Nisar Khan

President, head writer at TheSportMatrix


Predicting UFC Champions By the End of 2017

2016 was a rollercoaster year inside and out of the Octagon. A staggering $4 billion sale, a landmark event in New York, a monumental milestone, a two-weight world champion - the list goes on. Indeed, it was a year of change in the sport - reflected no better than the amount of championships changing hands.

9 new champions were crowned over the calendar year, proving the volatility of mixed martial arts. An ever changing landscape, with upsets proving immune only to the very few. Others fell, be it drug tests, or shock losses.

In 2017, as the competition hottens, will we see more chaos? How many more champions will fall? Here we predict who will be champions come the end of the year.

Women's Strawweight: Joanna Jędrzejczyk

Image: przegladsportowy.pl
Poland's Joanna Jędrzejczyk currently holds the second longest active title reign in the organisation, having made four title defences of her strawweight crown. In what is the UFC's smallest weight class, she has earned a reputation that fits in with the heavyweights after savage beatdowns on all her challengers so far.

Most recently, at the prestigious UFC 205 in New York City's Madison Square Garden, she saw off compatriot Karolina Kowalkiewicz in a brutal fight, yet again overcoming adversity after being stunned later in the bout. Similarly, she rallied from two rounds of dominance against Cláudia Gadelha to put on a striking clinic on the eve of UFC 200.

Image: SI.com
Waiting in the wings next is another Brazilian, in the form of Jessica Andrade. Having previously competed at bantamweight, "Bate Estaca" appears reinvigorated at strawweight, taking her vicious knockout power with her. This will most likely be the next challenge awaiting the Polish champion, and it could be her toughest to date.

But for now, Jędrzejczyk remains the one to back. Other competitors are on the rise, but expect no-one to be ready to dethrone her for the next 12 months at least.

Women's Bantamweight: Julianna Peña

Image: MMA Fighting
Ever since the crashing and falling of Ronda Rousey, chaos has swept the women's 135 division. Holly Holm lost the belt to Miesha Tate with a thrilling rear-naked choke, before "Cupcake" was then smashed and tapped by Amanda Nunes, who went on to make her first title defence with a ruthless 48-second stoppage of Ronda Rousey - ending 2016 on an incomparably high note.

Julianna Peña is set to duke it out with Valentina Shevchenko in what surely will determine the next contender. A previous winner of The Ultimate Fighter, "The Venezuelan Vixen" has worked her way to four UFC victories, with Cat Zingano at the top of the list.

Image: Getty Images
Should she get past Shevchenko, she has all the tools to beat the champion. While Nunes is a savage striker, what we didn't get to see during her victories over Tate and Rousey is that she tends to fade in the deeper rounds. Peña's style drifts towards grinding out opponents towards the later rounds, which may spell trouble for the champion - and win her the belt.

Women's Featherweight: Cris Cyborg

Image: MMA Fighting
2017 will see the inauguration of an all-new women's featherweight champion, as the UFC adds a 13th weight class to its ranks. Holly Holm vs. Germaine de Randamie will headline UFC 208 to crown that 145 lbs sovereign, although one figure still looms large.

Cris Cyborg, arguably the most dangerous female mixed martial artist in the world, has made a home of savage destruction at featherweight. She finally stepped foot inside the Octagon last year, and all signs pointed towards her leading the way into the featherweight division.

Image: Wired
But then came a twist in the tale. Cris Cyborg apparently turned down a title fight at 145 lbs, citing a short turnaround making it hard to cut the weight. Holm vs. de Randamie was made, and then a few days later, Cyborg was flagged for a drug violation. A diuretic to recover from the weight cut was the reason, and with no verdicts made yet, speculation remains rampant.

Still, it appears to not be as bad as it sounds. That means Cyborg could return before the year is out, and when she does the featherweight belt will surely be on her agenda. Her cut to 140 lbs was draining enough, but with an extra 5 lbs on her, she could be even more dangerous as we have seen in Invicta. That all suggests she will be the champion at featherweight some time this year.

Men's Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson

Image: LowKickMMA
Nope, Mighty Mouse isn't going anywhere anytime soon. He is closing in on Anderson Silva's legendary record for the most consecutive title defences, and two defences of his crown will eclipse the great Brazilian's record.

