Opinion – 10 Must-See MMA Matchups In 2021

MMA
Mandatory Credit: Josh Hedges – Zuffa LLC & Christen Petersen – Zuffa LLC

2020 has brought with it some fantastical stylistic matchups the mixed martial arts world over. Even during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve witnessed some of the most entertaining, history rivalling fights in the history of the sport. 


Most recently, Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno, Paul Felder vs. Dan Hooker, Josh Emmett vs. Shane Burgos — and the consensus greatest fight of the year, Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk spring to mind as the best back-and-forths of a memorable annum of battles across the sport. 


At the beginning of this annum, I drafted a list of ten dream matchups I’d love to watch this year, and out of that handful of pairings, just a single one came to fruition. Stephen Thompson vs. Geoff Neal. Taking main event status at the promotion’s final event of the year (cutting it close on my list) at UFC Vegas 17 on December 19th. — Thompson firmly inserted himself into title contention once again.


Rather than re-hash that list with the remaining nine clashes that I would still love to see someday down the line, join me below as I revise my choosing and bring forth a fresh set of ten must-see matchups that I firmly believe can’t be overlooked in 2021 — in no particular order.


Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk II:


We’ve never seen a better strawweight title fight in the history of the sport. Followed up by one of the most forgettable and disappointing title matchups in any division at UFC 248 in March, incumbent 115-pound best, Zhang ‘Magnum’ Weili battled for five gruelling rounds to narrowly escape Las Vegas with her crown intact against former dominant division best, Joanna Jedrzejczyk. 


While a rematch between the two from the opening bell of 2021 seems a distant possibility, failing to jot this matchup on a list of this type is almost unforgivable.


Weili is still widely expected to match with former champion, ‘Thug’ Rose Namajunas despite recent rumblings of a matchup with inaugural champion, Carla ‘Cookie Monster’ Esparza, while for Jedrzejczyk, the Pole should score another win before an immediate title rematch.


If the Muay Thai ace can go out and knock back someone of Yan Xiaonan or even the above mentioned one-time foe, Esparza — the promotion would be missing a major step by failing to book a re-run should Weili retain her title at the next time of asking. 


Yoel Romero vs. Anthony Johnson:


If we head back as recently as November, this potential matchup of sport behemoths seemed hugely unlikely. Multiple time title challenger, Yoel ‘Soldier of God’ Romero remained at middleweight, while two-time light heavyweight championship chaser, Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson was still waiting to snap a four-year retirement, with sights drifting in and out of a move to the heavyweight ranks. 

Fast-approaching 2021 in quite bizarre and certainly unexpected fashion, both Romero and Rumble now find themselves under the banner of Scott Coker’s Bellator MMA, and not only under the same scrutiny, but also both at 205-pounds. 


Romero is set to return to the division for the first time since his sole Strikeforce outing back in 2011, while Johnson is also expected to hold off on a floated return to the heavyweight ranks. With the two unlikely to score an immediate title shot against recently minted titleholder, Vadim Nemkov — squaring the two off as part of a possible Grand Prix format is simply a no brainer. 

Amanda Nunes vs. Cris Cyborg II:


We’re going to need some major cooperation from this would-be cross-promotional event. The possibility of both Bellator and the UFC cross-promoting an event are more likely slim to none, however, it would be a massive shame if we failed to see this matchup between Brazilian duo, Amanda ‘The Lioness’ Nunes and Cris Cyborg again.


First meeting at UFC 232 in December 2018, Nunes became the first female mixed martial artist in UFC history to hold two titles simultaneously via a shocking knockout of Cyborg less than a minute into the opening frame. 


Stunning the dominant Curitiba force on the feet early, Nunes continually countered an overly aggressive Cyborg up until the finish — folding her compatriot with an overhand shot. 


Cyborg has featured thrice since her loss to Nunes, first besting common-foe, Felicia Spencer prior to a move to Bellator where she dethroned Julia Budd before an October submission win over Arlene Blencowe. 

A rematch between the two is still massively intriguing despite Nunes’ almost untouchable displays since and before the first matchup. Cyborg’s returning composure is key, however. 


Brian Ortega vs. Calvin Kattar:


The possibility of this clash occurring in 2021 is probably one of the most likely on this list. One-time featherweight title challenger, Brian ‘T-City’ Ortega is widely expected to match with incumbent titleholder, Alexander ‘The Great’ Volkanovski in the early goings of the year, while streaking contender, Calvin Kattar kicks off the 2021 schedule in a massive main event opposite former champion, Max ‘Blessed’ Holloway on January 16th. 


Stylistically, this one’s massively interesting. Ortega, who was always regarded as a talented striker particularly with his hands, is also revered as one of the most dangerous grapplers at 145-pounds in recent memory. Against Chan Sung Jung in October, Ortega outshone the South Korean on the feet with such poise and flow. 

Dropping the former title challenger twice, Ortega punched his championship contender ticket once again, while Kattar could follow suit with a performance against Hawaii favourite, Holloway on ‘Fight Island’. Even if both falter in their upcoming outings, squaring the two off without championship spoils up for grabs would be a shame but certainly not a world-ending situation. 


Patchy Mix vs. James Gallagher:


The signs are there. Both have traded some subtle hints at a pairing on their respective social media, and given the lie of the bantamweight pile in Bellator at this moment — a matchup of Patchy ‘No Love’ Mix and James ‘The Strabanimal’ Gallagher makes perfect sense. 


Blitzing through opposition on his way to September’s Bellator 246 vacant title challenge against Juan Archuleta, it proved a step too far for the Jackson-Wink MMA trainee who suffered his first professional loss, snapping an incredible thirteen fight run. 


Similarly blasting through opponents on his respective rise, brash Straight Blast Gym mainstay, Gallagher headlined Bellator Euro Series 9 in Milan, Italy back in October — finally drawing longtime rival, Cal Ellenor. 


