MMA 2022 awards: The best fighter, finish, prospect and more


The sport of mixed martial arts is never dull, and 2022 was a perfect example of that.

In the span of four months, three of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world weren't just beaten, but finished.

The year started with Francis Ngannou, the hardest puncher in UFC history, using wrestling and grappling -- of all things -- to beat rival Ciryl Gane, due to a torn knee. It continued with a grudge match between former best friends Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal that later allegedly continued outside the Octagon. Charles Oliveira lost his UFC lightweight title on the scale in May. Glover Teixeira and Jiří Procházka had one of the best fights ever in June. Amanda Nunes got her title back from Julianna Peña a month later, a pay-per-view card after Alexander Volkanovski cemented himself as historically excellent.

Then, August hit and all hell broke loose. Leon Edwards knocked out Kamaru Usman, the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, with less than a minute left to win the UFC welterweight title. In October, Islam Makhachev essentially walked through Oliveira, another pound-for-pound elite fighter, to win the vacant lightweight belt. And a month later, Alex Pereira, who owned two wins over 185-pound king Israel Adesanya in kickboxing, beat Adesanya again, this time in MMA via fifth-round knockout in November to win the UFC middleweight title.

The year ended with the UFC light heavyweight title vacant, courtesy of Procházka's torn shoulder and a split draw result between challengers Jan Blachowicz and Magomedov Ankalaev. That was fitting for 2022, a 12-month stretch that was darn near predictable in its unpredictability.

ESPN MMA analysts Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Megan Anderson, Carlos Contreras Legaspi and Sam Bruce highlight the award winners and best moments of 2022. Here's a look at ESPN's awards for the wild year that was:

Men's Fighter of the Year: Alex Pereira

There are no set criteria on what makes a Fighter of the Year, and that's why this category is rarely a universal pick. Things like activity, fight highlights, big-picture impact, etc. -- there are many different ways one can view this.

But if I told you at the start of 2022, a fighter would compete every four months, compile a 3-0 record, go from unranked obscurity to UFC champion and do so by knocking out the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the world in a fifth-round comeback -- wouldn't you have told me that's got to be Fighter of the Year?

Pereira was essentially unknown when the year started. Yes, he had a long resume in professional kickboxing, but he was completely unproven in MMA. Even after he picked up two wins and the UFC booked him a title fight against Israel Adesanya, the narrative was that he was only getting the opportunity because of his history with Adesanya in kickboxing -- which, by the way, wasn't inaccurate at the time!

What Pereira pulled off in 2022, was genuinely remarkable. Think about it: This sport was starting to lean towards Adesanya as its greatest middleweight ever, and Pereira beat him and took his belt in his eighth MMA fight. Wild. -- Okamoto

Women's Fighter of the Year: Zhang Weili

What a year for Weili. Coming off of back-to-back title fight losses to Rose Namajunas in 2021, it was hard to visualize her path back to the top of the women's strawweight division in 2022. But Weili did in fact reclaim the belt, and she did so emphatically. In her two performances this year, both of which she won via finish, Weili had amazing performances. After beating Joanna Jedrzejczyk with an impressive spinning back fist at UFC 275 in June, she earned a second-round submission win over wrestling ace Carla Esparza for the title in November.

In both of those fights, more specifically her fight with Esparza, Weili was able to show just how much she's developed her game during the eight months she had off between her most recent loss to Namajunas and her fight with Jedrzejcyzk. At UFC 281, Weili managed to beat Esparza at her own game by controlling her with her pace, pressure and power. Now Weili is back at the top of the division, but this might only be the beginning for her. As a native of China, there is a huge market of fight fans in Asia, if she and the UFC can tap into that correctly, Weili could become one of the biggest stars in the promotion. -- Anderson

Most Improved Fighter of the Year: Marlon 'Chito' Vera

Let's be clear about one thing: Vera was already a fantastic bantamweight entering 2022. But going into 2023, expectations are at an all-time high because of the skillful and mental maturity he showed this past year. Vera, who just turned 30 in December, is peaaaaaking. He has an undeniable confidence about him right now, and he has all of the technique and physical prowess to back it up. If you look at Vera's 2021 campaign, it was solid, but nothing spectacular. He won two of three rounds over Davey Grant and was in a very closely contested fight with a close-to-retired Frankie Edgar until he landed a KO late.

