Last year was the year of the challenger in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Of the UFC’s 12 divisions, only Amanda Nunes, Valentina Shevchenko, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Jon Jones were able to enter and exit 2019 as champion.
In many divisions, the skill gap between champion and contender is so thin, navigating a calendar year as champion can be akin to navigating a minefield. The room for error is non-existant in a sport, so punishing.
Who will make it out of 2020, a UFC champion?
DISCLAIMER: The women’s featherweight division will not be considered. The UFC has no interest in developing the division, so it will either cease to exist at the end of the year, or Nunes will still hold the title. At the most, Nunes will defend the belt once against Megan Anderson or Felicia Spencer and will be a sizable favorite against both.
Current Champion: Amanda Nunes
Champion on December 31, 2020: Amanda Nunes
In an era where the consensus “GOAT” for each division seems to change bi-monthly, you will have an uphill battle trying to argue why Amanda Nunes is not the greatest female mixed martial artist of all time. Nunes’ 2019 highlights included a head kick knockout over Holly Holm and a wrestling clinic against Germaine de Randamie. Now, the division has no definite top contender.
Both Irene Aldana and Aspen Ladd have managed to stand out from the pack. Aldana’s stand up is superb but has yet to show any signs that she could counter Nune’s power and absurd pressure. The latter, Ladd, has, several solid wins to her resume but would benefit from a few more fights before being thrown to Nunes.
Another possibility for Nunes is the third fight with UFC Flyweight Champion, Valentina Shevchenko. Despite Nunes defeating Shevchenko twice, both bouts were close enough to market a trilogy, this time with the added moniker of “champion vs. champion.” Things would get messy should Shevchenko win that fight, with the UFC having to choose between an unprecedented fourth fight between the two or hope Shevchenko loses to another contender to insert Nunes back into the title picture. This reason alone may be enough for the company to avoid booking the bout.
Whatever the path may be, it would be a shock to see Nunes without the bantamweight belt at year’s end.
Current Champion: Valentina Shevchenko
Champion on December 31, 2020: Valentina Shevchenko
Shevchenko was dominant as flyweight Queen in 2019.
“Bullet” defended her championship twice with a brutal knockout of Jessica Eye and a reasonably one-sided decision against Liz Carmouche. Shevchenko already knows the name of her first title challenger in 2020 as she takes on Katlyn Chookagian at UFC 247 in February where she should be a sizable favorite.
After Chookagian, the next contender is not as definite. Joanne Calderwood has had recent success, but will most likely need one more win to solidify a fight with the winner at UFC 246. Maycee Barber is arguably the hottest prospect in the company, but the 21-year-old may be better off focusing on a 2021 title shot and get a few more fights under her belt. Though Jessica Eye won her last bout, a rematch this year is highly unlikely. Eye lost in devastating fashion and then missed weight in her victory. The Cleveland native will likely need several wins before challenging for a title again.
The rest of the top 15 are coming off a loss, or are several wins away from title contention.
Then there’s always the trilogy mentioned above with Amanda Nunes, but as discussed, the UFC won’t be quick to make it happen unless in a dire predicament. Similar to Nunes, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against Shevchenko losing her belt in 2020, no matter who is next in line.
Current Champion: Zhang Weili
Champion on December 31, 2020: Tatiana Suarez
The UFC Strawweight Championship changed hands twice in 2019. Rose Namajunas was knocked out by a brutal Jessica Andrade slam in May. Andrade lost the belt in her first defense in August when current champ, Zhang Weili, finished her in the first round in China. Weili. Weili will make her first title defense against former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, but another worthy contender waits in the wings.
Tatiana Suarez has been deemed the “chosen one” by many to one day capture the strawweight title. The undefeated 29-year-old has a brand of smothering, relentless wrestling that no opponent has been able to stop yet. Suarez’s greatest foe may end up being a nagging neck injury that could prevent her from fighting for a title this year.
Suarez will likely be at a striking disadvantage against most of the top of the division, especially against the winner of the next title fight. However, her size and wrestling, particularly the way she chains takedown attempts together, will give her the edge to leave 2020 as champion.
Current champion: Vacant
Champion on December 31, 2020: Deiveson Figueiredo
Let’s take a moment to appreciate that, no matter who is UFC Flyweight Championship at the end of 2020, the division still exists. That’s all that really matters. What a wild ride.
The UFC Flyweight Championship was defended one time in 2019 when then-champion Henry Cejudo defeated then UFC bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw. Dillashaw attempted to move down in weight to claim a second fight, but ultimately failed in what was dubbed a “super fight.” The fight brought mainstream attention to a division on life support. Since then, Cejudo has vacated the belt to become a full-time bantamweight. That decision gave birth to a fight between Joseph Benavidez and Deiveson Figueiredo in February to crown a new king of the flyweights.
