2022 promises to be full of great MMA action, but who will be the biggest players this year - Photos: PFL/ Twitter (top left), UFC/ Twitter (bottom left/right)

From surging fighters to more boxing crossovers, we've cast our eye over what lies ahead in 2022 with The Inner Sanctum's MMA crystal ball

The sport of MMA went from strength to strength in 2021. An uptake in mainstream popularity, combined with a host of elite level fighters making their name in major promotions, created a year of remarkable fights and sensational storylines.

With a number of great bouts, such as Brandon Moreno vs Deiveson Figueiredo III and Francis Ngannou vs Cyril Gane, already announced in January, it appears the momentum is ready to carry through to 2022. This leads us to the broad strokes question – just what lies ahead for MMA over the next 12 months?

In order to answer, we’ve put our collective minds together to produce The Inner Sanctum’s MMA Crystal Ball, giving our predictions for what is in store in 2022.

Georgia carries momentum to UFC gold

Though the country boasts a population that is slightly less than four million people, Georgia is certainly one of the richest combat sporting nations in the world. Just last year, their national judo team returned four medals from the Tokyo games, with two bronzes picked up at the world combat sambo championships. 

While this does not paint a full picture of a proud history of participation in the martial arts, it does provide a glimpse into Georgia’s propensity for greatness in the field. This trend is now carrying over to the sport of MMA and specifically, the UFC.

In 2021, the seven fighters representing Georgia in the sport’s biggest promotion combined for a 6-3 record. On the surface, the ledger is impressive without entering the elite tier, however there is more to the numbers than meets the eye. 

Fitting the mold of one of the UFC’s brightest prospects, 24 year old Ilia Topuria (11-0) turned heads in July with a first round TKO against Featherweight ‘boogeyman’ of sorts, Ryan Hall (9-2). 

On top of this, Bantamweight Merab Dvalishvili (14-4) ended the year ranked sixth in the division, taking his win streak to seven with defeats of Cody Stamann (19-4-1) and Marlon Moraes (23-9-1). The latter of these was an incredible action fight in which ‘The Machine’ fought back from first round turmoil to stop his foe in the second. 

Also putting his peers on notice, Giga Chikadze (14-2) climbed to number eight at Featherweight by securing a third round TKO over the battle tested Edson Barboza (22-10). Chikadze knocked the Brazilian down twice in the eye-catching performance, landing 60 strikes to 37. 

As such, the UFC have a small yet powerful brigade of fighters blazing a trail for their compatriots to follow. Although much of the attention on MMA in the Caucasus region centres on fighters from Dagestan, Georgia is building momentum at a rapid pace. We believe one of their athletes will take this a step further in 2022 to become the nation’s first UFC champion. 

Liahm O’Brien 

Rafael Fiziev will be a top 5 Lightweight by the end of the Year

Across all of MMA, the UFC’s Lightweight division has always been one of the most talent stacked weight classes. One of the next big contenders that will break through this year is Rafael Fiziev (11-1).

Debuting in the promotion in April 2019, Fiziev has quickly established himself as one of the sport’s most dangerous strikers, combining his use of awkward angles and blinding speed with a world class Muay Thai pedigree.

Fiziev is currently 5-1 in the organisation with two performances of the night knockouts. In his most recent win, the 28 year old showcased an elite ability to read his opponents’ movements against fellow rising contender Brad Riddell (10-2).

In what was a closely contested fight to begin with, Fiziev started to make reads relating to Riddell’s movements to his right, as the Kiwi was taking bigger steps to change direction. 

When Fiziev made this read, he loaded up and connected with a spinning wheel kick, perfectly timing Riddell who had taken a big step to the right. The result, a devastating knockout. 

With this, Fiziev went 2-0 in 2021, adding to his victory over veteran Bobby Green, which has led to many MMA experts predicting that he will be a champion in the coming years. 

So in a similar vein, we predict that Fiziev will make his mark as a top contender in 2022.

When you look at the current UFC’s Lightweight Rankings and analyse the fighters ranked above Fiziev (currently at 11), we feel that they are all winnable fights for him. For example, meetings with the likes of Rafael Dos Anjos (30-13) or Tony Ferguson (26-6) are contests that we could see Fiziev winning in spectacular fashion.

A bout with Michael Chandler (22-7) would also be very interesting as Fiziev has a clear advantage on the feet.

