The 2022 MMA Draft: Which 25 fighters would you build a promotion around?

Conor McGregor at the podium | Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Tonight, the 2022 NFL Draft kicks off in Las Vegas. It’s a day of hope for football fans and franchises, because for at least one evening, anything is possible. A team that has been stuck in ignominy for decades (like the Jets) could see their fortunes finally turned around, and those middle tier teams can, perhaps, make the leap up to the ranks of true contenders.

Unfortunately, MMA has no such mechanism for wish-fulfillment. As a monopsony masquerading as a competitive free market, the MMA landscape is one where a vast, vast majority of fighters ultimately end up in the UFC, and all the other organizations are left trying to field a team of spare parts to be competitive with. The end result is a decades-long dynasty atop the MMA landscape with no end in sight.

But what if we could fix that? Or at least recalibrate things a little bit to have a touch more parity in the sport? Enter the 2022 MMA Draft.

The exercise here is simple: We put all the major MMA promotions into a draft and let them choose fighters to build their franchises around. To do this, we’ve given the reins of the top MMA promotions in the world to Alexander K. Lee, Damon Martin, Jed Meshew, Mike Heck, and Shaun Al-Shatti, who will all choose their squads. At the end, the fine readers and listeners will determine who has assembled the best talent to build around.

Here are the other rules:

All fighters are available to draft. Drafting a fighter will lock them into a 5-year contract with the organization.
Getting a fighter under contract does not mean the fighter has to fight for that organization, they just cannot compete for any other MMA organization. For instance, if you draft Jon Jones, you run the risk of him failing a drug test, getting arrested, or simply not wanting to fight.
At the end of the exercise, any fighter who is undrafted will revert to the company they are currently under contract with.

We assigned draft positions based on organizational standing in the broader MMA landscape, meaning Eagle FC has the first pick, ONE Championship the second, PFL the third, Bellator the fourth, and UFC bringing up the rear.

Savvy? Good! Let’s get drafting.

Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images
Francis Ngannou

Round 1

Eagle FC: Francis Ngannou

Heck: Let me just start off by saying that we at Eagle FC are here to make an immediate impact, and we will do so in more ways than one. With the blessing of Khabib Nurmagomedov, we made our first selection with about three actual seconds of thought, and another 30 seconds of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for other things that may be involved.

So, the first pick of the draft is none other than the now former UFC heavyweight champion of the world: Francis Ngannou.

Not only will he carry our heavyweight division to new levels of greatness, but Mr. Ngannou also has our full blessing — with a bit of a kickback, albeit a sliver in the grand scheme of things — to face Tyson Fury in boxing, MMA, bowling, tether ball, or any other fun sport they choose to participate in. Also, as stated in his new contract, Ngannou will be guaranteed a massive organizational debut, and we don’t take guarantees lightly here at Eagle FC.

ONE Championship: Israel Adesanya

Martin: As the top promotion across the globe with billions upon billions of potential viewers for every single event, along with our new broadcast partnership with Amazon Prime, ONE Championship is poised for a great run over the next few years. And that’s why our pick is built around the promotion that has granted us the ability to hold events featuring mixed martial arts, kickboxing, Muay Thai, and even grappling matches.

That’s why our first pick is none other than “The Last Stylebender,” Israel Adesanya.

Not only is Adesanya the best middleweight on the planet, he’s also a multi-sport athlete who could eventually cross over to compete for titles in kickboxing or Muay Thai, as well as possibly making the move again to become a two-division champion between both middleweight and light heavyweight. There’s even a chance he challenges one day for the ONE heavyweight title!

Adesanya is also a global superstar with universal appeal and a massive fan base that will undoubtedly follow him from his home in New Zealand, which is always a bonus with many of ONE’s shows happening throughout Asia. But now as ONE plans to conquer the U.S. market as well, who better to lead the way than one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in all of combat sports?

PFL: Khamzat Chimaev

Meshew: As the new head of the PFL, there’s a structural issue I have to reckon with — we host all of our events over the span of six months, which means I have to draft fighters who are going to be willing to fight 3-4 times over a short period of time. Also, we want action. Lay-and-pray has no place in the Smart Cage. Give me excitement and reliability or get out. Not everyone in MMA is built for that. But you know who is?

