Where We Stand: UFC 2022 Division-By-Division Guide

Kamaru Usman defined 2021 in many ways. UFC.com’s Fighter of the Year defended his title in spectacular fashion three times in the year, taking out Gilbert Burns, Jorge Masvidal (also UFC.com’s Knockout of the Year), and Colby Covington. He doesn’t have much time to sit back, though, as another wave of contenders is prepared to challenge his throne.

Leon Edwards returned in 2021 to mixed results. His return bout against Belal Muhammad turned out to be anticlimactic due to an accidental eye poke that led to a no contest, but he did look good against Nate Diaz at UFC 263. Edwards controlled that fight for 24 minutes before Diaz shook Edwards late but couldn’t finish the job. Edwards hasn’t lost in six years – his last defeat coming coincidentally to Usman. Vicente Luque is in top form, as well, and few are lining up to fight “The Silent Assassin.” He might need one more big win to earn a shot, but he also might have a case as it stands. Belal Muhammad turned in a dominant, breakout performance against Stephen Thompson, so he figures to play a heavy part in the title picture in 2022.

Khamzat Chimaev is the biggest question mark heading into the next year. Chimaev has been utterly dominant so far, and he passed his biggest test against Li Jingliang with flying colors. He seems like he’s on a fast track up the division, so how he decides to leap up the ladder might be determined by who wants to take that fight.  

Names to Watch For in 2022: Gilbert Burns, Sean Brady, Geoff Neal

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Alexander Volkanovski Is A Champ Chasing Contenders

Ortega clamped onto a mounted guillotine with just over two minutes remaining in the third round, locking it in tight. If you put 100 people into the same position at the same point of the fight, maybe 10 are getting free. Just over a minute later, Ortega locked up a triangle choke, hooking the leg and rolling into a more dangerous position, but once more Volkanovski worked free.

And he still won the round on all three scorecards; that’s how much punishment he unloaded on Ortega, who remained on the floor, spent, for 15 seconds after the horn sounded to signal the end of the round.

For the fight, Volkanovski out-landed Ortega 214-88 in terms of significant strikes, landing at a 60-percent clip over the course of the 25-minute affair. He threw 99 significant strikes in the all-action third round alone, and stung the gutsy challenger with swift counters, stiff jabs, and clean rights and lefts all night long. 

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And though Volkanovski hasn’t yet received the acclaim some of his peers at the top of the sport have, he relishes his position, telling me prior to his victory at UFC 265 that he welcomes the doubters and the chance to prove people wrong. Add in a refreshing attitude, and by this time next year, “Alexander the Great” may be seen as the best to ever do it at 145 pounds.

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The Wild Ride Of Harley Flanagan | Part 3

There’s a picture hanging in the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City that isn’t the typical one. It’s not a photo celebrating any of Gracie’s big wins over the likes of Oleg Taktarov, Maurice Smith or Pat Miletich. Instead, students of the renowned jiu-jitsu black belt see Gracie at a low point, a 2000 loss to Kazushi Sakuraba that ended via technical submission when the famed “Gracie Hunter” broke his foe’s arm.

Why?

“When you win, it’s easy to forget all the hardship that you went through to get the win,” Gracie told me in 2010. “You get so excited with the victory and the people around you congratulating you and hugging you, you completely forget all the mistakes you made in that fight. But when you lose, you know them, and you will never forget them. So I made sure I put that picture here, and actually that’s the only picture I have here, hanging on the wall. It’s to remind me constantly that a fight is only finished when the bell rings and the ref pulls you guys apart. Every time I walk in, I see that picture, and remember that I’m not perfect. I need to improve, I need to get better, and I need to make the people under me better, so they don’t go through that.”

THE WILD RIDE OF HARLEY FLANAGAN: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

That lesson isn’t lost on Gracie’s students, such as black belt Harley Flanagan.

