Fighters to Watch 2022: Bantamweights
Who are the 135-pound talents to keep tabs on in the forthcoming 12 months?
The state of the two bantamweight divisions represent a dichotomy in 2022.
Despite a massive upset producing a new champion on the final pay-per-view of 2021, the women’s side of the weight class represents the weakest collection of talent in any division, with sameness permeating the ranks and no real exciting young names currently moving forward.
Across the gender divide, the men’s bantamweight division remains the deepest, most competitive weight class in the UFC, with various tiers of established talents and emerging competitors woven throughout the ranks. There will be more fighters from the men’s bantamweight division discussed below than in any other weight class, save for lightweight, where the overall numbers are just far greater.
There are intriguing questions that will be answered on each side in the coming 12 months, and with the wealth of talent in the women’s flyweight division, it wouldn’t be surprising if a couple competitors see a move to 135-pounds as an opportunity to jump the queue and make a quicker run towards championship gold.
Check out previous instalments in the Fighters to Watch 2022 series here (number of athletes discussed in parenthesis):
CHAMPION: JULIANNA PENA
The first female Ultimate Fighter winner shocked everyone but herself and her coaches at UFC 269, taking the fight to Amanda Nunes and wrestling the bantamweight title away from the long-reigning champion.
Now comes the hard part.
Peña is likely headed into a rematch with Nunes in her first title defence, and as impressive as her performance was last month in Las Vegas, replicating that effort will be a challenging task. If she passes that test, a potential rematch with current flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko, who defeated her five years ago, is a distinct possibility.
What’s most interesting about Peña ascending to the throne is that she really hasn’t fought too many of the top competitors in the division, as her first six UFC opponents are either no longer with the promotion or competing in a different weight class, leaving just three dance partners — Germaine de Randamie, Sara McMann, and Nunes — as remaining bantamweights she’s previously faced.
Whether she remains on top of the division or not, there are many intriguing potential matchups out there for “The Venezuelan Vixen” in 2022.
IRENE ALDANA: the 33-year-old Mexican enters 2022 in an interesting spot, having scored an impressive first-round stoppage win over Yana Kunitskaya in her lone appearance of last year, though she missed weight by a considerable margin. Every time I get excited about her upside and the prospects of Aldana challenging for championship gold, she stumbles, so I will be curious to see if she can string together the kind of wins she needs in order to finally establish herself as a real title contender this year.
JULIA AVILA: in three years on the UFC roster, Avila has fought just four times, amassing a 3-1 record while still failing to sustain any real momentum. She’s had 10 different matchups fall through for one reason or another, and if she’d been able to make even a third of those, things could be very different. The 33-year-old is grimy and tough, brandishing good power and sharp finishing instincts, but needs to stay healthy and stay active in order to move forward. She has the skills and makeup to be a contender, and there is a need for new names to emerge, but it’s difficult to forecast her making such a run with any confidence at this point.
MACY CHIASSON: each time I want to get excited about Chiasson, something happens that dampens my enthusiasm. First it was the Lina Lansberg loss a couple years ago, and in 2021, it was missing weight for a featherweight engagement with Raquel Pennington, which she went on to lose by second-round submission. She still only nine fights and not quite five years into her career, so these could be growing pains, but if she’s going to develop into a contender, Chiasson needs to start showing greater consistency.
JESSICA-ROSE CLARK (above): the 34-year-old Aussie returned from ACL reconstruction in the fall, delivering a solid showing against Joselyne Edwards to earn a second straight victory and ensure things keep moving in the right direction. Clark finally seems settled splitting her time between CSA and AKA, and has the tenacity and grit to be a persistent tough out in the 135-pound weight class, while still carrying the room to develop into a consistent presence in the lower half of the rankings. She’s figured out who she is as a fighter, now she just needs to stay active ad string together some wins.
GERMAINE DE RANDAMIE: “The Iron Lady” went the whole year without stepping into the Octagon and was removed from the rankings in the fall, but the last appearance on her resume is a submission win over the current champ. The Dutch standout has taken long stretches off in the past and always come back sharp and ready to contend. She’s one of three elite contenders in the division, and should move right back into the title conversation whenever she comes back.
HOLLY HOLM: Holm has been out the same amount of time as de Randamie, spending 2021 dealing with kidney issues and then a knee injury. Like her Dutch contemporary, she is a permanent presence in the title conversation and one of the elite contenders in the division, but with a year on the shelf and now 40 years old, you have to wonder how much longer “The Preacher’s Daughter” is going to remain a cut above the rest of the competition?
