From the early hours of February 13th. — the first title matchup of the UFC’s 2021 schedule will have been contested. Current welterweight champion and dominant force, Kamaru ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ Usman is finally expected to tangle with streaking Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu standout, Gilbert ‘Durinho’ Burns — after two prior failed pairings.
For Usman, he enters 2021 alongside Stipe Miocic, Israel Adesanya, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Alexander Volkanovski, Amanda Nunes, Valentina Shevchenko, and Zhang Weili as the incumbent champions who launched successful title retentions over the course of last year.
Jan Blachowicz steamrolled Dominick Reyes in October to lift the vacant light heavyweight title, while Petr Yan scored a fifth-round knockout win over Jose Aldo in July to score the vacant bantamweight throne. Securing the vacant flyweight championship in July also, Deiveson Figueiredo is the sole champion from the trio to score a successful title defence, two, in fact.
While Usman has been booked against Burns and the above-mentioned titleholders, Blachowicz and Adesanya are slated to meet each other in a champion vs. champion meeting, apart from Nunes who is expected to match with Megan Anderson on March 6th. — the remaining championship holders are yet to be booked.
Join me below, as I predict who will be minted as a champion in their respective divisions in December of this year.
Current Champion: Deiveson Figueiredo – Since assuming the throne at UFC Fight Island 2 in July, the Brazilian ‘Deus Da Garra’ has stamped his name as one of the most exciting and engaging champions the promotion currently has on its books. Spearheading the long rumoured troubled flyweight ranks, the Para native has already bested Alex Perez on short-notice and scored a majority draw against Brandon Moreno at UFC 255 in arguably the greatest flyweight title fight in organizational history, ahead of a highly-anticipated rematch in the coming months.
Champion Come December: Deiveson Figueiredo – I’m picking the Brazilian punisher to remain king of the flies even beyond his re-run with the gritty, Moreno. Poised to take on all comers to his championship, Figueiredo detailed some rather gruelling stomach issues the night before his matchup with the Mexican, taking away from his still incredible performance come fight night. Unless the 33-year-old attempts a move to 135-pounds, I’m sticking with the current champion to remain the pacesetter come December.
Outside Chance: Manel Kape – Hoping to make his promotional bow in March in a rebooked matchup with Alexandre Pantoja, former RIZIN FF gold holder, Kape was previously booked against both Rogerio Bontorin and Pantoja in the late stages of last year but failed to make his long-awaited Octagon debut. A couple of eye-catching victories before the final quarter of this year could very well install Kape into title contention.
Current Champion: Petr Yan – Claiming the championship in the first of three title clashes at UFC 251 on ‘Fight Island’ in July, promotional perfect striker, Yan bested former featherweight kingpin, Aldo over five-rounds before an eventual stoppage victory. Booked to meet with perennial contender, Aljamain Sterling for the end of the year, the matchup failed to materialise, with the organization slated to rebook the championship clash.
Champion Come December: Aljamain Sterling – While Yan has looked fantastic during his championship rise and eventual assumption to the throne, Sterling has blasted through competition similarly during his rise to the top. Earning his shot at the champion, the New York native managed a quickfire rear-naked choke win over Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250 in June.
Outside Chance: Cory Sandhagen – Despite his title-eliminator defeat to Sterling at the UFC Apex facility, Elevation Fight Team mainstay, Sandhagen has bounced back in phenomenal fashion. Scoring his first promotional headliner in October, Sandhagen battled one-time title challenger, Marlon Moraes and with a highlight-reel wheel-kick in the second-round earned the #2 rank at bantamweight. Slated to meet with former lightweight best, Frankie Edgar in March, a win for Sandhagen would leave him undeniable as a title contender.
Current Champion: Alexander Volkanovski – City Kickboxing standout, Volkanovski knocked back former titleholder, Max Holloway in the co-main event of the above mentioned UFC 251 card last summer, in an even closer re-run than their UFC 245 matchup in December 2019. Nabbing a contentious split decision retention, the Aussie is now lined up to match with recent winner, Brain Ortega.
