2021 is upon us, and on Saturday, the UFC presents its first show of the new year with UFC on ABC: Holloway vs. Kattar. 2020 saw three new UFC champions crowned, but will 2021 see more title changes? Or will another set of fighters claim UFC gold?
With 12 UFC titles up for grabs in different divisions now, it’s hard to say. Sure, some of the UFC’s longtime champions look pretty secure, but as we’ve seen on plenty of occasions, even the greats can lose.
Here, then, are our predicted UFC champions for the end of 2021.
#1 UFC Heavyweight champion: Francis Ngannou
The potential wildcard of Jon Jones aside, it seems like the most likely UFC Heavyweight champion at the end of 2021 will be either the current champ Stipe Miocic or the current number one contender Francis Ngannou.
The two men originally fought back in January 2018, and despite Ngannou coming off some huge wins, Miocic was able to wear him down and retain his title. Since then, though, The Predator has been on a terrifying run, beating four straight opponents, all by knockout, in a total of under three minutes.
Miocic, meanwhile, has taken some serious damage across three fights with Daniel Cormier, and at 38, he’s getting no younger. Therefore when these two do meet, I suspect Ngannou will win violently – and I can’t see anyone unseating him after that.
#2 UFC Light Heavyweight champion: Israel Adesanya
2020 saw a new UFC champion crowned at Light Heavyweight for the first time in a while, as Jan Blachowicz knocked out Dominick Reyes to claim the title vacated by Jon Jones. But how long can the Polish fighter hold onto it?
My prediction is not too long. Blachowicz is all set to defend against current UFC Middleweight champ Israel Adesanya at March’s UFC 259, and The Last Stylebender’ seems like a horrible match for the Pole on paper.
Adesanya’s pinpoint striking and quick reflexes should prove to be too much for the more plodding Blachowicz, meaning we will likely see another champ/champ crowned. If that’s the case, then it’s tricky to see any other 205lber in the UFC capable of beating Adesanya right now.
#3 UFC Middleweight champion: Israel Adesanya
Assuming Israel Adesanya doesn’t vacate his UFC Middleweight title should he win the UFC Light Heavyweight crown, then it’s hard to see any other 185lber being able to defeat him in 2021.
The Last Stylebender basically embarrassed top contender Paulo Costa in 2020, handing the Brazilian his first defeat. More to the point, he made it look easy. So can rising contenders like Jared Cannonier, Darren Till or Kevin Holland prove to be more of a challenge?
It’s hard to see it given Adesanya’s ridiculous striking skills and improving all-round game. Unless The Last Stylebender hands his title back, it’s doubtful that anyone will dethrone him in 2021.
#4 UFC Welterweight champion: Kamaru Usman
Reigning UFC Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman is perhaps the UFC’s most dominant titleholder right now. The Nigerian Nightmare has never been defeated in the UFC, and he’s now defended his title twice, beating Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal convincingly.
Usman’s next title defense is booked against Gilbert Burns at UFC 258 in February. But despite the Brazilian’s improvements, it seems unlikely that he can dethrone the champion.
Simply put, Usman’s blend of powerful grappling, hard-hitting striking, and a seemingly unlimited gas tank makes him a nightmare opponent for any other Welterweight on the roster right now. Barring a really big upset, it’s hard to see anyone beating him soon.
#5 UFC Lightweight champion: Conor McGregor
Obviously, the UFC Lightweight title is currently vacant after Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement, so this is one of the trickier divisions to predict. However, it’s safe to say that should he beat Dustin Poirier at UFC 257, Conor McGregor is probably the man who the UFC would most like to see with the gold.
That means that the promotion are likely to book the division’s top contenders in a way to make this as likely as possible. So the likelihood of McGregor fighting Charles Oliveira – probably the trickiest fight in the division for him right now – seems slim.
Instead, I suspect the UFC will use Justin Gaethje – who matches well with Do Bronx - to sort that issue out for them and match McGregor with Gaethje after that. McGregor vs. Gaethje would be a fantastic fight for sure – but it’s one that the Irishman should be able to win, claiming the vacant UFC title in the process.
#6 UFC Featherweight champion: Brian Ortega
It seems crazy to think that just over a year ago, Max Holloway looked like the untouchable kingpin at 145lbs. But the Hawaiian then lost his UFC Featherweight title to Alexander Volkanovski and failed to regain it in the subsequent rematch.
Despite this, Volkanovski doesn’t feel like a dominant champion just yet. Despite showing insane amounts of skill and patience against Holloway, there are still some questions around the Australian – most notably around his ground game.