PANNIE KIANZAD: Kianzad has the clean boxing to be a fixture in the lower third of the rankings and a tough assignment for any emerging hopeful that is looking to break into the Top 10. If she’s going to make that kind of move herself, the 30-year-old Swedish-Iranian fighter needs to rise to the occasion in her biggest moments, which she failed to do in 2021. My feeling is that this version of Kianzad is pretty close to a finished product and the best we’re going to see of her, but I don’t want to officially close the door on one last development surge quite yet.
YANA KUNITSKAYA: this is going to sound really harsh, but Kunitskaya might be the least intimidating, least convincing sixth-ranked fighter in any division in the UFC right now. Her best win is a questionable decision nod over Ketlen Vieira last February, and she’s floundered in every other big opportunity she’s had. There is no denying she’s tough and that she’s going to continue getting opportunities, but I would be surprised if she’s still in the Top 10 at this point next year.
ASPEN LADD: the more I watch her fight and struggle with plotting the correct course for her career, the more I wonder if Ladd peaked at 22 or 23 years old, right after her first couple UFC victories? She’s had major issues making ‘35, lost a short-notice fight at ‘45 that could have been a real chance to right the ship, and has lost the ferociousness that made her such an intriguing prospect early in her pro career. This is a critical year for the 26-year-old from Northern California.
AMANDA NUNES: a month after it happened, I’m still not sure how Nunes fought such a terrible fight against Julianna Peña; it was a complete departure from what we’d seen from her during the majority of her title reign and the kind of effort that made me think perhaps she was ready to pack it in and call it a career. She’s since declared she wants a rematch, and I’d favor her in that pairing, but after years of dominance, Nunes needs to prove herself again in 2022 if she wants to maintain her place as the greatest female fighter of all time.
JOSIANE NUNES: Nunes is probably too small to make real waves in the bantamweight ranks (she’s 5'2”), but she clobbered Be a Malecki in her promotional debut, chopping down the towering Swede with powerful strikes, and I’m genuinely curious to see what the fearless, powerful newcomer can do as an encore and throughout the rest of her first full year on the roster.
RAQUEL PENNINGTON: Pennington quietly had a quality year in 2021, earning victories over Kianzad and Chiasson to push her winning streak to three and cement her position as a Top 10 talent in the bantamweight ranks. She’s a tick below the elite class, having lost to Nunes, Holm, and de Randamie in the past, but should fill a similar role to the one her partner, Tecia Torres, fills at strawweight going forward.
KAROL ROSA: the 27-year-old Brazilian is the lone up-and-coming talent in the division at the moment — the one athlete on an extended winning streak that has yet to face anyone in the Top 10. She’s won all four of her UFC assignments and six straight overall, working behind solid striking and pressure. This is going to be the year where she gets tossed into some more challenging matchups, so it will be interesting to see if she sinks or swims once she starts facing the more established and skilled members of the bantamweight ranks.
MIESHA TATE: the former bantamweight champ ended her retirement in 2021, earning a third-round stoppage win over the exiting Marion Reneau before landing on the wrong side of things in a five-round battle with Ketlen Vieira. Tate’s name value and elite pedigree will always keep her in the mix, regardless of where she fights, but after getting busted up and beaten down at the end of November, I’m curious to she which direction she takes in 2022 and beyond.
KETLEN VIEIRA: Vieira is the closest thing to a fresh contender as there is in the bantamweight division at the moment, having yet to share the Octagon with Peña, Nunes, Holm, or de Randamie. She pulled away down the stretch of her fight with Tate, showing she can go five hard rounds if needed, and has an excellent jiu jitsu pedigree that makes her a someone unique figure in the Top 5. A matchup with either Holm or de Randamie seems like the obvious next step, but if neither are ready to fight in the first half of 2022, “Fenomeno” might have to take a high-risk, low-reward assignment to keep busy.
CHAMPION: ALJAMAIN STERLING
Sterling became champion in 2021 by disqualification. I don’t say that to me dismissive or downplay his talents; it’s simply a fact. He started well, but faded in his clash with Petr Yan in March, and then got blasted with a vicious, illegal knee late in the fourth round, resulting in the fight being stopped, Yan being disqualified, and the belt changing hands.
