- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
The UFC is down to 13 live events remaining in 2021 (not including Dana White’s Contender Series). As of now, the schedule consists of one more trip to Fight Island for UFC 267, the promotion’s first visit to New York since 2019 and a consistent lineup of events in Las Vegas to close out the year.
This week features a rare Saturday off before a 10-week stretch of fight cards, including three numbered events: UFC 266, UFC 267 and UFC 268.
With much of the schedule for the rest of the year already laid out, what are the top 10 fights you should be excited for? Here’s my personal list.
Note: This list consists of fights that are already signed or nearly so. The UFC is still matchmaking for 2021, and there are a handful of excellent fights in the works — but not quite finalized, so not included in this list.
10. Amanda Nunes vs. Julianna Peña, bantamweight championship, UFC 269 on Dec. 18
Frankly, most of Nunes’ fights wouldn’t make this kind of list … because she’s simply too dominant. I wouldn’t say she’s too dominant for her own good, because that’s ridiculous. She walks in, takes very little damage, drops a highlight and walks out. That’s great for Nunes. But she might be too dominant for our good as viewers, because most of her fights are over before they begin.
This one might be, too. There is certainly a chance that Peña is just out of her league here. That is always, always a possibility when talking about a Nunes opponent.
But I have to say, I’m giving Peña more of a chance than most recent challengers. At the very least, I don’t think she’ll be out of there quickly. I think she’ll force Nunes to compete with her. She’s very tough — mentally and physically. And I do believe her confidence is authentic. I might not predict Peña to win this fight when the time comes, but I can tell you I’ll predict her to put up a fight.
9. Rose Namajunas vs. Zhang Weili, strawweight championship, UFC 268 on Nov. 6
This would be ranked higher if it weren’t for the fact we just saw the matchup in April. And even though I’m fine with Zhang getting an immediate rematch — I do think she’s capable of giving Namajunas a completely different fight this time — it’s just not one of those highly anticipated rematches we all had to see immediately. That said, Zhang is undeniably world-class. She has proved she’s a champion, but nothing proves one is a champion more than bouncing back from a loss like the one she suffered the last time out against Namajunas.
8. Mackenzie Dern vs. Marina Rodriguez, strawweight, UFC Fight Night on Oct. 9
When Dern signed with the UFC in 2018, we all knew there was no ceiling to her potential because of what she brought from the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world. The question was whether she’d put everything else together.
Three years in, she appears to be on the cusp of putting it all together. She’s got a winner’s mentality. She’s not struggling to make the weight anymore. Her game is becoming more well-rounded by the day. She’s dedicated to the sport. There is no doubt in my mind Dern could become a 115-pound champion.
Rodriguez is unquestionably her toughest test to date. Rodriguez is on a roll as well. She views herself as nothing short of championship level. One of these two is going to fight for a belt in the next 18 months — I believe that. Let’s see who it is.
7. Paulo Costa vs. Marvin Vettori, middleweight, UFC Fight Night on Oct. 23
So much anger in one middleweight matchup. We’ve been waiting to see how Costa will respond to his very disappointing title bid against Israel Adesanya in 2020. Vettori is always entertaining, in the cage and out. This five-round main event will likely feature a very fun buildup and a violent clash of styles on fight night.
6. Rafael Fiziev vs. Brad Riddell, lightweight, UFC Fight Night on Dec. 4
Nearly all of the selections on this list are championship fights, main events, co-main events or featured bouts with high-profile fighters. This is really the only one that doesn’t feature a household name, but all true fight fans are looking forward to it. Fiziev and Riddell are two of the most intriguing and entertaining prospects in the lightweight division. This has legitimate Fight of the Year potential. It’s easy to tell your friends you’re looking forward to a Conor McGregor fight. Tell them you’re looking forward to this one, and show what a true (and smart) MMA fan you really are.
5. Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan, bantamweight championship, UFC 267 on Oct. 30
It might surprise you that I have this rematch so high on the list. But the story behind this one is just outstanding to me. Sterling was pretty universally well-liked in the sport before he won the title against Yan in the manner in which he did. Yan’s illegal knee. Sterling claiming the belt via Yan’s disqualification. Photos of Sterling holding it up and celebrating with friends that night, when many felt he should take no joy in winning the way he did.
Sterling has been forced to deal with the full force of internet trolls since that night in March, and he’ll go into this rematch under a lot of doubt. Many expect Yan to take the belt back and move on. So, Sterling has this one chance to drastically change how all of this is remembered. If he were to go in and dominate Yan, man, that changes the whole narrative. Nights don’t get any bigger for a UFC fighter than the one Sterling will go into on Oct. 30, and for that reason, I’m very hyped about it.
4. Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler, lightweight, UFC 268 on Nov. 6
I won’t insult you by even explaining this one. Gaethje vs. Chandler speaks for itself. Absolute fire. Cheers to all of us for simply being allowed to witness it.
3. Khamzat Chimaev vs. Li Jingliang, welterweight, UFC 267 on Oct. 30
Chimaev could be the best fighter on the planet. I mean, I don’t know. He could be. Could he also be massively overrated? Yeah, that’s possible as well. The amount of hype this man generated in a short amount of time in 2020, it still boggles the mind. But he was deserving of it. He was looking to fight every week, in multiple weight classes. He exceeded all expectations. I still find myself wondering what would have happened had he and Leon Edwards met late last year. We could be looking at Chimaev fighting for the welterweight title already, which is just mad.
Will he look the same after struggling for months with COVID-19 symptoms? All reports out of Sweden say he will. Li is a legitimate foe, but if Chimaev stomps him as he has everyone else, the hype will rush back and this story will take off again.
2. Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington 2, welterweight championship, UFC 268 on Nov. 6
Now, this is a rematch to truly get up for. Covington has given Usman his toughest championship fight in the UFC. I would say he’s a bigger rival to Usman than even Jorge Masvidal, whom we’ve already seen fight Usman twice. Covington has a better chance of actually beating Usman than Masvidal probably ever had.
Personality-wise, Usman and Covington are complete opposites in so many ways. Usman is, by many votes, the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, which he wasn’t considered to be when they first fought. Covington has a real issue with the way that many people remember their first fight. He believes he was much closer to beating Usman than he has ever received credit for. The backdrop of New York City is perfect for this fight. I love everything about it.
1. Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega, featherweight championship, UFC 266 on Sept. 25
So, my guess is that this is a sleeper pick for most anticipated fight of the rest of the year. I think fans are looking forward to this 145-pound matchup, but above anything else the rest of the year? I might be in the minority on that. But I really want to find out how good Ortega is. He made it to a title fight against Max Holloway while training out of a garage. Holloway outclassed him, and since then Ortega has changed virtually everything around him. He has fought only once in the past 2½ years but looked pretty much perfect in that win against Chan Sung Jung last October. How good is he? Is he the best featherweight in the world, but we’ve just had to wait a long time to find out?
Ortega will need to be the best featherweight in the world to beat Volkanovski. The champ’s style hasn’t fully resonated yet with the fans, but I struggle to find many fighters out there I respect more when it comes to preparation, fight IQ, professionalism, technique and ability to make in-fight adjustments. It is going to take a world-class performance to beat this man.
I love the prefight narratives and the dynamic between two fighters — all of that is really fun. But for me, nothing beats a fight in which I really do not know who is going to win, because both athletes are remarkably good. And that’s what we’ve got with this one.
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