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2019 predictions: Who wears UFC gold a year from now?

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A look at what 2019 might bring fans at the top of each UFC division.

Cowboy Cerrone Presents Kevin Harvick With UFC belt Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

We have reached the end of another year, and that means hundreds of fights have happened just in the UFC alone. Even for MMA standards, 2018 was a crazy 365 days for the world’s largest MMA promotion; it certainly had its ups and downs. Fans were witness to intriguing events, matchups, and plenty of storylines — from Conor McGregor’s bus attack and return to MMA to the ESPN deal — throughout the past 12 months.

As 2019 begins, many elite fighters in the UFC have one New Year’s resolution: to win UFC gold. Some accomplish their dreams and achieve super stardom in MMA, while others fall short and find themselves on a hill going downwards.

I’m going to take a look at who I think will reach the very top – the pinnacle of the sport – and become UFC champion by the end of 2019. But before that, here’s a look at what happened at the top of each division in 2018 — plus how I did with last year’s predictions...


In the flyweight division, Henry Cejudo did the unthinkable and dethroned long-time champion Demetrious Johnson by split decision at UFC 227 in August.

I picked Johnson to retain the title in 2018, but Cejudo’s win was a major upset — most saw ‘Mighty Mouse’ remaining champion. I don’t think Johnson was a bad prediction at all.

In the bantamweight division, T.J. Dillashaw defended his title for the first time in his second championship run in a rematch against ex-champ Cody Garbrandt, whom Dillashaw won the title against last year. The fight headlined UFC 227, and Dillashaw finished it even sooner than he did the first time.

I picked Jimmie Rivera to win the title in 2018 and, admittedly, I should have known better. Marlon Moraes quickly knocked him out in June, but Rivera rebounded against John Dodson in September. That said, Rivera is not very close to a title shot at 135 pounds and, in hindsight, I don’t think he’d have much of a chance against Dillashaw.

In the featherweight division, Max Holloway battled an injury, weight-cutting issues and illness, resulting in a much less active year for the champion. “Blessed” defended the belt once at UFC 231 earlier this month, defeating Brian Ortega by fourth-round TKO.

I picked Ortega to win the title in 2018, and that was just a matter of my Holloway vs. Ortega prediction being wrong. I don’t feel too bad about this one. Ortega hung tough in that fight. That said, Holloway certainly showed he’s on another level, and I probably should’ve seen that coming.

In the lightweight division, Khabib Nurmagomedov finally began his reign as champion, defeating Al Iaquinta for the vacant strap at UFC 223 in April — after Conor McGregor was stripped. Nurmagomedov defended the belt once against McGregor, beating the Irishman by submission at UFC 229 in October.

I picked Nurmagomedov to win the title in 2018. I certainly didn’t think Nurmagomedov would win the belt with a win over Iaquinta, but a right prediction is a right prediction. I’ll take it.

In the welterweight division, Tyron Woodley returned from a 14-month layoff to defend his title for the fourth time against Darren Till at UFC 228 in September. Woodley submitted Till in the second round.

I picked Rafael dos Anjos to win the title in 2018. The former lightweight champion had a rough year, losing to Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman. Before losing to Covington, he was in line to fight Woodley, so I don’t necessarily regret my pick, but I was still way off.

In the middleweight division, Robert Whittaker did not defend his title. He fought Yoel Romero at UFC 225 in June, but Romero missed weight for the bout, so it was a non-title fight.

I picked Whittaker to remain champion in 2018. The only surprise, I guess, is that the Romero fight was not for the title.

In the light heavyweight division, Jon Jones returned to the top of the division with a third-round TKO of Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232 this past weekend. Jones beat Gustafsson for the vacant title after Daniel Cormier relinquished it earlier in the week (Cormier would have been stripped had he not relinquished it). “DC” defended the light heavyweight title once against Volkan Oezdemir at UFC 220 in January, but that was the last 205-pound title fight before Jones vs. Gustafsson 2.

I picked Cormier to remain champion in 2018, but that was based off the educated guess that Jones would not return this year — he did. Considering his reduced USADA suspension, don’t color me surprised Jones is the champ.

In the heavyweight division, Cormier knocked out Stipe Miocic to win the title at UFC 226 in July. Miocic had defended it once already in 2018, dominating Francis Ngannou at UFC 220. Cormier defended the heavyweight title for the first time in a one-sided affair against Derrick Lewis at UFC 230 in November.