Khamzat Chimaev.

Chimaev made his name in the UFC by having his first three fights in the organization take place over the span of two months, and only one strike was landed on him in his first four UFC fights! This is a man who will be ready to “smesh” people every single weekend if we ask him to, and his desire to compete at welterweight and middleweight (and maybe even light heavyweight) is exactly what we’re looking for in the PFL.

Bellator: Kamaru Usman

Al-Shatti: First off, let me just say I’m pleased you all could make it here today for what will surely be a seismic day for our industry. When I was elevated to my new position of power atop Bellator, the directive was clear: A new era is needed.

It’s time to wash away the sins of Bellator’s past, to rid ourselves of the lingering stench of Bjorn Rebney and launch ourselves into the next generation with none of the baggage that has plagued us over the years. That means we’re making a few key structural changes before we make our first pick. No longer will we go by the name Bellator. It’s a bad name, it gives people zero idea of what our product is about, and frankly, we’re long overdue for a brand refresh. Instead, we’re going by something simple, with a touch of prestige. Maybe a name that harkens back to the golden days of Strikeforce. Let’s go with Showtime MMA.

We’re also getting rid of the much-too-large circle cage and giving the people what they want by overhauling the broadcast crew. A new day is upon us.

(The flashy entrances can stay though.)

With that business out of the way, let me also thank you gentlemen for making the first pick of this rebrand an easy decision. Because I’m somewhat stunned. When you get the chance to lock down the pound-for-pound king at pick No. 4, how can you not take it? If you want legitimacy in the eyes of fans, you go out and sign the best damn combat sports athlete on the planet Earth. No longer can the UFC claim to have the No. 1 fighter in the world. Welcome home to Showtime, Kamaru Usman. We’re happy to have you.

UFC: Charles Oliveira

Lee: Full disclosure: Loath as I am to admit it, my colleagues have done an outstanding job with the first four picks of this draft and my promotion has already lost the top two names on my big board, Francis Ngannou and Khamzat Chimaev.

The good news is that I’m the frigging UFC, which means my promotion already has a massive head start on everyone else and we have the advantage of getting to keep the majority of our packed roster once these shenanigans are over. That’s going to leave me with several world champions under the UFC umbrella, but there’s one in particular that I just cannot let walk.

Charles Oliveira, the king of what has historically been the most competitive division in MMA, is my No. 1 pick. He has nowhere near the star power of some of the fighters that have come off the board and some of the fighters still to come, but in this new era of the UFC, we’re banking on our brand being strong enough to carry us through and everyone following through on my vision of doing a better job of creating and pushing stars as opposed to waiting for them to fall into our laps.

Even with a language barrier that limits his appeal to North American audiences, “Do Bronx” is one of the most entertaining fighters in MMA when it’s time to get down to business, and that’s what I want to emphasize with my picks. We’re going to remind fight fans that what should matter the most is being the best at what you do, not who can rack up the social media impressions, and few exemplify that better than Oliveira.

It’s going to hurt to see the UFC’s lightweight ranks thinned out over the next few rounds, but as I said, this division runs deep, and whoever is left that forms the new contenders’ line will quickly endear themselves to the fanbase. And then they’ll have to test themselves against Oliveira, the man I want to lead my promotion into the future.

PFL
Kayla Harrison

Round 2

Eagle FC: Jon Jones

Heck: Remember how we guaranteed that Ngannou would have the biggest possible promotional bout right out of the gate? You’re welcome, MMA community! With the second pick, Eagle FC selects the greatest fighter of all-time, Jon Jones. Which means, you guessed it, Eagle FC will be the promotion that finally brings you a heavyweight bout between Francis Ngannou and Jon Jones.

The fight you have all wanted since we were smack dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic has now come to fruition. There’s nothing more that needs to be said, ladies and gentlemen, other than may the best man win.

ONE Championship: Jiri Prochazka

Martin: A huge part of the global appeal of ONE Championship is putting on exciting fights that will have Jeff Bezos shooting off Blue Origin rockets to the moon, which is why light heavyweight dynamo Jiri Prochazka is the next addition to our roster.

