Francis Ngannou, Valentina Shevchenko, and Kamaru Usman | MMA Fighting
Even given the chaotic nature of the MMA business, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a five-month stretch like we just saw in the first half of 2022.
Not only did we see a UFC champion lose their title on the scale for the first time ever, we also had Francis Ngannou stay one step ahead in his ongoing battle with the promotion, Khabib Nurmagomedov’s Eagle FC promotion emerge as a major player with its U.S. debut, the regrettable escalation of the Colby Covington–Jorge Masvidal feud, the truly harrowing Cain Velasquez attempted murder case, and that’s not even mentioning in-cage happenings like Michael Chandler recording one of the best kick knockouts of all time and Carla Esparza breaking the record for the longest span between UFC title wins after defeating Rose Namajunas in arguably the worst championship fight ever.
With that in mind, it truly feels like anything can happen before the year is through so the MMA Fighting Team of Alexander K. Lee, Steven Marroco, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew got together to make our best guesses as to what craziness could be left to unfold in 2022.
Don’t forget to check out our Mid-Year Awards for the best fight, knockout, and submission of the year as well as the two memorable moments we felt stood apart from the rest.
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
Francis Ngannou and Dana White
Francis Ngannou re-signs with the UFC and sets up a special rules fight against Tyson Fury
Martin: UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou is in the rarest of positions where he actually maintains some leverage over the promotion, albeit not enough that he really holds an advantage over it. That said, Ngannou’s fight for a better contract — a more lucrative deal with options that would allow him to pursue fights like the one he wants against heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury — still puts him in an advantageous position where he can just walk away from the UFC after December when his contract expire and become an unrestricted free agent.
While Ngannou would immediately become the most sought-after talent to hit the open market in many, many years, it still seems unlikely that the UFC would ever allow a human highlight reel and one of the most marketable fighters in history to just walk away unfettered.
Instead, it’s much more likely that the UFC strikes some sort of deal with Ngannou that includes a whole lot more money up front for each fight, plus extra incentives through pay-per-view while working hand-in-hand with the ferocious heavyweight to book a special rules fight against Fury in 2023.
Now this all might seem highly unlikely given the UFC’s tendency to shut down fighters doing anything that doesn’t involve them competing in the octagon, but in this case it’s a rare opportunity for Ngannou to get what he wants without the company giving up total control over a situation. While a boxing match would put Ngannou at a massive disadvantage, a “special rules” fight where he could use four-ounce gloves and maybe even strike from the clinch would be a huge advantage for him against somebody like Fury, who has zero experience in combat sports outside of boxing.
Also, much like when Conor McGregor was allowed to go fight Floyd Mayweather, the UFC stands to make a lot of money as well as a co-promoter for the event.
The final point to make about Ngannou likely returning to the UFC is what happens after the Fury fight.
Ngannou isn’t ready to retire just yet so he will still want to fight and prove himself against the best heavyweights in the world, which brings him right back to the UFC. Sure, Ngannou could get paid six figures to try and launch Ryan Bader’s head into the atmosphere, but it doesn’t seem likely that Bellator could afford him in the long run.
Add to that, Ngannou still has another massive fight looming on the horizon if Jon Jones actually does make his return as a heavyweight. That is still quite possibly the biggest event the UFC could promote outside of anything involving McGregor and it’s a fantastic incentive for Ngannou to sign a new deal to remain with the UFC.
Logan Storley and Michael Page
Bellator holds an event with open scoring
Lee: Here’s an idea that I know will appeal to would-be Bellator MMA (pardon me, Showtime MMA) President Shaheen Al-Shatti.
Look, I’ve been staunchly against the notion that open scoring will be this cure-all for questionable judging (a problem that isn’t as widespread as people think) and confusing scoring (just read the damn criteria!), but that doesn’t mean I think it isn’t worth trying in MMA. It’s great that Invicta FC has been experimenting with this and that they’ve gone about it in a smart way with the corner being told the scores and having the choice whether or not to share that info with their fighter in between rounds.
(It’s also important to note that as the brilliant New York Ric has stated multiple times, judging and open scoring are really two separate issues.)
Putting aside the controversy, it’s fair to say that Bellator needs a shot in the arm with promotions like the PFL and Eagle FC gaining a serious foothold in the U.S., and what better way to at least get folks talking about you than with gimmicks? Shockingly, the Ryan Bader-Cheick Kongo rematch and an interim welterweight title bout between MVP and Logan Storley didn’t exactly set social media ablaze, so why not jump headfirst into the discussion that has divided us as an MMA nation?
