After a year in which UFC legends retired, unretired, threatened retirement and changed weight classes, what can MMA fans expect in 2021?
Three titles changed hands in 2020, but each of those were in fights for vacant championships. In other words, defending world champions showed why they were the ones wearing the gold.
Will the champs be as successful this year? Not everyone believes that will be the case.
And what about the retired stars? Will they get the itch to return this year?
ESPN’s expert panel of Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim takes a look at the MMA landscape and provides bold predictions of how things might shake out.
Jon Jones will be Fighter of the Year in 2021, and take a commanding lead on the GOAT conversation.
Okamoto: I’m gonna plant my flag on Jon Jones in 2021. I think it’s possible this guy might actually be underrated going into the new year. And part of me gets it. He hasn’t been super impressive in recent years. Since the start of 2019, Jones is 3-0, but he’s failed to record a finish in that time — and two of the wins fell under scrutiny. Some felt Thiago Santos did enough to beat Jones in 2019. And even more thought Dominick Reyes did enough to beat him in 2020. That’s all well and good, but I have not forgotten how damn good Jon Jones is. And this year sets up for him to really drive home, beyond any doubt, that he is the measuring stick for excellence in this sport.
Potentially, Jones is looking at fights this year against the likes of Stipe Miocic, Francis Ngannou, Jan Blachowicz and Israel Adesanya. If he is active, and if he does what he has always done throughout the entirety of his career — win — he will be a consensus pick for Fighter of the Year, and nearly impossible to argue against as the MMA GOAT.
Islam Makhachev will be a household name by December 2021.
Okamoto: This prediction is based on a few things. First off, I believe in Makhachev’s skills. He’s 7-1 in the UFC, and the one fight he lost was his UFC debut, when he got caught by a big shot less than two minutes in. Not taking anything away from Adriano Martins, the man who beat him that night, merely pointing out that with the exception of two minutes in his promotional debut, Makhachev has mostly been dominant in the UFC. Now, to be sure, he has not fought the highest tier in competition yet, but that day is coming.
Makhachev was scheduled to fight former champion Rafael dos Anjos in November, in what would have been his first UFC main event. He was forced to pull out of that fight due to health issues, but before it fell apart, oddsmakers had him as more than a 5-1 betting favorite — which shows how high they are on his abilities. He’s now scheduled to fight Drew Dober in March, where he’s a sizable favorite as well. If Makhachev lives up to his obvious potential in 2021, he’s going to win several big fights, and he’s going to do it as Khabib Nurmagomedov‘s friend and protege. The two have trained with one another since childhood, and Makhachev came up under Nurmagomedov’s late father’s system. There are two things one needs to break out in this sport: wins and a story. Makhachev will have both in 2021.
Khabib Nurmagomedov and Henry Cejudo will have fights booked.
Khabib Nurmagomedov left a legacy that will last forever. pic.twitter.com/704OB4SDyc
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) October 25, 2020
Raimondi: Three of the top-10 pound-for-pound fighters in the world announced retirements in 2020: UFC lightweight champion Nurmagomedov and two former double champions, Daniel Cormier and Cejudo. While Cormier is likely to stay out of the Octagon and continue on with his UFC analyst duties, I predict the two others — Nurmagomedov and Cejudo — will announce returns in 2021. Nurmagomedov is adamant about being retired, but the door seems at least slightly ajar, and UFC president Dana White is confident he can lure Nurmagomedov back. Perhaps a dream fight against Georges St-Pierre could be in the offing. Nurmagomedov is 29-0. If he gets his mother’s blessing to fight again, why not go for an even 30-0? A GSP fight doesn’t even have to be for the lightweight title if St-Pierre can’t get down to 155 pounds.
As for Cejudo, he has admitted that he would come back for the right opportunity — or the right payday. So, maybe this half of the prediction isn’t all that bold. Even so, there haven’t been any rumblings yet of a Cejudo return. But there will be some interesting potential matchups for the former UFC bantamweight and flyweight champion in 2021, like a featherweight title scrap against Alexander Volkanovski, a bantamweight title bout against Petr Yan or even a rematch with TJ Dillashaw.