Prochazka is not only one of the best 205-pound fighters in the world, he’s also guaranteed excitement each and every time he sets foot in the cage. Whether it’s spinning elbows, jumping knees, or a full on assault against an opponent’s internal organs, Prochazka can do it all. And thanks to his time in RIZIN, he already has tremendous appeal in many markets overseas, which only helps to further his celebrity in the new ONE Championship.

PFL: Max Holloway

Meshew: As I said at the start, I’m focused entirely on versatility and offense. I’m trying to Kyle Shanahan this thing with a bunch of Swiss Army Knives who can put up 55 points a game. And there are few fighters more reliably exciting than one-time UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway.

Holloway can compete at featherweight, lightweight, and maybe even welterweight, and there are few men alive who are more fun to watch. Plus, just think of Holloway in the Smart Cage! I can hardly begin to fathom all the fun we can have with Holloway and stats as he romps his way to two tournament victories.

Bellator Showtime MMA: Justin Gaethje

Al-Shatti: Fellas, I can’t believe you’ve let me do this.

It was one thing to be able to grab the pound-for-pound king late in an admittedly star-studded first round. But now to let Justin F***ing Gaethje, the single most exciting man in combat sports, somehow fall to me late in the second round? My goodness. Yes please.

All we’re trying to do in this new era of Showtime is get fans to tune in and give this rebrand a chance — and there isn’t a self-respecting MMA fan alive who’s going to willingly miss a Justin Gaethje fight. He’s as close to must-see TV as exists in this talent pool. And hey, if he wants to do some weird extracurriculars on the side, more power to him. I’ll set up an eating competition or an obstacle course challenge between him and Usman this very second. There’s no such thing as too much Justin Gaethje. Just an amazing start to this draft.

UFC: Kayla Harrison

Lee: Alright, some of these steals are starting to hurt. I don’t even want to mention the names that have been ripped from the UFC roster. Scroll up, look at all of that mess. Ouch.

It’s time to fight fire with fire, and fortunately we’re in the perfect spot to make the perfect pick by drafting one of the rare, genuinely unique attractions in MMA: Kayla Harrison. The two-time PFL champion has been marked for greatness ever since making history by becoming the first American to win Olympic gold in judo and then becoming the first to do it twice. After overcoming some initial reticence, Harrison jumped into cagefighting with both feet and hasn’t looked back. She’s been as advertised, absolutely crushing her (admittedly weak) opposition at 155 pounds and developing her mic skills while doing so.

I don’t know if Harrison can ever be that next-level star, but give me that person who is putting in that work and wants to be a next-level star any day of the week. We’re going to find bodies to put in front of her, whether it’s at lightweight of featherweight, and she’ll remain a one-of-a-kind act and a great ambassador for our brand.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Islam Makhachev

Round 3

Eagle FC: A.J. McKee

Heck: I know this one compared to Ngannou and Jones might seem a little out of left field, but it’s time that A.J. McKee gets treated like the star we all know he can be. So it is my honor to welcome the second generation talent to the Eagle FC roster.

It’s no secret that when McKee defeated Patricio Pitbull and captured the Bellator featherweight title, not much was done to celebrate that achievement from a promotional standpoint. While McKee should’ve been making the media rounds on all of the big shows in the U.S., we didn’t really see him have that shine outside of being occasionally featured on the desk prior to a Jake Paul vs. Tyron Woodley boxing bout. So get ready to see A.J. McKee on Good Morning America, The Tonight Show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and you might even see him reading off clues for a category on Jeopardy. The ceiling for McKee is high, and we will make sure he has every opportunity to break through it.

ONE Championship: Islam Makhachev

Martin: Star power and excitement have been well covered in our first two picks. Now it’s time to look for dominance. Soul-crushing, will-breaking dominance. And right now there’s no better potential for that than the man who will soon become the best lightweight across all of combat sports: Islam Makhachev.

