To kick off 2022, I made a list of breakout fighters for the UFC for the year, one for each division. They needed to have made their UFC debut in 2020 or 2021 or, if they debuted in 2019 or earlier, had three or less fights in the organization. Perhaps most importantly, they couldn’t have cracked the official UFC rankings before this year. It would have been too easy to pick the likes of Tom Aspinall for heavyweight for that case. I could skate by and let my choices fly into the sky like dust in the wind, but I’d rather hold myself accountable. Thus, I figure now is as good of a time to review who I picked and who I should have picked.
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I picked Alexander Romanov and maintain that was the right pick, even though the big Moldovan is coming off a loss to Marcin Tybura. After all, Tybura is one of the more underrated members of the roster and Romanov’s issues are correctable. Given recency bias, some may claim Rodrigo Nascimento would have been a superior choice, but how many of you would be picking Nascimento if these two were pit against one another? That isn’t to say Nascimento is without promise, but I still maintain Romanov is the most likely heavyweight signed in that period who has the best chance of cracking the title picture. His physicality is nearly unmatched in the division and he’s trimmed the baby fat that used to adorn his frame. Now, he just needs to learn to pace himself and he’ll begin to fulfill his potential. Perhaps the loss to Tybura will be the best thing for him in the long run as his dominant win over Chase Sherman offered more of what had already been seen of him.
This was a swing and a miss on my part. To be fair, I don’t think anyone thought William Knight would say screw it all and begin the next part of his career at heavyweight. Plus, it’s not like I had a lot of options to pick from. Regardless, the correct pick would have been Nicolae Negumereanu. The Romanian entered the organization about as raw of a product as there is in the modern day in 2019. The youngster wisely stepped away for about two years to sharpen his skills and has ripped off four consecutive wins since dropping his debut, including two in this year over Kennedy Nzechukwu and Igor Potieria. Granted, his level of competition hasn’t wowed anyone, but he’s beating who is being placed in front of him and that’s all that can be asked.
There were a bunch of different directions I could have gone in this division that I believe would have been respectable picks. Gregory Rodrigues would have been a pick that aged well. Dricus Du Plessis is another one. Bruno Silva, not so much. Regardless, I absolutely hit the nail on the head when I said Alex Pereira was going to be given every chance to be a star. Given he’s going to be fighting Israel Adesanya for the title at Madison Square Garden next month, he’s getting about as big of a stage as he can get. I will admit, he’s probably being rushed, but wins over the aforementioned Silva and Sean Strickland indicate Pereira is a fast learner. Given Pereira is already 35 though, I understand why the UFC wouldn’t want to wait too long. In fact, his age was a big reason why I figured he’d get the push he did. I don’t want to pat myself on the back too much, but when I’m right, I should give myself credit.
This is another spot I believe I couldn’t have been more right about. Ian Garry had the bigger name – and probably still does in many places – and Khaos Williams was better established with his quick KO’s. However, Shavkat Rakhmonov has proven himself to already be a major force. He had already torn through Alex Oliveira and Michel Prazeres prior to this year. He’s upped the ante by shredding Carlston Harris and longtime rankings mainstay Neil Magny. Rakhmonov is easily a hotter commodity at this point than either Williams or Garry at this juncture, many calling him a future champion. He hasn’t blown through his opposition in the manner Khamzat Chimaev has, but Rakhmonov has surgically eliminated his opposition in the way a grizzled veteran disposes of a young, green prospect. Given he’s been the younger fighter in every contest, that should be a scary prospect for everyone going forward.
I had my doubts when I tabbed Paddy Pimblett to be the breakout lightweight based on what he can do in the cage, but he’s held up thus far. It doesn’t hurt his cause that the brass has only given him favorable matchups. I mean, can he really be considered a breakout star when his wins have come over Kazula Vargas and Jordan Leavitt? Given Pimblett knows how to market himself better than anyone this side of Conor McGregor, yes, he can be considered a breakout star. I wasn’t in attendance for either of his fights in London — I’ve never been across the Atlantic for that matter – but the vibe through my television set the crowd gave off for his fights was something magical. How it was in person, I can only imagine. I may not see Pimblett becoming champion, but he’s already built up a following only a select few would scoff at. And I mean a very select few.
