By the time fighters in Bellator and UFC return to their respective cages, on Friday and Saturday, the calendar will have flipped over to December. Although there are only a month’s worth of fights remaining in 2021, there’s still a lot left to be sorted out for both promotions.
A lot of what’s still hanging in the air comes down to the bantamweight division, arguably the deepest division in MMA right now. Rob Font, who has won four straight fights including victories over Cody Garbrandt, Marlon Moraes and Sergio Pettis, now takes on former UFC featherweight Jose Aldo. With a few fights left to be sorted in the UFC title picture, Font could line himself up for a title shot in the next 12 months if he continues his run through some legendary names.
Kyoji Horiguchi headlines Bellator 272 on Friday, as he looks to add the Bellator bantamweight championship to the Rizin bantamweight championship he won for the second time back in December 2020. If he’s successful, against current Bellator champ Pettis, it would be the second time he’s held both of those belts. If he’s successful on Friday, is Horiguchi the best men’s bantamweight fighter in the world?
Finally, after a tough start to 2021 because of an eye poke against Leon Edwards, Belal Muhammad has a chance to surge towards the top of the 170-pound division. He beat Demian Maia in June, and he faces another accomplished veteran in Stephen Thompson on Dec. 18. Will Muhammad cap the year with a golden ticket to call his shots in 2022?
Our panel of Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Carlos Contreras Legaspi give their bold predictions for the month of December in MMA.
Font will beat Aldo, earn title shot in 2022
Raimondi: The bantamweight division has been much ballyhooed this year, and for good reason. Look at how stacked the UFC 135-pound weight class is at the top: Alajamain Sterling, Petr Yan, Cory Sandhagen, TJ Dillashaw, and on from there. Go a little further down the list and there are former UFC champions like Cody Garbrandt and Jose Aldo, too. One name that doesn’t get mentioned much in the same breath as those, though, is Rob Font. That could very well change soon.
On Saturday, Font faces Aldo in a classic MMA clash of eras. The former is a slick, up-and-coming fighter looking to crack into the absolute elite of the bantamweight division. The latter is a legend — the former longtime UFC featherweight champion — who is trying to hold serve and go on one last run toward a UFC title. Both are sensational strikers, so the in-Octagon action should be fantastic to boot.
Font is one of the most underrated fighters at 135 pounds in the UFC. If he beats Aldo this weekend — and I predict he will — that should all change. And a bantamweight title shot would be well within reach next year.
Sterling has to first attempt to unify the titles against interim champion Petr Yan, who only lost the undisputed belt to Sterling via disqualification courtesy of an illegal knee at UFC 259 in March. Dillashaw, who beat Sandhagen and then had knee surgery, should be queued up for the Sterling vs. Yan winner. But after that? Font is right there in the conversation and if Dillashaw (or even Sterling, who is recovering from neck surgery) isn’t healthy, he could slide right into a title shot.
First, of course, Font has to beat Aldo, which is no easy task. But Font has won four straight, including victories over current Bellator bantamweight champion Sergio Pettis, former UFC title challenger Marlon Moraes and Garbrandt. He has come into his own with outstanding boxing, using his height and reach to perfection. Font has one of the best jabs in MMA. And he’s primed to be a dark horse in the bantamweight title mix in 2022. You can print that in Times New Roman or Helvetica.
The winner of Rafael Fiziev vs. Brad Riddell will go on to break into the Top 5 in 2021
Okamoto: There’s a lot of MMA going on these days, am I right? It’s easy to overlook a fight here and there. We’re busy! Titles are changing hands. Fighters are calling each other out. Some things inevitably slip through the cracks on us. Do not let that happen with Saturday’s lightweight fight between Fiziev and Riddell.
Both of these 155-pounders are incredible, and I’m extremely high on both of them. Oddsmakers have this fight split right down the middle — a true pick ’em. This is going to be as high-level of a fight between two guys ranked outside of the Top 10 you’ll ever see. This is an elite matchup, between two guys I believe have legitimate championship potential.
I don’t know who’s going to win on Saturday, but I can tell you it’s going to be a phenomenal fight for as long as it lasts and whomever wins, you’ll see them break the top 5 of the lightweight rankings within 12 months.
Bold prediction: Kyoji Horiguchi stakes his claim to being the best bantamweight in the world
Wagenheim: Horiguchi will be aiming to become a two-time Bellator men’s bantamweight champion on Friday night when he challenges the current champ, Sergio Pettis, in the main event of Bellator 272 at the promotion’s home away from home, Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Just a few years ago, Horiguchi was simultaneously the champ in both Bellator and the Rizin promotion in his native Japan. Now he could lay the groundwork for an honor even more distinguished than a second title reign.
I should point out that I actually believe the greatest 135-pounder in the sport — at least among men — is not Horiguchi. My No. 1 doesn’t even own a real championship belt at the moment. Petr Yan, who used to be the UFC men’s bantamweight champion before an illegal knee disqualified him, won the interim UFC version of that title last month, and his next act will be to try to trade faux for real when he faces another claimant to the top rung of the bantamweight ladder, Aljamain Sterling. TJ Dillashaw has a claim, too, and Cory Sandhagen is not far behind.
But let’s not discount Horiguchi. He has lost only one of his last 15 fights, and in his only appearance since that 2019 defeat against Kai Asakura, he knocked out Asakura in less than three minutes. Horiguchi’s only other loss in the last decade — a span of 25 fights — was to all-time great Demetrious Johnson. It was by submission with one second to go in the fifth round of a UFC flyweight title bout. That is an impressive resume.
Now, on the other hand, if Pettis can make his first title defense a success against a fighter with that resume …
Belal Muhammad will enter the 170 title sweepstakes
Legaspi: After the controversial eye poke that ended his fight against Leon Edwards, Muhammad finds himself in a very good spot to call out the big names — even the welterweight champ — if he manages to beat Stephen Thompson on Dec. 18.
Muhammad has a well-rounded game, and has a good sparring partner in Ignacio Bahamondes who can replicate the challenges that the sophisticated striking of Thompson, the former title challenger, has to offer.
Muhammad is on a six-fight unbeaten streak and his popularity keeps increasing with the combination of his efforts in the cage and what he does in his work on television and social media. The 170-pound division has a lot of big names for him to choose from in the Top 10, including rematches with Vicente Luque or Edwards, as well as Gilbert Burns or Santiago Ponzinibbio (if Ponzinibbio beats Geoff Neal).
Muhammad might not be a target now for the top draws like Colby Covington, Jorge Masvidal or Nate Diaz, but can easily be looking a shot for the belt with just a few more wins. This next fight is a huge opportunity for him to close the year on a high note and look to build towards something big in 2022.