With a pedigree built in the mountains of Dagestan, Makhachev has learned from the very best and he even counts the greatest lightweight in history, Khabib Nurmagomedov, as his head coach. Makhachev has only gotten better with every performance, which means he might only get better as time moves forward. He’s a foundation that an entire promotion can stand upon, and Makhachev is the kind of monster who will gladly sit on a throne made out of the broken and smashed bodies of anyone crazy enough to oppose him.

He’s another perfect addition to the ONE roster and we look forward to him demolishing the competition for years to come.

PFL: Jorge Masvidal

Meshew: I won’t lie, losing Kayla Harrison hurt. I had designs on building out an elite roster of WMMA fighters and planting my flag there, but now I have to pivot. And so I’m gonna double down on my strategy of taking fighters who are all atop the “BMF” rankings by taking the BMF himself, Jorge Masvidal.

Conor McGregor would make the most sense here but he’s riddled with injury concerns and character issues and I have no belief I can even sign him to the PFL. I can’t risk the pick on that. So instead, I’m going to take the next best thing. Masvidal is one of the biggest stars in MMA, he’s competed in two weight classes, and he usually likes to stay active. He’s a huge asset to our roster and one who is going to draw a ton of eyeballs.

Showtime MMA: Conor McGregor

Al-Shatti: The Showtime offices hate to sound like a broken record, but what is even going on anymore? As much as the loss of McKee stings, I feel like y’all are trying to trick us right now. First, you gifted us the pound-for-pound most talented fighter in MMA. Then, you gifted us the pound-for-pound most exciting fighter in MMA. Now, you’re letting us stroll in here near the end of the third round and snag the literal single-biggest star in the history of this sport?

How??

OK, fine. We’ll take him off your hands.

The world is Conor McGregor’s oyster outside the restrictive confines of the UFC. If he wants to fight MMA for his return, hey, come on down. If he wants to box, hey, we’re here for that too. If he wants to get weird with it and jump straight into that obstacle course with Usman and Gaethje, please, by all means. We’re in the business of drawing eyeballs here at Showtime, and whether you love him or hate him, there’s still no one in combat sports who draws eyeballs like a pissed-off Conor McGregor with a chip on his shoulder and a point to prove after watching 13 names get picked before him.

UFC: Valentina Shevchenko

Lee: Oh no, Conor McGregor is gone. Cue the tiny violin.

I couldn’t be more pleased to see popular malcontents McGregor and Jon Jones no longer on my roster. Pay-per-view buys and mainstream cachet be damned, we’re dusting off the ol’ “Conduct Policy” and adhering to it closely from this point forward, so there’s no more tolerance for outside-of-the-cage chicanery, I don’t care how much revenue you’re generating.

(Hmm… that’s weird, I keep getting bombarded with e-mails and messages from some people called “shareholders?” Eh, I’m sure it’s nothing.)

Sticking with our emphasis on excellence, I already have the best lightweight in the world and one of its most special attractions, so why not go for a woman near-unanimously recognized as the Pound-for-Pound best in the world? My No. 3 pick with a “Bullet”: I’m not losing Valentina Shevchenko.

Like Oliveira, Shevchenko has a charisma about her that is hard to quantify, but I’m confident we can take her to the next level in terms of popularity. She speaks multiple languages fluently, has done a Netflix movie with Halle Berry, and loves to play with guns. How is she not already America’s favorite fighter? Throw in the dancing and, oh yeah, the fact that she’s arguably the most dominant champion in MMA and you can see why this is a no-brainer pick.

Your eyes don’t deceive you, the faces of my company going forward are Shevchenko, Charles Oliveira, and Kayla Harrison.

(Wow, my phone is actually buzzing with urgent calls right now. Wonder what that could be about.)

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
Dustin Poirier

Round 4

Eagle FC: Brandon Moreno

Heck: First of all, AK, I’m angry at you for stealing a pick I thought would be there for me in this spot. Valentina Shevchenko would’ve been a perfect way to take Eagle FC into new and exciting places by adding a tremendous face to our soon-to-be-introduced women’s divisions.

Having said that, we have decided to brighten things up in the ol’ FLXCast Arena and bring in a man we feel represents our organization with class and positivity, and can bring some fresh new eyeballs to our growing product: Brandon Moreno. We can’t wait to partner up with Lego, Funko, and many other companies “The Assassin Baby” will get the opportunity to work with. Moreno will also be featured as part of the broadcast team on events he will not be competing on.

