The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA – news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.
We saw a handful of new champions in the UFC this year, so it may come as a surprise that we didn’t see a single title change waists inside the octagon. Jan Blachowicz, Petr Yan, and Deiveson Figueiredo all became #AndNew not only because of their incredible efforts, but the opportunities created by the moves and machinations of Jon Jones and Henry Cejudo. Jones vacated the light heavyweight belt ahead of a jump to heavyweight, while Cejudo, having already left the flyweight title behind in pursuit of champ-champ glory, also put the bantamweight title up for grabs when he retired in May.
Other than that, every incumbent champion was successful in defending their titles, though their appearances were limited for a variety of reasons, first and foremost the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that threatened to shut down the sports schedule entirely in 2020. But with the UFC pressing forward through it all, we can expect there to be plenty of championship bouts in 2021 and that means exciting times ahead for the men and women standing at the top of the heap.
So who is most at risk of losing their titles? A couple of caveats before we begin: 1) We leaned towards fighters we expect to lose a belt in competition as opposed to vacancy 2) Khabib Nurmagomedov is out of the discussion because as far as we know, he has no plans to defend the lightweight title again – even if he comes back for one more fight.
With that, MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee and Steven Marrocco make their best predictions for which fighter will see their reign come to an end this year.
Lee: If we’re shifting our emphasis away from champions who are likely to retire or vacate for some other reason, then that already leaves us with few options. None of the UFC’s current women’s champions seem particularly vulnerable (though the potential Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas tilt is the most intriguing), Stipe Miocic and Amanda Nunes could be done with fighting entirely before year’s end regardless of how many times they defend their titles, and I’d strongly favor Kamaru Usman, Israel Adesanya (if he competes at 185 pounds this year), and Alexander Volkanovski in any of their potential 2021 defenses.
So that leaves me with the aforementioned Jan Blachowicz, Petr Yan, and Deiveson Figueiredo to choose from and from that group, I think it’s Yan who faces the most immediate and potent threat. The reason being that he has a dominant former champion breathing down his neck.
Yes, the circumstances that led to T.J. Dillashaw’s two-year banishment are shameful. After losing by TKO in just 32 seconds to flyweight titleholder Henry Cejudo in a bid to become a two-division champion, Dillashaw would soon become a no-division champion after testing positive for EPO. Dillashaw admitted to cheating—for what little that meant to his past opponents—relinquished the bantamweight belt and accepted a two-year USADA suspension.
That suspension officially ends on Jan. 19, meaning Dillashaw will soon step right back into the thick of the bantamweight title hunt. Whether he has to take a tune-up fight first or gets an immediate title shot remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that Dillashaw recapturing his championship remains a distinct possibility. There’s no way of knowing how he’ll look after a two-year layoff and perhaps more importantly, how he’ll perform now that he’s supposedly a clean fighter. What we do know is that if we’re just judging in-cage results, there was almost nobody better at 135 pounds than Dillashaw over the past decade.
After losing in the finals of The Ultimate Fighter 14 to future flyweight contender John Dodson, Dillashaw compiled a 12-2 bantamweight record that includes five championship bout victories and wins over rival Cody Garbrandt (twice), Raphael Assuncao (avenging one of his rare losses), and Renan Barao (twice). Though he didn’t exactly clear out his division, Dillashaw had enough success to convince himself that it was worth dropping down in weight to pursue a fresh challenge.
Now that he’s back at the weight class where he belongs, expect Dillashaw to be a looming threat for whoever holds the 135-pound title in 2021. Keep in mind, that might not even be Yan by the time summer rolls around.
That’s right, even if you don’t consider a returning Dillashaw to be a factor, Yan already has to worry about No. 1 contender Aljamain Sterling. Yan-Sterling, which was supposed to take place at UFC 256 before being postponed, should be officially rescheduled soon. There’s no guarantee that Yan gets past Sterling, who has as strong a contender’s resume as any recent title challenger and arguably has more quality wins than Yan. Add in the fact that Sterling’s wrestling and grappling could be the perfect foil for Yan’s elite standup and it’s entirely possible that Yan’s championship reign ends before it begins.