The New York native, who moved to Las Vegas and now trains at Xtreme Couture, is champing at the bit to get back in the cage after having to withdraw from his scheduled rematch with Yan at the end of October, with designs on settling things with his Siberian rival and defending his title multiple times.
Because of the way things went down in March, it feels like folks forget how talented Sterling is — that he won five straight before his fight with Yan, including snatching up Cory Sandhagen’s neck in under 90 seconds — and he wants nothing more than to show this year that when he’s at full health, he’s the best bantamweight in the world.
INTERIM CHAMPION: PETR YAN
Yan picked up supplemental gold at UFC 268, out-working Sandhagen over five rounds in a fight that garnered more acclaim than I anticipated. Don’t get me wrong, it was a quality fight, but I didn’t feel it was the Fight of the Year contender most others believed it to be.
The 28-year-old fights like a gathering storm, building more and more with each passing round. He starts slowly, making his reads and finding his range, and then ramps things up a little at a time, turning up the pressure and pace. Yan was ahead 29-28 on two of the three scorecards in his fight with Sterling in March, and while he’s spoken about having “moved on” from a fight with “The Funkmaster,” it should be the first assignment of the year for each of them, ideally in Q1.
With his diverse skill set, outstanding conditioning, and killer instinct, Yan profiles as the top fighter in the division and one of the absolute best in the entire company.
JOSE ALDO: even after his win over Marlon Vera to close out 2020, I didn’t see Aldo becoming a contender again, but that’s exactly what he did in 2021. The Brazilian posted a quality victory over Pedro Munhoz in August, and then followed that up with a terrific outing against Rob Font in December, putting him right back in the thick of the chase in the 135-pound weight class. I don’t know if he’s really discovered the Fountain of Youth or can hang with the absolute best in the division, but I’m eager to see him try in the coming year.
DANAA BATGEREL: the Mongolian bantamweight earned two more first-round stoppage wins in 2021, pushing his winning streak to three and establishing himself as a very intriguing name to track heading into this year. He’s 32 years old and only a dozen fights into his career, and he’s grown by leaps and bounds since working with Brandon Gibson in Albuquerque, flashing the kind of nasty power that you don’t see as frequently in the 135-pound ranks.
DOMINICK CRUZ: like Aldo, Cruz found new life in 2021 as well, posting victories over Casey Kenney and Pedro Munhoz to solidify his position in the division. The former champ is 36 years old and has dealt with a ton of lower body injuries over the course of his career, which always has to be part of the conversation with him, but he should remain a dangerous veteran presence in the middle third of the rankings in 2022. Taking the right fights will be key for Cruz, just as it is for any veteran fighter in the latter stages of their careers.
TJ DILLASHAW: Dillashaw came back from a two-plus-year hiatus and didn’t miss a beat, running level with Sandhagen for five rounds, landing on the favorable side of a split decision verdict. He was forced to the sidelines with multiple injuries following the contest, but should land in a No. 1 contender fight next time out at the very least. His aim is to become a three-time bantamweight champion, and with the way he looked in his first fight back, it’s certainly not out of the question.
MERAB DVALISHVILI: “The Machine” kept cranking out wins in 2021, posting a unanimous decision win over Cody Stamann in May and a second-round TKO victory over Marlon Moraes in September that featured one of the most chaotic opening rounds in the last several years. Dvalishvili has won seven straight, piles up takedowns like nobody’s business, and keeps a ridiculous pace, all of which contribute to make him one of the more intriguing emerging contenders in the division at the moment.
CHRIS GUTIERREZ: did you know that Gutierrez has one of the longer unbeaten streaks in the bantamweight division at the moment? Yeah, it’s true. “El Guapo” is unbeaten in his last six, sporting a 5-1-1 record through seven UFC appearances, and yet, he feels miles away from even breaking into the rankings, yet alone contending. Gutierrez needs — and merits — a step up in competition to start 2022, but he could also use a real standout effort to help bring some attention to the overall success he’s having in one of the toughest divisions in the UFC.
BRADY HIESTAND: he’s 22 years old; that’s really all there is to it. Hiestand advanced to the TUF finals this year and lost a hard-fought battle to Ricky Turcios, but he’s still a baby in the sport, and showed a ton of heart, toughness, and tenacity throughout the tournament. He’s a long-range prospect, but one to keep tabs on throughout 2022 because Sikjitsu has helped turn a couple of TUF winners into top-end talents in the past.
