A new year brings new opportunities for plenty of fighters on the UFC roster.
We all know the disaster that was the year 2020, but the UFC kept trucking on and gave many of us something to look forward to when we needed it the most.
We witnessed the best women’s fight in the organisation’s history between Weili Zhang and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. New stars came to the forefront in Kevin Holland and Khamzat Chimaev. Plus, we may have seen the great Khabib Nurmagomedov fight for the very last time.
Khabib’s retirement potentially leaves the lightweight division needing a new champion.
Boy howdy, we got some excellent new champions getting their hands on their respective gold in 2020.
Jan Blachowicz, Deiveson Figueiredo and Petr Yan all became the main men in their divisions last year.
However, in this crazy sport, there is no rest for the wicked.
Every champion has a target on their back and there are always challengers setting up to take aim.
So, who could we see turn themselves from contender to champion in 2021?
Well, that’s what I want to talk about today as we check out some fighters that could win gold in 2021.
5. Askar Askarov (Flyweight)
If I were to stick some money on a champion to keep hold of their title throughout 2021, flyweight champ Deiveson Figueiredo would be high on my list.
He’s one of the main reasons for the rebirth of the division and could be the man to lead the flyweights deeper into the 2020’s.
Figueiredo will have to run back his superb fight with Brandon Moreno from December that ended as a draw.
While you can’t look past Moreno just yet, I believe an even better contender is waiting in the wings for the winner of that rematch.
Russian fighter Askar Askarov holds a professional record of 12-0-1, with his draw also coming against Moreno in his UFC debut.
Since then, he holds decision wins over Tim Elliot and Alexandre Pantoja in his other two UFC outings.
Askar is a relative newcomer to the organisation. He is one of the most captivating members of the new breed of flyweights.
His unbeaten record and dominant wrestling make him a real issue in the division, where he can easily overpower a lot of his counterparts.
The most intriguing aspect about the rise of Askarov is that he was born deaf. He even won gold representing Russia in the 2017 Deaflympics in Freestyle Wrestling.
While Askar is only three fights into his UFC run, he currently sits third in the flyweight rankings and it’s richly deserved.
Maybe, after one more fight against another top contender like Alex Perez. The Russian will be ready to step up and challenge for UFC gold later in the year.
4. Rose Namajunas (Strawweight)
‘Thug Rose’ knows what it’s like to reach the top of the mountain in the MMA world. She won the UFC Strawweight Championship back in 2017 against Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Rose would lose the title to Jessica Andrade in May 2019, after successful defending her crown against Joanna once again.
May 2021 marks two years since Namajunas lost her championship status, but now she seems as poised as ever to reclaim the gold.
Last year, she got her win back against Andrade in a brilliant split decision victory.
This has left Namajunas sitting first in the rankings and surely next in line for a shot at strawweight champion Weili Zhang, sooner rather than later.
UFC President Dana White has said Rose doesn’t want that fight and doesn’t enjoy the pressure of being a champion. A claim that Rose and her team have flat out denied.
If they can get that nonsense out of the way, Namajunas vs Zhang is one of the biggest women’s fight to make this year.
With the heavy pressure and immense striking ability of Rose. She certainly has the tools to become a two-time UFC Strawweight Champion in 2021.
3. Zabit Magomedsharipov (Featherweight)
In another life, I made the same prediction for Zabit to become featherweight champion in 2020 and he didn’t even fight last year.
So, in for a penny in for a pound.
The Russian was due to fight Yair Rodriquez in August 2020. Sadly, Yair had to pull out because of an ankle injury.
We haven’t seen Zabit since his decision win over Calvin Kattar back in November 2019.
Once this man can get a fight, I truly believe he can not only win the gold, but it’ll take an army to grab it off him.
In a stacked featherweight division, this mans wrestling game and slick submissions could see him rule the roost.
Featherweight champ, Alexander Volkanovski has plenty of viable fighters hunting him down. The likes of Max Holloway and Brian Ortega could find themselves as the champion by the end of 2021.
For my money, if Zabit can get a fight under his belt early this year, possibly against Yair Rodriquez, he will be on a one-way collision for his first taste of UFC gold.
2. Aljamain Sterling (Bantamweight)
Easily the safest prediction of the day as Sterling is set to face bantamweight champ Petr Yan in early 2021, with a date to be confirmed any day now.
The pair were meant to square off at UFC 256 back in December, but it never materialised.
Really, this opportunity is a long time coming for Aljamain Sterling.
He is currently on a five-fight winning streak, beating ranked names like Cody Stamann, Jimmie Rivera, Pedro Munhoz and Cory Sandhagen during this run.
Yan won the strap back in July, beating Jose Aldo for the then vacant bantamweight title. Many believed Aldo’s spot should have went to Sterling, who was a month removed from his quick submission win over Sandhagen.
Sterling seemingly won’t have long to wait for his title shot.
If all goes to plan, this has the potential to be a Fight of the Year contender.
One that could see Sterling reign supreme with his unorthodox wrestling style and becoming the UFC Bantamweight Champion.
1. Jessica Andrade (Flyweight)
This is the one that could really come back to bite me. I even feel like an idiot just writing these words. However, 2021 is the year that Valentina Shevchenko drops her UFC Women’s Flyweight Championship.
Now, I put together a lengthy article a while back talking about this very topic after Andrade’s flyweight debut back in October. You can check that out on the Big Kick Off, it would be greatly appreciated.
So, without going over old ground we’ll keep this brief.
At first, I wasn’t sure about Andrade going up to flyweight. I felt the overall size difference would be an issue, but against Katlyn Chookagian she looked unbelievably powerful.
She looked extremely comfortable in her movement with the extra muscle packed on.
The addition of Andrade to that flyweight division makes it the most exciting it has ever been. It also gives Shevchenko her biggest challenge since winning the title.
Now, only a fool like myself would ever fancy someone to beat the champ. She is highly decorated as a combat athlete and looks unstoppable as the head of the flyweight division.
I just feel the explosive nature and ground game of Andrade could rattle the champion’s cage.
It’s a fight we need to see in 2021 and one that could give us a massive power shift at women’s flyweight.
Plus, it could give Shevchenko a reason to return to bantamweight and have that much anticipated trilogy fight with Amanda Nunes.
Give me all this, please.