We're already halfway through the UFC's 2021 schedule -- a span of six months that has seen 10 championship fights.
Those 10 title fights have produced some memorable moments, to say the least: Kamaru Usman's one-punch knockout of Jorge Masvidal; Francis Ngannou avenging his loss against Stipe Miocic to seize the heavyweight title; Rose Namajunas delivering her prefight "I'm the best" speech and then a highlight kick against Zhang Weili to become a two-time champion.
What's next for each of the UFC's 11 champions? And who is someone to keep an eye on for 2022? Here's the breakdown.
Francis Ngannou dominates the early minutes in his main event bout vs. Stipe Miocic.
Francis Ngannou, heavyweight
Ngannou vs. Jones is the fight everyone wants to see. Period. That was the UFC's plan from the very beginning. Ngannou fought Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight title in March, and the winner was supposed to fight Jones. But then we all know what happened. Jones started talking about money on Twitter, Dana White countered with comments in the media, negotiations failed behind the scenes and the UFC is moving on to other options. If the two sides could somehow hammer out a deal tomorrow, I still think Jones would be Ngannou's next opponent -- but that's a long shot at best.
Especially now that the UFC has booked an interim title fight between Lewis and Gane to headline UFC 265. I will say, I thought the UFC's decision to do so was pretty quick. I understand the company's desire to keep things moving, and I even appreciate its stance that Lewis and Gane are each deserving of a title fight and should get the opportunity, but Ngannou won the belt three months ago. His management says he was willing to fight as soon as September. It's not a situation in which we'd normally see an interim title created, but it certainly gives us a clear view of the UFC's plans at heavyweight. The promotion is not waiting around for Jones. So, ultimately, I don't think Ngannou will be able to wait around for Jones. He'll fight the winner of the interim title fight.
Name to watch in 2022: Gane. His opportunity is coming earlier than expected, but if he wins, he'll still be the man to watch in 2022.
Gane is just different at heavyweight. He's extremely technical and he's quick. He's an anomaly in a division that doesn't always reward technique over pure power.
If it ends up being Ngannou vs. Gane for the undisputed title, it will be a fascinating fight -- a battle of contrasting styles. And if Gane were to win, the chances of those two doing it again would seem very high to me in 2022. Any way you look at it, the undefeated heavyweight is a key name to watch the rest of this year and next.
Israel Adesanya calls out Robert Whittaker and says he wants to fight in Auckland, New Zealand, for their rematch.
Jan Blachowicz, light heavyweight
Who should be next: Glover Teixeira
Who will be next: Teixeira
This fight is expected to take place at UFC 266 on Sept. 25. It's a very heartwarming fight in a way, especially for longtime fans of the sport. Here are two guys fighting for a UFC championship who, frankly, weren't supposed to be here a few years ago.
Blachowicz has been overlooked his entire UFC career and was nearly cut from the promotion in 2017 after losing four of five. Teixeira will be 42 in October. Neither of these guys talks trash; in fact, they are two of the most polite gentlemen in the sport. You can't not feel good about seeing these two pros compete for a title.
Name to watch in 2022: Jiri Prochazka. This is the obvious pick, but it's the only pick in terms of who to watch for in 2022. Yes, there are some other names coming up at 205, but Prochazka came into the promotion in 2020 with plenty of intrigue, and all he's done since is go 2-0, with two devastating knockouts. He could be the future of this division.
Kamaru Usman details his journey from Nigeria to the States and becoming a UFC star. Produced by Dale Mauldin; Editing by Lamarr C. English, Diego Martini, Josh De Leon.
Israel Adesanya, middleweight
Who should be next: Robert Whittaker
Who will be next: Whittaker
I don't even want to hear another name suggested as the middleweight title contender. Whittaker deserves it and he has deserved it for a while. And it certainly helps that he looked really, really good in his most recent fight against Kelvin Gastelum.
Adesanya and Whittaker have already started chatting -- a little -- in the media and on social media. Personally, I love this rematch -- Adesanya took the belt from Whittaker in 2019. It could happen in October.
Name to watch in 2022: Uriah Hall. Right now, middleweight is a two-man race. Adesanya and Whittaker have combined to essentially clean out the division. Darren Till will get a title shot in 2022 if he's able to win his next fight, but another name I want to point out is Hall. He's been around this division for a while, but he's putting things together in a way he never has before.