Overall, I personally believe that Fiziev matches up pretty well against a lot of contenders in his weight class and will definitely be in the top five by the end of 2022.

Lewis Moss

Khamzat Chimaev to become a double champ by the end of the year

Seldom does a talent like Khamzat Chimaev (10-0) come along in combat sports. 

Currently undefeated and ranked 11 at Welterweight in the UFC, the 27-year-old has seven first round finishes to his name and is yet to go beyond the second round. Maybe even more impressive is the fact that he has five KO/TKO victories to his name and five submission victories; highlighting just how versatile Chimaev’s skillset is.

To further underline how dominant Khamzat Chimaev is, he has been hit less than ten times in as many fights.

Anyone who has seen the Russian-born maestro fight knows he is one of the best non-title holders in UFC, and it only looks to be a matter of time before he finally gets a title shot.

It isn’t the boldest prediction to say Khamzat Chimaev will be a belt holder in the UFC in 2022, but we’re going one step further to say he’ll join the select champ-champ club sometime this year. Recording commanding wins at both Welterweight and Middleweight, we believe the man they call ‘Borz’ will aim to add another belt as soon as he’s collected his first.

2022 is going to be Khamzat Cimaev’s year, and we’re confident he’ll don the dual straps en route to rubber stamp himself as an all-time great.

Todd Davey

Dana White allows a contracted UFC athlete to fight in an exhibition boxing match.

2021 was another massive year for exhibition boxing, with social media stars and fighters alike sharing the ring in front of sell-out arenas and pay per view audiences around the world.

Jake Paul (5-0, 4 KOs Boxing) took centre stage in this arena with his two impressive defeats of former UFC Welterweight champion Tyron Woodley (19-7-1 MMA, 0-2 Boxing).

Paul has made it his mission to continue to chase fights with UFC veterans like Nate Diaz (21-13), Jorge Masvidal (35-15 MMA, 1-0 Boxing) and Conor McGregor (22-6 MMA, 0-1 Boxing). 

UFC President Dana White has thus far been strict on not allowing anyone to fight outside of the UFC umbrella – apart from McGregor when he fought Floyd Mayweather Jr (50-0, 27 KOs Boxing) in a boxing match in 2017.

Relentless on his will to get a fight with another MMA fighter, Paul called out White for his treatment of his stars and challenged him to improve their contracts, offering himself in a UFC fight and his instant retirement from boxing if such demands were met.

White and Paul continued their exchange on social media, however we believe this is all playing into Paul’s favour as he may end up getting what he wants.

For the first time ever, we’ve seen White directly respond to a Paul comment and with Diaz and Masvidal nearing the end of their storied MMA careers, we believe that White will allow either of the two to try and silence Paul for good.

Dana White has always proved that if the money makes sense, he’ll make it happen. With Paul’s global hype and ability as a genuine fighter, I believe the pair can come to some agreement where a UFC contracted fighter shares the ring with the social media star turned boxer.

Dominic Criniti

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Cryil Gane will end 2022 as UFC Heavyweight Champion after defeating both Ngannou and Jones

Current UFC Interim Heavyweight Champion Cyril Gane (10-0) had a year to remember in 2021. After knocking out former champion Junior dos Santos (21-9) in December 2020, the Frenchman took that momentum into the new year, dispatching Jairzinho Rozenstruik (12-3), Alexander Volkov (34-9) and Derrick Lewis (26-8).

Within 9 months he became one of the best in the division and now has a mouth-watering match up against his old training partner Francis Ngannou (16-3) to unify Heavyweight titles on January 23.

Whilst Ngannou showed remarkable improvements against Stipe Miocic (20-4) to claim gold, we are saying that Gane will simply be too good for the Cameroonian fighter. His technique will prove too classy for the current champion, despite Ngannou’s incredible improvements. 

Gane’s footwork will also be a sticking point, moving out of the reach of Ngannou throughout the first few rounds, before capitalising on his former training partners cardio when it is down in the championship rounds.

Of course with Ngannou, one punch can put anyone in the world to sleep. However we feel that Gane won’t give him the chance to land that knockout blow.

Following on from this, we feel that former Light Heavyweight king Jon Jones (26-1) will contest a championship bout against the Frenchman. This may be via a fight with Miocic first, or on his immediate return to the sport.

Whilst Jones is the consensus ‘GOAT’ of the UFC and MMA in general, Gane will be able to get the job done against him. 

