We have reached the end of another year, and that means hundreds of fights have happened just in the UFC alone. 2017 was not the UFC’s greatest year ever — despite what Dana White might say — but fans were still treated to several intriguing events, matchups, and storylines throughout the year.
At the end of each year, many elite fighters in the UFC have one New Year’s resolution: to win UFC gold within the next calendar year. Some accomplish their dreams and achieve super stardom in MMA, while others fall short and find themselves on a hill going downwards.
With the UFC championship so precious and sought after by every fighter on the promotion’s roster, I’m going to take a look at who I think will reach the very top by the end of 2018. But before that, here’s a look at what happened at the top of each division in 2017:
In the flyweight division, Demetrious Johnson continued his impressive run at the top. He successfully defended his belt twice in 2017, and his more recent win – a submission of Ray Borg – broke the UFC title defense record.
In the bantamweight division, Cody Garbrandt – following a December 2016 title win over Dominick Cruz – was inactive for most of the year due to a back injury. He returned to action against former Team Alpha Male teammate turned bitter rival (and fellow TUF coach) T.J. Dillashaw, only to lose the belt in stunning fashion. Dillashaw stopped “No Love” in the second round with strikes, becoming a two-time champ at 135 pounds.
In the featherweight division, Max Holloway went from interim champ to undisputed titleholder after stopping longtime king Jose Aldo at UFC 212 in June in the third round. The “Blessed” Era had begun. He was supposed to defend the belt for the first time against former UFC champ Frankie Edgar earlier this month, but after an Edgar injury he instead fought Aldo for the second time. Holloway had an even cleaner performance overall the second time around, and the result was identical: a third-round TKO win. And still.
In the lightweight division, Conor McGregor chose what was best for his career and that was not defending the 155-pound title he won against Eddie Alvarez in November 2016. He instead debuted in boxing against Floyd Mayweather, lost via TKO, and has yet to return to the Octagon. Meanwhile, Tony Ferguson was crowned interim champ in October with a submission win over Kevin Lee.
In the welterweight division, Tyron Woodley defended the title twice: he bested Stephen Thompson (in a rematch of their November 2016 majority draw) and Demian Maia – both by decision – in March and July, respectively.
In the middleweight division, order was finally restored. Michael Bisping, after sitting out for more than a year, lost the title last month when he was choked unconscious by former welterweight king Georges St-Pierre. Prior to that fight, however, Robert Whittaker secured the interim strap with a close decision win over Yoel Romero in the summer. St-Pierre vacated the title just over a month after winning it and Whittaker was subsequently promoted to undisputed champion status.
In the light heavyweight division, Daniel Cormier defended the title once in an April rematch against Anthony Johnson, but lost it in devastating fashion to Jon Jones at UFC 214 in July. However, Jones failed a USADA drug test after his third-round TKO victory, and “DC” was reinstated as titleholder.
In the heavyweight division, Stipe Miocic defended the title once against former opponent and champ Junior dos Santos, stopping the Brazilian puncher in the first round. He did not fight again in 2017 due to contract negotiations.
In the strawweight division, Joanna Jedrzejczyk defended the title with a dominant win over Jessica Andrade in May at UFC 211, but dropped her belt in the second half of 2017 in a stunner. In November, Rose Namajunas, a major underdog, stopped Jedrzejczyk by knockout in the first round.
In the women’s flyweight division, a new weight class in the UFC this year, Nicco Montano was crowned the inaugural champion with a decision win over Roxanne Modefferi in early December. This followed an impressive run on The Ultimate Fighter 26.
In the women’s bantamweight division, Amanda Nunes retained her title for the second time with a close win over Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 215 in September. The fight was supposed to happen two months earlier but Nunes pulled out during fight week due to an illness.
And in the women’s featherweight division, the first weight class introduced to the UFC in 2017, Germaine de Randamie was crowned the inaugural champion with a win over Holly Holm in February. She was eventually stripped of the belt when she refused to face Cris Cyborg, citing a hand injury, and Cyborg won the vacant title with a stoppage of Tonya Evinger. Cyborg then defended her new belt against Holly Holm to wrap up the UFC’s year.
Now that we know what the title picture in each division looks like, let’s look ahead to the future and make some predictions. Who stays at the very top all year? Which new champions are crowned? As Mike Goldberg says ... here we go!
Champion at end of 2018: Demetrious Johnson
Look, I don’t see anyone touching Demetrious Johnson at 125 pounds, and there is a good chance that goes for 135 pounds, too. “Mighty Mouse” has been an unstoppable force for years, and I’m not sure anyone has the tools to beat him. He’ll get tested the most if he moves up to bantamweight to face someone like Dillashaw, Cruz, or Garbrandt, but he seems to be in no rush to step up in weight. If anything, it seems like Johnson vs. Dillashaw could happen at flyweight, but I don’t think Johnson will lose the flyweight title in 2018.
Champion at end of 2018: Jimmie Rivera
I haven’t always been on the Jimmie Rivera hype train, but I certainly hopped on in the past little while. His boxing is very crisp, he seems to have a good chin, and I think he has what it takes to dethrone Dillashaw. I’m not sure if the UFC books Dillashaw vs. Rivera immediately, considering that the Demetrious Johnson superfight could happen and that the Garbrandt rematch could eventually be a viable option, too. But I think Rivera ends 2018 at the top of the bantamweight division nonetheless, even if it means taking another fight before a crack at the champ.