Each man is the other’s toughest fight in the division, and the match is poised to be a back-and-forth classic. The winner of that bout will hold the belt for the rest of the year, but the cards seem to be falling into place to give the edge to Deiveson.
Past Benavidez, Figueiredo, will focus his attention on the top of the division that boasts contenders such as Jussier Formiga, who is the only man to defeat Figueiredo, a surging Brandon Moreno, Alexandre Pantoja and fresh faces in Rogerio Bontroin Askar Askarov. “Deus de Guerra” is surging into his prime at the age of 32 and boasts excellent skills in every facet of mixed martial arts, with both knockout and submission victories in his UFC tenure.
Current Champion: Henry Cejudo
Champion on December 31, 2020: Aljamain Sterling
The bantamweight division is a tricky one to predict.
Not only is the division filled to the brim with high-level talent, but it’s champion, Henry Cejudo, seems content to defend his belt against a big name over a top contender. Cejudo has announced that he wants a showdown with Jose Aldo, and it appears that UFC President Dana White is keen on the idea.
Aldo’s lone bantamweight fight came in a loss, albeit controversial, to Marlon Moraes in December. Understandably, the idea that a man who is 0-1 in a division getting a shot at that division’s title has not sat well with other fighters.
If Cejudo’s title defenses are merit-based, and that’s a big “if,” there’s a trio of potential number one contenders in the likes of Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling, and Cory Sandhagen. Yan and Sandhagen seem to have become the fan favorites of the trio for their violent fighting styles, but Sterling may have the best recent resume.
The 30-year-old Long Island, New York, native is on a four-fight winning streak, including decisions over Jimmie Rivera and Pedro Munhoz on the feet and submitted Cody Stamann with the rare Suloev stretch. “Funkmaster” has propelled himself from only being a grappler to a complete martial artist who is ready to hit his peak this year. “Funkmaster” utilizes his length as well as anyone in the division, which will be key against pressure heavy fighters like Yan and Sandhagen. The UFC Bantamweight Championship may change hands multiple times over the year, but may ultimately end in the grasp of Sterling.
Current Champion: Alexander Volkanovski
Champion on December 31, 2020: Chan Sung Jung
Last year saw an end to “The Blessed Era” as dominant champion Max Holloway dropped a unanimous decision to Alexander Volkanovski in December. A rematch between the two may be in the cards for sometime in 2020, but if not, the featherweight division does not have a shortage of worthy foes. Zabit Magomedsharipov, Yair Rodriguez, the former champ Holloway and former title challengers Brian Ortega and Chan Sung Jung look to end Volkanovski’s short reign.
However, Chan Sung Jung is primed to capture UFC gold this year finally.
The fan-favorite and longtime UFC vet “Korean Zombie” looked to be the best version of himself in 2019 after eight years in the company and a two-year layoff for mandatory military service. Zombie is 3-1 since his return with KO wins over Dennis Bermudez, Renato Moicano, and Frankie Edgar. Picking the future featherweight champion in 2020 may be as daunting as correctly predicting the winning lottery numbers. Still, Chan Sung Jung’s improved takedown defense, insane durability, and KO power give him a path to featherweight gold in 2020.
Current Champion: Khabib Nurmagomedov
Champion on December 31, 2020: Khabib Nurmagomedov
Khabib Nurmagomedov’s toughest test in the division will be his next fight.
The Dagestani will fight Tony Ferguson at UFC 249. The 35-year-old has the perfect blend of striking, submission offense and durability; however, it is hard to pick against the champ. Often a fighter’s proposed path to victory over Nurmagomedov is on the feet, but no one can stand up long enough. Now, the Dagestani has put enough time into his striking that his disadvantage on the feet is far less than it was once perceived. Ferguson has immense submission grappling offense, but given Khabib’s “Donkey Kong” style ground and pound, it’s hard to see Ferguson sinking in something off his back.
In a fair world, Justin Gaethje would be next in line after Ferguson. However, life in the UFC is anything but fair.
Assuming Conor McGregor gets past Donald Cerrone in January, all signs are pointing to a rematch with Nurmagomedov by the end of the year. The signs are plentiful. McGregor has reignited trash talk towards his former foe, and Dana White expressed interest in the rematch
It’s hard to imagine the rematch ending any differently for the Irishman.
