Editor's note: On the day of publication, a fight for Francis Ngannou vs. Ciryl Gane was announced for Jan. 22, 2022.
The UFC's year-end slate is taking shape, and the promotion is already starting to fill in some big fights for 2022.
Conspicuous by their absences are some prominent, pay-per-view-headlining-caliber names, including Nate Diaz, UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou and the Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson-crowned BMF himself, Jorge Masvidal. Other stars, such as contenders Leon Edwards and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, don't yet have dance partners or bout dates yet, either.
The UFC has already announced its big-show main events through December. Kamaru Usman will defend his welterweight belt against Colby Covington at UFC 268 on Nov. 6 in New York. Rose Namajunas vs. Zhang Weili for the strawweight title will co-headline. UFC 269 on Dec. 11 will feature Charles Oliveira's lightweight title defense against Dustin Poirier, plus Brandon Moreno defending his flyweight belt in a trilogy bout against rival and former champ Deiveson Figueiredo, and Amanda Nunes vs. Julianna Peña for the women's bantamweight title.
With those cards getting crowded, let's take a look at what might be in the immediate future for some of the UFC's other premier names.
Where's Nate Diaz, and what could be next?
Diaz has not been shy about what he wants: a matchup with Vicente Luque in December. Just one glance at his Twitter makes that immediately evident. But that matchup is seeming less and less likely. There are already three title fights on the UFC 269 card, and Diaz is not a guy who would make sense for a UFC Fight Night. He's undoubtedly a pay-per-view attraction.
Another issue is that Diaz has been asking for five-round fights, even if they are not main events or title fights. The UFC granted Diaz that request for his fight with Edwards at UFC 263 in June, which Edwards won by unanimous decision. Would the UFC put another five-round fight on the UFC 269 card? It's doubtful.
The Diaz situation is one worth watching very closely. The next fight Diaz competes in will be the final one on his UFC contract. Will Diaz re-sign before this next bout? Will he test free agency? There could be a ton of money available for him in boxing, and he might want to strike while this novelty boxing trend is hot. And then there's the question of what type of fight the UFC will offer Diaz to close out his contract. It surely would not be an easy one, which is fine, because Diaz has stated that he wants to fight winners. Luque qualifies in that regard, but the UFC might have other plans.
Where's Francis Ngannou, and what could be next?
Ngannou would have been ready to defend his UFC heavyweight title last month, but the UFC essentially moved on without him by booking the interim title bout between Ciryl Gane and Derrick Lewis at UFC 265 in August. Gane won that one, and he should be, by all accounts, the next opponent for Ngannou in a title-unifier matchup. If there was any chance of former longtime UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones sliding in to fight Ngannou for the heavyweight title before Gane, that has surely been dashed now that Jones is facing charges of domestic violence and tampering with a vehicle in Las Vegas.
So, Ngannou vs. Gane seems secure as the next title bout. The question then becomes when that fight will take place. Most likely it will happen in early 2022, perhaps as early as January or February. Ngannou's negotiations with the UFC will be worth keeping an eye on, considering Ngannou was very vocally against the booking of an interim title fight in the first place. It's hard to blame him, considering that Ngannou had just won the title from Stipe Miocic back in March and Ngannou was visiting his native Cameroon in the late spring and early summer. He wouldn't have been ready for that early August date against Lewis the UFC wanted.
Speaking of Miocic, he doesn't have an obvious next move, either. But maybe it's the winner of Ngannou vs. Gane, now that it seems like Jones has legal issues to contend with before an Octagon return.
Where's Jorge Masvidal, and what could be next?
Well, the where question is easy to answer. Masvidal might not have fought since his title loss to Usman in April, but he's been a busy man. "Gamebred" has appeared several times on All Elite Wrestling's (AEW) television shows over the past two months, part of a storyline in which his American Top Team group -- led by gym owner Dan Lambert -- has waged a battle against some of AEW's top pro wrestlers.
Masvidal made headlines two weeks ago when he, in storyline, landed his famous running knee (sorry, Ben Askren) on AEW's Chris Jericho during an in-ring segment. On top of that, Masvidal has also launched his own promotion: Gamebred FC, a bare-knuckle MMA event that ran its second show last weekend.
As far as his Octagon return, Masvidal told ESPN last month that he wanted to fight in December or January against whoever would get him closest to another title shot. Masvidal was fired up in a recent interview with MMA Uncensored, in which he blasted Edwards for turning down a fight with him and called out UFC chief business officer Hunter Campbell for not offering him a fight.
Last week, Gilbert Burns, another former welterweight title challenger, made a Twitter overture about fighting Masvidal. Maybe Masvidal vs. Burns is the next fight. But it's more likely the UFC will wait to see how Usman vs. Covington shakes out before making any other commitments at the top of the welterweight division. Most would agree that a fight between former best friends Masvidal and Covington still must happen, eventually.
Where's Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and what could be next?
The where is simple: at home in Poland, where she has become a pretty well-known celebrity. But Jedrzejczyk, the former UFC strawweight champion, isn't done with MMA, not by any means. She has not fought since her loss to Zhang in a title fight at UFC 248 way back in March 2020. Jedrzejczyk will likely be keeping a very close eye on the title fight between Namajunas and Zhang.
If Zhang regains the title at UFC 268 in November, a rematch against Jedrzejczyk would not be out of the question, considering their five-round split decision last year might have been the best fight in women's MMA history. However, Carla Esparza is ahead of Jedrzejczyk in the 115-pound pecking order right now. A Jedrzejczyk vs. Esparza rematch could be interesting. There is a ton of history there, too, as Jedrzejczyk won the title from Esparza in 2015. Either way, look for a Jedrzejczyk return sometime in late winter or early spring, maybe March or April 2022.
Where's Leon Edwards, and what could be next?
What else does Edwards need to do in order to get a title shot? He is unbeaten in 10 straight fights, and his last loss came all the way back in 2015 against Usman. It seems at this point Edwards might as well wait to see what happens between Usman and Covington before taking a fight. He should be queued up for the winner, but we've seen the UFC change course before.
Fighting Masvidal or Burns would make for a tremendous fight -- Masvidal vs. Edwards should have been made a long time ago -- but it's not worth the risk to Edwards' immediate title hopes. Besides, both of those contenders have already lost to Usman in title bouts (Masvidal two times over). Edwards seems to be in a fairly good position right now, even if he did not come out of his win over Diaz with any more momentum. He should be cautiously optimistic of his chances of finally getting that title shot.