Partnering this Gane’s genuine knockout power and remarkable footwork, this is a new challenge for Jones and could result in a long return night. .

For these reasons, we can’t see Cyril Gane leaving this year without the Heavyweight belt strapped firmly around his waist, after defeating two of the toughest challengers in the division’s history.

Will Makepeace

Kayla Harrison will sign with the UFC and fight Amanda Nunes for the Featherweight belt

There has been much speculation about which promotion current free agent and two-time PFL Lightweight season champion Kayla Harrison (12-0) will sign with. Harrison currently has offers from every major promotion who want to secure the services of the champ, however a move to the UFC is the best for her we feel. 

Harrison currently is undefeated with finishes in 10 of her 12 fights. Having cleared out the competition in the PFL the time is right to move to the UFC where she has the opportunity to prove she is the best female fighter in the world. 

The UFC are clearly very keen on securing her services, as showcased at their last pay per view event of the year at UFC 269. Harrison sat cage side and was shown on the broadcast, a right which is usually reserved for the promotion’s top fighters and celebrities.

With the UFC looking to keep their fleeting 145-pound Featherweight division active, signing Harrison would be the first step in building a roster of fighters in the weight class. An eventual title fight between current champion Amanda Nunes (21-5) and Harrison is the most logical step, given Nunes has dominated everyone she has fought at that weight and a lack of new contenders emerging.

While Nunes’ next fight appears to be a rematch with Juliana Penna (12-4) at Bantamweight, it has become more and more apparent in recent years that the weight cut to 135 pounds is a difficult one. If ‘The Lioness’  is unsuccessful in the rematch, she may choose to just stay at Featherweight for the remainder of her career.

This will mean that a match up between her and Harrison, the biggest fight that can be made in women’s MMA, is possible. We saw how the UFC built up former Bellator champion Michael Chandler when he first signed with the UFC, giving him a top five opponent so he could familiarise himself with the fan base. Harrison could take a similar path, having one or two fights to build herself up and help create the buzz with the audience before she is given the Nunes fight.

The signing of Harrison will be one of the UFC’s top priorities also, as there has been speculation over how much longer Nunes will continue to fight for. Without Nunes, the 145 pound division would make little sense. If the UFC signed Harrison though, she would serve as the perfect person to succeed Nunes and have the name value to carry the division in the future.

Ben Filosi

Bellator’s Bantamweight Grand Prix will be a tournament for the ages

Without question, Bantamweight is the deepest division in all of men’s MMA. Though there are other weight classes that boast bigger stars, none stack up to the plethora of high level talent at 135 pounds.

While the UFC can comfortably say that it is the premier promotion in the sport, Bellator has assembled a stellar roster of Bantamweights, culminating in the announcement of their 2022 Grand Prix. The tournament concept is one that is not uncommon for the organisation and their president Scott Coker, who seemingly announces a bracket for a different weight class each year.

Headlining will be reigning champion Sergio Pettis (22-5), who is coming off of an incredible comeback knockout against fellow entrant and former title holder, Kyoji Horiguchi (29-4).

Pettis and Horiguchi are not be the only fighters in the bracket familiar with Bellator gold though. 34 year old Juan Archuleta (25-3), who surrendered the belt in May 2021, will be out to remind the MMA world that he still has what it takes to sit atop the division once again.

These combatants will have huge targets on their back, with five other world class fighters gunning for them.

Riding a nine fight win streak, Roufusport product Raufeon Stots (17-1) has been untouchable since signing with Bellator in 2019. In his last outing, Stots’ proved that the hype surrounding his name is valid, dominating highly touted Russian, Magomed Magomedov (18-2), himself a big chance to make waves in the Grand Prix.

Having gone five rounds with Petr Yan twice, beating the interim UFC champion in their first meeting in 2016, Magomedov has shown that he has the ability to mix it with and beat elite fighters.

Also entering the tournament, James Gallagher (11-2), Leandro Higo (21-5) and Patchy Mix (15-1) have all had the tendency to tempt greatness, without clinching a career defining victory. This might just be their opportunity to do so.

With such an even spread of competition, we predict that this particular Grand Prix will be one that results in high drama, to the point that the Bellator Bantamweight title changes hands at least once in proceedings. Fans will not want to miss a second of what promises to be an exciting eight man bracket.

Liahm O’Brien

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