Current Champion: Kamaru Usman
Champion on December 31, 2020: Kamaru Usman
Few fighters had a better 2019 than “The Nigerian Nightmare” Kamaru Usman.
The Nigerian born Usman was able to snatch the belt from then champ Tyron Woodley, dominating him for 25 minutes. He followed up that performance by finishing his toughest competitor and mist hated rival in Colby Covington in December.
Regardless of the rankings, the welterweight division has a relatively clear “top 4” in Covington, Woodley, Jorge Masvidal, and Leon Edwards, One or more of the bunch will likely fight for the title in 2020.
Rumors and speculation dictate that Jorge Masvidal is likely to have the next crack at Usman. “Gamebred” has resurrected his career with victories over Darren Till, Ben Askren, and Nate Diaz. Despite his miraculous run, the defending champ should be favored in that fight, utilizing his wrestling and powerful hands to avoid a “baptism” by Masvidal.
Neither a rematch with Woodley or a showdown with Edwards will see Usman as the underdog, and for good reason.
The man who provides the greatest threat to Usman’s throne is still Colby Covington. I know that may not sit well with many, but the two fought in an absolute classic in their first bout. Usman was able to finish Covington in the final round of the bout, but “Chaos” had many moments of success, winning two rounds on two of the judge’s scorecards before the finish.
Given the fact that Covington will need a win or two before a rematch along with his tumultuous relationship with company president Dana White, and a 2021 rematch is more likely.
Usman will keep his title at least until then.
Current Champion: Israel Adesanya
Champion on December 31, 2020: Israel Adesanya
The “Fighter of the Year” in the eyes of many will retain his UFC Middleweight Championship through 2020, but it will be a bumpy road filled with large, powerful men trying to beat him up.
“The Last Stylebender” proved every naysayer wrong in 2019, capturing the Interim UFC Middleweight Championship in a war against Kelvin Gastelum. He then ended his 2019 campaign by dominating and eventually finishing champion Robert Whittaker. His striking is on another level, and his takedown defense has been practically flawless. Even with all the killers at 185-pounds, it’s tough to anticipate Adesanya losing his title so soon.
With former champion Whittaker and Jared Cannonier paired up for early 2020, and Paulo Costa rehabbing an injury, Yoel Romero will be Adesnya’s first defense. Adesanya’s foot-work should be enough to nullify Romero’s bursts of power, and it’s hard to rely on the Cuban to use his wrestling anymore. Beyond Romero, Adesanya is likely looking at Costa or the winner of Whittaker and Cannonier’s fight. Both fights are winnable for the Nigerian born Adesanya if he fights as well as he has thus far in his career.
Current Champion: Jon Jones
Champion on December 31, 2020: Jon Jones
How does one confidently pick against Jon Jones?
It’s hard to see to the youngest UFC champion in history losing the Light Heavyweight Championship to any of the potential title worthy 205-pound opponents in 2020. His first opponent, Dominick Reyes, is at a disadvantage in every area except one-punch power. The winner of Corey Anderson vs. Jan Blachowicz, who will likely fight Jones after Reyes, does not fare much better on paper.
That’s not an insult to Reyes, Anderson, Blachowicz, or any of the other Light Heavyweights, that’s just a testament to the skill of Jones.
The only other real choice for the champion on December 31 is “no one.” In that scenario, Jones moves up to heavyweight by the end of 2020 and vacates his current title. While this has been the desire of fans for some time now, Jones will ultimately look to conquer a few more opponents at light heavyweight. Once Jones makes the move to heavyweight, it will likely be permanent.
Jones holds his belt for another year, and maybe 2021 will be his year to test the waters in a new division.
Current Champion: Stipe Miocic
Champion on December 31, 2020: Francis Ngannou
The final bout in the Miocic-Cormier trilogy is in the works for 2020. No matter who wins that bout, “The Predator” Francis Ngannou will be champion by year’s end.
If Ngannou defeats Jairzinho Rosentruik, a second chance at UFC gold is inevitable.
A Miocic victory sets the table for a rematch with Ngannou. It was a fight that Ngannou was not ready for. Miocic was able to weather the early storm to take the “The Predator” into deep waters. Ngannou, in a mix of fatigue and inexperience, could not hang.
He has gone 3-1 in the two years since. He will be a wiser version of himself and his power is still as scary as ever.
If Cormier defeats Miocic, “DC” will likely vacate the belt and ride off into the sunset. Barring injury or insanity, Ngannou will be one half of the fight that determines who will claim the vacant title.
The UFC will have another African born fighter heading into 2021.
A 29-year-old paralegal by day, but I rather write. MMA nut since '04.