It’s mid-year award time, and you can call it recency bias, but it’s been one hell of a recent stretch of events for the UFC.
In gathering our picks for the best fight, knockout, and submission of the first half of 2022, our four-person panel was in complete agreement for all three, and it was only after making our selections that we realized they all occurred in a span of less than 30 days. While there’s plenty of time and plenty of major matchups left on the MMA calendar (and who’s to say we don’t get appearances from Jon Jones, Conor McGregor, or a Diaz brother in the next six months?), it’s hard to imagine the following highlights not being at the forefront of discussions at year’s end.
Given how amazing they were, it’s more likely we’ll be talking about these fights and finishes well beyond 2022. For now, let’s focus on how the best of the best captured our attention in the moment, plus our picks for the storylines that have stood out the most thus far.
Award selections and musings brought to you by MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee, Steven Marrocco, Damon Martin and Jed Meshew.
Khamzat Chimaev vs. Gilbert Burns at UFC 273
Marrocco: Part of the appeal in sports greatness is frailty, and that’s just what we saw in Khamzat Chimaev that April night in Jacksonville, Fla. Going into the fight, the 28-year-old was seen by many as indestructible, and considering his ridiculous stats, it was understandable that many would see Burns as a more of a flyover stop than a referendum on Chimaev’s talent.
What we found out is that this Superman is just as human as the rest of his octagon colleagues, and maybe more so given the way he approached Burns, often reckless and swinging wide. Several rotations of the jaw nearly put Chimaev out, and after 15 minutes, it may also have dampened the hubris that nearly led to disaster. If anything, it made him a better fighter and more worthy of the future-champion label. He’d suffered through adversity and still managed to win, and on the opposite side of the octagon, Burns proved he was every bit the threat he was on the way to the title.
Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images
Gilbert Burns and Khamzat Chimaev
Lee: I’m in full agreement that this fight being so competitive actually raised Chimaev’s stock as opposed to hurting it, and that anyone who doesn’t see it that way is just being completely irrational and will never be happy. We talk all the time about wanting prospects to be properly put through the crucible, and then a fight like this happens and some folks can’t wait to throw out the word “exposed” (groan) as if not being able to finish one of the best welterweights in the world is some indictment of Chimaev’s skill.
Focusing on the positive here, on paper this was as good a matchup as you can make at 170 pounds outside of a title fight, and it delivered in the best possible way – two immensely skilled fighters gradually throwing strategy out the window and just dropping hammers on each other’s heads until the final bell.
Sure, it’s fair to ask how much Chimaev has to improve — if at all — before being a legitimate threat to champion Kamaru Usman. But even if he doesn’t challenge for the belt this year, possibly ending up with a Best Fight of 2022 award isn’t the worst consolation prize.
Honorable Mentions: Alex Polizzi vs. Jose Augusto at Bellator 276, Adam Borics vs. Mads Burnell at Bellator 276, Bryan Barberena vs. Matt Brown at UFC Columbus, Freddy Kemayo vs. Xavier Lessou at Ares FC 5
Michael Chandler vs. Tony Ferguson at UFC 274
Martin: Despite what some might say, Michael Chandler has always been appointment viewing whenever he competes, and his UFC career has already proven that. The latest example is his jaw-dropping knockout of Tony Ferguson at UFC 274; the former Bellator champ used his opponent’s head to try out for the Tennessee Titans as a kicker.
The knockout was spectacular by every measure possible, but the fact that nobody had ever flatlined Ferguson like that says a lot about the kind of power Chandler generated with that kick. When Ferguson was stopped by Justin Gaethje in their interim lightweight title fight, “El Cucuy” refused to go down, and it was only by the grace of the referee that he was saved from himself.
There was no doubt this time around as Chandler, who’s never really been known as a head-kick knockout artist, slammed his foot into Ferguson’s jaw, and the man who loves to capitalize every word on social media crashed face-first to the canvas. The kick was unbelievable, but the finish was really the exclamation point that made this the best knockout for the first half of 2022.