Champion Come December: Brian Ortega – Returning from a lengthy Octagon layoff in October in a main event slot against Chan Sung Jung, renowned grappler, Ortega utilised his boxing over five-rounds on his way to a rather comfortable unanimous decision win, displaying a new-found poise to his always improving striking. Ortega to clinch the title from Volkanovksi in the early goings of this year.
Outside Chance: Zabit Magomedsharipov – It’s a real shame we failed to see streaking featherweight contender, Zabit feature at least once in the Octagon in 2020. Removed from a couple of pairings with fellow contender, Yair Rodriguez who has since been issued a suspension by USADA for multiple whereabouts violations, the Russian hasn’t featured since UFC Fight Night Moscow in November of 2019. String a couple of wins together, and paramountly, in a main event slot, and Zabit could find himself in title contention for sure.
Current Champion: Khabib Nurmagomedov – The current champion is still set on retirement it seems, despite the floated plans from the promotion to entice him from his sidelining. Successfully unifying the lightweight titles in October at UFC 253, Khabib submitted interim champion, Justin Gaethje with a second frame triangle. Adamant that he’s featured for the final time professionally, Khabib has noted his confusion as to why the title hasn’t been vacated. Nevertheless, the 29-0 sambo specialist is slated to meet with Dana White this month with talks about his fighting future broached.
Champion Come December: Conor McGregor – I’m basing this pick on the fact that Khabib Nurmagomedov continues with his plans for retirement, and his consistent distancing from a bad-blooded rematch with the Dubliner. Set to rematch former opponent, Dustin Poirier at UFC 257 on January 23rd. If McGregor gets past Poirier for a second time, it’s difficult to deny him a title opportunity next, whether that be against Khabib or for a vacant championship.
Outside Chance: Charles Oliveira – In May at UFC 249, the aforenoted, Gaethje put a rather one-sided beating on fellow former interim champion, Tony Ferguson before finding the finish late in the final round. At UFC 256 on December 12th. — the streaking Oliveira announced himself as a legitimate title challenger, becoming the sole competitor to completely nullify and outclass Ferguson. Keep eyes firmly fixed on the continued evolution of ‘Do Bronx’ this year, who must be a shoo-in for any potential vacant title clash conversations.
Current Champion: Kamaru Usman – For my money, Kamaru Usman already laid solid foundations for an extended period of dominance atop the 170-pound stack. Expected to finally draw Gilbert Burns, Usman probably faces the most well-rounded challenger to his throne so far, following a pair of successful title defences against Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal.
Champion Come December: Kamaru Usman – Whilst Burns possesses some serious attributes both on the feet and of course with his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu background, I’m picking Usman to see past the Sanford MMA trainee over the course of five rounds.
Outside Chance: Stephen Thompson – A former two-time title challenger, ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson remains a firm contender to the welterweight throne in 2021. Pushing Tyron Woodley to his absolute limit on two separate occasions, Thompson sits at #5 at 170-pounds, and with a victory over a top-five contender, he’s sure to earn his third tilt at welterweight spoils. Should Leon Edwards overcome Khamzat Chimaev in an expected rebooking, it’s naive to overlook the Brummie native as well.
Current Champion: Israel Adesanya – While Adesanya prepares for a move to 205-pounds against the above mentioned, Blachowicz he’s already laid waste to both recent Bellator MMA signing, Yoel Romero and Brazilian bruiser, Paulo Costa over the course of last year. Set to retain his title as he moves to the light heavyweight ranks, the possibility of an interim belt introduction continues to loom.
Champion Come December: Robert Whittaker – This one is totally dependant on whether or not Adesanya chooses to continue his reign at middleweight after his incoming title challenge against Blachowicz at UFC 259. Rumblings from most recent title challenger, Paulo Costa’s manager, Wallid Ismail suggest the promotion make look to pair his client with former undisputed champion Whittaker, with possible interim spoils up for grabs.
