MMA Rank 10-1: Which fighters will have the best 2022?

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On. Jan. 22, Francis Ngannou and Ciryl Gane will square off in the main event of UFC 270 (10 p.m. on ESPN+ PPV), with the heavyweight title on the line. That fight will shape the course of three fighters in the top 10 of ESPN’s MMA Rank, an effort to project which fighters will have the best 2022.

Such is the continued influence of the heavyweight division, and the way that each potential result will alter the course of the careers of Ngannou, Gane and Jon Jones, who looms in the distance.

It also speaks to the considerable accomplishments of fighters such as Kamaru Usman and Valentina Shevchenko, who sit even higher on this list, and the potential for what they can do in 2022.

The MMA world is ready to go after a rare month with limited action, and the top 10 fighters in this year’s ESPN MMA Rank are there for a reason.

ESPN’s MMA contributors set out to project which fighters will show out the most in 2022, and after a two-step voting process, they narrowed it down to the top 30. That list features fighters from three promotions — veterans and rising stars, champions and contenders — ranked by their potential for success over the next 12 months. Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim have a lot to say about these last 10 fighters, among whom only Gane has never held UFC gold as of the start of 2022.

Follow the link to each UFC result to watch a replay of that fight on ESPN+ | 30-21 | 20-11

2021 record: 2-0 (TKO2 over Michael Chandler; Sub3 over Dustin Poirier)

2021 ESPN MMA rank: Unranked

Next fight: TBD

2022 outlook: The UFC’s lightweight division had been more or less dominated by the same two names for years going into 2022: Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor. One of them never lost, and the other is so popular it feels as if the division always revolves around him to an extent. Oliveira is challenging that history, coming off a fantastic year in which he won the title against Michael Chandler, then defended it against Dustin Poirier. Oliveira now holds the belt in a division that is overstocked with big names and big fights. If he goes undefeated this year, his status will be sky high. — Okamoto

2021 record: 1-0 (UD over Michael Chandler)

2021 ESPN MMA rank: 17th

Next fight: TBD

2022 outlook: Gaethje has long been one of the most exciting fighters in the sport, perhaps the most exciting of all. He also has transformed himself, with the help of trainer Trevor Wittman, from a brawler into a strategist and technician, while not losing anything off his fastball. Next up, he’s expected to get a shot at adding “champion” to his résumé. The UFC has not yet set a date for Charles Oliveira’s second lightweight title defense, but while the when is up in the air, the who isn’t: Company president Dana White has said Gaethje “makes sense” as the next challenger. It would be his second opportunity for gold, after falling to Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2020. Gaethje’s 2022 will hinge on this prospective fight, which has a sky’s-the-limit feel for both men. — Wagenheim

2021 record: 3-0 (UD over Jairzinho Rozenstruik; UD over Alexander Volkov; TKO3 over Derrick Lewis)

2021 ESPN MMA rank: Unranked

Next fight: Jan. 22 vs. Francis Ngannou, for the UFC heavyweight championship (UFC 270)

2022 outlook: Gane’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. His MMA debut came in 2018, and now he’ll be fighting Ngannou, his former teammate, for the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 270 on Jan. 22 in Anaheim, California. Undefeated Gane has gotten better in every fight. He went into Derrick Lewis‘ hometown of Houston last August and dominated Lewis en route to a third-round finish to win the UFC interim heavyweight belt. If Gane can beat daunting Ngannou, it’ll be a testament to the work he has done with coach Fernand Lopez at MMA Factory in Paris — and perhaps the start of a long reign by the versatile, tactical and athletic fighter. — Raimondi

2021 record: 0-0

2021 ESPN MMA rank: 2nd

Next fight: TBD

2022 outlook: It’s hard to predict anything around Jones these days. One of the surest things in MMA for a long time has become completely unpredictable because of legal and other issues outside the cage and a contract dispute in 2021. As we head into 2022, Jones says he intends to compete in the spring or summer, at heavyweight. It’s a move he has teased for a long time, and it would be a welcome one in the sport. The idea of Jones going for a second championship has always captured the imagination of the MMA world. He’s set up for a potentially big year, but Jones always seems to put obstacles in his own way. If he does compete at heavyweight in 2022, it will automatically be one of the biggest stories of the year. — Okamoto

2021 record: 1-1 (lost by UD vs. Jan Blachowicz; UD over Marvin Vettori)

2021 ESPN MMA rank: 1st

Next fight: Feb. 12 vs. Robert Whittaker, for the UFC middleweight championship (UFC 271)