I picked Ngannou to win the title in 2018 and, boy I was incredibly off on this one. Before he beat Curtis Blaydes in November, Ngannou was 0-2 in the year; complete opposite of what I expected from ‘The Predator.’ All that said, I sure did not see Cormier ending the year as heavyweight champ.

In the strawweight division, Rose Namajunas defended her title for the first time in a rematch against ex-champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk, winning by decision at UFC 223.

I picked Jessica Andrade to win the title in 2018, and I still favor her against Namajunas. I reckon this wrong prediction was simply a result of Namajunas’ inactivity in the second half of the year.

In the women’s flyweight division, Valentina Shevchenko claimed the throne at UFC 231, defeating Jedrzejczyk for the vacant title. Inaugural champ Nicco Montano was stripped of the belt in September after she was unable to make it to her first title defense against Shevchenko.

I picked Shevchenko to win the title in 2018, and though I thought she’d do it against Montano, no surprises here whatsoever.

In the women’s bantamweight division, Amanda Nunes defended the title once at UFC 224 in May, defeating Raquel Pennington by fifth-round TKO.

I picked Nunes to retain the title in 2018. Once again, no surprises.

In the women’s featherweight division, Nunes became the first female double champ in UFC history, knocking out Cris Cyborg in 51 seconds at UFC 232. Before that, Cyborg defended her title for the second time at UFC 222 in March against Yana Kunitskaya.

I picked Cyborg to retain the title in 2018, and I was dead wrong — Nunes destroyed her! I just didn’t see that coming. This was my second most confident pick (Johnson was first), and probably should have been my most confident, yet here we are. MMA is a crazy sport.

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 would say ... here we go!


FLYWEIGHT

Champion at end of 2019: N/A

A curve ball already? Yep. As you know, the UFC’s flyweight division might not be around for much longer. Champ Cejudo is set to defend against Dillashaw in a superfight in January, but I’m not sure how much that means for the weight class long-term. I don’t think the flyweight division will exist by the end of 2019.

BANTAMWEIGHT

Champion at end of 2019: T.J. Dillashaw

MMA: The Ultimate Fighter-Krause vs Gallicchio Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I learned my lesson last year — don’t pick against Dillashaw. The only way I see Dillashaw not ending 2019 as bantamweight champ is if the flyweight division does stick around, Dillashaw beats Cejudo, and he decides to stay at 125 pounds (the odds of all three of those happening is next to zero, though). Marlon Moraes and Raphael Assuncao fight in a title eliminator in February, and I don’t see either beating Dillashaw. Moraes can knockout anybody, but Dillashaw would almost certainly have more ways to win if they fight. And Dillashaw beat Assuncao already in 2016. Dillashaw ends the year as champ.

FEATHERWEIGHT

Champion at end of 2019: Max Holloway

MMA: UFC 231-Holloway vs Ortega Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Things are going to get very interesting at the top of 145 pounds. UFC president Dana White wants Holloway to move up to the lightweight division. If that happens, it’s a matter of whether the UFC keeps Holloway as featherweight champ for a while or strips him right away. I’m going to go out on a bit of limb and say Holloway stays at featherweight for the year, where I favor him against everyone. As of now, however, I think Renato Moicano could give him his toughest fight, and I’m interested to see who Holloway’s next challenger will be.

LIGHTWEIGHT

Champion at end of 2019: Khabib Nurmagomedov

MMA: UFC 229-Nurmagomedov vs McGregor Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

As stacked as 155 pounds is, I can’t see Nurmagomedov dropping the title in 2019. He’ll likely fight Tony Ferguson early in the year, and though Ferguson has the best chance against the ‘Eagle,’ I still think the Russian gets it done. Any other opponent – from Dustin Poirier to Iaquinta – I’d pick Nurmagomedov to beat with relative confidence.

WELTERWEIGHT

Champion at end of 2019: Tyron Woodley

MMA: UFC 228=Woodley vs Till Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

I have been Woodley’s biggest doubter ever since he beat Robbie Lawler in 2016, but he proved me wrong when he fought Till. I actually picked Woodley to win that fight, but I didn’t think he’d do it that dominantly. I’m on the Woodley train now, and I don’t plan on hopping off until I see him lose with my own eyes.