Charles Oliveira celebrates his TKO vs. Michael Chandler with Joe Rogan, Dana White and by going into the Houston crowd
Kamaru Usman, welterweight
The good news here is there really isn't a wrong answer between the two. Usman vs. Covington 2? Great. Usman vs. Edwards 2? Sign me up. They are both deserving.
Yes, Covington has fought just once since he lost to Usman in late 2019 -- a fifth-round stoppage of Tyron Woodley -- but that first fight against Usman was very competitive, and one can make sense of Covington's decision to not accept a few fights offered to him in the meantime.
The problem is that one of those fights he was offered was Edwards, and Covington never showed any interest in fighting him. That's fine, but there's a risk involved in that. The risk is, the guy you turn down keeps winning and takes your place in line. So I do think Edwards is slightly more deserving at this point, but Usman vs. Covington is the bigger fight and the one I expect the UFC to make.
Name to watch in 2022: Khamzat Chimaev. This year was set up to be Chimaev's year. A difficult battle against COVID-19 has disrupted that, but the 27-year-old appears to be on his way to a full recovery, and his team tells me he wants to be focused only on 170 pounds rather than bouncing between welterweight and middleweight as he has in the past.
Team Volkanovski and Ortega square off in the return of The Ultimate Fighter every Tuesday, exclusively on ESPN+.
Charles Oliveira, lightweight
Pretty obvious, Oliveira's next opponent should be the winner of Poirier vs. McGregor. And if Poirier wins, I believe that will be the case.
If McGregor wins ... I wonder if he might decide the time is finally right to revisit the Nate Diaz trilogy. He'd be playing with house money at that point, and I don't see why the UFC wouldn't get on board with it. What I mean is: Win or lose against Diaz, he could still fight for the 155-pound title next.
If he fights Diaz at welterweight at the end of the year, he can wrap up that rivalry, make a ton of money doing it -- more than he would fighting Oliveira for the title -- and then still fight for the lightweight title in 2022. Maybe I'm wrong, and if McGregor beats Poirier he'll be more motivated to prove he's the best lightweight in the world, but him calling out Diaz after a win on July 10 -- that'd be a money decision. And McGregor likes money.
Name to watch in 2022: Islam Makhachev. The man is coming. He's had a somewhat muted rise through the UFC ranks -- he's 8-1 but hasn't really entered the spotlight yet. That's about to change.
He's a teammate of Khabib Nurmagomedov and protégé of the late Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov. Big fights are coming in 2022, and Makhachev has shown nothing to make me think he's not ready for them.
Relive the best highlights of Amanda Nunes' career, which has earned her gold in two weight classes.
Alexander Volkanovski, featherweight
Who should be next: Brian Ortega
Who will be next: Ortega
This is MMA and anything can change, but this one ain't changing. It was supposed to happen earlier this year, but Volkanovski was diagnosed with COVID-19. Now they've just coached opposite one another on The Ultimate Fighter. Barring any more health issues, this is the next 145-pound title fight, and it's expected to take place in September.
Name to watch in 2022: Max Holloway. Listen, I'm cheating with this one a bit. Obviously, everyone knows the former champion -- and arguably the greatest featherweight of all time -- is a name to watch in 2022. But it would just be wrong not to name him. The other, far lesser known name I'll direct your attention to is Movsar Evloev. He won't jump off your screen as a potential superstar, but his suffocating style is going to be a problem in this division. Keep your eye on him.
Valentina Shevchenko lands a series of takedowns vs. Jessica Andrade in their title fight at UFC 261.
Aljamain Sterling, bantamweight
Who should be next: Petr Yan
Who will be next: Yan
Another obvious one. Given the way the first one ended -- Sterling claiming the belt in a fight he was losing, via disqualification -- you have to run it back. Well, I guess technically, you don't have to run it back.
Yan made a horrible error and is on the hook for it. If the UFC moved on from him, it'd be surprising but not completely unjustified. But that is not what's happening here. At the moment, Yan is still considered the man to beat at 135, and neither the UFC -- nor Sterling -- can move on until they've addressed that.
Name to watch in 2022: Cory Sandhagen. One of the biggest questions around 135 pounds right now is: Just how good is Cory Sandhagen? He's a top-10 talent who will be relevant in this weight class for years to come. But he also could be a dominant champion. That's the potential this man has shown. He has a very big fight against TJ Dillashaw in July. If he wins, he could be a major breakout candidate in 2022.
Brandon Moreno, flyweight
I'm going out on a limb here, suggesting Garbrandt could be next -- but I don't know. I'm looking at that flyweight division and I'm not seeing an obvious challenge for Moreno. And if that's what I'm seeing, I'm sure that's what the UFC is seeing as well.
