With a new year coming up, it’s time to take a look at the potential breakout fighters for 2022 in the UFC. To keep things simple, I figured I’d pare it down to one fighter per each weight class – the women’s featherweight division doesn’t count – in addition to a couple of criteria I wouldn’t let myself budge on, even when I really wanted to.
The criteria: the fighter needs to have made their UFC debut in 2020 or later or have three or less fights within the organization in addition to not having cracked the UFC’s official rankings at any point. Not that I put much stock in the UFC’s rankings, but it’s a criteria that is simple, understood, and easy to adhere to. The purpose of this is less to give a detailed description of each of the fighters, but to give an idea of who might be worth keeping an eye on when there are so many names on the roster to choose from and open up the comments to discussion as I’ll be the first to admit there are plenty of names that aren’t on this list. Here we go!
Heavyweight: There’s only one reasonable choice here by my standards. Given Chris Daukaus and Tom Aspinall have already jumped into the top ten of the official UFC rankings, that only leaves Alexander Romanov. His disappointing performance against Juan Espino aside, Romanov has blown through the other three opponents the UFC has placed in front of him with sheer physicality. He’ll need to pick up some patience and savvy, but his most recent win over Jared Vanderaa indicates he’s learned something from his blah showing against Espino. I don’t think he’ll ever develop the striking to be a legit title contender, but his bullish wrestling and sheer physicality should allow him to become a fixture in the top ten of the rankings for several years sooner rather than later.
Light Heavyweight: For whatever reason, I thought William Knight was already in the official rankings after his win over Alonzo Menifield, so I was delighted when I realized he wasn’t as it made it a lot easier to figure out who might be eligible to break into the rankings. While Knight doesn’t have a traditional light heavyweight frame due to him being on the short end of the stick at just 5’10”, his combination of power and athleticism is amongst the most lethal in the division. The only reason he hasn’t broken into the rankings yet is he is still raw, having only turned pro in 2018. That limited amount of experience could result in a rapid growth in a short manner of time.
Middleweight: The UFC is going to give Alex Pereira every opportunity to have a breakout year and I can’t blame them. Owning a KO victory over reigning middleweight champion Israel Adesanya in the kickboxing realm, Pereira showed he’s capable of transferring his kickboxing skills into MMA at a high level when he knocked Andreas Michailidis out with a flying knee. Given the lack of blanket wrestlers in the division – Pereira’s obvious Achilles heel – the likelihood of Pereira climbing the ladder is exceedingly high. I did consider going with Chris Curtis, but given the UFC is looking to do whatever they can to push Pereira, he’s the more likely fighter to have a breakout in the coming year.
Welterweight: I’m going out on a limb in picking Shavkat Rakhmonov. The native of Kazakhstan has been hurt by his lack of activity in comparison to Khaos Williams. He doesn’t have the amount of hype Ian Garry possesses either. But y’all know how the guy you need to worry about is the silent one in the corner as opposed to the loudmouth jackass demanding attention? Rakhmonov is the silent guy in the corner. With one of the most impressive physical frames in the division, he’s impossible to bully and has an impressive killer instinct, none of his professional contests reaching the final bell yet, owning just as many submissions as KO’s. Rakhmonov may be less explosive than either Williams or Garry, but he’s more well-rounded and doesn’t appear to be anywhere near his peak.
Lightweight: Mateusz Gamrot was the obvious choice, but he broke into the rankings following the last event of 2021. So, using the same logic I used with Pereira at middleweight of picking someone whom the UFC has an interest in pushing Paddy Pimblett is the only realistic choice left. Given the depth of the division, I have a hard time believing Pimblett with crack the official rankings within the year of, but the Englishman knows how to market himself and has fighters with a higher quality of victories under their belt looking to get a crack at him. Given Pimblett was willing to wait until he believed he was ready to make the jump to the UFC as opposed to doing so at the first opportunity, it’s unwise to believe he doesn’t have a strong idea of where his career is going. After all, his reputation is as a ground specialist and it was on the strength of his striking he won his UFC debut.
Featherweight: I was tempted to bend the rules I’ve set for myself and slide Ilia Topuria in here given he’s currently not in the official rankings, but he was in there earlier in the year and didn’t fall out due to a loss. Thus, while I don’t see title contention in the future of Pat Sabatini, I do see the grappling expert utilizing his guts and guile to continue climbing the featherweight ladder with a great chance of breaking into the rankings before the end of the year. While Sabatini’s striking is competent, it’ll be his ground work that carries him as high as he can go. At 31, Sabatini may be at the peak of his physical and mental capabilities, so the time is ripe for him to make his move.
Bantamweight: Given the ridiculous amount of talent at 135, I shouldn’t be as confident as I am in picking Adrian Yanez to be the breakout fighter in the division. But the nuances of Yanez’s striking is beyond impressive, not just for someone who isn’t fighting the best of the best in the division… at least not yet. Throw in that Yanez has yet to be taken down in his UFC run and wrestling is supposed to be his major weakness and it’s clear Yanez hasn’t just been sharpening his impressive striking. That isn’t mentioning that he’s performed with an astonishing amount of flare, securing a Performance Bonus in each of his UFC appearances thus far. Yeah, there’s a reason I’m sure in picking Yanez as the breakout bantamweight this year.
Flyweight: I thought I was going to be floundering in this division as I had it in my head that Jeff Molina entered the rankings following his win in October, but that didn’t prove to be the case. Molina has proven to be a consistent source of entertainment in not just his two UFC fights, but also his appearance on DWCS. While Molina doesn’t appear to have a plethora of physical skills that has analysts drooling, he is a technical striker with exceptional toughness and the ability to push a pace that even other flyweights wilt under. Under the continued tutelage of James Krause, I only expect Molina to continue to improve.
Women’s Bantamweight: The shallowest of all the UFC’s divisions – I’m not counting women’s featherweight – there is only five candidates for me to choose from based on the criteria I set: Bea Malecki, Stephanie Egger, Shanna Young, Joselyne Edwards, and Josiane Nunes. None of them really seem like breakout candidates, but if I have to pick someone, I’ll go with Nunes. The former Muay Thai practitioner is fearless and hits like a Mack truck. Her 5’2” frame creates obvious limitations, but her like of height isn’t nearly as troublesome as it would be in a deeper division.
Women’s Flyweight: How Erin Blanchfield wasn’t lifted into the rankings following her dominant win over fellow prospect, Miranda Maverick, is beyond me. I’d say she’s the most likely non-ranked member of the UFC roster who is likely to become a future champion. At 22, she’s still exceptionally young, yet she carries herself in a manner well beyond her years. Perhaps the fact she didn’t secure a finish in either of her first two UFC victories is keeping her off the radar of some fans, but I’d say dominating both of those opponents from pillar to post for 30 minutes in all aspects is even more impressive than a flash finish. Keep in mind, Maverick is supposed to be a skilled grappler herself and she wasn’t competitive with Blanchfield in the least.
Women’s Strawweight: I vacillated between Tabatha Ricci and Cheyanne Vlismas, but went with Vlismas as she appears to have a greater spotlight on her from the organization than Ricci does. Vlismas’ stock took a hit when she lost to Montserrat Ruiz due to being unable to stop a head-and-shoulder throw, but she has rebounded with force in her subsequent two bouts, showing exactly what everyone was excited about upon her debut. She hasn’t given up a takedown in either of those fights and secured a brutal KO as well. With the proper coaching – and she appears to be getting it – Vlismas could be something special.
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