Champion at end of 2018: Brian Ortega
This is a bit of a gutsy pick, I know, but I believe in Brian Ortega. I think he is one of the most dangerous fighters on the mat in the UFC right now, and if he manages to take it to the ground against anyone, his opponent is most certainly in trouble. His lack of activity on the feet and in early rounds is still concerning, but it seems like that flaw is something he is slowly overcoming. Ortega wanted some time off after his win over Cub Swanson, but I expect he’ll face Josh Emmett in a title eliminator, win, and then get booked vs. Holloway. “Blessed” is on one of the most impressive winning streaks you’ll ever see, but I think Ortega is a bad style matchup for him and might just get the job done. Ortega takes the featherweight title by the end of 2018, but Holloway is young enough not to fall out of the title picture permanently.
Champion at end of 2018: Khabib Nurmagomedov
Recency bias? Maybe. There is no word to describe how dominant Khabib Nurmagomedov’s performance against Edson Barboza at UFC 219 on Saturday was. I’m worried about my pick as Nurmagomedov as champ simply because he is always injured, but I think 2018 will finally be the Russian contender’s year. A big roadblock is Conor McGregor, who might not defend the lightweight title for another year and still not get stripped — who knows? We also have Tony Ferguson, the division’s interim champ, waiting for his shot at the Irishman. For my money, McGregor is going to return to the UFC for a fight against Georges St-Pierre at 170 pounds, but be forced to drop the lightweight belt (finally). Meanwhile, Ferguson and Nurmagomedov will compete for the vacant 155-pound title, and “The Eagle” will get the job done.
Champion at end of 2018: Rafael dos Anjos
Rafael dos Anjos is a new man in the welterweight division, proven by wins over Tarec Saffiedine, Neil Magny, and most recently, former champ Robbie Lawler. The former UFC lightweight champion will face Tyron Woodley in the first half of 2018 (after Woodley is recovered from shoulder surgery), take the title, and defend it once before the end of 2018.
Champion at end of 2018: Robert Whittaker
I don’t see anyone touching Robert Whittaker for a long time. He’s younger than most of his fellow middleweights, will be in the game for many years to come, and simply is better than everyone else. “The Reaper” has phenomenal takedown defense and the best striking in the division. At 185 pounds, good luck beating him.
Champion at end of 2018: Daniel Cormier
Daniel Cormier might be entering his final year as an active MMA fighter, but that won’t affect whether he drops the 205-pound title before 2018’s end. He faces Volkan Oezdemir at UFC 220 in January, and I give the Swiss fighter a chance against “DC,” only because I didn’t give him one against his first three UFC opponents and he proved me wrong every single time. The light heavyweight division is so shallow that it is hard to predict future title challengers, but so long as Jon Jones doesn’t come back in 2018, Cormier’s safe.
Champion at end of 2018: Francis Ngannou
Francis Ngannou is one scary man, and that is going to take him all the way to the UFC heavyweight championship. I might be underrating Stipe Miocic’s wrestling, but I predict Ngannou will do bad things to him in three weeks and remain champ for the rest of 2018 and beyond.
Champion at end of 2018: Jessica Andrade
Here me out on this one. I know this seems like the most unlikely prediction thus far, but it might just happen. Joanna Jedrzejczyk is going to beat Rose Namajunas in a rematch but move up to 125 pounds before the end of the year. In the second half of 2018, Jessica Andrade and Namajunas will compete for the vacant belt, and it’s going to be the Brazilian who’s crowned UFC strawweight queen.
Champion at end of 2018: Valentina Shevchenko
Nicco Montano won the inaugural women’s 125-pound belt earlier this month at The Ultimate Fighter 26 Finale, and unlike some people, I was impressed with her win over Roxanne Modafferi. But was it enough to convince me she is the best women’s flyweight on the planet, or even close? Definitely not. Valentina Shevchenko is one of the best female fighters in the world, and with a drop to 125 pounds official, she’ll be in title contention in no time. After she wins her UFC flyweight debut in a couple months, she’ll be paired up as Montano’s first challenger, and I don’t think that fight is all that competitive.
Champion at end of 2018: Amanda Nunes
Amanda Nunes has turned into a very, very good fighter, and unless she vacates the title to fight at featherweight full time (which I don’t see happening), she will remain women’s bantamweight champ through 2018. Her standup skills are very impressive, and he grappling game is no joke, either. The fighter that probably can give the Brazilian the most trouble is Shevchenko — as seen in their rematch at UFC 215 in September — but Shevchenko is, of course, headed down a weight class. Holly Holm could give Nunes a fight, but I’d still favor “The Lioness.”
Champion at end of 2018: Cris Cyborg
OK, besides Demetrious Johnson remaining flyweight champ, this might just be my most confident prediction. Cris Cyborg isn’t losing the UFC women’s featherweight title in 2018, or probably until she retires. Amanda Nunes would be a fun fight, but I’d have to still favor Cyborg in that one — plus, Cyborg doesn’t seem at all interested in fighting another Brazilian. Besides her fellow UFC champ — and Holly Holm, who she just beat — I don’t see anyone touching Cyborg.