Would Garbrandt deserve a title shot at 125 pounds? Absolutely not. But if you're the UFC -- and heck, if you're Moreno as well -- what's most appealing? A rematch against Pantoja, Brandon Royval or Askar Askarov? Or a marketable fight against a former bantamweight champ?
Personally, I'd rather see some order here, and pair Garbrandt with Deiveson Figueiredo in a No. 1 contender fight. But I'm just saying it wouldn't shock me if Garbrandt got the call.
Name to watch in 2022: Kai Kara-France. I like Kara-France's chances of fighting for a championship in 2022, because for one, he's good enough. He's only 2-2 in his past four, but the losses came against the current champion in Moreno and in an entertaining firefight against Royval. Kara-France is a teammate of Adesanya's, and the UFC will likely be looking to return to New Zealand in 2022. If he can pick up a couple of key wins in his next two appearances, that would make him a likely pick for such an event. The cards could fall right for Kara-France.
Amanda Nunes, bantamweight
Who should be next: Juliana Peña
Who will be next: Peña
As is the case with most Nunes fights, not many are giving Peña a shot to pull the upset at UFC 265 on Aug. 7. That's understandable, but I wouldn't completely count her out.
For one, she's extremely gritty. She's not easy to put away, mentally or physically. When facing a dominant champ in Nunes, the ability to simply "not go away" could be very valuable.
Two, she's confident. Whether or not anyone thinks that confidence is misplaced, she believes she'll win.
Three, she does have a very particular skill set, which is to take opponents down and really rough them up there. I don't love anyone's chances of taking Nunes down and beating her over the course of five rounds, but if anyone can do it, it probably is Peña.
And four, she's very, very hungry. Nunes is certainly at that point of her career where motivation is always a question mark. She hasn't shown any lack of it yet, but if she overlooks Peña even slightly, we've seen that be a problem in this sport before.
Name to watch in 2022: Aspen Ladd. Some of this is simply default. Ladd is one of the very few bantamweight contenders who has not already lost to Nunes. But in addition to that, the ceiling on Ladd has always been sky high. She has been viewed as a potential champion since she debuted in the UFC at age 22. She's coming off a knee surgery that sidelined her for the first half of 2021. If she goes into 2022 on a winning streak, the table is set for a big year.
Valentina Shevchenko, flyweight
Who should be next: Lauren Murphy
Who will be next: Murphy
Keep lining 'em up at 125 pounds. The UFC can't have enough flyweight contenders right now. Shevchenko is going through them with ease.
Murphy deserves to be next; she has earned it. She's putting together some of her best work at age 37. She'll be a massive, massive underdog when this fight happens, but pretty much everyone is against Shevchenko.
Name to watch in 2022: Tatiana Suarez. All eyes will be on Suarez in 2022, if she's able to prove she's finally healthy from neck and back issues that have limited her to one appearance since the start of 2019. If you're unfamiliar with Suarez, you should know they call her the "female Khabib," a nod to her dominating wrestling skills. Is she the kind of nightmare matchup that could be a problem for Shevchenko? That could be a huge question to answer in 2022.
Rose Namajunas, strawweight
Who should be next: Carla Esparza
Who will be next: Esparza
Has to be Esparza. The UFC could book an immediate rematch between Namajunas and Zhang Weili, but why? As good as Zhang is, and presumably will continue to be, she wasn't a long-reigning champion at 115 pounds, and Namajunas decisively beat her to win the title in April.
There's also Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who Namajunas has already defeated twice. I do think the UFC can promote a trilogy bout between those two. Jedrzejczyk is the most dominant champion in the division's history and a third shot against Namajunas could be marketed as her last chance to reclaim the title, but the UFC has a better option right now in Esparza.
Esparza has won five in a row, holds a previous win over Namajunas from 2014 and did everything one could ask of her in her last fight, a thoroughly dominant win over Yan Xiaonan. It should be Esparza, and I expect it to be Esparza.
Name to watch in 2022: Mackenzie Dern. Dern has shown all the talent in the world. She's a highly decorated submission specialist with a winning mentality and grit in the Octagon.
The question, really up until this last year, was her work ethic and her commitment to MMA. Not that she lacked it completely, but was it at a championship level? She has turned a corner and has everything clicking in 2021. She still needs experience -- I don't think she's ready to become a champion today -- but sometime in 2022? Absolutely, she could be there.