Meshew: Here is how good Chandler’s knockout of Ferguson is: As a result of it, I, very briefly, came to the conclusion that Michael Chandler does not suck.
Since he arrived in the UFC in 2021, I have possibly been the most ardent proponent of the theory that Michael Chandler sucks. I have this theory for several reasons: one, it’s true; two, his eager servility to a company that is exploiting him is off-putting; three, for most of his career he had uninspiring fights against good-but-not-great fighters in Bellator; and four, prior to joining the UFC was starched by a blown-up bantamweight (Patricio Pitbull). Even after having a “Fight of the Year” with Justin Gaethje, I still staunchly proclaimed that Michael Chandler sucks, Gaethje is just undeniably awesome.
And then Chandler punted Tony Ferguson to the moon, and I was left with no choice but to accept that Chandler has become must-see television. So in the words of comedy icon Patrice O’Neal, “He sucks, but he’s good, but he sucks at the same time,” and given my dim view of him, I can think of no higher praise than that for Michael Chandler.
Honorable Mention: Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. Carlston Harris at UFC Vegas 47, Jamahal Hill vs. Johnny Walker at UFC Vegas 48, Andrey Koreshkov vs. Chance Rencountre at Bellator 274, John Lineker vs. Bibiano Fernandes at ONE Championship: Lights Out, Ilia Topuria vs. Jai Herbert at UFC London, Magomed Kabardiev vs. Valmir Lazaro at Naiza FC 38, Manny Akpan vs. Connor Hitchens at Cage Warriors 136
Lee: Jessica Andrade has done it all in two weight classes and has an absurd finishing rate that puts most flyweights and strawweights (and hell, most heavyweights) to shame. Somehow, in her first Fight Night headliner since 2019, she one-upped her previous efforts with a history-making submission.
Her opponent, Amanda Lemos, was competing in her first main event, and despite squeaking by Angela Hill in her previous fight, there was still hope that the streaking fighter could vault herself into a title opportunity with a win over a former UFC champion. After all, Lemos had finished three of four opponents inside of one round before her three-round scrap with Hill, and it was possible that Andrade’s drop back down to 115 pounds could have a negative affect on her performance.
Andrade performed like the “Bate Estaca” that dropped Rose Namajunas on her head and crushed Karolina Kowalkiewicz with one punch. You may not have noticed, but Andrade is, uh, pretty damn strong, technically speaking, and when she muscled Lemos up against the fence and threw up a standing arm-triangle choke, I can guarantee that most of us watching at home were thinking, “Holy crap, she’s actually going to finish this.”
In a wise act of self-preservation, Lemos tapped, and Andrade became the first fighter in UFC history to finish an arm-triangle choke on the feet. Who knows what wild finish the pound-for-pound marvel will conjure up next?
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
Martin: Ex-UFC strawweight champion Jessica Andrade is well known for dishing out damage in savage fashion with her old school, PRIDE-era Chute Boxe style of fighting. But her biggest finish so far in 2022 came with a submission that’s only been pulled off a handful of times in the history of the sport.
In her return to 115 pounds, Andrade was more than ready to go to war with Lemos, but rather than trade punches with her fellow Brazilian, she saw an opening for an arm-triangle choke just midway through the opening round. While that particular submission is seen rather often, the fact that Andrade applied this hold while standing was impressive enough, and she wasn’t just using the choke to make Lemos uncomfortable against the cage.
No, Andrade tightened her grip to lock up the submission, and a few seconds later, Lemos tapped out without ever hitting the floor. Well, at least until Andrade released the submission.
Standing submissions of any variety are always fun to watch. None, however, are easy to pull off, which is why this one stands out above all the rest. The last time a fighter in a major promotion picked up a similar finish, it was Jessica Eye doing it to Zoila Frausto in Bellator back in 2012. Given the rarity of this kind of submission, it might be another 10 years before somebody does it again.