That’s why I’m predicting Brian Ortega – who showed much-improved striking to defeat The Korean Zombie in 2020 – to dethrone him when they face off in 2021. Ortega now has elite-level skills in all areas, and he’s a proven finisher. And if T-City wins the title, don’t be surprised to see him make his first defense in 2022.
#7 UFC Bantamweight champion: Aljamain Sterling
The UFC saw a new Bantamweight champion crowned in 2020, as Petr Yan claimed the belt vacated by Henry Cejudo by stopping Jose Aldo. It was an impressive showing, but I’m still predicting the Russian to drop the title in his first defense against top contender Aljamain Sterling.
The fight – which is scheduled to go down at UFC 259 – seems to favor Sterling on paper. The Funk Master is the division’s best grappler, with a dangerous wrestling and submission game. And while Yan is perhaps a better striker, Sterling should be able to survive on the feet, and if he can take Yan down, I suspect it’s his fight.
And given that Sterling has already beaten the third-best fighter in the division – Cory Sandhagen – in one-sided fashion, there’s no reason to suspect that The Funk Master would lose his crown in his first defense. This means he should end the year as the champ.
#8 UFC Flyweight champion: Deiveson Figueiredo
Deiveson Figueiredo claimed the UFC Flyweight title in the summer of 2020 and somehow managed to defend it twice before the year was out. That final defense ended in a draw with Brandon Moreno, though – meaning a rematch is likely for 2021.
However, Moreno largely relied on a point deduction to secure that draw, and he doesn’t seem likely to beat Figueiredo the second time around. And is there any other fighter in the division capable of challenging The God of War right now?
The honest truth is no. Figueiredo is streaks ahead of any other Flyweight right now, meaning he should hold onto his title for another year at least.
#9 UFC Women’s Featherweight champion: Megan Anderson
The current UFC Women’s Featherweight champion is, of course, Amanda Nunes, and she’s set to defend that title against Megan Anderson at UFC 259 in March. Am I expecting Anderson to win? Well, no.
However, I do suspect Nunes will hang up her gloves during 2021. She’s proven all there is to prove and is undoubtedly the best female fighter in MMA history. And if she does vacate her titles, then the most likely fighter to claim the UFC’s 145lbs title is Anderson, who has three wins in the promotion in what is the UFC’s thinnest division.
#10 UFC Women’s Bantamweight champion: Aspen Ladd
So, if Amanda Nunes does indeed hang her gloves up during 2021, who’s most likely to claim the UFC Bantamweight title, she would vacate? Despite not fighting since a December 2019 win over Yana Kunitskaya, my best guess is Aspen Ladd.
Ladd is currently out of action with a knee injury but can be expected to return at some point in 2021. And when she does, given her number three ranking, she’s not likely to be more than one fight away from a title fight.
The two women ranked above her – Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie – are both excellent fighters in their own right, but they’re also aging veterans who are past their prime. So to me, Ladd is probably the most likely to claim the gold, should Nunes vacate.
#11 UFC Women’s Flyweight champion: Valentina Shevchenko
This was probably the easiest division to make a prediction on, as Valentina Shevchenko has held the UFC Flyweight title now for over two years. She has made a total of four successful title defenses in the process.
Simply put, The Bullet is head and shoulders above any other fighter at 125lbs right now. It’s not even close. Even Jennifer Maia – who lasted the distance with her – was barely competitive. It’s almost impossible to even imagine who could test Shevchenko right now.
Currently, The Bullet doesn’t have a title defense booked – but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her reel off at least two defenses in 2021.
#12 UFC Women’s Strawweight champion: Tatiana Suarez
The last time we saw reigning UFC Strawweight champ Weili Zhang in action it was in a Fight of the Year contender with Joanna Jedrzejczyk back in March 2020. Next up for Magnum is reportedly Carla Esparza or Rose Namajunas, but I suspect she’ll get past either woman.
However, 2021 is all set to be the year that monstrous wrestler Tatiana Suarez returns to action from a neck injury. Suarez is currently 5-0 in the UFC and hasn’t fought since June 2019. But every fighter she’s faced, she’s completely outclassed – including Esparza.
No other Strawweight fighter has the takedowns and ground game of Suarez. And that makes her a highly unique – and dangerous – opponent for anyone in the division. Essentially, she’s the Strawweight division’s Kamaru Usman - and 2021 will likely be the year that sees her claim UFC gold.Published 14 Jan 2021, 20:41 IST