A Year of Dethroned Champions

UFC fans around the world were shocked with title changes not once, not twice, but eight times this year.

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By Carmen Gomez-Villalva

The upcoming UFC 282 event in December looks to cap off one of the most interesting years in recent mixed martial arts history, one that boasts a grand total of eight UFC belt changes. This number marks the fourth most title changes ever in a calendar year, a masterful follow-up to last year’s rollercoaster that saw nine belts switch hands. Fight fans across the world, however, can agree that the upsets this year held more weight than the previous year, as we saw some of the UFC’s longest reigning and most dominant champions fall to new contenders.

Going down the list of champions from 2021, fans did not have high expectations for many challengers. With UFC 270 in January, where former champion Deiveson Figueiredo got the judge’s decision to retake his belt from flyweight rival Brandon Moreno, we saw the first of many title changes to come over the calendar year. Four months later, at UFC 274, Carla Esparza defeated Rose Namajunas via another split decision in a close but admittedly lackluster fight. Meanwhile, we witnessed dominant fighters such as middleweight champion Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya and lightweight champion Charles “Do Bronx” Oliveira reign supreme as they defended their titles successfully in the first half of the year.

At UFC 275 in June, Glover Teixeira fell to Jiří Procházka via rear naked choke in a match where fans believed Teixeira had won the majority of the five rounds. Amanda “The Lioness” Nunes reclaimed her throne in the women’s bantamweight division at UFC 277 in July, defeating Julianna Peña via unanimous decision. But nothing could prepare the fight world for the second half of the year, when we saw champions who had defended their belts time and time again succumb to the hands of their opponents.

Kamaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman, former champion of the welterweight division and known for his death grip over the 170-pound belt for the past three years, came into UFC 278 in August looking to tie Anderson Silva’s record for the longest win streak in UFC history. After the world witnessed Usman destroy his opponent, Leon “Rocky” Edwards, in traditional dominant fashion throughout three of the first four rounds, Edwards’s head coach Dave Lovell delivered the speech of a lifetime heading into the last round. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” Lovell said. “Come on, then, what’s wrong with you?”

In true Rocky-esque fashion, in the last minute of the final round, Edwards delivered the knockout kick straight to the skull of “The Nigerian Nightmare.” As Usman fell unconscious to the floor of the octagon for the first time in his career, the crowd erupted. No one could believe what they had just seen. “The belt belongs to nobody,” Edwards said in an emotional post-fight interview. Rocky’s win over Usman displayed how nothing in the UFC is guaranteed, with no win being granted until the fight officially comes to a close.

Following that banger of an event was UFC 280, which saw a fight of a similar magnitude to Usman vs. Edwards. Oliveira had reigned supreme over the lightweight division since he had won the belt vacated by the great Khabib Nurmagomedov in May of 2021. With only one title defense (against Dustin Poirier) before he was stripped of his belt for missing weight by one pound at UFC 274, Oliveira wanted to reclaim his lightweight throne. “The champion has a name, and that is Charles Oliveira,” Oliveira said ahead of UFC 280. What Oliveira did not expect was for this title fight to be against the rising star of the lightweight division, Islam Makhachev. Makhachev, who had been on a 10-fight win streak, looked to bring the belt back to his homeland, Dagestan. Meanwhile, Oliveira aimed to reclaim what he believed rightfully belonged to him. Despite Oliveira’s championship-caliber performance in the past, Makhachev came into the fight as a -190 favorite to win the fight, with Oliveira at +170. The odds came to fruition on fight night, as Makhachev’s fierce wrestling and ground-and-pound style proved too much for Oliveira. Makhachev eventually sealed the deal in the second round via arm triangle. Despite the odds, many did not expect this win, as “Do Bronx” Oliveira is known for overcoming the odds and winning fights he has initially been losing.

Topping off an amazing year in mixed martial arts, UFC 281 gave us a spectacular event which some have dubbed the greatest UFC event in history. Fight fans from across the world were mesmerized as we saw legend Frankie Edgar retire after 15 years in the UFC, Poirier put on a masterclass against Michael Chandler, and Zhang Weili take down Esparza via rear naked choke in the second round of their title bout. As for the main event of the night, Adesanya looked to defend his middleweight belt for the seventh time against UFC newcomer Alex “Poatan” Pereira, a familiar foe to Adesanya. The two had butted heads when Adesanya was a kickboxer for Glory Kickboxing. Ending his kickboxing career with 75 wins, he took only five losses in the organization, two of those being to none other than Pereira. That’s why after only four fights in the UFC, Pereira was given the opportunity to challenge “The Last Stylebender” for his long-held throne in the middleweight division. After several heated press conferences, the night finally arrived, and viewers were prepared to watch a clash of formidable rivals. We witnessed a masterclass from Pereira as he took down reigning middleweight champion Adesanya with a flurry of punches in the fifth round.

In a year when belts have changed hands at almost every major UFC event, it’s only fitting that the year ends with yet another title change in a vacant light heavyweight title bout between Jan Błachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev. It will cap off what has been one of the most surprising years in mixed martial arts history, with the real winner being the fight fans across the world who get to watch all these sensational fights.