Outside Chance: Marvin Vettori – The punching power of Italian contender, Marvin Vettori at 185-pounds is quite damning. Just consult recent UFC Vegas 16 headliner, Jack Hermansson. Drafted into the main event clash on short notice, Kings MMA staple, Vettori scored his fourth consecutive victory at the UFC Apex facility event, taking home a unanimous decision. A fifth triumph on the trot against someone of Darren Till, Jared Cannonier’s stature, or the victor of Derek Brunson vs. Kevin Holland would certainly stamp his name into title contention.
Current Champion: Jan Blachowicz – In the midst of a definite purple patch, long time force, Blachowicz has put early woes under the UFC’s banner firmly behind him. Notching four consecutive wins, the Pole blasted his way to the light heavyweight throne in October, laying firm waste to two-time title chaser, Dominick Reyes with a heavy second-round knockout, as part of an eye-catching winning run. Slated for a March defence against Adesanya, Blachowicz is thrown into the deep end as far as premier defence opponents go.
Champion Come December: Israel Adesanya – There’s quite the back story to this one. Forever linked with a ‘superfight’ against former two-time light heavyweight kingpin, Jon Jones since his assumption to the middleweight throne, how much would Adesanya love to claim Jones’ championship of old? I’m picking Adesanya to bring a swift end to the steely, Blachowicz’s reign in the coming months, however, an extended stay for him at 205-pounds is something I’m still unsure about.
Outside Chance: Aleksandar Rakic & Jiri Prochazka – For this one, I’m picking two contenders as possible ‘dark horses’ in the UFC light heavyweight division. Expected to draw former title challenger, Thiago Santos in a busy March for the promotion, the #4 ranked Rakic can move another step toward the championship with a standout performance against the Brazilian knockout ace. For former RIZIN FF pacesetter, Prochazka, the Czech Republic native exploded onto the scene on ‘Fight Island’ in July, knocking out Volkan Oezdemir in the second round. Headlining a February Fight Night event, Prochakza meets the aforenoted, Reyes. These two European contenders are poised for eventual championship success in seems.
Current Champion: Stipe Miocic – Rounding off his championship trilogy with former two-weight best, Daniel Cormier in August last, consensus heavyweight G.O.A.T. Miocic is absolutely expected to draw former opponent, Francis Ngannou before the summer in a well-overdue rematch. Handling the Cameroonian over five-rounds already, it’s a stern test for the Ohio native to avoid the incoming surge of Ngannou for a second time in my opinion.
Champion Come December: Francis Ngannou – I firmly believe Francis Ngannou is the best heavyweight fighter on the planet as of writing. Had it not been for a Miocic vs. Cormier rubber-match, the Xtreme Couture mover would have already claimed championship spoils I believe. Arguably the most frightening heavyweight force the sport has ever had, Ngannou has done more than enough to rebound to title contention, stopping Curtis Blaydes, Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, and Jairzinho Rozenstruik with ease.
Outside Chance: Jon Jones – With the promotion recently noting intentions to have division mover, Jones challenge the winner of a Miocic and Ngannou rematch this summer for championship honours, the Albuquerque native will challenge from his get-go at heavyweight. Given the fact I believe Ngannou will avenge his loss to Miocic, that sets up Ngannou vs. Jones. That poses two very interesting questions. Can Jones deal with the sheer power and stopping ability of an Ngannou? And, can Ngannou deal with the vast array of tools and abilities Jones will certainly bring with him, if he’s on form?
Current Champion: Zhang Weili – Involved in undeniably the greatest strawweight title matchup in the history of mixed martial arts, Hebei native, Weili earned Fight of the Year accolades for her tremendous five-round back-and-forth with former division champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk back in March. The close victory came as the 31-year-old’s first successful title defence after claiming the belt in a quickfire knockout over Jessica Andrade on home soil.