“That picture says so much about Renzo’s character and what an honorable man he is,” said Flanagan. “Most people have a hard time, first of all, accepting defeat in life in any shape or form. But to be able to have your arm broken by somebody and stand up and shake their hand and smile at them and say, ‘Good job,’ it shows what kind of character he has that he can have that kind of graciousness in defeat, and we should all aspire to be more like that. There’s a saying in jiu-jitsu: you don’t lose in jiu-jitsu, you learn, and if could all take that with us in life, we would really improve our lives. He broke his arm, he was in a lot of pain. He wasn’t gonna let it show; he smiled at him and he shook his hand. To me, that says right there, that’s a bad motherf**ker. And God bless him, we should all aspire to be bad motherf**kers like that, to be able to suck up our losses in life and be graceful and honorable in victory and in loss. Life is nothing but  a learning experience and a lot of experiences, good and bad. If you know how to look at it, you can really appreciate it for what it is in there. I learned a lot about life from being with Master Renzo, and not just about jiu-jitsu. I learned a lot about myself and a lot about life.”

Flanagan lived a lot of life before he stepped into the Renzo Gracie Academy in early 1996. There were some good times, some bad, but all memorable. And while his life is as settled as it’s ever been at 54, with a Cro Mags tour in 2022, a documentary by Citizen Ashe’s Rex Miller, and a happy family life with his wife and two sons, the fighter in the New Yorker has always been there. And if not for the fact that the UFC arrived in 1993, when he was 26 years old and already established in the music world, he might have taken a different path in life.

“If MMA would have been something that was happening in the 80s, there’s definitely a chance that I would have wound up going that route,” he said. “I fought a lot as a kid, and in my neighborhood, it was kind of unavoidable. And if there would have been a platform to actually make a living and release some of that pent-up aggression, it would have been helpful. I probably would have done a lot less things on the street that I regret now in my adult life.”

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Harvard Wrestler Talks UFC, Ivy League Connection

In fact, Katsuyoshi explains that while Harvard is Ivy League, Harvard athletes aren’t wound as tight as some may think they are.

“I’d say there may be slight divides between teams, but the people in athletics tend to bond together closer than with the other students because we’re all in the same boat,” Katsuyoshi explained. “We’re all athletes at an Ivy League school.”

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The workload may be bigger than what you’d picture when imagining the “typical” fight fan, but meet up with Katsuyoshi’s crew on PPV Saturdays and any UFC junkie would feel right at home.

While there’s always appreciation for the technically sound and skilled fighters, the Harvard watch parties tend to favor the Conors, Khabibs and Cejudos of the sport, but there’s a particular fondness for any fighter up for a good slugfest. No over-analysis, no Ivy League pretentiousness, nothing. Just some good old fashioned fans of a brawl and a good showman, regardless of the combat sport.

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Jay Dee Penn 1945-2021 | UFC

A native of Kansas who ultimately found his way to Hawaii, Mr. Penn raised six children with his wife Lorraine Shin-Penn, naming three of the boys after himself. And while he was a master carpenter and successful businessman in his adopted home state, he was drawn into the fight game when he realized that a tenant of his, Tom Callos, was teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Interested in getting his sons involved, Mr. Penn sent his sons Reagan and Baby Jay (BJ) to Callos, and that was the spark that led to one of the most storied careers in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and mixed martial arts. BJ Penn would become the first non-Brazilian to win a gold medal in the black belt division of the Mundial World Jiu-Jitsu Championships, and in 2001 he made his MMA debut in the UFC. By the time of his induction into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2015, Penn had won world titles in the lightweight and welterweight divisions, competing against – and defeating – the best fighters in the sport.

Throughout it all, his father was by his side, always taking care of his son each step of the way.

“I always enjoyed my conversations and dealings with Jay Dee Penn,” said former UFC owner, Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta. “He was a great negotiator and a very proud father of his son, BJ Penn.  He will be missed.”

A familiar face to those in the business, Mr. Penn left a positive impression with everyone he met as a classy gentleman quick with a smile, a kind word or a story to tell.

“Mr. Penn was very unique to deal with,” said UFC President Dana White. “I had an absolute blast talking to him on a weekly basis in the early days of the UFC. He was a good man who loved his family very much and would do anything to help his kids succeed.”

Jay Dee Penn is survived by his wife Lorraine Shin, six children and several grandchildren.

The UFC sends its sincerest condolences to the Penn family on their loss.