MONTEL JACKSON: Jackson made his UFC debut 13 months and a handful of days after making his professional debut, losing a decision to Ricky Simón. He’s 5-1 since then (the loss is to Brett Johns, who is quite good) and he has a bunch of elements to his game and natural gifts that have always made me believe that with more experience and training, he could be a factor in the division. Jackson is still only 28 years old and is someone I think could have a breakout campaign in 2022.
MILES JOHNS: the 27-year-old Fortis MMA representative bounced back from his first professional loss in February 2020 with a third-round stoppage win in October of that year, and followed it up with a similar effort this past August in Houston. Johns battled a good slate coming up through LFA, including earning split decision win over Adrian Yanez, and is another one of those emerging talents on the fringes of the Top 15 with the potential to break through in the next 12 months with the right matchups and the right results.
SAIDYOKUB KAKHRAMONOV: Kakhramonov flew to Las Vegas and registered a third-round stoppage win over Trevin Jones all in the span of a couple days in August, which makes him someone I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing compete again in 2022. He’s 26 years old, trains with a good group at Team Oyama, and has earned seven of his nine career wins by stoppage, so don’t be surprised if he makes some noise in the coming year.
RONNIE LAWRENCE: “The Heat” looked very good in collecting a third-round finish over Vince Cachero in his promotional debut, but then a botched weight cut scuttled his sophomore appearance at the end of July. He works at a steady pace and mixes things up well, which makes him an intriguing addition to the divisional ranks, but Lawrence needs to get his weight cut dialled in first before he can start making real headway in the talent-rich bantamweight class.
NATE MANESS: Maness is another one of these dudes that has put together a quality run with zero fanfare, earning three wins in as many UFC outings to push his overall winning streak to four and his record to 14-1 as a pro. He looked very sharp against Tony Gravely in September, connecting with a counter hook before pounding out the finish, and is another one of those sneaky talents could make a little run with the right assignments in 2022.
SAID NURMAGOMEDOV: Nurmagomedov is 3-1 in the UFC, but remains a question mark for me because how much can you really say definitively about someone that didn’t compete at all in 2021 and whose last win was a 51-second finish of Mark Striegl? The 29-year-old dropped a decision to Raoni Barcelos before that, but his upcoming UFC 270 assignment opposite Cody Stamann should provide all the clarity I need to have a much better sense of where he fits in the division going forward.
UMAR NURMAGOMEDOV: “Cousin Umar” finally debuted in January 2021, choking out veteran Sergey Morozov, pushing his record to 13-0 overall. He’s been out of action since and was recently scratched from a proposed bout with Jack Shore in mid-March, which feels like a bad sign for seeing him compete in the first half of this year. The talent and the pedigree are there, but activity is crucial, especially in the bantamweight division, where too long on the sidelines can result in even elite prospects getting swept under by the never-ending crush of talent looking to climb the ranks.
SEAN O’MALLEY: if last year proved O’Malley is one of the elite up-and-coming talents in the division (and it did), then 2022 should give us a better understanding of where his ceiling sits because he’s cracked the Top 15 and can’t keep squaring off with unranked opponents moving forward. The 27-year-old is a legitimate superstar talent — his power is established, his movement is excellent, his approach is sharp — and it wouldn’t surprise me if he finished the year on the cusp of a championship opportunity. It also wouldn’t surprise me if he stumbled against top flight competition and needed a year or two to really establish his footing as a Top 10 fighter either.
RAULIAN PAIVA: Paiva had a down and up and down again year in 2021, starting with weight cutting issues that prompted his move to bantamweight. He debuted in the division with a gutsy come-from-behind win over Kyler Phillips, but then got blitzed and finished by O’Malley, which should be too much of a demerit, but people are weird and overreact to most results. He was more intriguing to me as a flyweight because of his size and power potential, but I’m willing to see what a full year at ‘35 looks like before coming to any kind of real conclusion on where the Brazilian fits in the division and what his future may look like long term.
KYLER PHILLIPS: Phillips started his year with an upset win over Song Yadong in March, but then started quick, faded fast, and caught a loss against Paiva in July. He’s long been someone that intrigued me in this weight class because he has a diverse skill set and comes from an excellent camp (The MMA Lab), but like so many of the younger fighters on the UFC roster, consistency is going to be the key for Phillips going forward. Worst-case he should be an action fighter in the middle of the pack for a number of years, but the skills are there for him to be a Top 15 fighter as well, so it’s all going to come down to the matchups and how he performs on Fight Night.
