2022 was a chaotic year for MMA. Upsets occurred. Eras came to an end. People lost their belts outside of the cage. And many, many others lost them inside the cage as well.
To be a “Fighter of the Year” candidate in 2022 is to obtain excellence amid this turbulence. The nominees this year obtained a combined record of 14 wins and no losses in the year. While unexpected outcomes knocked would-be shoo-in names off the candidate list this year, there’s no doubt that it is still no easy feat to be in this conversation.
As will be revealed on the website Tuesday, there is only one “Fighter of the Year.” However, these five nominees and honorable mentions are all worth recognizing. They come from different promotions and backgrounds. They all have unique stories. But one thing can be said about all of them: they showed that they were the best of the best this year.
Nominees and honorable mentions are sorted alphabetically by the last name. The official winner for The Knockdown News Fighter of the Year will be revealed Tuesday at 8:00PM EST.
RIZIN Super Atomweight Champion Seika Izawa (8-0, 3-0 in 2022)
2022 saw Seika Izawa further cement her status as the top name at super atomweight. She entered the year after making a splash on RIZIN’s 2021 New Year’s Eve card, defeating then-RIZIN Super Atomweight Champion Ayaka Hamasaki in a non-title fight.
Izawa officially claimed champion status this year, defeating Hamasaki for the second time with a decision win in April. She has competed in the RIZIN Super Atomweight Grand Prix since then, earning impressive submission wins over Laura Fontoure and Anastasiya Svetkivska. Her year isn’t even over yet, as she will now rematch Park Si-woo in the grand finals of the bracket on December 31st.
Izawa is only 25 years old and hasn’t reached the double digits of pro bouts so far. Nonetheless, she is quickly establishing her own era in the super atomweight class.
PFL Lightweight Champion Larissa Pacheco (19-4, 4-0 in 2022)
For years, many joked that PFL’s women’s lightweight division should be named “Kaylaweight,” as two-time champion Kayla Harrison never took a loss to any challenger and only put on dominant performances. Larissa Pacheco made this catchphrase an irrelevant title for the division in November, handing Harrison her first pro loss with a five-round unanimous decision victory.
The victory meant a lot of things for Pacheco. To start, it made her the PFL Lightweight Champion. It was a title that was a year in the making. Pacheco made it to the playoffs by winning two regular season fights – both of which she prevailed in via finish due to strikes. She then advanced past the semi-finals, putting away Olena Kolesnyk in just over two minutes.
She then fought in the finals against Harrison, making her the busiest fighter out of any nominee on the list this year. She diffused the well-known and successful game plan of Harrison in their five-round war, walking away with a decision victory in the end. The victory avenged two losses she took to Harrison in 2019 and made her a champion for the first time in her career. In what many expected would be another year that would showcase Harrison’s dominance in a division marketed around her, Pacheco stole the spotlight.
UFC Middleweight Champion Alex Pereira (7-1, 3-0 in 2022)
The little amount of time that it can take for someone to get to the top of MMA might be a testament to the uniqueness of the sport. The fact that it’s “mixed martial arts” means that someone can come from another combat sport with years of experience and apply it to MMA immediately and effectively.
Alex Pereira’s surprisingly fast ascension to UFC titleholder status is an example of this. The accomplished kickboxer became UFC Middleweight Champion at Madison Square Garden – the same venue where he made his promotional debut just a year before – in November. After rallying together three wins in the promotion, including a first-round finish against contender Sean Strickland, Pereira was given a title fight at 185 pounds.
Pereira’s 2022 culminated with an epic five-round clash against long-time rival Israel Adesanya. Their close fight came to an end in the fifth round, as Pereira broke down and finished Adesanya with strikes. Pereira is now the king of 185-pounds, ending a reign from the former champ that dated back to 2019.
UFC Bantamweight Champion Aljamain Sterling (22-3, 2-0 in 2022)
Aljamain Sterling entered 2022 as a controversial character. He was already the UFC Bantamweight Champion, but the way he earned the title (by being on the receiving end of an illegal knee to the head from Petr Yan, causing a disqualification outcome) made many doubt his status as the division’s best. This, coupled with the fact that his second meeting against Yan was delayed by months, caused many to dislike him.
Sterling proved in 2022 that he deserves his position in the division. In April, he pulled off a split decision win over Yan, beating him for the second time and effectively ending their rivalry. Another victory came in October when he beat former champion TJ Dillashaw. While that fight was another win for Sterling, something was certainly taken away from it due to Dillashaw dealing with a shoulder injury early that caused the bout to end in the second round.
Sterling is currently on top of one of the sport’s most competitive divisions and has two title defenses to his name. A question heading into 2023 will be what more he can attain while in his current position.
UFC Featherweight Champion Alexander Volkanovski (25-1, 2-0 in 2022, UFC)
Alexander Volkanovski remained on top of featherweight this year, beating Max Holloway a third time and defending his belt against The Korean Zombie as well. Due to circumstances entirely out of his control, namely one of his fights being a short-notice matchup, he didn’t have as stellar a year as he had the potential for. 2023 already has the makings to be an award-winning year for Volkanovski, as he is expected to move up to lightweight and challenge for a second belt at UFC 284.
Jarred Brooks (20-2, 3-0 in 2022, ONE Championship): UFC alum Jarred Brooks shot up ONE Championship’s 125-pound rankings this year, culminating with a title win over Joshua Pacio in December. His high level of success, along with the quality of his performances this year puts him on the list of honorable mentions.
Anatoly Malykhin (12-0, 2-0 in 2022, ONE Championship): Anatoly Malykhin entered 2022 with only 10 pro wins, with two appearances in ONE Championship. But after finish victories at both the 265-pound and 225-pound limit, he exits 2022 with a pair of titles to his name.
Patricio Pitbull (34-5, 2-0 in 2022, Bellator): Patricio Pitbull is the name that Bellator can’t get rid of. The veteran started his third reign as featherweight champion in April, avenging a loss and handing A.J. McKee Jr. his first pro defeat. He has since retained the belt against another Bellator contender, overcoming Adam Borics via decision in October.
Raufeon Stots (19-1, 2-0 in 2022, Bellator): 2023 could be a magical year for Stots. He advanced through the early stages of the Bellator Bantamweight Grand Prix, stopping former champion Juan Archuleta and taking a decision nod over rival Danny Sabatello. Next year could be even bigger: Stots is expected to challenge Patchy Mix in the grand finals of the Bellator Bantamweight Grand Prix, with the winner getting a prize of $1 million. If he wins that, his interim belt will be unified against fellow gym-mate Sergio Pettis later in the year.
Zhang Weili (23-3, 2-0 in 2022): Two consecutive losses for Zhang Weili in 2021 stripped her of champion status and temporarily knocked her out of the strawweight title picture. But the 33-year-old talent quickly got back to the top this year.
Zhang scored a highlight-reel knockout win in June, putting away Joanna Jedrzejczyk with a spinning backfist at UFC 275. This fight put her back into the conversation of a title shot, allowing her to taken on Carla Esparza at UFC 281.
Zhang looked levels above Esparza in their fight, shutting her down and submitting her in the seventh minute with a rear naked choke.
The UFC Strawweight Championship has been a hot potato since 2021, changing hands numerous names. But after a hectic few years at the top of the division, the belt has returned back to Zhang. The future will now prove if Zhang can make her second reign better than her brief initial one.