MMA Fighting’s 2022 Fighter of the Year: Alex Pereira


Frankly, it still doesn’t make sense.

Rewind back to January 2022 and Alex Pereira wasn’t even in the picture. A contender only in the most whimsical sense, not only was the Brazilian terror unranked, he’d won just two MMA fights since 2017. His MMA mantelpiece has the most striking scalp. Andreas Michailidis, a woodwork figure who 99. 9 percent of fight fans couldn’t even pick out of a two-person lineup. His exploits in kickboxing and past triumphs over Israel Adesanya made Pereira a fun sideshow to add to the UFC’s middleweight mix, no doubt, but at 34 years old, with a decade of in-ring mileage already on his odometer and a legion of new skills ostensibly still for him to learn, what really was the best-case scenario?

Pereira is unlikely to be able to reach the top of the rankings and win his dream match against Adesanya in a single year.


In truth, this is a historical example. Every past winner of MMA Fighting’s Fighter of the Year award started their campaign already as a main player. Daniel Cormier (2018) and Kamaru Usman (2021) were already UFC champions. Max Holloway (2017) already held an interim belt. Deiveson Figueiredo (2020) and Adesanya (2019) had already breached into title contention. But Pereira? He started the year fighting Bruno Silva, for God’s sake. Now he’s the man with the least MMA experience to hold a UFC strap since Brock Lesnar. So yes, if there is anyone who most defined the topsy-turvy ride that was MMA in 2022, it was the multi-sport monster who pulled off the improbable at every turn.

Only through a mix of matchmaking wizardry and standup savagery could we have even gotten here. UFC matchmakers had a lot to do with “Poatan” and the brutal knockout of Sean Strickland took two minutes. This was the shortcut they needed in order to create a unique story. Pereira, after all, was the boogeyman. Pereira was the one who banished Adesanya from kickboxing. Once their series dropped to 2-0 in Pereira’s favor, Adesanya left the sport entirely and instead rose to stardom in MMA, a dominant champion, the second-most decorated middleweight in UFC history. He eclipsed Pereira, his fame lapping the Brazilian’s 100 times over. UFC 281 was supposed to be his capstone.

Revenge. His boogeyman is slain once and for all.

But the blood gods! They had other ideas.

In all three fights Adesanya won. He likely should’ve won a decision in their first meeting. In the second round, it was a Hail Mary return. And the third? Well, UFC 281 may as well have been a Hollywood script playing out in real time. Pereira’s furious rally in the final minutes cemented one of the most unique crossover rivalries in combat sports history — here was a man who hunted down an all-timer across two different sports and came out on top every single time. Poetic. It still amazes me that it has not been a month since its creation.

There were many awards this year that raised interesting debates. But not this one. In a year where the weird and extraordinary arrived with regularity, there was never a doubt.

Alex Pereira is MMA Fighting’s 2022 Fighter of the Year.

Alex Pereira stood alone atop the MMA world in 2022.
MMA Fighting


UFC 276: Volkanovski v Holloway

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Becoming the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world? Check.

Stacking up another pair of breezy title defenses? Check.

Chucking your biggest rival into the rear-view mirror for good? Check, check, check.

Ah, it’s good life for MMA’s preeminent king.

While the past 12 months may have been a year of chaos for other divisions, 2022 only served to reinforce what many knew to be true in the land of 145 pounds — when it comes to the featherweights, there’s Alexander Volkanovski and then there’s everybody else.

The 34-year-old champion is now 12-0 in the UFC after his back-to-back title defenses over Chan Sung Jung and Max Holloway, the former of which was a cold reminder of Volkanovski’s Terminator-like efficiency, and the latter of which silenced any lingering doubt about the No. 1 featherweight of this era. Volkanovski is now 3-0 against Holloway and it appears as if “The Great” is still improving every time out. That should be a scary proposition, not just for the next class of contenders at 145 pounds — beginning with Yair Rodriguez and Josh Emmett, who challenge for the interim title at UFC 284 — but also for anyone even vaguely situated around the champ’s orbit.

Volkanovski doesn’t want to be satisfied with one belt.

Like past featherweight champions before him, Volkanovski is now dreaming a little bigger and putting the 155-pound title directly in his sights.

Will February’s attempt at making history turn out to be more like Conor McGregor’s coronation, or Holloway’s failed attempt at it? The next man on this list may have something to say about it.


UFC 280: Oliveira v Makhachev

Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

They tried to warn us.

Khabib Nurmagomedov. Javier Mendez. Daniel Cormier. For years, they all tried to warn us. Those AKA boys swore up and down: The second Dagestani dynasty? It was inevitable.