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The Wild Ride Of Harley Flanagan | Part 2

New Yorkers are known for their attitude. And even though Harley Flanagan was born in San Francisco, he’s as New York as they come. With that status comes a certain way of looking at life, so I have to wonder if the Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt would have stuck with “the gentle art” if he had walked into the California academies of one of the other members of the Gracie family.

“They might have thrown me out,” Flanagan laughs, and that’s no surprise. Guys like Flanagan, Renzo and his late brother Ryan were intimidating to many in their various worlds, but they were kindred spirits, and if they were on your side, they were there for life. That all comes from Renzo, universally loved and respected by those that know him in the jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts community.

“Renzo doesn’t judge people the way most people do, he really doesn’t,” said Flanagan. “He’s a really beautiful guy in that way. He treats people not based on their status or wealth; it’s what you give. He feels it, and that’s what you get from the guy. He’s the best.”

THE WILD RIDE OF HARLEY FLANAGAN: Part One

And while Brazil is his home, NYC is a close second for Gracie, and it showed as he built his academy from the ground up in a city that is barely recognizable today from what it was back then. That goes for the world of jiu-jitsu as well.

“The dynamics of that world back then were pretty intense,” said Flanagan. “It was so in the early days of MMA that the only people who were training at the time were either people who wanted to be fighters, people who were bouncers or people who just liked fighting and fights; people who literally got in street fights. Over time, a lot of those guys wound up getting weeded out or they changed. I was one of those guys, as far as, I was training because I liked to fight and I sure wasn’t training because I had any ambitions of becoming a professional fighter or athlete. I fought a lot in my youth and this was just something I wanted to learn. So it was pretty intense because back then – people were real protective of their secrets and camps didn’t like to share info. There were not a lot of people training, so when the door would open and someone would come in, it was like the music from ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.’ (Laughs) Who are you? Where are you from? If you came in and you had cauliflower ears, the room would go quiet. No videotaping, no photographs.”

Anyone who didn’t comply, well, the names in that room are enough to make it clear that folks complied with the rules of the academy. Gracie. Serra. Almeida. Danaher. That’s a murderers row of jiu-jitsu any way you slice it, and Flanagan knew immediately that it was a special time and one that would never be repeated.

“It was a beautiful time,” he said. “It was something that I’m so lucky to have been a part of.  And you felt it. You felt it in the air, you knew it. The dynamic energy of the people in that room, you had to feel it. Anybody who’s ever been around Renzo knows just how much fire that man has in his soul. Now you put him in a room with his brother Ryan on top of that, are you crazy? It was like a human dynamo in there. And then all the cousins, and everybody, and we really all loved each other. And that’s the type of environment he created in there. Even the people who moved on and opened up their own places, everybody remembers those days as the good old days. Sure, the sport has developed and the future of the sport is probably gonna be even more amazing than it ever has been, but those days were so special. It was like being in the wild wild west.”

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Fury Pro Grappling 3 Key Match-Up: Sean Brady vs Craig Jones

“When you look at Sean Brady, who’s 15-0 and regarded as one of the top grapplers in that weight class, going against someone like Craig Jones, who is one of the best grapplers, if not the best grappler in the world, that’s got fireworks written all over it,” said Fury Pro Grappling president Rob Haydak.

While he’s obviously never been submitted professionally, Brady has as many professional submissions inside the UFC as he does outside, so this won’t be the simple “pull guard, lock the leg, heel hook” victory some may come to expect for Jones.

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If Brady should pull off the upset, would it be a big deal at all? It certainly would be a win for the UFC to have a guy pull one over on one of the greatest to ever do it, but for Cage Fury it would be one of the biggest moments in promotional history.

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Sean Brady Lives For A Challenge

Killer instinct or not, Brady will have one hell of a mountain to climb against Jones and he knows it. His MMA boneyard alone features names like Davi Ramos, Gilbert Burns, Jake Shields, Rousimar Palhares and many more. But Brady said there’s beauty to the position he’s in.

“The cool thing about me in this position is that I don’t have anything to lose. I’m expected to lose,” Brady laughed. “I’ve seen odds for this thing they have me as an 18-1 underdog. I can’t look bad. Anything I do is good for me. MMA grappling is a lot different than regular no-gi grappling, so I’m going to be able to throw him off with the way I am. I’m going to do a lot of things that are going to really surprise him.”