Runner-up: Charles Oliveira vs. Justin Gaethje at UFC 274
Honorable mention: Vanessa Demopoulos vs. Silvana Gomez Juarez at UFC 270, Said Nurmagomedov vs. Cody Stamann at UFC 270, Abdoul Abdouraguimov vs. Godofredo Pepey at ARES FC 3, Stephanie Egger vs. Jessica-Rose Clark at UFC Vegas 48, Joice Mara vs. Isabela de Padua at Brazilian Fighting Series 7, Roberto Satoshi vs. Johnny Case at RIZIN 35, Claudio Puelles vs. Clay Guida at UFC Vegas 52, Oliver Enkamp vs. Mark Lemminger at Bellator 281
Most Memorable Moment
Charles Oliveira misses weight ahead of UFC 274
Meshew: Lists like this are always extremely subjective. With the above categories, we had a lot of overlapping agreement, but there is plenty of room for people to argue based on personal preference. For “Most Memorable,” though, I don’t think there is. In 2022, there has been no bigger story in the sport than Charles Oliveira missing weight for his lightweight championship fight at UFC 274.
First off, it has never happened before. Oliveira, who owns the record for most finishes and submission in UFC history (records he keeps adding to), set a new one as the first champion to lose his title on the scale. Sure, other guys like Daniel Cormier and Khabib Nurmagomedov had close calls. But in the end, they managed to make weight (or at least, get away with getting close), and Oliveira did not. It was stunning.
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
In the aftermath, stories quickly emerged about a faulty scale and Oliveira claiming he was on weight on Thursday before weigh-ins (fun fact: Thursday evening is not Friday weigh-in time), and as a result, the UFC made changes to scale security (not a sentence I thought I’d ever write). But the repercussions for Oliveira personally were more severe.
While he did go on to beat Justin Gaethje at UFC 274, Oliveira is officially no longer the champion, and that win won’t go down as a title defense. For as much as the MMA intelligencia would like to argue that it doesn’t matter, the fact is it does. Outside of the fact that the UFC now has the right to not afford him pay-per-view points for his next fight (they may still give them to him, but it’s no longer contractually obligated), in 20 years, when people are dissecting the careers of all-time greats, Oliveira’s will have a major asterisk on it, and that matters. Fighters compete for money and legacy, and Wikipedia doesn’t have complex charts to explain why Oliveira doesn’t have the most lightweight title defenses in history. It just has the scoreboard, and on that, “Do Bronx” is now one less than he should be – and it’s entirely his fault. Oliveira’s inability to cut the half pound he was over by (even with an extra hour in which to do it) is a small thing that means nothing and everything at once, and it is undoubtedly the biggest story of 2022.
Francis Ngannou victorious in final fight of contract at UFC 270
Marrocco: The UFC has an impressive track record for coming out on top in situations where fighters are in the position to gain additional career leverage. So many times, it seems like just at the moment where a win could put the ball in a fighter’s court, a loss or some other mishap comes along to take it all away. As a result, the promotion is again dictating the terms of its business relationship, or cutting ties just at the time when a career really starts to go south.
Things certainly looked good for the UFC’s status quo when Ngannou approached UFC 270. He had injured his knee, jeopardizing the foundation for his fearsome striking. He more or less advertised the issue at the UFC PI, allowing the rumor mill to start working overdrive. He needed to win, not only because he was defending his title, but also because a loss would have devalued his stock for a future contract and eliminated any hope of fulfilling his lifelong dream to box. In short, everything was riding on this appearance, and he was far from his best.
Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images
Francis Ngannou and Ciryl Gane
There’s pressure, and then there’s the kind of pressure Ngannou faced. Because of his unique contract status, likely the result of the UFC’s ongoing anti-trust lawsuit, he became an avatar for the contractual freedom that had eluded so many fighters. He was more than a champion defending a belt – he was a symbol of hope in a system that, for many, ground down the dreams of talented fighters who sought to maximize their value.
Ngannou wrestling was not the reason we all showed up to watch his fight with Ciryl Gane. But considering all that was going on behind the scenes, it was impossible not to see his win as an incredible feat and a watershed moment for UFC athletes at a time when their rights appear to be at an all-time low.