December's TUF Finale almost saw one of the biggest upsets in the promotion's history when Demetrious Johnson was caught in a submission attempt by the unorthodox Tim Elliott. He would power through that and create plenty of daylight over the later rounds to retain his title. Joseph Benavidez appears to be the next in line for a crack at Johnson, but the issue is: he's already been beaten, twice (the latter a convincing first-round knockout).

Image: MMA Fighting
With all the wealth of knowledge in his back pocket, Johnson should excel in the trilogy fight, and then Wilson Reis, if the momentum keeps flowing his way, could follow, having missed out on a summer fight with the champion due to an injury. Reis with all due respect, can not get through Demetrious, especially when he's on a mission to make history.

2017 should be a historic year for Demetrious Johnson. Who knows, he could even target the winner of the next prediction. Bantamweight will soon be his focus.

Men's Bantamweight: Dominick Cruz

Image: MMA Junkie
Dominick Cruz fought three times last year, something that would have been unthinkable in recent memory considering his poor luck with injuries. He reclaimed his belt with a narrow thriller against TJ Dillashaw, defended it against a nemesis, and then had the championship wrenched from his grasp at the hands of a five-round clinic from Cody Garbrandt.

But the 31-year-old has worn defeat on his sleeve and is more than capable of getting his hands back on the belt. There may be a little complex path back to the championship, but "The Dominator" can continue to lie in wait.

Image: UFC
TJ Dillashaw could have the next crack at the belt against Cody Garbrandt, a fight which is incredibly hard to predict. It will be a compelling grudge match for sure, with the former teammates both capable of putting the lights out. Cruz could take some time off, or even rebound with a shot at a top-fiver, before going back for that belt. It's a close one to call though, really anyone out of Dillashaw, Garbrandt and Cruz could take it.

Men's Featherweight: Max Holloway

Image: The Independent
Conor McGregor's spectacular two-weight world championship coronation came at some cost: the featherweight division. While he went for glory at lightweight, the 145 lbs class was almost on hold, to the detriment of Max Holloway among others. Nonetheless, he continued to truck on, and when The Notorious was stripped of the belt, an interim opportunity opened up in which "Blessed" tore through Anthony Pettis at UFC 206.

Image: Online News
José Aldo, earlier in the year, saw off Frankie Edgar at UFC 200 to win the interim belt, before it was promoted to the undisputed championship. In 2017 here's hoping we see much less of that logjam, and the clearing of it could start early in the year when Aldo and Holloway clash to unify the championships.

That fight itself is another tough one to predict. The technicalities of Aldo may give him the edge for a five-round decision, although Holloway's durability makes it fascinating. But that fight may not determine it all. Even if Aldo wins, the feeling is that he'll chase McGregor up to lightweight to avenge that 13-second loss a year prior - meaning he will exit his featherweight stomping ground, allowing Holloway to take control. And Holloway appears to have the edge over most of the other ranked divisional contenders.

Men's Lightweight: Conor McGregor
Interim Champion: Khabib Nurmagomedov

Image: Telegraph
The Conor McGregor situation makes the lightweight division a stab in the dark. With the upcoming birth of his first child ruling him out until the summer (probably), we have two contenders who have been deserving of a title shot for a long time.

Image: UK Headlines
Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson were slated to face each other on several occasions, all of which unfortunately fell through. In the mean time, Ferguson has seen off former champion dos Anjos in a classic fight, while the Russian made an electric statement on the same night McGregor won the lightweight strap - pummelling and then submitting Michael Johnson.

Image: Fight Platform
Adding another layer of complexity is the fusion between featherweight and lightweight. Aldo could be considering a move up to that division, and then its even more mind-boggling. If the UFC can somehow keep things within the division, and make Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov, McGregor should have a challenger awaiting him.

Image: SportsChatter
But few things go as planned with McGregor involved. A Nate Diaz trilogy fight could smash all records to smithereens, especially with the belt on the line. Another detour means, yes, another interim title belt. That is most often the solution nowadays with such an array of contenders.

So Khabib will capture the interim belt by beating Ferguson, while McGregor sees off Diaz. Maybe 2017 will run out before they do unify the championships.

Men's Welterweight: Demian Maia

Image: MMA Fighting
With all the chaos going on, we have another contender who has been patiently waiting for his title shot. A majority draw between champion Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson didn't help the cause creating further delay. We haven't heard much since, but a rematch between the two from their epic fight in New York is certainly the direction to pursue.