ONE Championship: Rose Namajunas

Martin: ONE has long championed women’s mixed martial arts and the embodiment of honor, class, and the spirit of martial arts is represented by nobody better than our next pick: Rose Namajunas.

Namajunas is a ferocious striker, a nasty grappler, and perhaps above all else, she’s one of the best people both inside and outside the cage. Her stoic stare will oftentimes break down opponents before they even get to throw the first punch at her, and Namajunas will gladly smile back at them after she snatches a submission or knocks them out with a head kick, which consistently shows how well-rounded she is in every facet of the game.

There’s even a chance Namajunas might perform as a concert pianist before her fights, which makes her a triple threat as far as we’re concerned.

PFL: Dustin Poirier

Meshew: I cannot believe everyone let Dustin Poirier fall this far.

Like Masvidal, Poirier is one of the biggest stars in the sport, and he’s open to fight at lightweight or welterweight. My run on position-less players continues and I now have three of the sport’s eight biggest stars, all of whom can compete in my best weight class. For all Shaun is talking about the steals he’s getting, the PFL now has a ton of starpower to hook an entirely new generation of Smart Cage fans.

Showtime MMA: Alexander Volkanovski

Al-Shatti: If it’s not clear by now, I’m hunting for legitimacy in the eyes of MMA fans with this draft class. The days of scoffing at the notion of a non-UFC promotion having the best fighter in the world in any given weight class are officially over. So let’s continue down that path and snag the best value pick still available on the board: Alexander Volkanovski.

My featherweight division is already loaded with Patricio Pitbull at the top and Aaron Pico waiting in the wings. Add the No. 1 ranked 145-pound fighter anywhere in the world to that mix — a man who’s only getting better and still has plenty of tread left on his tires — and there’s a lot of fist pumping going on in the Showtime war room right now. And hey, if Volk is serious about trying his hand at lightweight, we’re here for that too. Volk vs. Gaethje? Volk vs. McGregor?? McGregor vs. Gaethje?! McGregor losing terribly to Usman?!? Are all on the table now. PFL Meshew is out here talking about drafting for versatility. He ain’t got nothing on us.

UFC: Aljamain Sterling

Lee: Okay, so after chatting with some very angry, very rich people, I’ve decided my next pick has to be a little more splashy. A little more controversial. And a lot more polarizing.

Let’s go with Mr. Love Him Or Hate Him himself, “Funk Master,” Aljamain Sterling.

I’ve been an advocate of Sterling’s for a long time and never understood why the reigning UFC bantamweight champion was buried on the undercard for so long. Had it been me in charge, as I am now, I would have had the brash New Yorker opening pay-per-views and headlining fight nights long before he emerged as a surefire title contender and eventual champion. His “F the Haters” approach to interviews and social media appeals to me greatly, and unlike some of the other names on my list, he’ll happily fire back at trolls who venture into his line of sight. We’re promoting honor and good manners, but sometimes you just need a dude on your roster who’s going to talk that s***.

He also fits my criteria of divisional dominance as he is the No. 1 guy in what I consider to currently be the deepest weight class. With Charles Oliveira, that gives me two guys who are the premiere athletes among a field of absolute killers.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Dana White

Round 5

Eagle FC: Vicente Luque

Heck: Folks, we have the biggest fight that can be made in MMA, we have a star on the rise who will reach new heights, and one of the bright, positive stars in the sport who continues to grow in popularity. But what we need is a man who will set the table for these massive fights Eagle FC is about to put on for you, and a first ballot, all-violence Hall of Famer.

That man is Vicente Luque.

Look, our matchmaking will be simple: Luque is early on the main card against a guy who likes to get in there and get his scrap on. He will not be fighting individuals that will be looking to take him down. We are going to let Luque do what he does best, get in wild exchanges and create highlight reels.

We’re setting ourselves up for the future, and while Luque may never be the best welterweight in the world, he sure is one of most exciting, and we are honored to watch him deliver chaos every time he steps in our cage.