Yes, Islam Makhachev was hailed as the future of the lightweight division from the moment he first stepped foot in the UFC’s octagon. He is the last remaining man. The greatest light-weight of all time, the heir apparent. The sole inheritor of Father’s Plan. All those who had promised it were correct. Even the most fervent believers could not have predicted the speed at which this would happen.

Because the Makhachev era came in exactly the same way as the Nurmagomedov. Consider this: Charles Oliveira landed more significant strikes at UFC 280 than anyone else has on Makhachev over the past seven years in the UFC — and that sounds impressive until you realize that Oliveira’s record-breaking tally stood at a mere 19. That’s how dominant, how terrifying, how flat-out-otherworldly Makhachev’s run to the belt really was.

Lightweight is a division of volatility unlike few others, to the point where three title defenses remains the UFC record. Will anyone be shocked if Makhachev crosses that bridge with ease? He’s already more than a 3-to-1 favorite at UFC 284 over the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the sport (and the No. 2 fighter on this list), enemy territory damned.

Dagestan may have lost his first title. But with Makhachev just 31 years old and seemingly hitting his prime, the second may very well make up for lost time.



Photo by Michael Nagle/Xinhua via Getty Images

Without a doubt, 2021 was the worst year in the career of China’s first UFC champion. Zhang Weili’s back-to-back losses to Rose Namajunas — the first courtesy of a brutal 78-second knockout, the second after a five-round war — signaled a swift end to a reign many thought could come to define the 115-pound discussion. Weili had never lost the belt and hadn’t tasted defeat in her professional debut.

But if 2021 was the nadir for China’s 33-year-old powerhouse, the past 12 months were just what the doctor ordered.

From the worst campaign of her career to the best, Weili reestablished herself in 2022 as one of the most dominant forces in women’s mixed martial arts. Her spinning backfist knockout that retired Joanna Jedrzejczyk still stands as one of the most brutal highlights of a brutal year, a grisly capstone to a rivalry that featured 2020’s Fight of the Year (aka one of the greatest fights of all-time). From then on, there was never any doubt.

By the time Weili sauntered into UFC 281 as an overwhelming betting favorite over a sitting champion, it was a foregone conclusion for the belt to return home to China, yet somehow Weili’s six-minute romp over Carla Esparza still exceeded expectations. Hell, this is the same woman who hoisted Francis Ngannou over her shoulder like a toddler. Is it really a surprise anymore when she demolishes a two-time champ as effortlessly as a casual Sunday stroll?

Nowhere in UFC’s UFC does the rock-paper-scissors dynamics feel more strong than at strawweight. But if anyone is going to end that cycle it might be Zhang Weili.


UFC 278: Usman v Edwards 2

Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

*If Leon Edwards had fought multiple times this year it is very possible that this award would have been lost. Still, it’s telling enough that the pride of Birmingham’s lone performance of 2022 was enough to land him on this list — a seismic, history-altering, out-of-nowhere upset over one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. Even the movies couldn’t have penned a more dramatic turnaround than the last-chance Hail Mary that felled Kamaru Usman and transformed a down-on-his-luck welterweight into one of the most inspirational UFC champions to come along in years.

Maybe this was the only way it could have happened? Consider who Edwards was before UFC 278. He was the Milton Waddams of the 170-pound division. The afterthought. The final sentence. This is the punchline. An oft-abused butt of the joke who had to stack together a 10-fight unbeaten streak to even begin to sniff the conversation, Edwards walked a Sysphyian path, ridiculed and written off by MMA’s elite, a contender with zero cache and even less respect passed over time and time again for retreads and sexier names.

In the end, though, he was the champ whose self-belief never wavered. He believed that he could overcome whatever the odds were against him. With 56 seconds left on clock and defeat staring him straight in the eyes, “Rocky” summoned his strength for one final stand, washing away a career’s worth of frustration by toppling the reigning 2021 Fighter of the Year and thrusting a “1” into Usman’s record-breaking 15-1 UFC run. Leon Edwards is now the welterweight division. Perhaps it always did and we just didn’t realize.

Still, one question remains: Was it a fluke, or is that just more of the same old disrespect?

The answer lies in a rubber match sure to be one of the biggest fights of 2023.

Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2022 Fighter of the Year played out.

MMA Fighting


  • Aljamain Sterling
  • Larissa Pacheco
  • Sergei Pavlovich
  • Johnny Eblen
  • Drew Dober
  • Brendan Loughnane