Roundup: Which fighter has the most to be thankful for in 2022?

UFC 281: Adesanya v Pereira

Even the most talented and hard-working athletes need a little luck, and there are several elite fighters who should be grateful for the breaks that went their way this year.

While we can’t deny the incredible wins, some of MMA’s most prominent stars have undoubtedly benefited greatly from fortuitous situations that allowed them to achieve career-best results. It could have been favorable matchmaking or an open path to a championship fight. Perhaps it was poor judging or an important referee’s decision. If there is one thing that Thanksgiving should remind us of, it’s the fact that we have to be fortunate to be good and lucky.

MMA Fighting’s Jed Meshew, Damon Martin, and Alexander K. Lee make their pick for the three fighters who should be extra thankful for how the cards played out for them in 2022.

UFC 281: Adesanya v Pereira

Alex Pereira and Israel Adesanya
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Alex Pereira

Meshew: Let’s wind the clock back 18 months.

A soon-to-be 34-year old Alex Pereira is the Glory middleweight and light heavyweight champion, and the top pound-for-pound kickboxer in the world. He’s had an incredible couple of years in Glory, establishing an unimpeachable legacy in the sport. And yet, he’s still far from world-renown or super rich. “How is this possible?” Pereira asks. Well, because it’s kickboxing. It’s not the most lucrative sport in the world.

“If only there was a way for me to turn my incredible penchant for hurting people into big bags of cash that doesn’t involve working for a criminal organization,” Pereira thinks. And then it hits him. He exclaims, “Kickboxing is a niche sport but MMA has a huge following!” “And I’ve even dabbled in that some already!”

And as Pereira sits and ponders this, he also realizes that in the UFC, at that very moment, is a man he had beaten twice in kickboxing. He knocked out the man cold in their last fight, as well as a champion of the UFC and bona fide superstar. A man who was starting to catch flak for dominant, uninspiring performances, and who needed a true challenger, one that would inspire fans to shell out their hard-earned money to watch him try to take the title.

“THAT’S IT!” Pereira shouts. “There’s my meal ticket! I will got to MMA and fight Israel Adesanya and beat him yet again, and then I will have fame and riches and all the finer things in life! HUZZAH!! !”

Sorry, but that is exactly what Pereira experienced. It might have been, but it was. He fought for the title of middleweight champion in the world, his eighth professional MMA bout (after losing his debut and just six days before his first UFC fight). He did it because he could. The UFC had run out of matchups that would interest Adesanya. But he was compelling and the UFC quickly found him the right set of opponents that would allow him to be fast tracked to the UFC’s least-deserved title shot in history. He capitalized when it was time.

Now, he’s the champion of the world, despite possibly not even being one of the 10 best fighters in the weight class. It’s incredible.

So of all the people in MMA, Pereira should be the most thankful this year (aside from UFC President Dana White, who should always thank his lucky stars that fighters are too short-sighted to ever figure out how to get their fair share), because in 10,000 different timelines, he isn’t the champion of the world. He should be thankful to the UFC for setting this up, thankful to Adesanya for taking the fight, and thankful to the rest of the middleweight division for being incapable of either a) beating Adesanya or b) being interesting and good at the same time. Adesanya should also be thanked for allowing him to win the knockout to take the title.

I have no idea how long Alex Pereira’s title reign lasts. You could have it for six months or six years. Neither would surprise me. But for a man in his mid-30’s, with less than 10 MMA fights to his name, to suddenly become the champion of the world, well, that’s damn near a miracle.

UFC 280: Yan v O’Malley

Petr Yan and Sean O’Malley
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Sean O’Malley

Martin: If there was one major knock against Sean O’Malley as he became one of the most talked about fighters on the entire UFC roster, it was his level of competition.

Only one of the seven UFC fighters he beat still has a place on the UFC roster. All the rest were either released or have been retired.

The two biggest tests of O’Malley’s career ended with a loss: Marlon “Chito” Vera, and a no-contest after an accidental eye poke prevented Pedro Munhoz from continuing at UFC 276. O’Malley was touted as both a top prospect and a potential title challenger, but he didn’t have the credentials to back that up.

