I always love the sense of optimism heading into a new year, but this is a whole new feeling going into 2021. MMA found a way to keep the show going in 2020 and we're thankful for that, but let's not kid ourselves: We are all looking forward to what will hopefully be a much better year in 2021.
So, in the spirit of a fresh slate of 12 calendar months, here are a dozen fights I want to see in 2021.
1. Israel Adesanya (20-0) vs. Jon Jones (26-1) for the UFC light heavyweight title
After some early resistance, I am all-in on the Adesanya-Jones saga. When this beef first started -- after Adesanya won the middleweight title in 2019 -- I wasn't into it at all. I saw potential in it, of course, but it seemed so premature to even discuss it. Adesanya had plenty of legitimate challengers at 185. And as far as Jones, I was more interested in seeing him move to heavyweight after nearly a decade as the light heavyweight champ.
If Izzy was to die tonight, his legacy would be hell of a fighter, was terrified to fight Jon Jones period— BONY (@JonnyBones) October 9, 2020
Now, Adesanya still has challenges at middleweight, but he's already taking a sabbatical from the division to challenge Jan Blachowicz for the light heavyweight title on March 6. If he is successful, there will still be plenty of months left on the 2021 calendar to make a fight with Jones. What if 2021 were to end with an Adesanya vs. Jones 205-pound title fight in December? With fans? Imagine that.
2. Khabib Nurmagomedov (29-0) vs. Georges St-Pierre (26-2) for the UFC lightweight title
St-Pierre talks possible comeback, fight vs. Khabib
Georges St-Pierre talks about a possible comeback to the UFC, and his potential interest in a fight vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov.
I still predict we'll never see Nurmagomedov fight again. His retirement in October seemed very genuine. But at the same time, I do think he was emotional. I know the competitor he is. And I know how much he has wanted this legacy fight in the past. This fight has obvious appeal. It's Nurmagomedov, and his perfect 29-0 record, trying to fulfill his late father's dream of him retiring at 30-0, with the final win against GSP. And it's St-Pierre seeking a third belt, a feat that has never been accomplished. Will we see it? I don't know. Probably not. But man would I love to.
3. Jon Jones (26-1) vs. Francis Ngannou (15-3), UFC heavyweight
Ngannou says potential fight vs. Jones is 'stuck'
Francis Ngannou explains why talks of a potential superfight between him and Jon Jones are not advancing.
That's right, Jones is in two of the top three fights on my 2021 wish list. And I'm ready to see him in a whole new way: Let's see "Superfight" Jon Jones. We've seen him as the reigning, defending light heavyweight champion for years. And it was great, and I could have kept watching that. But now ... you're telling me I can see heavyweight Jon Jones vs. "The Scariest 265-Pound Man on the Planet," Francis Ngannou? That's a superfight to me.
And please, please do not take this as a sign of disrespect to heavyweight GOAT and UFC champion Stipe Miocic. I would very much like to see Jones vs. Miocic as well. But there's something about Jones, and all his dominance in the sport, going against a heavyweight who has finished his past four opponents in a total of 162 seconds that is too tantalizing to not have on this list.
4. Colby Covington (16-2) vs. Jorge Masvidal (35-14), UFC welterweight
Cormier says Masvidal vs. Covington is the fight to make
Daniel Cormier and Ariel Helwani discuss the magnitude of a potential Jorge Masvidal vs. Colby Covington grudge match and whom Nate Diaz should fight next.
This matchup was on my 2020 wish list, and there's no reason to leave it off in 2021. UFC president Dana White said the promotion is working on making this fight happen this year. Masvidal and Covington are old friends, roommates with differing versions of how sparring used to go. A very relevant matchup from a rankings perspective, and a great fight stylistically. Nothing not to like here. This pairing would be entertainment from the moment it is announced to the final bell.
5. Amanda Nunes (20-4) vs. Valentina Shevchenko (20-3) 3, for the UFC bantamweight title
It's just time for this, right? I mean, technically, yes, there are still championship fights for both in their respective weight classes. But lately, those fights have been mismatches. These are the two best female fighters on the planet. Shevchenko is 0-2 against Nunes but believes she should have won the second fight -- and I've always thought she's had an argument there. It's going to happen again at some point, just a matter of when. I, for one, am ready for it.
6. Nate Diaz (20-12) vs. Tony Ferguson (25-5), UFC welterweight
Relive McGregor-Diaz's first fight that led to a rematch
Check out the instant classic between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz at UFC 196, which resulted in a rematch at UFC 200.
The more I think about this fight, the more I kinda love it. Two very unique, very popular fighters, each with a very dedicated, almost cultlike fan following. Two guys you don't really know what to do with at the moment. Diaz didn't fight in 2020, and Ferguson fell from grace in 2020 with two losses. They can both fight at welterweight comfortably, with no need to cut weight. Both have all-action styles. And the dialogue that might take place between these two would be amazing. These two are stars. Diaz more than Ferguson, but Ferguson definitely has a following. And even though Ferguson looked bad in his past two fights, he's still the No. 5-ranked lightweight in the UFC, and he has more than proved himself as a fighter's fighter. Perhaps that would appeal to Diaz.