ONE Championship: Petr Yan

Martin: Last but certainly not least, ONE will close out our draft by picking another global superstar with bantamweight Petr Yan. With many of his training camps spent in Thailand, Yan already has some roots right in our backyard, not to mention the kind of style that will get crowds enthusiastic about every single one of his fights.

Yan is a powerhouse as a bantamweight with huge pop behind his punches and a gift of gab that will make him an even bigger attraction. Let’s also not forget that Yan is only 29, which means his best years are still largely ahead of him as he grows in his new fighting home at ONE Championship. Yan can go toe-to-toe with anybody in his weight class and he’s exactly the type of fighter who can continue to build his own stardom as well. Also just imagine Yan vs. John Lineker and tell me you wouldn’t buy a ticket to see that!

PFL: Tom Aspinall

Meshew: And this is where we change it up. Because while I love the idea of creating an unguardable unit of X receivers and utility guys to run endless screens, end-arounds, and gadget plays, sometimes you just need a guy to pound the rock. The PFL heavyweight division is desperately in need of a revamp, and so we’re going to pin our hopes to the most exciting prospect the heavyweight division has seen in years, Tommy Aspinall.

Aspinall is young and has infinite potential, and he’s going to spearhead the PFL’s push overseas. Get ready, England, the Smart Cage is coming across the pond.

Showtime MMA: Dana White

Al-Shatti: Oh my! What just happened, UFC?? We’re agents of chaos over here at Showtime, disruptors through and through, so why not take the ultimate disruptor with this final pick?

That’s right — we’re cutting AK off at the knees. Rightly or wrongly, the biggest star in the UFC for the past 21 years has been Dana White. He’s the face of the promotion. He’s the one who gets the biggest pop at every press conference. He’s the name (aside from maybe Joe Rogan) most people in the casual audience jump to first when they think of MMA. In many people’s eyes, he is the UFC — and now he’s playing ball for the competition. I love it.

This is self-explanatory. We need a man who knows how to draw attention. We need a man who knows how to make headlines. We need a man who knows how to get people talking. And hell, he’s probably going to fool plenty of viewers into even thinking we *are* the UFC.

The No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the sport? Check. The No. 1 most exciting fighter in the sport? Check. The No. 1 superstar in the sport, the No. 1 featherweight in the sport, and the No. 1 figurehead in the sport? Check, check, and check. It’s been a good day.

UFC: Reinier de Ridder

Lee: Thanks for taking that last millstone, Showtime MMA. Enjoy having Dana White publicly trash your fighters and telling people not to watch your product if they don’t like it (something your crew should be used to anyway). Also, Cris Cyborg, I know you Mr. White didn’t get along, so now that our promotion is no longer under his purview, you are welcome to come back home and get yourself as far away from him as possible. Kayla says, “Hiiii!”

As happy as I am to see some personalities go, there’s no denying that we took some shots to the chest here and we’ve lost a lot of blood. So I’m going to plug up a couple of those holes with my fifth pick, Reiner de Ridder. The undefeated Dutchman currently holds titles in two weight classes for ONE Championship, has a fan-friendly grappling style, and could just be the man to help anchor 205 and 185 for us.

Give me de Ridder vs. Robert Whittaker, Jared Cannonier, Darren Till, Marvin Vettori, and Paulo Costa, or he can fight up and go after the likes of Glover Teixeira, Jan Blachowicz, and Magomed Ankalaev. He won’t win ‘em all, but “The Dutch Knight” will cause some major problems for the veterans on my roster.

Speaking of which, remember that advantage I mentioned earlier? We still heading into battle with undrafted champions Teixeira, Deiveson Figueiredo, Amanda Nunes (Kayla says, “Hiiiiiii!” again), and Julianna Pena, plus a number of high-profile names such as Stipe Miocic, Ciryl Gane, Nate Diaz, Colby Covington, Zhang Weili, Jose Aldo, T.J. Dillashaw, Michael Chandler, Brian Ortega, and who knows how many future champions and headliners?

I’ve been playing with house money from the start, and with my colleagues helping me to cut some fat and allowing me to take this company in a fresh direction, don’t expect the coffers to run dry anytime soon.

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