On paper, the Sunderland native was regarded as Gallagher’s sternest challenge under the Bellator banner since Ricky Bandejas, however, the 24-year-old Strabane native cut though the former with aplomb on route to a dominant first-round rear-naked choke win. 


Both Mix and Gallagher seem to be on the cusp of a title challenge at 135-pounds under the Scott Coker led promotion, and a main event tilt and possible return Stateside for Gallagher would be the ideal setting for this clash. 


Cory Sandhagen vs. T.J. Dillashaw:


We hit the bantamweight division once again. Number-two ranked contender, Cory ‘The Sandman’ Sandhagen may be preoccupied with former lightweight titleholder, Frankie Edgar in a rescheduled matchup come February, however, a possible outing against former champion, T.J. Dillashaw would be fascinating viewing for spectators.


Polishing off a one-sided win over one-time title challenger, Marlon Moraes in his first promotional headliner in October, Elevation Fight Team staple, Sandhagen whipped a stunning wheel-kick in the second-round, before swarming the Brazilian with strikes.

Former two-time titleholder, Dillashaw may be convinced an immediate title shot awaits him upon his return from his USADA suspension in January — the consensus would disagree, however. 


Dropping a first-round knockout to former two-weight world champion, Henry Cejudo at UFC Fight Night Brooklyn in January of last year, Dillashaw would later test positive for the banned substance EPO. 


He’s slated to return to the Octagon in the early goings of 2021, and while an immediate matchup with Sandhagen is hugely-unlikely, depending on the path both find themselves down come the third or final quarter of the year, we could very well see these two stand opposite each other before 2022. 


Justin Gaethje vs. Conor McGregor:


Originally, a pairing of recent interim titleholder, Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje and former two-weight world best, ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor was briefly targeted for a July International Fight Week event, until the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the ultimate closure of gates to fans scuppered those plans.


Gaethje, who dropped a title unification outing to common-opposition, Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 254 in October, has been tentatively linked with a matchup against former three-time Bellator lightweight best, Michael Chandler at UFC 257 in January — the same card that’s closed by a rematch of Dustin Poirier, and you guessed it, McGregor.


The Arizona native has remained firm that if he’s to feature in a title challenge again, he must be coming off the back of a win, and while it would be ideal for both to feature on the same card on January 23rd. — it’s not necessarily a make or break issue. 
With the fighting future of Khabib still unclear, the possibility of an eventual vacate title opportunity continues to loom large. Spoils of such between Gaethje and McGregor just makes this potential bout even more exciting, if at all possible.


Francis Ngannou vs. Ciryl Gane:


We’ve got some rather interesting history in this one. Both Francis Ngannou and Ciryl Gane once plyed their trade together under the renowned, Fernand Lopez at the MMA Factory, however, that’s a distant memory right now. 


These two seem destined to eventually clash. I’m picking one-time title challenger, Ngannou to assume the throne when he eventually meets with incumbent best, Stipe Miocic sometime next year. And if Gane continues his rise through the ranks following his sole outing in 2020 against former champion, Junior dos Santos — this one really books itself.


Ngannou has made short work of four on the trot. Curtis Blaydes was stopped, for a second time, as well as former champions, Cain Velasquez, and common-foe, dos Santos, and in March, Ngannou, flattened Jairzinho Rozenstruik in just twenty-seconds. A debut outing in France between these two heavyweight behemoths is a no brainer for the UFC. 

Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones:


Again, similarly to Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk II — you’re missing a major step if this potential clash fails to feature on a list such as this. It’s a matchup the UFC would make in a heartbeat. Miocic vs. Ngannou II is all but nailed down as per usual, and according to promotional leader, White, Jon Jones may await the victor in a massive summer showdown. 


Jones has long been rumoured to feature at heavyweight, and following his narrow light heavyweight title retention against Dominick Reyes back in February, attention is firmly fixed on a strength and conditioning programe that allows him to tangle with the division’s elite. 


Many have posed the question countless times. How does Jon Jones deal with the power of Francis Ngannou? And, how exactly would Francis Ngannou manage the diverse skillset brought to the table by Jon Jones?


A lack of motivation could be to blame for Jones’ lacklustre performances against both Reyes and the faltering, Thiago Santos as of recent times, however, if’s it more than just a motivational factor, or lack thereof, Ngannou will seize without a doubt.

 
Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Manel Kape:


Finally, we make our way to the flyweight ranks — arguably along with the bantamweight division, the best weight classes in the promotion as of compiling this list. Along with the excitement that comes with flyweights, we’ve now got one of the most exciting champions and talents in a while, and undoubtedly the driving force behind the emergence of the division from rumoured exile. 


Outclassing Joseph Benavidez on two separate occasions before steamrolling Alex Perez, Figueiredo, the consensus 2020 Fighter of the Year was also narrowly beaten out by both Weili and Joanna for the Fight of the Year accolade following his barnburner with Brandon Moreno back at UFC 256 on the 12th. 

Figueiredo and Moreno have unfinished business of course, however, former RIZIN FF champion, Manel ‘Prodigio’ Kape can find himself withing touching distance of a title challenge with just a couple of wins in the division.

Riding a three-fight winning run into the UFC, most recently capped off with a second-round knockout of RIZIN FF 26 feature, Kai Asakura, Kape is still yet to make his promotional bow, however, it’s not for the want of trying.


Facing cancelled matchups with Figueiredo’s compatriots, Rogerio Bontarin, and Alexandre Pantoja — Kape is finally expected to match with the latter at UFC Fight Night 186 in February. A standout performance against Pantoja could propel Kape toward the division’s upper-echelon, and toward an intriguing battle with the ‘Deus Da Garra’. 

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