Israel Adesanya wins a second belt, becomes one of the biggest stars in UFC history.
Raimondi: Every year, it seems UFC middleweight champion Adesanya takes a leap in terms of impressive performances and stardom. Few anticipated what Adesanya did to Paulo Costa at UFC 253 in September. Costa was supposed to be Adesanya’s kryptonite, a well-muscled tank who would break the champion with pressure and strength. Instead, Adesanya completely dominated, erasing “The Eraser” via second-round TKO. Next up for “The Last Style Bender” will be a shot at the UFC light heavyweight title and new champion Jan Blachowicz. If Adesanya wins that one — and let’s predict he will — he’d become just the fifth concurrent double champion in UFC history.
With those accolades come interest, and Adesanya is already becoming a known name to the casual viewer. This year, he signed an endorsement deal with Puma. Adesanya as a double champ would only give him more clout. If the Blachowicz fight happens early in the year as expected, that gives Adesanya time to seek huge fights in two divisions — or maybe even a move up to heavyweight. There’s no doubt 2021 is primed to be a massive year for the New Zealander. It’ll be more than that. It’ll be one of the biggest superstar-making years in combat sports history.
Half of the UFC’s men’s titles will change hands — four of the eight belts — but all four women’s titles will stay put.
Francis Ngannou says he’s 100% certain he will fight Stipe Miocic for the UFC heavyweight title.
Wagenheim: Let’s start with the big boys and work our way down. At heavyweight, I foresee Francis Ngannou, the scariest figure in MMA, making short work of his second shot at Stipe Miocic. Israel Adesanya appears poised to become the latest champ-champ, holding onto his middleweight belt and dethroning Jan Blachowicz at light heavy. Khabib Nurmagomedov insists he’s retired — how many times must he say it before UFC president Dana White listens to the man? — so lightweight is going to need a new king. I’d fill the vacancy by booking the winner of Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier 2 against the surging Charles Oliveira. If Brian Ortega gets another featherweight title shot, which he should, I see him taking over the throne from Alexander Volkanovski. I feel the same about Aljamain Sterling‘s chances against bantamweight belt-holder Petr Yan.
That’d actually be five of eight UFC belts changing hands, but I figure one of the reigning champs will find a way to join Adasanya, welterweight Kamaru Usman and flyweight Deiveson Figueiredo as surviving titlists, so I’ll allow for one of my predictions to go awry (but only one!). As for the women’s side of the sport, if you can find a fighter who has what it takes to knock Amanda Nunes, Valentina Shevchenko or Zhang Weili off the top of the mountain, you’re more of a visionary than I am.
Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Three championship fights. Biggest crowd in UFC history. Book it for late summer or fall of ’21.
Wagenheim: The pandemic has forced the UFC to go small, staying afloat with events at its tiny Apex facility in Las Vegas and in a hastily built hut over on Fight Island, with no fans allowed to be in attendance. But once the coronavirus pandemic is under control, Dana White & Co. will waste no time before going big, big, big. I predict the new football stadium in the promotion’s hometown will be the site of a mega-card, and the draw of star power — will it be Conor McGregor? Jon Jones? Israel Adesanya? Someone else? — combined with a collective hunger to watch live fights will supercharge this event to the point where it absolutely obliterates the UFC’s attendance record.
The biggest crowd in the promotion’s history is the 57,127 who were in Melbourne, Australia, in 2019 for UFC 243, headlined by Adesanya’s ascension to the middleweight throne. White has long talked about booking the UFC’s first U.S. stadium event at 105,000-seat AT&T Stadium in Dallas, but the draw of the new Raiders facility, which seats 65,000 for an NFL game and can be expanded to fit over 70,000 fight fans, will keep the historic show closer to home.