Who has the best chance of winning gold?

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“And new!” could be the two most exciting words in mixed martial arts. They alert everyone within range with a very loud voice that there has been a change in the power structure. There is a new coat of paint. There is an ascent accompanied by a potential for memorable greatness. Even if it only lasts one night.

Over the next few months, the phrase that causes tingling – “And New world champion! ”- might be bellowed on many late nights in arenas around the world. Or those words might be barely heard, if the belting champions mind the business.

There are nearly a dozen title-and-a-half fights on the MMA schedule by mid-January at the UFC and other high profile promotions, Bellator, PFL and One Championship. Some of the challengers in these fights face difficult battles. In other cases, the crowning of a new champion is either extremely likely or virtually guaranteed.

The PFL kicks off with a bang on Wednesday night, closing its 2021 season with playoff finals in six weight categories. Only two of those clashes include defending champions (Kayla harrison, Ray cooper iii), and even in those fights, the season and playoff format makes every crowning new.

Bellator continues the title fight on November 12 with one of its biggest stars, Cris Cyborg, defending his featherweight title against Sinead kavanagh. And on December 3 flyweight champion Sergio Pettis faces the former title holder Kyoji Horiguchi.

The One Championship kicks off on December 5. On the same card that features the former longtime UFC flyweight champion Demetrious johnson Competing in a staggered mixed rule bout against Muay Thai champion Rodtang Jitmuangnon, two MMA belts will be up for grabs. Bibiano Fernandes defends his bantamweight strap for the first time in over two years, taking on former UFC contender John Lineker. And Thanh Le faces the featherweight challenge of multiple world champion jiu-jitsu Garry Tonon, who is undefeated in MMA.

And then there’s the sport’s biggest spectacle, the UFC, which by January 22 will see seven champions defending their titles. There are only 11 total belt holders in the promotion, so the next few months could really turn things around at the top of the sport.

It would not be the first time. So far in 2021, UFC titlists have defended 11 times, and from those fights we’ve seen the emergence of three new Champions Club members: Francois Ngannou, Brandon moreno and, renewing its membership, Rose Namajunas. More, Charles Oliveira joined the club by winning a fight in which a vacant title was up for grabs.

Who will lead the next wave of new UFC belt holders? Here’s a ranking of the upcoming challengers, sorted by what each faces and who is most likely to hear those two magic words: And new!

Watch UFC 267: Blachowicz vs. Teixeira October 30 on ESPN + from 10:30 a.m.ET

7. Juliana Peña

Women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes at UFC 269 on December 11

Like anyone who has ever seen Nunes operating inside the Octagon, Peña has strongly suggested that this is not an equal fight. The thing is, however, the challenger believes – or at least said she believes – the fight isn’t even because it’s a shift in her favor. It sounds absurd, of course, but let’s remember the adage of combat sports: a confident fighter is a dangerous fighter. Wait, is that the saying, or is it: a confident fighter is a fighter in danger?

Either way, it’s fair to say that this clash between the disdainfully windy Peña and the greatest fighter in the history of female mixed martial arts is indeed an equal showdown – in terms of confidence. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine this one ending any differently from Nunes’ last twelve fights: with the two-division champion raising her hand. The betting odds that favor Nunes by better than 6 to 1 are not negligible for Peña in particular. Just about any woman who enters a cage with “The Lioness” might as well climb the Matterhorn.

6. Ciryl Gane (interim UFC heavyweight champion)

Challenge heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou at UFC 270 on January 22

Gane has fought 13 times and won them all, which makes it easy every step of the way. His third round TKO of Derrick lewis in August, in a bout dominated by Gane from start to finish in concussion, was the ninth knockout on the Frenchman’s brilliant resume. No one came close to stopping him.

But do I remind you of the masses that will swing in the direction of Gane? Ngannou dethroned Stipe Miocic in March a night where he basically worked overtime. Second turn. Prior to this knockout in the first minute of Round 2, Ngannou had won four fights in a row, all by knockout – in 45 seconds, 26 seconds, 71 seconds and 20 seconds. These chain speed hits came against two former champions (Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos) and two top five contenders (Curtis Blaydes, Jairzinho Rozenstruik). There is not an athlete in the game – in any weight class – who is in a race like “The Predator”.

5. Glover Teixeira

Challenging light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz at UFC 267 on October 30

Oh boy, this weekend’s main event buildup has certainly been heated, hasn’t it? Nah, you didn’t miss a thing. Not a syllable of trashy speech was exchanged between these guys. They make a well-matched pair, both fighters, not speakers.

For me, what’s especially interesting about Teixeira being so low-key is that he pushes Blachowicz to an unfamiliar place: in the spotlight. His last three bookings were in front of a superstar (Israel Adesanya), an heir apparent (Dominique reyes) and a rising competitor (Corey anderson). Now he is the champion. He’s the winner of nine of his last 10 fights. And he’s the A side of a record that doesn’t go platinum, not even gold, but has the potential to get five-star reviews.

4. Colby Covington

Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman at UFC 268 on November 6

Covington should take the biggest compliment that he’s this high on the list despite facing off against the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. But a guy playing the role of a victim is unlikely to find it on the mark to accept a compliment. What he would probably say in reply is that he is number 1 pound for pound, not Usman. Does he believe that? Who knows what he really believes about anything.

It’s hard to grasp reality while swimming in Covington’s wrong-headed turgid sea. He blames the referee for the 2019 loss to Usman. He was not knocked down that night, he insists, he slipped on a banana peel. But movie B’s hype aside, the man can fight. This first meeting with the champion was a growl. One gets the impression, however, that Usman has gotten even sharper since then. Let’s see if Covington can still match him.

3. Deiveson Figueiredo

Challenge men’s flyweight champion Brandon Moreno at UFC 270 on January 22

The strongest memories of these two demolitions are the most recent. So it’s tempting to perceive Moreno as a cut above Figueiredo, as he certainly was on the June night when he choked him to take his belt off. But let’s not forget what happened exactly six months ago. They fought for a draw in a bout the outcome of which was influenced by Figueiredo who lost a point for an illegal strike. Figueiredo seemed to be the best man at the time. And now? Now we get the trilogy, where the truth will come out.

2. Zhang Weili

Strawweight champion Rose Namajunas at UFC 268 on November 6

Quick knockouts are a thrill ride but they leave so much unfinished. Imagine if Conor McGregor and Jose aldo had stood head-to-head for five rounds, not 13 seconds. And if Ben askren had lasted long enough to score an indent on Jorge masvidal? We’ll never know on both counts, but we’re about to see a little more than the 78 seconds we had between Zhang and Namajunas in April. It was Zhang’s first loss since his professional debut in 2013, ending a 21-game winning streak. Would everything fall apart again?

1. Dustin Poirier

Challenge lightweight champion Charles Oliveira at UFC 269 on December 11

It’s like cheating to classify Poirier here. It sounds like a semantic contortion to even call it a challenger. When Khabib Nurmagomedov left the title a year ago, much of the MMA audience looked to Poirier. He was a level below the champion, but he was the second best thing and it was his time. Rather than compete for the title, he chose to win his second dance in a year with Conor McGregor. Still, Poirier remains the king of consensus at lightweights.

Oliveira certainly doesn’t like it, and not only does he have a resume worthy of opposing that pecking order, but he has the opportunity next month to make it clear why he wears the belt. As for Poirier, now that he has built his family for life financially, it is time for him to add to his legacy. It won’t be easy to overthrow Oliveira. He’s proficient everywhere and his mojo is on the wing these days. But Poirier is the man until proven guilty.


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