2022: 12 Months, 12 Thoughts

If you follow MMA, you know there is no such thing as an offseason. There are notable events almost every week of the calendar year featuring elite talent putting their belts on the line. Because of this, it’s easy to forget some of the biggest stories that come out of a year in total.

To reflect on what happened in 2022, we have put together 12 of the top moments from the year. Look back on each month, along with one of the unique stories that came from that time period.

January: A Historic Rivalry Receives Another Chapter – And Not Its Last

The flyweight division has a rivalry that will seemingly never end. 2022 started with the third meeting between Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno for the UFC flyweight title.

In their first meeting, which now dates back to late 2020, they both settled with a draw. Moreno prevailed in the second bout, submitting Figueiredo in 2021. But things got evened up this year, as Figueiredo walked away with a unanimous decision win after five rounds at UFC 270.

Of course, with an even record in the rivalry, a fourth fight was justified. However, this somehow wasn’t considered an immediate option by the UFC. Moreno had to fight in an interim title fight later in the year, stopping Kai Kara-France to get his fourth meeting against Figueiredo.

January 2023 will be the first time in UFC history that a pair of fighters face each other in a title fight for the fourth time. Many expect the bout to be the final chapter in the duo’s rivalry. However, since they have been in each other’s crosshairs for more than two years now, it’s not the wildest possibility that things won’t end there.

February: Middleweight’s Upper Echelon

Israel Adesanya’s second win over Robert Whittaker this year further proved something we already know: there is a small and exclusive upper echelon to the middleweight division.

There’s a divide at the 185-pound division that puts someone like Whittaker in a tough spot. You’re better than almost everyone in the weight class, with your only real challenge being the champion. You’re not good enough to be the best, but you seem to be miles ahead of anyone else.

That’s a frustrating position to be in, and one that looked to be without a solution early this year. However, after a shake-up at UFC 281 in November, a third party in Alex Pereira entered this high class of middleweight and potentially changed things up for everyone. We’ll see what this causes in the division now.

March: A Celebration of Combat Sports

ONE Championship gained attention in March for holding one of their most ambitious events yet. To celebrate their 10th anniversary, “ONE X” was an all-day extravaganza from the Singapore Indoor Stadium in Singapore. The event came in three parts and featured many top names across numerous combat sports.

Grappling, kickboxing, Muay Thai and MMA were all on display at “ONE X.” The evening, which had many title bouts in the promotion’s divisions, closed out with a fight between the returning Angela Lee and grand prix winner Stamp Fairtex. Lee was triumphant in her return, submitting Stamp in the second round with a rear naked choke to defend her 115-pound belt.

It is not often that you get to see numerous different combat sports styles under one roof. But ONE Championship had this at their anniversary card, providing a strong showcase of the wide range of ways that combat sports manifests itself in this world.

April: Sterling Shows He Will Stay

Aljamain Sterling became a champion in a way that nobody dreams of. Then-titleholder Petr Yan landed an illegal knee to the head of Sterling in the fourth round of a 2021 bout, causing their contest to end in disqualification. The result was not a storybook ending for Sterling and caused many to consider him an illegitimate champ.

These doubts continued into April when he fought Yan for the second time. Despite being the champion heading into that fight, Sterling was listed as a “moderate underdog” by sports bookies.

Sterling undoubtedly overcame these odds in his second meeting against Yan, getting a split decision nod after a five-round contest. This outcome effectively caused an end to the rivalry between Yan and Sterling, and showed that Sterling was deserving of his position in the division.

May: Championship Weight Causes Drama

Charles Oliveira’s multi-year climb toward the top of UFC’s lightweight came to a sudden, crashing end this year. It didn’t end with him being knocked out or submitted. He didn’t lose on scorecards, not in a close, controversial decision or by a wide margin.

He lost his belt a day before UFC 274, on the scale. Oliveira officially weighed 155.5 pounds on May 6th, causing him to be stripped of the UFC Lightweight Championship.