Champion Come December: Zhang Weili – Currently mooted to battle either former champions, Rose Namajunas or Carla Esparza next, I’d be willing to place all of my chips on Weili scoring successful title defences against either former titleholder. Namajunas narrowly scraped by two-time foe, Andrade in July to earn her consensus number-one contender slot at 115-pounds. For inaugural champion, Esparza, the Team Oyama mainstay has won four consecutively, most recently edging out Brazilian striker, Marina Rodriguez in close fashion at UFC Fight Island 3 in July.
Outside Chance: Tatiana Suarez – Out of all the legitimate contenders at 115-pounds, Suarez offers something hugely interesting to incumbent best, Weili. Still yet to return from a niggling neck injury, The Ultimate Fighter 23 victor last featured at UFC 238 in June of 2019, the two-time World Jiu-Jitsu Champion bested Nina Ansaroff over three-rounds. While Suarez needs another high-profile win before a title challenge, if the 30-year-old hits the ground running this year, expect her to challenge for gold before the culmination of 2021.
Current Champion: Valentina Shevchenko – One of the most dominant champions in recent years, since her move to 125-pounds, Kyrgyzstan native, Shevchenko extended her unbeaten run at flyweight to six-fights this year, with a couple of successful defences against first Katlyn Chookagian in February, before a November knockback against former Invicta FC titleholder, Jennifer Maia.
Champion Come December: Valentina Shevchenko – It’s incredibly difficult to look past Valentina Shevchenko as the flyweight champion in December coming. While Jessica Andrade, the division’s number-one contender offers a real, significant threat to Shevchenko’s title, I still believe after some thinking, that the current titleholder would prevail with her crown in place.
Outside Chance: Maycee Barber – Picking a ‘dark horse’ or an outsider to claim the championship from Shevchenko before the end of the year was difficult, to say the least. For Maycee Barber, the 22-year-old had made a massive impact on the UFC’s ranks since her transition from Dana White’s Contender Series back in 2018. Faltering in an important outing against veteran, Roxanne Modafferi back at UFC 247 in January, Barber suffered a debilitating knee injury ruling her out of action for the remainder of the year. In February, the Roufusport trainee returns against Alexa Grasso in yet another important bout. It’s win or bust if Barber wants to make inroads to a title tilt before the end of 2021.
Current Champion: Amanda Nunes – Like two-time opponent, Shevchenko, it’s even more difficult to envision a scenario with Amanda Nunes loses the bantamweight championship this year, or even in the near future. With potential plans for an impending retirement, Nunes will go down as arguably the greatest female mixed martial artist the sport has ever seen — blitzing her way through contender after contender.
Champion Come December: Amanda Nunes – As mentioned before, while Nunes sticks around, I don’t necessarily see a contender who can best her for championship spoils. The Bahia native has already twice bested second and third best bantamweights in the promotion in the form of Germaine de Randamie (x2), and Holly Holm, while Aspen Ladd needs another victory before chasing the championship.
Outside Chance: Aspen Ladd – I’m picking the #3 ranked Ladd over both de Randamie and Holm whom I’d like to see run back their UFC 208 contentious five-round affair. Recovering from an ACL and MCL tear, the Folsom native has yet to feature since UFC Fight Night D.C. back in December of 2019 where she picked up a knockout victory over Yana Kunitskaya, rebounding from a quickfire stoppage defeat to the above mentioned, de Randamie. Ladd could possibly spearhead this division if Nunes does in fact decide to hang up her gloves.
* I’m electing against predicting the future of the featherweight championship, due to the simple fact that the division is simply way too thin. Amanda Nunes is slated to feature in her second attempted title defence at UFC 259 against Megan Anderson, and if she prevails, I don’t envision a scenario where the promotion keep the division open. Nunes has already knocked back Felicia Spencer, who herself submitted the aforenoted, Anderson. Regardless of the outcome in March, the promotion should probably close off the 145-pound ranks — in place of a welcomed introduction of an atomweight limit.
Senior writer for FightBook MMA. An aspiring mixed martial arts reporter based in Ireland. Producer of news articles, interviews, opinion features, and exclusive features such as, ‘The Fallout’, ‘The Breakdown, and, ‘This Week In MMA’.
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