With respect to Invicta, there are plenty of fans who don’t even know that they’ve taken an active role in the open scoring debate, so while Bellator wouldn’t be the first promotion to try it, it would be in the eyes of a large section of potential viewers. It’s not necessarily about boosting ratings, but just to get people talking again about what was the de facto No. 2 promotion in North America for years. Plus, if actual Bellator President Scott Coker (sorry, Shaheen) can promote his organization as doing something that the UFC isn’t doing, that’s a major plus.
Imagine the potential slogan: Bellator: We know the score. Not enough dollar sign emojis for this.
All of this requires cooperation from commissions, of course, but Bellator has a strong relationship with several state commissions (Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation I’m looking at you) and this could be the move that sparks change in a business that typically moves at a snail’s pace when it comes to updating rules and regulations.
At the very least, it will be fun to see another notable organization dip their toes into the open scoring well and give fans and media a reality check (whether good or bad, depending on your perspective) on a debate that has to this point been mostly theoretical. The likes and retweets are there for the taking and I expect Coker and company to make a grab at them.
Photo by Louis Grasse/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Valentina Shevchenko wins the UFC bantamweight title
Meshew: As the conductor of the “Bullet” train and the lead driver of the Shevy Truck, I felt it my duty to make this prediction because it’s less of a prediction and more of a certainty. This is going to happen.
With six defenses of her flyweight belt, Shevchenko is already one of the most accomplished champions in UFC history. After she beats Taila Santos at UFC 275, Shevchenko will move to a tie for fifth all time in title defenses in the UFC, and tie Amanda Nunes’ record for most title defenses by a woman (notably, Nunes did it in two divisions). Moreover, she will have done something no other active champion has done: she will have beaten the top four contenders in her division. That is the textbook definition of cleaning out a division and given her level of dominance and the lack of interesting challengers at bantamweight, it seems inevitable that Shevchenko will face the winner of the bantamweight title rematch between Julianna Peña and Nunes. And when she does, she’s taking home a second title, regardless of who she takes it from.
Shevchenko has faced both Nunes and Peña before (Nunes twice) with different outcomes. Shevchenko handled Peña with relative ease in their lone encounter and I see no reason why things would go differently a second time around. With Nunes, it’s slightly different as “The Lioness” has two wins over Shevchenko, but in both instances, the fights were competitive (and Shevchenko arguably won their rematch). Since then, Shevchenko has continued to improve while Nunes – based on her loss to Peña and her split with American Top Team – appears to be on the decline.
Could the UFC decide to run back a trilogy fight between Peña and Nunes (if Nunes wins the rematch) or plug in Ketlen Vieira for the next title shot? Sure, but why do that? If Nunes wins, she is basically “righting the wrong” of her loss and so an immediate trilogy doesn’t make sense. As for Vieira, she isn’t a fan favorite, plus she’s coming off a snoozer of a fight that many people seem to think she lost. Neither of those fights are marquee matchups that will get people talking, but a third fight with Shevchenko, the most dominant champion in the sport and the top pound-for-pound fighter, that is bank. And given that Shevchenko just starred in a movie with Halle Berry, I suspect the UFC is a lot more interested in giving the Shevy Truck the full promotional push. The only question for me is whether the UFC will keep the featherweight division around long enough for Shevchenko to become the first three-division champion in UFC history.
Photo by Louis Grasse/PxImages
Nick Diaz fights Kamaru Usman, who then holds out for a new contract that includes boxing
Marrocco: Fast approaching welterweight GOAT status, Kamaru Usman has beaten his top opposition in Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington and wants to make the biggest paydays. Leon Edwards is the rightful contender, but that’s a hurdle Usman has already cleared, and Khamzat Chimaev is just enough of a threat to consider a gentler option. Far gentler, to be specific. Nick Diaz is 38, slowed by decades of combat and still popular enough to get the casuals’ wallets out. He is, in other words, the perfect opponent before the next big money jump: boxing.
Usman may not have a shot at getting in the ring with pound-for-pound great Canelo Alvarez, unless, perhaps, Gennady Golovkin embarrasses him so thoroughly that an ego-boosting thump of Usman is just the ticket. The more important thing is getting the UFC’s blessing to box, and with his friend and colleague Francis Ngannou eyeing those sweet boxing revenue splits, he will hold out to get a new deal that gives him a little bit more freedom. The UFC will dangle superfights his way, which is how Diaz goes from totally out of left field and ridiculous to a real thing, and pressure him to fight Edwards and Chimaev. But he’ll hold out, to the mild chagrin of his UFC-friendly manager Ali Abdelaziz, and he’ll be the next crossover star.
Oh, and the fight with Diaz? If he makes it to the fight – and that’s a big if at this point – it will end in the first round, and by knockout, when Usman’s long arms connect with the Stockton star’s head and he finishes things off with a flurry of ground-and-pound. Mercifully, the elder Diaz’s career will be over.