The issue of Oliveira missing weight came down to a rule for championship fights. While all non-title fights at lightweight have a limit of 156 pounds, lightweight title bouts do not allow competitors to come in over a 155 pound limit. In other words, after Oliveira fought at one weight limit for his first 16 lightweight UFC appearances, in the title fights that followed he had to meet a stricter limit.

It’s hard to justify why title bouts need to have a one-pound difference compared to every other fight in a division. It feels like having two different limits for fights in one division gives fighters an extra obstacle for getting towards fight day – an obstacle that deals with the issue of weight cutting, a practice that many argue isn’t healthy to begin with. Most of the time the change means nothing and isn’t a major issue. However, this year it showed that in a worst-case scenario it can derail a title fight and end a reign that was years in the making.

June: Light Heavyweight’s ‘Division of Wonder’ Era Continues

A post-Jon Jones era of light heavyweight is proving to be an odd and logic-defying time for the division. After Jan Blachowicz had a short run with the belt and handed Israel Adesanya his first pro loss, 42-year-old talent Glover Teixeira submitted him to earn the belt.

Then in June, the flashy, unorthodox former RIZIN Light Heavyweight Champion, Jiri Prochazka, put on a “Fight of the Year” contender against Teixeira to earn the belt. Prochazka’s fight ended in a way that was unlike many: submitting Teixeira with only 28 seconds to spare, taking scorecards out of a situation that would have otherwise been a close call. What’s more, the bout was just Prochazka’s third appearance since he joined the UFC roster in 2020.

Going forward, light heavyweight might be the division where unexpected happens often. The amount of unusual or stunning headlines emerging from the 205-pound limit seemingly won’t stop.

July: A Return To The Throne

Amanda Nunes suffered one of the biggest upsets in UFC history last year when Julianna Pena submitted her in the second round with a rear naked choke. The loss ended a near 2,000 day reign for Nunes at bantamweight, and stopped her from tying Ronda Rousey for most defences in the division (six). It also made many call into question where Nunes stood as a fighter, as her dominance was put to a halt by a challenger that many doubted would succeed.

Nunes provided a strong case that her 2021 loss was a small error, as she had a strong five-round showing against Pena this year that earned her a comfortable unanimous decision victory.

Nunes’ loss to Pena won’t ever be forgotten entirely. You can avenge a loss, but you can’t ever expunge that defeat from your record entirely.  And the streak of consecutive wins that Nunes had before certainly cannot be resumed. However, the fact that Nunes won her belt back quickly means that it could still be considered her “era” at bantamweight, and that her loss of the belt was just a short blip in-between.

August: You’re Winning, Until You Aren’t

MMA is unlike most sports, in that any lead in a contest can hypothetically be erased immediately. If you’re down by 21 points in American football, you need three touchdowns to catch up – that takes up a large chunk of clock time and, depending on where in the game you are, might be mathematically impossible.

Kamaru Usman’s multi-year UFC Welterweight Championship reign had a sudden conclusion in August, as long-time contender Leon Edwards scored a fifth-round head kick knockout.

The scene was straight out of a movie. Edwards’ story as a fighter is one that has caught the attention of promoters. His nickname mirrors that of a box office hit: “Rocky.” The outcome of the fight inspired some to make edits of the fight, giving it the big-screen focus that it has the potential for.

Edwards needed one move to become champion, but that’s nothing to take away from him. MMA is a sport where one big moment can be more impactful than being successful for most of a fight. Like many others, Edwards is undoubtedly a champion.

September: Diaz Gets Surprisingly Smooth Exit

Nate Diaz’s departure from the UFC roster was a much smoother transition than what was initially planned. And in the end, it was actually quite a good exit for him.

Heading into UFC 279, it looked like Diaz was going to get a rough final UFC matchup. One of the most prolific names in UFC history, a fighter who has appeared for the promotion 27 times and had one of the biggest UFC fights ever in a 2016 rematch against Conor McGregor, was going to be fed to an up-and-coming prospect in his final fight.

