From dream fights being realized to new champions being crowned, there was plenty to be thankful for in MMA in 2022.
Fans witnessed multiple upsets, several knockouts to remember, and performances that turned fighters into legends. Who stood out the most?
The Sporting News, along with a panel of experts, circled back to the beginning of the year to look for the best fights, fighters, and moments from 2022.
Here are your winners of the MMA Men’s/Woman’s Fighter, Fight, Knockout, Upset, Submission, and Event of the Year!
2022 MMA AWARDS: Male Fighter | Female Fighter | Fight of the Year
Men’s MMA Fighter of the Year: Alexander Volkanovski
In a year filled with unpredictability, where champions fell short and heavy favorites were upended, there was one constant: Alexander Volkanovski.
The reigning and defending UFC featherweight champion solidified his spot as The Sporting News Men’s MMA Fighter of the Year with a pair of dominant victories as he watched his fellow UFC titleholders either relinquish their championship or struggle to hang on against the opposition.
Kamaru Usman, Israel Adesanya, Charles Oliveira, Brandon Moreno, Glover Teixeira, Julianna Pena, Rose Namajunas, and Carla Esparza all lost their titles in 2022. But Volkanovski put a stranglehold on the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world conversation as he refused to join his peers as “former” champions.
The Australian opened his 2022 campaign by running roughshod over Chan Sung Jung with a blistering performance that ended with a fourth-round knockout against “The Korean Zombie” in April. But that was just an appetizer, as Volkanovski put a definitive end to his rivalry with Max Holloway by pitching a shutout against the man who had long been recognized as the greatest featherweight fighter in UFC history.
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Not only did Volkanovski improve to 3-0 against Holloway, but he did it by exclusively using his standup to batter the former champion with speed and pinpoint accuracy. By effectively cleaning out the division, Volkanovski will enter 2023 aiming to become a two-division champion when he faces lightweight titleholder — and Men’s MMA Fighter of the Year runner-up — Islam Makhachev. Should he end Makhachev’s run, it will be hard to deny Volkanovski repeating as the winner next year.
Women’s MMA Fighter of the Year: Zhang Weili
In 2020, Zhang Weili was on top of the world, beating Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the Fight of the Year. Last year was a step back for “Magnum,” but she pushed through with a violent 2022 to remember.
After losing two in a row and the UFC strawweight title to Rose Namajunas in 2020, Zhang was between a rock and a hard place. What was she to do to get back to the top? Zhang ended up having such a memorable year that she has been named The Sporting News Women’s MMA Fighter of the Year.
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The UFC struck gold with the first Zhang vs. Joanna fight, and round two was more of the same. This time, Zhang ended the rivalry with a brutal spinning backfist. Joanna retired soon after. That was the first sign that Zhang was back!
Zhang followed up that performance with a dominant, emphasis on dominant, win over Carla Esparza to regain the UFC strawweight title. She outstruck Esparza 37-6, submitting her in the second in what could be seen as a sign of mercy. It did help that she was the -360 favorite to the -280 underdog in Esparza (per Caesars at the time).
Back on the throne, the strawweight queen has several challengers to choose from next year, including Amanda Lemos, Yan Xiaonan, and a third fight with Namajunas. She also has an interest in moving to flyweight to challenge Valentina Shevchenko. Motivated, if Zhang can repeat her violent performances from her revenge year, there’s no telling what 2023 will bring for her.
Congratulations to Zhang Weili, The Sporting News Women’s MMA Fighter of the Year.
Fight of the Year: Glover Teixeira vs. Jiri Prochazka (UFC 275)
When a then-29-year-old samurai-inspired warrior and a 42-year-old veteran faced off inside the octagon in June, nobody could have predicted the all-out war that unfolded between the two.
At UFC 275, Jiri Prochazka and Glover Teixeira fought for the latter’s UFC light heavyweight title. A violent assassin, Prochazka was riding a 12-fight win streak and was 2-0 in the UFC. Teixeira finally reached the top of the mountain in 2021 after failing to capture the UFC light heavyweight title in 2014.