CORY SANDHAGEN: don’t let his consecutive losses to close out the year cloud your opinion of Sandhagen — he is still one of the five best bantamweights on the planet, and I fully expect him to continue showing that in 2022. I thought he won the fight with Dillashaw and think he’ll learn a lot from the loss to Yan, where I thought he got away from what he does best, which is working from range and keeping opponents off-balance. A little step back to start the year would make sense, but by the time the end of the year rolls around, I anticipate he’ll be right back in the thick of the chase at the top of the division.
JACK SHORE: I hope with every fibre of my being that 2022 is the year “Tank” starts to get some appreciation for what he’s accomplished and what an intriguing prospect he is, though I thought that heading into 2021 as well and it didn’t happen. The Welsh standout is 4-0 in the UFC, 15-0 as a pro, and 27-0 in mixed martial arts competition overall. Yeah. Seriously. He’s a grinder, but you don’t win 15 straight pro bouts and go this long without ever suffering a defeat if you’re just some dude, and I genuinely believe that with the right opportunities, Shore could make a serious move up the divisional ladder over the next 12 months. #FreeTank
RICKY SIMON: the man with the best mullet in the UFC had an outstanding year last year, registering three victories and punctuating his 2021 campaign with a second-round TKO stoppage win over rankings fixture Raphael Assuncao on the final card of the year. Simón feels like one of those emerging talents that is putting it all together right now after stumbling the first time he tried to make a run, and with his relentless style and increased focus on finishing fights, he’s definitely someone to keep a close eye on this year.
RICKY TURCIOS: my initial impression of Turcios when chronicling the week-to-week action on TUF 29 this year was that he’s an entertaining mid-pack guy whose willingness to get into scraps will endear him to fans, but limit his upside. That hasn’t changed now that he’s joined the fraternity of Ultimate Fighter winners, simply because there are too many guys in the same age range (25-29) with sharper skills and greater finishing instincts. That being said, I’m willing to be proven wrong and look forward to watching the spiritual bantamweight do his thing in 2022.
TIMUR VALIEV: Valiev is unbeaten in the UFC the same way Jordan Wright was unbeaten up until he got slept by Bruno Silva at UFC 269 — it’s technically true, but all know it’s not really the case, as “Lucky” got finished by Trevin Jones in August 2020 before the fight was ruled a No Contest when Jones popped for weed. Now, Valiev has looked good since then, registering wins over Martin Day and Raoni Barcelos, and I’ve always got plenty of time for talented fighters from the Mark Henry / Iron Army crew, but he turns 32 in a couple weeks and if he’s going to make a real run, it needs to happen now or else he’s likely to be relegated to being a quality mid-pack talent for the remainder of his UFC career.
MARLON VERA: there is no one on the roster I have less of a feel for than Vera, who earned two good wins in 2021 to land a spot in the Top 15, but still feels like someone that could lose to any number of fighters from 10-25 in the rankings on a given night. He showed more patience and focus on technique this past year and that would be a positive long-term development, but much like O’Malley, I still kind of want to see him beat someone in contention before I start talking about him like a potential contender, you know? I know I haven’t been doing any real matchmaking throughout this series thus far, but Marlon Vera vs. Merab Dvalishvili sounds like a perfect matchup to me.
SONG YADONG: Song just turned 24 at the start of December and he’s already 7-1-1 in the UFC. Even if you want to call his draw with Cody Stamann and his fight with Vera as losses, that means he’s still 6-3 through nine fights before his 25th birthday, including a couple real good wins and close fights with more experienced foes. He rebounded from his March loss to Phillips with a wins over Casey Kenney and Julio Arce, and remains, for me, one of the top emerging talents on the roster. He should be a Top 15 presence for the next decade and challenge for the title at some point along the way, provided he remains healthy.
ADRIAN YANEZ: the DWCS grad earned four wins in 13 months to begin his UFC career, closing out that run with a victory over durable veteran Davey Grant. But now comes the really hard part — taking on more seasoned, more skilled, more dynamic opponents. Yanez is tough as nails, adjusts well on the fly, and has clean striking with legit pop, which will always keep him in the hunt. I can’t wait to see who he’s paired off with to start his 2022 campaign and to find out if he can keep this quality run to begin his UFC tenure going.
Tune in tomorrow for the next instalment in the 2022 Fighters to Watch series, where we’ll take a look at the featherweight division.
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