But then out of nowhere, the upstart landed the opportunity to face ex-bantamweight champion Petr Yan at UFC 280. O’Malley was granted the opportunity to fight the No. 1 ranked contender in the 135-pound division after he committed an accidental foul that stopped his most recent fight, which was then declared a no-contest.

There was no climbing the ladder. Munhoz was not rematchable. There wasn’t a single victory over a ranked opponent.

Yan was instead faced by O’Malley, with Yan likely to be the next challenger for the title. Yan’s last bout ended in an eye poke. Not a knockout. It is not a submission. An eye poke.

To his credit, O’Malley engaged in one of the most entertaining fights of the year as he went back-and-forth with Yan for 15 minutes. They put on quite a spectacle. But when it was over, every single journalist scoring the fight minus one (according to MMA Decisions) gave the win to Yan. Yet two of the judges in Abu Dhabi disagreed, giving O’Malley the split decision victory.

Now, O’Malley finds himself in line for a potential title shot at bantamweight with reigning champion Aljamain Sterling, who considers him the true No. 1 contender thanks to that win over Yan. Yan was an ex-titleholder of UFC and O’Malley needed to defeat him. But it certainly didn’t hurt matters that he completely skipped the line and convinced two judges that he deserved the win that night at UFC 280.

With a name like O’Malley, you have to figure luck played at least some part in all of that, and he should definitely be thankful.

Fedor Emelianenko and Vadim Nemkov
Lucas Noonan, Bellator MMA

Vadim Nemkov

Lee: For much of 2022, it didn’t feel like Vadim Nemkov was Bellator’s true light heavyweight champion.

Sure, he’d done his part to defend the title during the 205-pound light heavyweight grand prix, and he’d secured his spot in the finale. The tournament was dominated by Corey Anderson, who is widely considered to be perhaps the greatest light heavyweight fighter in the world. After all, Anderson held wins over Glover Teixeira and Jan Blachowicz (though Blachowicz did knock Anderson out inside of a round in their rematch), two recent UFC champions, and he ran through former two-division champion Ryan Bader in just 51 seconds.

Let’s face it, Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier are no longer with us. 1 spot has been up for grabs, and while Jiri Prochazka currently tops the MMA Fighting Global Rankings, Anderson firmly entrenched himself in the top-three, two spots ahead of Nemkov.

That ranking looked justified when Anderson finally stepped into the cage with Nemkov this past April. The bout was tied on the official scorecards after two rounds, but Anderson began to take over with his wrestling game and likely would have been up heading into Round 4 were it not for an accidental clash of heads that happened as Anderson was throwing ground-and-pound. Frank Trigg was forced to end the match after Nemkov fell on his left eye. The judges did not have to make a technical ruling as the bout hadn’t reached three rounds. The bout was ruled a no-contest.

There were five seconds left in Round 3.

Fortunately, an immediate rematch was booked for Bellator 288. Not so fortunately for Anderson, Nemkov was even better prepared this time around as he battered Anderson on the feet for five rounds and shut down 15 out of 15 takedown attempts.

Again, seven months ago, Nemkov was likely five seconds away from seeing his championship reign end. He now has a highly-anticipated — and potentially winnable — defense of his title against Yoel Romo on CBS this February, live on CBS.

Oh, his Bellator Light Heavyweight world grand prix win also netted him a cool million.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Honorable mentions:

  • Leon Edwards, for reaching down deep and finding the Hail Mary Head Kick.
  • Nate Diaz for switching from fighting Khamzat Chimiaev to fighting Tony Ferguson. This resulted in Diaz being victorious at the UFC and raising his eyebrows.
  • Aljamain Sterling, for winning a close decision in the Petr Yan rematch and then being handed a one-armed T.J. Dillashaw.
  • Rose Namajunas, for Zhang Weili regaining the UFC strawweight title, giving her an excellent chance at another championship fight despite being one half of arguably the worst championship fight in UFC history.