But fate had different plans. Diaz’s original opponent for the event, Khamzat Chimaev, ended up missing weight for their bout by a whopping seven-and-a-half pounds. This triggered a mass change in fights on the UFC 279 card, with the top three bouts on the show all having their opponents shuffled around.

The change around UFC 279 was undoubtedly unfair to all fighters involved. With just hours to spare, it made everyone change their game plans, or in some cases, change their weight classes. But the scramble matched Diaz against Tony Ferguson, a similarly experienced name that has also struggled in the UFC as of late.

Diaz was able to prevail in their main event bout, submitting Ferguson in the fourth round with a guillotine choke. He was able to have his triumphant final moment before setting out into the world and exploring combat sports outside of the UFC. Heading into the Chimaev fight, Diaz was a massive underdog. His final UFC moment would have likely not been an upbeat speech, but instead a quiet and sad departure. Due to what was pure chance, Diaz was able to create one of the more memorable moments of the year.

October: Makhachev Begins His Era

Islam Makhachev was one of the many rising names as of late that had a fair amount of doubters. Skeptics had fair reason to think maybe he was somewhat overhyped: he entered a title fight in October on a winning streak against mostly low-level lightweight names (this not necessarily his fault, as high-profile matchups against Beneil Dariush and Rafael dos Anjos were booked in recent years but didn’t happen due to issues outside of his control).

It’s fair that Makhachev had some skeptics before he challenged UFC Lightweight Champion Charles Oliveira this year. Oliveira had significantly more experience and was coming off wins over many big names in the division: Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler, to name a few.

Makhachev was able to silence doubters with his performance in October, submitting Oliveira in the second round with an arm triangle choke. It was his 11th consecutive UFC win and his fourth straight victory via finish.

The lightweight division has struggled to find a new leader since Khabib Nurmagomedov retired in 2020. The belt has been vacant for periods of time, specifically before Oliveira was crowned champion and after he lost the belt due to missing weight earlier in the year. And Oliveira’s reign consisted of two appearances, hardly making it an “era.” The question for Makhachev in 2023, like many of the new champions, is if they can carve out their own section in a division’s history.

November: Old Habits Never Die

Heading into 2022, Israel Adesanya was certainly a star in the MMA world. Yet there was a name who had two wins over him in kickboxing that didn’t have anywhere near the amount of clout he amassed. That was Alex Pereira.

Years after the two-division GLORY Kickboxing Champion beat Adesanya in kickboxing, he switched over to MMA and pursued a fight against him under that ruleset. Pereira didn’t waste much time in the UFC, scoring just three wins before earning a title fight in November.

Pereira went into deep waters against Adesanya at UFC 281, putting him away in the final round with strikes to erase a lead that was developed against him on scorecards. Pereira has now beat Adesanya three times in combat sports and is the top name in MMA’s middleweight division. His habit of beating Adesanya has crossed over from one sport to another and made him a big name in the UFC.

December: You Have Options

The end of the year proved to be a slow and quiet exit for the UFC. The promotion hosted just three events in the month, including a pay-per-view card that had a short-notice title fight in the headlining spot.

If you strictly follow the UFC, this year is already over for you. But for those who follow the sport of MMA as a whole instead of just the single promotion, there are a few big events still set to happen.

European promotion Cage Warriors will close their year out on New Year’s Eve with a “Europe vs. USA” card. The show will include three title fights, headlined by undefeated middleweight champ Christian Leroy Duncan.

And then of course, also on New Year’s Eve is the final card of the year from RIZIN. Their annual December 31st card is quite big this year, as they’re teaming up with Bellator to put on a five-fight promotion vs. promotion main card.

The end of the year serves as a reminder that, while the UFC is the gatekeeper for a lot of quality MMA, it is not the singular place where it can be found. Big and small, there are promotions across the world putting on events every week. There is always something more to explore, and niches in the sport to find.

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