2022 outlook: Adesanya has shown himself to be willing to chase new horizons. Once he established himself as UFC middleweight champion in 2019, he set out to fend off his division’s two top contenders while also targeting bigger game, Jon Jones. A showdown with the then-light heavyweight king never materialized, but Adesanya nonetheless put his unbeaten record on the line against Jones’ successor as UFC’s 205-pound titlist, Jan Blachowicz. Adesanya lost that superfight last March, and then it was right back to prolonging his 185-pound reign, albeit by retracing some familiar steps. After defeating Marvin Vettori for the second time in his career, Adesanya will fight the man he beat for the UFC middleweight title, Whittaker. Adesanya is showing championship mettle by facing the best his division can put in front of him. — Wagenheim

2021 record: 1-0 (TKO2 over Stipe Miocic)

2021 ESPN MMA rank: 4th

Next fight: Jan. 22 vs. Ciryl Gane, for the UFC heavyweight championship (UFC 270)

2022 outlook: The path of Ngannou’s year will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the next 12 months. If Ngannou beats Gane, his former teammate, at UFC 270 on Jan. 22, he will have retained the UFC heavyweight title and cemented himself as one of the biggest stars and best fighters in mixed martial arts. That would also thrust him toward one of the most significant (and anticipated) fights in UFC history, against arguably the best fighter of all time, Jon Jones. If Ngannou loses to Gane, he becomes a free agent and could end up in a big-money boxing match. He and Tyson Fury have already gone back and forth on Twitter. — Raimondi

2021 record: 2-0 (TKO1 over Zhang Weili; SD over Weili)

2021 ESPN MMA rank: 26th

Next fight: TBD

2022 outlook: Namajunas has blossomed into one of the best fighters in the world, and one of the easiest champions to root for in the sport. She captured the UFC’s strawweight title for the second time in April by knocking out Zhang Weili, and images of her repeating to herself, “I’m the best” will live on in the sport’s video library forever. Going into 2022, Namajunas is, undeniably, the best strawweight in the world. And she believes it, which makes her especially dangerous. She first won the belt in 2017, but she wasn’t ready then to be the kind of champion she is now. She’s set up for a good year, which will probably begin with a title defense against Carla Esparza, to who Namajunas lost in 2014 when she was just a 22-year-old title challenger. — Okamoto

2021 record: 1-1 (lost by DQ vs. Aljamain Sterling; UD over Cory Sandhagen)

2021 ESPN MMA rank: 11th

Next fight: April 9 vs. Aljamain Sterling, for the UFC bantamweight championship (UFC 2732)

2022 outlook: Yan has only himself to blame for not entering the year as UFC bantamweight champion. He was well in control of his UFC men’s bantamweight title defense against Sterling last March until, late in the fourth round, he crushed his kneeling challenger with a knee to the face. It was an illegal blow, and it lost the Russian his title. But Yan has a chance for redemption April 9 when he meets Sterling again. If Yan walks away with the belt that night at UFC 272, he’ll have no time to rest on his laurels, as he’ll probably be called out by ex-champ TJ Dillashaw before he can even exit the Octagon. But if he wins, Yan will be surveying the formidable challenges ahead from right back in his familiar spot at the top of the world at 135 pounds. — Wagenheim

2021 record: 2-0 (TKO2 over Jessica Andrade; TKO4 over Lauren Murphy)

2021 ESPN MMA rank: 6th

Next fight: TBD

2022 outlook: There is an argument to be made that Shevchenko is starting the year as the best women’s fighter on the planet. She is No. 1 on ESPN’s pound-for-pound list after Julianna Peña‘s stunning upset of Amanda Nunes. There are very few women seemingly able to challenge Shevchenko, who is the UFC champion at flyweight. Taila Santos is likely next in that division, but then don’t be surprised if Shevchenko returns to bantamweight in an effort to become a double champion. Whether that’s a rematch with Peña or a rematch against Nunes, Shevchenko could be favored against either woman. Shevchenko beat Peña in early 2017, and although Nunes owns two wins over Shevchenko, their most recent bout, in September 2017, was very close. — Raimondi

2021 record: 3-0 (TKO3 over Gilbert Burns; TKO2 over Jorge Masvidal; UD over Colby Covington)

2021 ESPN MMA rank: 9th

Next fight: TBD

2022 outlook: It’s good to be king. Usman went into 2021 promising activity, and he delivered. He defended his welterweight title three times last year, and each title defense had a story behind it. He defeated his old teammate and friend Gilbert Burns, overcoming adversity in the opening round. He put a stamp on his two-fight series with Jorge Masvidal, delivering a Knockout of the Year candidate in April. And in November, he put his old rival Colby Covington behind him in a decision win in a main event inside Madison Square Garden. How does one follow up that kind of a year? That could be Usman’s biggest challenge in 2022, frankly — topping what he did in 2021. But if anyone can do it, it appears to be him. His development under head coach Trevor Wittman was a major story last year, and he’s a near-universal pick right now for best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. The skills are there, clearly, as is the desire to remain active. — Okamoto

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