Image: FloCombat
Then that man's name pops up again: Conor McGregor. He may have laid the foundations for a shot at a third championship when he had an altercation with the welterweight king during UFC 205's weigh-ins. Should that happen, then both Stephen Thompson and Demian Maia will be itching at the opportunity. Maybe they will be matched up against one another, and if so, Maia is the pick to prevail - again, with a gigantic asterisk.

Ideally, McGregor should wait for things to calm down in that area, by allowing the rematch to play out and then feed the winner to a rather hungry Demian Maia. His submission skills are far too dangerous - and the belt may finally be his.

Men's Middleweight: Gegard Mousasi

Image: MMA Mania
185 lbs is quite frankly a murderer's row. Yoel Romero is coming off a savage knockout over former champion Chris Weidman, Jacaré Souza is waiting to snap another limb, Luke Rockhold is looking for revenge and Gegard Mousasi is on a tear.

In 2016, Michael Bisping finally realised his dream when he scored a stunning knockout to upset Luke Rockhold. This year, he has his work cut out.

Image: Scoopnest
The first ever British UFC champion rallied from two knockdowns in front of a Manchester home crowd to make a successful title defence against Dan Henderson, but that has not quietened the rumbles around the division. Yoel Romero looks to be next in line after he flattened Chris Weidman with a devastating knee, then got involved in some verbal sparring with the champion who was working as an analyst on the night. Rockhold and Souza were set to rematch that month too, but an injury to the Californian put that on hold. To go with all that, Gegard Mousasi has the wind behind his sails, and is surely one win away from a crack at the gold.

Image: Low Kick MMA
So, there's a bit of a mess to sort out. Matchmakers have a lot to do, but Weidman and Whittaker squaring off will be good to simmer that issue down and set something up later down the line. Make Bisping vs. Romero early in the year, while Mousasi gets a crack at Rockhold. Souza can await the next title shot or get involved himself, because injuries are almost certain.

If that rolls out as such, Romero or Bisping may be the next victim to Mousasi. Romero's cardio will be tested against someone as journeyed and tough as the champion, but then whoever wins that has to face Mousasi (if he beats Rockhold), and that may be the end of the line. Mousasi may finally add a UFC championship to his staggering list of accolades. But there could be another hiccup in the pipeline - Tyron Woodley and Michael Bisping have reportedly agreed to throw down in a catchweight super fight. It would be fantastic to see, but there's just far too many contenders to make it justifiable.

Along with all that, Mousasi will be ready to throw down at any time in the year. If anyone pulls out, he'll be in - and he may just be champion.

Men's Light Heavyweight: Jon Jones

Image: Bloody Elbow
About time, isn't it? Jon Jones' whirlwind 2016 saw him return to take the interim title, but then be ruled out of main-eventing the biggest UFC event in history after a drug violation took him out of the card on fight week. "Bones" better be counting his lucky stars, because he's dodged a ton of bullets over his UFC run.

Image: MMA Fighting
If he can get his act together, which is a huge if, then a return in the summer is likely. Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson will hopefully have their fight settled by then, but whoever does will have their hands full. Yes, Jones may be rusty from such a lay-off, but he's got a pound-for-pound crown to reclaim. The division is a little thin, and its the former long-time champion's to feast on.

Men's Heavyweight: Cain Velasquez

If (another big if) Cain Velasquez can stay healthy in 2017, he's coming for that heavyweight belt. He could have been set for a shot midway through the year but was ruled out of the title eliminator with Fabricio Werdum just a matter of weeks before UFC 207. Werdum has every right to target Miocic next, but shouldn't pose much of a problem for the champion who is thriving after a "fighter of the year" worthy 2016.

Once Miocic and Werdum are done, then Velasquez can have a pop at Miocic. And a healthy Velasquez is rarely beaten by any man. But if the old injury bug comes back to haunt him, then Junior Dos Santos may be in line for a rematch after their epic fight in 2014. Francis Ngannou could also undertake a meteoric rise, although for now the UFC seem to be slowly building things up.

Another year of change is upon us

So we've got a minimum of 8 title changes down. Expect the unexpected. There's still a lot of X-factors to consider: Garbrandt wants a go at featherweight, Demetrious could come to 135, Conor McGregor may target welterweight, Jon Jones has heavyweight on his mind - so many variables.

UFC in 2017 is going to be another wild journey.


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TheSportMatrix | We Live For Sport: Predicting UFC Champions By the End of 2017
Predicting UFC Champions By the End of 2017
Predicting who will hold the UFC championships by the end of 2017.
TheSportMatrix | We Live For Sport
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