After years of the same names at the top of the world in the mixed martial arts, 2021 is set to spark the start of a new era.
2020 will end with all the same champions as it started with except for three. Deiveson Figueiredo, Petr Yan and Jan Blachowicz are now the reigning champions of the flyweight, bantamweight and light heavyweight divisions but even they only got into that spot because Henry Cejudo and Jon Jones vacated the belts.
As the crazy chapter of this year ends though, the UFC has set itself up nicely for a huge year in 2021.
In every division in the men’s realm, there is at least one hot up and comer on their way up towards a title charge looking for a new spell of domination.
Brandon Moreno has the chance to enter the year as a champion by de-throning Figueiredo at UFC 256 on a three-week turnaround, while at bantamweight Aljamain Sterling has a chance to push his popularity through the roof with a win over Petr Yan.
135lbs may be the deepest division there is though with the likes of Marlon Vera, Nathaniel Wood, Sean O’Malley, Cory Sandhagen, Song Yadong, Casey Kenney and more making there way up the rankings. A run of wins for any of them would see them push into that top five and title contention which is only a positive.
Featherweight is in a similar spot. Brian Ortega is set to be next up to challenge Alex Volkanovski but the competition after that fight is exciting too. Zabit Magomedsharipov, Yair Rodriguez, Calvin Kattar, Bryce Mitchell and Shane Burgos are all ranked and could all boost their title aspirations with some wins in 2021, which would almost certainly create a new star at the top of one of the most stacked divisions around.
Lightweight is likely to see the end of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s reign, whether or not he decides to go for 30-0. If he does and is successful, the next champ will be an instant superstar anyway. The most star-studded division the UFC has is also home to some top prospects. The likes of Islam Makhachev, Beneil Dariush, Diego Ferreira, Gregor Gillespie and Drew Dober could be put on a hot streak to gold with a string of victories.
Welterweight has superstars already but in terms of prospects they’re probably closer to title contention than other divisions. The likes of Geoff Neal, Leon Edwards, Khamzat Chimaev, Vicente Luque and Michael Chiesa are all likely to etch towards title contention with a win or two and all will be fairly new names to the casual fan looking at the top of the division.
Middleweight has the likes of Marvin Vettori, Edmen Shahbazyan, Omari Akhmedov, Darren Till and even Paulo Costa all under the age of 30 already in the rankings and some big name wins for them will see them in the conversation to challenge Israel Adesanya for his belt.
Light heavyweight and heavyweight are likely the divisions with the least amount of prospects coming through currently who look ready for title contention. The likes of Aleksandar Rakic and Jiri Prochazka could potentially be in the picture before the end of the year with a win or two but beyond that you’re looking at guys who’d need a big step up. Nikita Krylov, Johnny Walker, Jimmy Crute and Misha Cirkunov could be in the upper echelons of the division with a good run.
With heavyweight severely lacking in prospects, Cyril Gane is likely the only one that will get anywhere near the top end of the rankings but the potential of Francis Ngannou holding the belt is something the UFC would love. His presence in Africa along with the fact that his style will have casual fans buzzing with the violence is the stuff superstars are made of.
It’s a chance for the UFC to put on some incredible fights that fans would love to see and build new, genuine superstars quickly and legitimately.
2021 is the start of a post-COVID era for the fight game and they need someone to take it by the scruff of the neck to march into the future.