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When the two faced off, nobody expected Teixeira, the +162 underdog (per Vegas Insider at the time), to go toe-to-toe with the -188 favorite in Prochazka. Someone of Teixeira’s age should not have been able to go at the same pace as Prochazka, but the Brazilian held his own and then some. In the end, it was Prochazka who overcame the odds and beat Teixeira to become champion.
The Sporting News looks back on Teixeira vs. Prochazka, an instant classic that has been awarded the 2022 MMA Fight of the Year. Check out the attached link for more.
Knockout and Upset of the Year: Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman (UFC 278)
It took a while for Leon Edwards to get a shot at the UFC welterweight title, thanks to rivalry fights and the COVID-19 pandemic blocking him. Finally getting an opportunity, Leon Edwards made the most of it and then some.
At UFC 278 in August, “Rocky” landed the perfect kick that took down the champion Kamaru Usman. Before that, it looked like Edwards would be walking out of the octagon without a win. Instead, he went home to England with a title around his waist.
The kick heard ’round the world 🌎[ @Leon_EdwardsMMA | #UFC278 ] pic.twitter.com/GfmX7pBnj6
— UFC (@ufc) August 21, 2022
That big shot not only won him gold. Edwards’ kick earned the distinction of being named The Sporting News’ 2022 Knockout and Upset of the Year.
Edwards lost to Usman in 2015. Following that, Edwards went on a ten-fight unbeaten streak with one no-contest. Usman, the pound-for-pound king at the time of UFC 278, dominated all aspects of the bout. In the rematch, Usman took Edwards down five times and out-landed him 83-55. However, one opening for Edwards did the trick.
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He feinted a punch before landing one of the biggest kicks in UFC history to the head of Usman. Over 18,000 fans in Salt Lake City, Utah were in a frenzy. It was considered a major upset, both fight and betting-wise. The loss, Usman’s first since 2013, snapped his 19-bout win steak.
Submission of the Year: Luca Poclit vs. Dante Schiro (Bellator 285)
During the prelims of Bellator 285, two Bellator fighters competed in a back-and-forth affair. The fight between Luca Poclit and Dante Schiro could have gone either way. Then, Poclit attempted a submission. It seemed simple enough, right?
The commentators, crowd, and Schiro had no idea what was happening until it was too late.
Poclit escaped from a mounted position and landed a reverse arm-triangle choke. With Schiro’s arms trapped, Poclit slightly moved his head, and Schiro was out for the count thanks to the pressure.
Have you 𝑬𝑽𝑬𝑹 seen anything like this?! 👀
— BellatorMMA (@BellatorMMA) September 23, 2022
One of the most innovative moves ever performed inside an MMA cage has won the Sporting News’ 2022 Submission of the Year.
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Not only did Poclit get the win and the award, but that move is now named after him: The Lucanator.
Event of the Year: UFC 281
Inside Madison Square Garden, UFC 281 had it all, from title changes to two warriors battling it out. It also had eleven fights end in a finish, including all five main card fights.
Over 20,000+ passionate fans witnessed what The Sporting News has awarded the 2022 MMA Event of the Year.
New York City was buzzing, partly due to the rivalry spanning years in Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira. Already 2-0 against Adesanya in kickboxing, Pereira won the UFC middleweight title in his fourth UFC fight. Looking for a comeback, Pereira needed one big shot to take down Adesanya. Before the fifth round, his corner gave Pereira a pep talk straight out of Hollywood.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) November 13, 2022
Like he was the star of an actual Rocky movie, Pereira stormed back, getting the TKO win to the shock of the commentary team, Adesanya, and all of MSG.
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The main card also featured Zhang Weili reclaiming the UFC strawweight title against Carla Esparza, who was submitted for the first time since 2010. An all-out war between Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler served under that fight. Two of the very best went back and forth for three rounds.
Outside those fights, there were seven first-round finishes, a joint UFC record. That included the end of Frankie Edgar’s UFC career and multiple new contenders joining the rankings.
With a live gate of $11,562,807.77, UFC 281 was one for the record books.