Even if Yan gets past Sterling and (presumably) Dillashaw, he has a murderer’s row of contenders to go through in what has become one of MMA’s strongest divisions: Cory Sandhagen, Dominick Cruz, Frankie Edgar, Rob Font, and Cody Garbrandt (depending on how determined he is to chase the flyweight title) could all challenge this year, while young studs Merab Dvalishvili, Casey Kenney, and Song Yadong are waiting in the wings. Yan might be favored against all of those names, but not by much. None of this is to disrespect Yan, who has looked spectacular going 7-0 in the UFC, it’s just a lot to ask any champion to repeatedly defend against that caliber of competition.
If Yan proves me wrong, and he certainly could, he should be considered a top-5 pound-for-pound fighter by the end of the year. I just don’t see it happening with the heat that’s coming around the corner.
POLISH POWER OUTAGE
Marrocco: Ordinarily, I’d be lazy and pick heavyweight because Stipe Miocic might retire, it’s filled with older guys, and well, it’s the heavyweight division – no one has been able to hang on to a belt for long. But this year, I’ll be slightly less lazy and go down one division to light heavyweight, a weight class with a knockout rate slightly lower than the big boys (43 percent to 49 percent, by this chart), and one that, save for a gentleman named Jon Jones, has historically had a lot of volatility (and a fair amount even when Jones was around).
With Jones out of the picture and Jan Blachowicz holding the belt, I expect we’ll see a similar level of instability. Not because Blachowicz isn’t a very good fighter—ever since he started touching that rope, he’s been on fire—but because Jones was a cut above the rest. With reach and ring IQ, he presented a puzzle that could not be solved (many came close, but none officially did). Without Jones, I suspect we have a group of fighters who can, on any given night, beat each other under the right circumstances. One of them—Thiago Santos—already has a win over the champ.
My argument might have been even stronger had the UFC not shed a trio of potential challengers at 205 pounds: Corey Anderson, Anthony Johnson and a filled-out Yoel Romero. The latter two in particular looked like different versions of Blachowicz’s worst nightmare. But hey, when you’re trying to cut costs and push the appearance of promotional parity to federal judges, what are you gonna do?
Of course, it’s not just the subtraction of Jones that makes things interesting – it’s the addition of middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. They’re going to fight in March at UFC 259, and that presents a significant threat to the new light-heavy titleholder. Adesanya is going to give up a lot of size on Blachowicz, sure, and punches and takedowns from bigger opponents have more impact. So far, though, we’re still waiting for the opponent who’s able to manhandle Adesanya in the clinch and on the canvas. That gives him more than enough time to use his striking talents, which are among the best in the game. And if Mr. McGregor is right—precision beats power and timing beats speed—he finds Blachowicz’s chin and puts him down.
But let’s say Blachowicz plays it smart and uses clinch work, takedowns and/or the threat of them to take away Adesanya’s best weapons. Then the Polish Power has new and established threats to look forward to. First and foremost, there’s Glover Teixeira, who’s most deserving of a title shot and conveniently No. 1 ranked in the UFC’s top-15. The Brazilian has won his past five fights and just beat Thiago Santos—the first light heavyweight to win a scorecard over Jones—in an incredible display of durability at 41. Teixeira has been fighting the best of the best at 205 pounds for a long time.
Then there’s Aleksandar Rakic, who’s 5-1 with a controversial split decision loss against one-time title challenger Volkan Oezdemir and recently out-finessed one-time title challenger Anthony Smith. And in the dark horse category, there’s Jiri Prochazka, who just concussed Oezdemir in two rounds to extend his winning streak to 11 fights (on a resume that’s admittedly dampened by a motley crew of opponents he faced overseas).
Rankings-wise, Santos remains a threat despite his recent loss to Teixeira. As the owner of a knockout win over the champ, he could easily be slotted for a rematch, or at least more easily than Dominick Reyes, who was knocked out in short order. Schedule is Blachowicz’s biggest ally in retaining the belt, as it’s unusual for a light heavyweight champ to defend more than twice in a calendar year.
But I also don’t rule out a little stunt casting here. Should Jones’ trip to heavyweight go south, I wouldn’t be surprised if he suddenly found interest in competing in his old division again before he rides off into the sunset. And I have to imagine Alexander Gustafsson, who’s tried and failed three times to take light heavyweight gold, is resisting the urge to do MMA math and take another shot.
Like heavyweight, a lot can happen in a blink of an eye when you’re fighting at 205 pounds.