7. Zhang Weili (21-1) vs. Rose Namajunas (9-4), for the UFC strawweight title
Weili, Joanna scrap in fight for the ages
Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk trade blows throughout their championship bout at UFC 248.
For the record, I wouldn't be against seeing Zhang vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk 2. Their first fight, which Zhang won in March, was the fight of the year in 2020 for me. But Namajunas has shown there is something truly special about her when she's on, and the idea of that Namajunas against Zhang is irresistible. As a fan, I very much hope Zhang vs. Namajunas is the next 115-pound title fight.
8. Patricio "Pitbull" Freire (31-4) vs. A.J. McKee (17-0), Bellator featherweight
Bellator's featherweight grand prix finals couldn't get any better than this. Pitbull -- who, in my opinion, is the best fighter on Bellator's roster and arguably one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world -- meeting a bona fide phenom in McKee. We probably throw the word "phenom" around too much in combat sports, we have a tendency to get ahead of ourselves ... but in the case of McKee, there's really nothing else you can call him. He was the No. 1 fighter in the world under the age of 25 in 2019, according to ESPN, and would have been No. 1 again in 2020 if his birthday were a few months later. Pitbull still needs to get by a very talented Emanuel Sanchez in the tournament semifinals, but if he does, Pitbull vs. McKee could legitimately be one of the best fights in Bellator history.
9. Deiveson Figueiredo (20-1-1) vs. Cody Garbrandt (12-3), for the UFC flyweight title
Magomedsharipov lands multiple kicks and gets a takedown vs. Kattar
Zabit Magomedsharipov is able to land multiple shots and get a takedown in his win vs. Calvin Kattar. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Brandon Moreno deserves a rematch against Figueiredo after their fight of the year candidate in December. But if Figueiredo takes care of business in that rematch, I am very intrigued by Figueiredo vs. Garbrandt -- and have been since it first came up. I know Garbrandt hasn't fought at 125, but he is of championship caliber, and stylistically ... the combined speed and power of these two would probably be the most for any flyweight fight, ever.
10. Max Holloway (21-6) vs. Zabit Magomedsharipov (18-1), UFC featherweight
Pettis nearly lands spinning kick for the ages
Anthony "Showtime" Pettis brushes the top of Alex Morono's head with a spinning kick late in Round 3 that surprises Morono at UFC Fight Night.
I don't know how exactly we'd get to this, but let me say a few things. First, I can't keep begging for Magomedsharipov vs. Yair Rodriguez. I wanted to put that fight on this wish list (as it was in 2020), but that fight has become Lucy and the football, and we're all Charlie Brown. We think we're gonna get it, but it just ... never ... happens.
Maybe this is me trying to play reverse psychology with the MMA gods. Like, "Nah, I'm over Zabit vs. Yair. I don't want it anymore. Don't make it...' or maybe it's just me pivoting to a tremendous matchup between Max and Zabit. Now, again, I'm not sure how we'd get there. Holloway has his hands full on Jan. 16 against Calvin Kattar, but if he wins, I believe he'd fight for the title next. Perhaps we could see Holloway vs. Magomedsharipov for the featherweight championship at the end of the year, if everything were to fall right for both. Either way, under any circumstance, this is a fight I want to see.
11. Natan Schulte (20-3-1) vs. Anthony Pettis (24-10), PFL lightweight
The PFL has made significant roster changes since the end of the 2019 season, and there will be multiple storylines to follow in 2021. To me, the most interesting involves newly acquired Pettis. At 155, Schulte has been the undisputed man at PFL. He has won back-to-back seasons and is unbeaten in 10 consecutive appearances. I thought Pettis looked good in his final fight in the UFC, a decision win over Alex Morono on Dec. 19. His athleticism is still there, and he was in shape for a short-notice fight. The skill set is elite, and he has a veteran presence. Plus, you know he's gonna want that PFL $1 million prize in 2021, and Schulte is the man he'll have to go through to get it.
12. Dominick Cruz (22-3) vs. Cory Sandhagen (13-2), UFC bantamweight
I've covered MMA since 2009, and Cruz is on my short list of favorite fighters to watch. I just have a very high appreciation for Cruz's skill level, will, preparation and ability to adjust. Sandhagen reminds me (and others) of Cruz. In fact, I'll never forget the first time I talked to Sandhagen about him watching Cruz back in the WEC and the way he sees himself as something of a Cruz 2.0. There's no clear path to this fight going into 2021, as Sandhagen is on the verge of a title shot, but if it does make sense at any time over the next 12 months, I hope the UFC jumps on it.