MIDDLEWEIGHT

Champion at end of 2019: Israel Adesanya

MMA: UFC 230 - Brunson vs Adesanya Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

I said last year that I don’t see Whittaker, still a young man at 28, losing the title for a long time. But that was before I knew who Israel Adesanya was — and he’s a damn special human being. Adesanya made major waves in the UFC this year, from his debut in February to a first-round knockout of Derek Brunson in November. Whittaker is set to defend his title against Kelvin Gastelum in February; on the same card, Adesanya meets Anderson Silva. I expect both Whittaker and Adesanya to win, leading to a massive title fight in late 2019 won by Adesanya.

LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT

Champion at end of 2019: Jon Jones

MMA: UFC 232-Jones vs Gustafsson Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If there was solid talent at the top of 205 pounds, I’d consider picking someone else other than Jones to top the division at the end of 2019. But there just isn’t, as unfortunate as that is. I can’t pick Anthony Smith to be the light heavyweight champ by the end of 2019. I just can’t. Jones has been surrounded in controversy each of the past four years, and he’s been stripped more than any champion in UFC history, but maybe, just maybe, he’ll make it to the end of the year as champion? It’s a tough call.

HEAVYWEIGHT

Champion at end of 2019: Cain Velasquez

UFC 200: Tate v Nunes Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

OK, here me out on this one. This is my most gutsy prediction thus far without a doubt. The injury-prone Cain Velasquez reaching the top of the heavyweight division once again? I know I’m going out on a limb here, but I think Velasquez could do it. If he beats Ngannou in early 2019, he’s right in line for a shot at the title, currently held by his teammate Cormier. “DC” is expected to retire in the first half of the year, so he’ll most likely be out of the picture by the end of the year. I know Cormier might defend against Jones and that if Jones beats him, there’s a good chance Jones ends the year as double champ. But for my money, Velasquez fights Stipe Miocic for the vacant title in the second half of the year, and ends 2019 as heavyweight champion.

STRAWWEIGHT

Champion at end of 2019: Jessica Andrade

UFC 203: Miocic v Overeem Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

I’m sticking with my pick for strawweight champion at the end of 2018: Andrade. I wasn’t right this year, but in my opinion, that’s only because Namajunas fought just once. Had she been available to fight a second time in 2018, it probably would have been against Andrade. Andrade defeated Karolina Kowalkiewicz by brutal knockout in September, only furthering her bid for a title shot. I predict Namajunas defends her title against Andrade sometime in 2019, and the Brazilian gets it done. Tatiana Suarez is a name to look out for this year, and I believe she’s a future champ without a doubt, but it might be just a little too soon for the rising contender.

WOMEN’S FLYWEIGHT

Champion at end of 2019: Valentina Shevchenko

UFC 231 Shevchenko v Jedrzejczyk Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

I don’t need to spend much time on this one. Shevchenko beats everyone there is right now at the top of the women’s flyweight division with ease. I don’t see Shevchenko dropping the title in 2019, or maybe ever.

WOMEN’S BANTAMWEIGHT

Champion at end of 2019: Amanda Nunes

The only thing giving me doubts about Nunes making it to the end of 2019 without losing the bantamweight title is the fact that she’s now also the featherweight champ. So this depends on what Nunes’ intentions are, and those are unclear at this time. Considering the lack of an actual division at 145 pounds, it seems likely to me Nunes’ long-term home will still be bantamweight, where she’ll retain the title for another calendar year.

WOMEN’S FEATHERWEIGHT

Champion at end of 2019: Amanda Nunes

Esther Lin/MMA Fighting

Nunes became the third fighter in UFC history to hold two titles simultaneously; McGregor and Cormier did so before her. Neither McGregor nor Cormier made it a whole year as double champ, so I think Nunes will make history in that regard in 2019. Usually, I’d think the UFC wouldn’t want to hold up a division by having one fighter as champion of two divisions long-term, but because featherweight only has a few fighters, this could be a different scenario. There’s less to lose by having Nunes as champ at both bantamweight and featherweight.

Unless the UFC gets rid of women’s 145 pounds, which is a possibility to consider, there’s actually a chance Nunes makes it through the year without vacating at featherweight and returning to bantamweight full-time. Could Nunes be the first double champ who actively defends in both divisions? Maybe, just maybe.