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Ones to watch: Five UFC fighters tipped to break out in 2022
Ahead of another cracking year of action, we’ve picked out a handful of fighters we’re most excited to watch on BT Sport over the coming months - including two home-grown talents and a wild card entry from Kazakhstan.
This is the year Tom Aspinall will move from prospect to contender in the heavyweight division.
The 28-year-old has been faultless since making his debut in July 2020 and after 18 months marinating slowly in the lower echelons of the division, Aspinall looks ready to make a serious assault on the top five in 2022.
Three performance bonuses in his four UFC bouts, including three first-round finishes, have already put many of his heavyweight rivals on red alert and Aspinall will be looking to hit the ground running in the first quarter of the year with a fifth win in five.
It could be a hell of a night for Aspinall when we do see the 6ft 6ins powerhouse in action, with ESPN’s Brett Okamoto reporting that the UFC are finalising a showdown against top-10 ranked Shamil Abdurakhimov which would coincide with the company's annual trip to London in March.
That would be his first Octagon walk on UK shores and the first acid test of his superstar credentials, with Aspinall expected to be given big billing in front of a raucous home crowd if the UFC does return to the British capital for the first time since 2019.
For all that we have seen from Aspinall so far, those in the know believe there is plenty more to come - including a demonstration of his considerable grappling ability as a fully-fledged Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt.
However the Salford powerhouse, once a team-mate of Tyson Fury before changing codes full time to MMA, has not yet been required to demonstrate his full repertoire inside the Octagon.
Perhaps 2022 is the year that all changes. Perhaps Britain crowns its first UFC heavyweight champion…
Lerone Murphy emerged from near obscurity to appear as a late addition to the bill at UFC 242 in September 2019, taking on tough veteran Zubaira Tukhugov in what looked to be a tricky match-up for the Manchester man.
However Murphy, then 8-0, turned in an eye-catching performance against the Russian during a split draw many observers feel he was unlucky not to have won.
He showed enough for the UFC to grant him another opportunity which he seized with both hands this time, dispatching the dangerous Ricardo Ramos in one round in July 2020.
Since then, the 30-year-old has not enjoyed the blazing ascent many felt he was capable of, with injuries and limited opportunities curtailing his progress.
However, the featherweight standout roared back into action at UFC 267 in October last year, with a stunning knockout of Makwan Amirkhani that somehow went unrewarded with a performance bonus.
With some momentum finally beginning to build behind him, Murphy, like Aspinall, looks a smart bet to appear at UFC London should the event return this March and will have eyes on anyone inside the top 15.
Shane Burgos could be the dream opponent in what would be an absolute firecracker between two fearless, elite strikers.
Watch this space!
Don’t sleep on this guy!
Shavkat Rakhmonov may not be generating the headlines that fellow prospects Ian Garry and Khaos Williams currently are – but the 27-year-old Kazakh might well be the best of the next welterweight crop.
He’s 14-0 with 14 successive finishes – including a healthy blend of submissions and knockouts – during his fledgling MMA career to date and looks to be improving with every Octagon walk he makes.
Wins against Alex Oliveira and Michel Prazeres in his first two UFC appearances look to have set Rakhmonov up for a breakout 2022 – and we won’t have to wait long to see him in action.
He’s set to face Carlston Harris – who is also 2-0 since joining the UFC – in early February with a victory likely to propel him towards a showdown against a ranked opponent in the summer.
Mateusz Gamrot arrived in the UFC in late 2020 with a big reputation as a two-weight world champion under the highly-regarded KSW promotion based in his native Poland.
However, things didn’t get off to the best start for the 31-year-old as he surrendered his undefeated record on debut during a split-decision defeat to Guram Kutateladze.
Perhaps that was a blessing in disguise however, as since then the heavy-handed wrestler has been quietly rebuilding his assault on the lightweight landscape, picking up three straight wins during a busy 2021.
The last of those came on the final card of the year as he stopped Carlos Diego Ferreira to snatch the Brazilian’s ranking heading into 2022.
His subsequent call-out of Michael Chandler appears to have fallen on deaf ears but the lightweight division is red-hot right now and whoever Gamrot faces next is likely to produce a barnburner.
Don’t be surprised to see another busy year ahead for the man from Bielsko-Biala as he targets a top five spot over the next 12 months.
We’re in for a fun year watching Alex Pereira if his debut at UFC 268 is anything to go by!
The Brazilian kickboxing superstar brought the heat during an entertaining first round against Andreas Michailidis, but was also posed some questions over his grappling ability by the Greek middleweight.
Those questions were quickly forgotten about in the second round however, as Pereira landed a stunning flying knee and followed up with a barrage of strikes to secure a performance-bonus win at Madison Square Garden.
Echoes of that fight are likely to carry through into the 34-year-old’s next few appearances, with Pereira likely to dominate the striking exchanges in exhilarating fashion while his opponents look to expose his lack of expertise on the mat.
But if there is a bluepint for success for Pereira to follow, he need look no further than former foe Israel Adensanya, whom Pereira knocked out in stunning fashion at Glory of Heroes 7 in 2017 while both competed on the kickboxing circuit.
Instead of attempting to become a wrestler overnight, Adesanya developed one of the best takedown defences in the middleweight division, ploughing through the 185lb landscape on his way to lifting the belt within 18 months of his debut.
Whether Pereira will take to MMA quite as seamlessly remains to be seen – but it’s going to be fun finding out!
Don't forget, BT Sport is THE place to watch the UFC's best and brightest do battle over the next 12 months - so if you've not yet signed up, there's never been a better time!