They say styles make matchups, and if that’s true, can Sean Brady’s MMA grappling lead to a rogue Jones limb or will he join the rest of the ranks as another mixed martial artist to fall to him?

Catch Sean Brady vs Craig Jones at Fury Pro Grappling 3, LIVE AND ONLY on UFC FIGHT PASS!

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The Wild Ride Of Harley Flanagan | Part 1

By the time Flanagan was a teenager, he was already a staple on the local punk scene, having played drums for the Stimulators since the age of 12, rubbing elbows with the likes of Joe Strummer, Debbie Harry and Andy Warhol. It was a childhood that was no childhood at all,

“You throw a kid out into the world who really doesn’t know anything except craziness,” he said. “I pretty much grew up in an adult environment. I’m 12 years old and I’m going to rock and roll clubs where Andy Warhol and Johnny Thunders and all kinds of lunatics are running around doing insanely depraved shit. As a kid, the adults are supposed to be setting boundaries for you.”

Couple that upbringing with the environment he was living in, and it was a recipe for disaster. Luckily, in the music business, disaster is often celebrated, and as Flanagan founded the Cro Mags, toured the world and released classic albums like Age of Quarrel, he found a way to make it all work for him. That doesn’t last forever, though, and as the years went on, he sunk deeper into a hole many don’t emerge from.  

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“There were times in my youth when I really just wanted to die,” Flanagan said. “My behavior was just an extension of that. You don’t stick needles in your arm, you don’t shoot things into your body that literally say on the bag, ‘Body Bag.’ That was a brand of heroin that I used to do when I was a kid. You don’t shoot that into your body unless you sorta, kinda want to die. You don’t smoke five bags of PCP unless you’re trying to escape by any means necessary.”

Flanagan recalls a conversation with retired U.S.Navy SEAL Jocko Willink.

“He said, ‘There’s a place in a black hole that’s called an event horizon. Once you reach that point, there’s no turning back. You’re gone. I’ve known several people in my life who’ve gone to that point.’ He looked me dead in my face and said, ‘You have gone to that point at least 20 times.’ He said that in all seriousness. And I had to laugh because he’s kinda right.”

Rock bottom came in the form of a phone call from an ex-girlfriend.

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Valentina Shevchenko Won’t Stop Until She’s The Greatest

Now it was Shevchenko’s turn to deal with this powerful, Brazilian marauder that won strawweight gold by slamming Rose Namajunas and earned her championship opportunity by putting a painful end to Chookagian’s night. Now it was Shevchenko’s turn to combat the constant forward pressure and obvious power Andrade brought to the cage, and after a couple years of relatively low-risk assignments in championship pairings, the reigning queen of the 125-pound weight class was finally going to be pushed and challenged.

Or not.

In space, Shevchenko was always expected and known to be the superior fighter, but questions lingered about how she would do in close quarters, with Andrade closing the distance, looking to grapple and use her physicality. Those questions were answered early in the opening round when the champion controlled the challenger in the clinch, muscling her way off the fence whenever she momentarily found herself there while putting Andrade on the deck five times in as many tries.

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She threw just 16 significant strikes over the first five minutes of the fight, yet still ran away with the round, and in the second, she wasted little time showing that her “toughest test to date” was no test at all.

In the second, Shevchenko picked at Andrade with sharp left hooks off the restart and outmuscled her in the clinch, defending the challenger’s attempt to twist her to the canvas before showing her how it’s done. Andrade eventually worked back to her feet, but Shevchenko once again stifled her attempt to change the placement of the fight, twisting the Brazilian to the canvas for a second time at the midway point of the round.

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Andrade wouldn’t return to the upright position until the fight was over.

Shevchenko quickly climbed into the mounted crucifix position and started unleashing a torrent of elbows, cutting Andrade and forcing the stoppage. When the champion rose to her feet, the look on her face was a blend of defiance and dominance; Maximus in the middle of the Coliseum asking, “Are you not entertained?” after effortlessly dispatching the fighter everyone thought would present her with the most challenges.

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