For as deep as the featherweight division is, there didn’t appear to be a major breakout candidate for it who was sitting outside the rankings at the beginning of the year. Or had previously been in the rankings. Thus, even though Pat Sabatini has come up short due to his loss to Damon Jackson, I don’t feel like it was a complete misread of the situation. Sabatini could end up being the better fighter in the end, but Jonathan Pearce would have been the rightful pick for the breakout fighter in the division, at least so far. His win over Christian Rodriguez didn’t impress many, but it was a win and Pearce did ultimately wear down and put away Makwan Amirkhani. Even with that, I don’t think it would be unanimous for Pearce to be the unanimous breakout featherweight. However, if he can beat the eternally durable Darren Elkins this December, I don’t think anyone will argue with that status.
There is an embarrassment of young talent at bantamweight, leaving several choices for me to choose from at the beginning of the year. I ultimately picked Adrian Yanez as the young Texan has a strong organizational push behind him and the flash to pick up a strong following. Some may disagree with me and say Umar Nurmagomedov would have been a better choice given Khabib’s cousin has two wins on the year to Yanez’s one. That’s a damn good argument, especially given both of Nurmagomedov’s wins – over Brian Kelleher and Nate Maness – are a higher quality opponent than Yanez’s win over Tony Kelley. However, Yanez has social media presence and the reputation that I’d still say he’s the better choice. Plus, one of Nurmagomedov’s fights was at featherweight. Not that it really dings Nurmagomedov overall, but this is the bantamweight breakout I’m looking for. Not that I would argue with someone who prefers Nurmagomedov. After all, both look like they’ll be fighting for a title someday.
Several talented flyweights have made their UFC debuts after New Years, so I couldn’t pick either Muhammad Mokaev or Tatsuro Taira, two talents whom many expect to be fighting for UFC gold someday. I don’t think there are very many who have that expectation for Jeff Molina, but I’d say he was the best pick out of those available at that time and he still is at this point after his win over Zhalgas Zumagulov. Perhaps some will have their mind changed if Molina falls short against Jimmy Flick, but that contest doesn’t happen until January. I was hoping to see Molina fight more than once in the calendar year, but he did break the rankings and he maintains his reputation as one of the better action fighters in the division. Thus, while it may not have been a true breakout year, Molina was still the right pick for the division.
This division is a mess. Not quite as big of a mess as women’s featherweight, but nevertheless, still a mess. I only had five choices on the roster at the beginning of the year and went with Josiane Nunes. Nunes did win her lone appearance this year, but that fight took place at featherweight. I would say Joselyne Edwards would have been the right pick given she picked up wins in both her fights this year… but neither of those were technically bantamweight contests. One took place at featherweight and Edwards missed weight in the other contest that she took on short notice. Thus, even though she only has one win at bantamweight for the year, Stephanie Egger kind of takes the cake by default despite coming up short to Mayra Bueno Silva in her most recent bantamweight contest on the year. To give Egger a bit more credit, she is coming off a short notice win at featherweight, but the division could use a major injection of talent in the worst way.
If the rules I had set up were nonexistent, the obvious choice would be Molly McCann. After all, she has secured back-to-back spinning back elbow KO’s. Most fighters don’t get one of those in a career, much less two. But back-to-back? Ironically enough, she’s squaring off with my pick at the beginning of the year, Erin Blanchfield. Blanchfield’s lone win was more of a struggle than anyone expected, but she did ultimately get the job done against the gritty JJ Aldrich. If Blanchfield can get the win over McCann in November, I’ll say I picked the right breakout candidate. If not, Tracy Cortez probably would have been the correct pick… provided she gets past Amanda Ribas. In other words, this division is still up for grabs in terms of my useless awards….
115 could use some new blood, but there hasn’t been a lot of upward movement from outside the rankings. Despite that, I’d say it was due more to bad breaks than anything else. For instance, I picked Cheyanne Vlismas, but she has yet to fight for this year. She is scheduled to face Cory McKenna in the last event of the year, but I don’t think a solitary win over McKenna would qualify as a breakout year. The other fighter I considered was Tabatha Ricci, but she has only secured a single victory this year after her opponent withdrew due to illness just last week. So… would I go with Sam Hughes or Vanessa Demopoulos? Both have two wins on the year thus far with a chance for a third. Neither feels like a true breakout fighter at the moment, but I could see my tune changing if one of them can pick up that third win on the year. I’ll conclude my pick was wrong with the correct pick yet to be determined.
Keep in mind the criteria I imposed upon myself (listed at the top) prior to savaging me too much in the comments as I acknowledge the likes of Taila Santos and Jamahal Hill have produced more of a true breakout this year than those I selected. Regardless, let me know your thoughts and who y’all thought was going to have a big year.
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