arnold Allen are England’s best hopes for another world champion. Aspinall has passed every test with flying colors in the UFC. He set the record for the shortest path to five UFC wins by defeating five opponents in 14-minutes and 24-seconds — less than one full three-round fight. His combination of crisp boxing, offensive wrestling and submission savvy will trouble most heavyweights. Allen is primed for a big contenders’ fight at featherweight but must prove that he can hang with the division’s elite. The charismatic duo of Pimblett and McCann are fantastic supporting acts but are very much developing talents. At the moment, this feels less like an invasion and more like a covert operation. Aspinall crashes through the front gates while Allen sneaks through the back.
What happens in the upside down heavyweight division?
Campbell: Trying to handicap the UFC’s future at heavyweight is incredibly difficult, mostly because of the unknowns surrounding current champion Francis Ngannou’s return. Not only is Ngannou recovering from knee surgery at age 35, he’s a free agent who has said on record that he won’t re-sign with the promotion unless he’s allowed room to box Tyson Fury. The potential insertion of longtime light heavyweight champion Jon Jones only adds to the excitement and uncertainty of the future. Should Ngannou walk, a Jones-Stipe Miocic bout for the interim title would be among the most historically relevant that could be made in the sport today. Add in Cyril Gane and Aspinall as those waiting in line for the next crack and there’s reason to believe Ngannou’s UFC return is anything but certain. UFC has the potential opportunity to swap out Ngannou’s star for that of Jones, who is still considered by many to be MMA’s G.O.A.T. despite a long layoff and constant trouble outside the cage.
Brookhouse: The UFC’s heavyweight division has always been dominated by one or two personalities at most. That’s still the case but it’s in a very odd place. Ngannou is hurt and has issues with management. Jones has yet to actually fight at heavyweight and Miocic only has one fight since August 2020. Miocic vs. Jones is the sensible, money-making interim title fight while all of Ngannou’s issues are sorted out — or not. Aspinall could come along and shake things up also but until Jones fights in the division and we know what is going on with Ngannou, the division’s identity is still somewhat blurry. Hopefully, the end of 2022 provides clarity and establishes a more defined roadmap forward.
Mahjouri: Ngannou is in a unique position with UFC brass. The heavyweight champion and his management have remained steadfast in their desire for a more equitable contract. UFC president Dana White and company rarely budge at the negotiation table. Jon Jones vs. Stipe Miocic feels closer to reality than Ngannou’s return. Unfortunately, recurring troubles in Jones’ personal life always cast a shadow of doubt over his fighting future. Aspinall and Tai Tuivasa can launch themselves ahead of the pack with victories over Curtis Blaydes and Ciryl Gane, respectively, but both find themselves in tough matchups. I think Jones and Miocic will reach an agreement to fight this year while the division finds itself a new No. 1 contender in either Aspinall or Gane.
Race for Fighter of the Year heats up
Campbell: While the second half of 2022 could lead to everyone from featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski to newly crowned 205-pound king Jiri Prochazka taking home the award, don’t sleep on the potential for bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling to do the same. Operating atop the sport’s deepest division, Sterling erased the pariah reputation that his controversial disqualification title win had brought him by convincingly edging Petr Yan in their April rematch. Should Sterling do the same this fall against another former champion in TJ Dillashaw, it would be hard to remove Aljo from consideration for having authored the most impressive year across the sport.
Mahjouri: Charles Oliveira fell short of Kamaru Usman in CBS Sports’ 2021 Fighter of the Year list (sorry Brent Brookhouse) but he cannot be denied a second time. Oliveira’s weight miss at UFC 274 was overshadowed by another mind-blowing performance. This time, it was a come-from-behind, first-round finish of Justin Gaethje in what may be the leading candidate for Round of the Year. “Do Bronx” is king of the lightweight mountain and chatter about a dream match against Khabib Nurmagomedov emerged sooner than expected. Oliveira hopes to book one more fight by year’s end. Two huge wins in 2022 and momentum carried over from last year should do enough for Oliveira’s legacy to earn him Fighter of the Year.
Brookhouse: Alexander Volkanovski, assuming he beats Max Holloway. It’s getting a little boring to have the Fighter of the Year discussion involving the same small set of names. If Volkanovski manages to beat Holloway for a third time, after a dominant win over The Korean Zombie, he likely fights a third time before the end of the year. That’s as good of a resume as anyone else in the sport is going to have. Beating Holloway is, of course, no easy task, which is all the more reason a victory for Volkanovski would make him a solid choice for Fighter of the Year.