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.
That’s not to take away from the momentous wins we’ve witnessed, but some of MMA’s biggest stars undoubtedly benefited from fortuitous circumstances that set the stage for career-best performances. Maybe it was favorable matchmaking, or a wide-open path to a title fight. Maybe it was questionable judging, or a crucial referee’s call. But if there’s one thing we should be reminded of as we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, it’s that you have to be lucky to be good (and good to be 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.
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. “Kickboxing may be a niche sport, but MMA is incredibly popular!” he exclaims. “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. A man he knocked out cold the last time they fought, and a man who also happened to be the champion of the world, and a bona fide star in the company. 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!!!”
Look, I’m not here to tell you that’s exactly how things went down for Pereira. But for all intents and purposes, it might as well have been. This is a man who fought for the middleweight championship of the world in only his eighth professional MMA fight (after losing his debut, might I add), and one year and six days after his first UFC bout. And he did so because he could, because the UFC ran out of interesting matchups for Adesanya, because he had a narrative that made him compelling, and so the UFC found the perfect set of opponents to fast track him to one of the least deserved title shots in history (I’m not knocking him or the UFC for this by the way, that’s just the truth). Then, when the moment arrived, he capitalized.
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. He should be thankful again to Adesanya for fighting in a way that best allowed him to get the knockout and take the title.
I have no idea how long Alex Pereira’s title reign lasts. It could be 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.
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.
Out of his first seven wins in the promotion, only one fighter beaten by him still holds a spot on the roster in the UFC. The rest have long since been released – or 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. Touted as a future title contender and top prospect, O’Malley just didn’t have the resume to support those claims.
But then out of nowhere, the upstart landed the opportunity to face ex-bantamweight champion Petr Yan at UFC 280. Just to be clear — O’Malley earned the right to face 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. There was no rematch with Munhoz. There wasn’t a single victory over a ranked opponent.
Instead, O’Malley faced Yan with the winner likely moving into position to challenge for the title after his last fight ended due to an eye poke. Not a knockout. 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. The bantamweights put on a show. 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. Sure, O’Malley had to find a way to beat Yan, who was a former titleholder and one of the most dangerous bantamweights in the UFC. 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.
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. But much of the buzz through the tournament revolved around Corey Anderson and the distinct possibility that Anderson might just be the best light heavyweight 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 be honest, with Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier no longer in the picture, the No. 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. A gash over Nemkov’s left eye left referee Frank Trigg with no choice but to stop the contest, and the judges were not asked to render a technical decision because the bout had not reached a completed 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. Now, he gets a high-profile — and winnable — title defense against Yoel Romero 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 going from a fight with Khamzat Chimaev to a fight with Tony Ferguson, which led to Diaz leaving the UFC victorious and with middle fingers raised. 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.