This year, Vera was a juggernaut. He inflicted so much damage on fellow contender Rob Font in April, that Font has still yet to book his next fight seven months later. And even though he got off to his trademark slow start against Dominick Cruz in August, it felt like it was only a matter of time before Vera opened up in that fight. Once he did, he handed Cruz one of the worst defeats of his career. Again, Vera has always been good and he's certainly always been entertaining, but this category is about marked improvement. It's about raising one's status by a complete tier. Vera did that in 2022. He went from perennial top 10 to a very possible champ. -- Okamoto

UFC Men's Rookie of the Year: Jack Della Maddalena

Della Maddalena wasted little time turning his Contender Series triumph into UFC success proper, sweeping his three bouts in an impressive 2022 season. Fighting out of Perth, Western Australia, Della Maddalena needed only a combined 8 minutes and 59 seconds to defeat Pete Rodriguez, Ramazan Emeev and Danny Roberts each via TKO [punches] this year. The accuracy of Della Maddalena's striking, in particular, has won plaudits across the UFC, while he has also taken minimal punishment due to his clever footwork and technical defense.

ESPN Australia understands that Della Maddalena will likely be added to the UFC 284 card, where he will fight in front of his hometown fans at RAC Arena in Perth. With the Oceania region behind him and a propensity to finish fights, the future looks might bright for Della Maddalena in the UFC. -- Bruce

UFC Women's Rookie of the Year: Yazmin Jauregui

It was a long year off for Yazmin Jauregui as she attempted to sign with the UFC after fighting under the Combate Global Banner, but it was worth the wait.

At 23 years old, the Tijuana resident had her debut with a rare main card slot and she took advantage of the opportunity. Jauregui had a 15-minute war with fellow newcomer Iasmin Lucindo that made Dana White stand from his seat and greet them as soon as they left the Octagon in August. Four months later, she showed fortitude by overcoming a first-round knockdown to earn her first finish in the UFC with a TKO victory over Istela Nunes, thus improving her record to 10-0 as a pro.

Her highlight reel might show a heavy volume with fast-paced strikes, but the Entram Gym product has a BJJ and wrestling background that's yet to be tested. She is often compared to current UFC interim flyweight champion Brandon Moreno by her teammates and will look to fight a ranked opponent soon. -- Legaspi

Fight of the Year: Teixeira vs. Procházka at UFC 275

Jiri Prochazka stuns Glover Teixeira, becomes new light heavyweight champ

Jiri Prochazka stuns Glover Teixeira and the entire crowd with an incredible submission of Glover Teixeira at UFC 275.

When it comes to swerves, twists, turns, near-finishes and momentum swings, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better fight than Jiří Procházka vs. Glover Teixeira from UFC 275 in June. Not just in 2021, either. Like ever.

Procházka vs. Teixeira might not be the best fight of all time, but as far as drama and entertainment value, it's on that elite level. Both Procházka and Teixeira had chances to finish over nearly five full rounds. Both made strategic errors at different points, but they both battled through a ton of adversity - and blood. Finally, in the fifth round, it seemed like Teixeira had Procházka dead to rights. The Brazilian veteran bludgeoned Procházka with big punches before going for the finish with a guillotine choke. Procházka, though, managed to escape the choke, get on top of an exhausted Teixeira and then force him to tap with a choke that did not exactly have the greatest technique. That's the perfect embodiment of the fight, isn't it? Maybe a bit sloppy, but an absolute marvel to watch. -- Raimondi

Knockout of the Year: Usman vs. Edwards II at UFC 278

UFC crowd, announcers in disbelief after Leon Edwards wins title

The Salt Lake City crowd and the announcers can't believe what they're seeing after Kamaru Usman is knocked out cold by Leon Edwards.

Every year, there is a debate that must be weighed when it comes to Knockout of the Year. What gets weighed heavier: the degree of difficulty or stakes? There are a ton of incredible, unique, spinning-technique knockouts in mixed martial arts every year. And all of them should be lauded and played on repeat. Then there's Leon Edwards' knockout of Kamaru Usman from UFC 278 in August.

Usman was cruising to a unanimous decision victory, one that would give him 16 straight UFC wins, tying Anderson Silva's promotion record winning streak. Usman was the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet and was dominating Edwards after a first-round hiccup. With a minute left in a fight that seemed like a foregone conclusion, Edwards unleashed the perfect technique. He reached out to feint with a right jab, Usman bit on it and then came behind it was a hellacious left high kick that left Usman unconscious on impact. Edwards' knockout -- an absolute spectacle on the biggest stage possible against an all-time great fighter with seconds remaining -- will stand the test of time. -- Raimondi

Submission of the Year: Oliveira vs. Gaethje

If you pull up submission highlights from this year, you will easily find finishes that were slicker and more difficult than Charles Oliveira's rear-naked choke of Justin Gaethje. You will not as easily find one, however, that will be remembered or revered as much 10, 20, or 30 years from now. This sport loves to move on and look ahead more so, arguably, than any other. And because of that, we tend to forget things. This one should never be forgotten, though. Oliveira, one of the most persistent, well-deserving champions in UFC history, lost his belt on the scale of UFC 274 on May 6 in Phoenix, Arizona, due to a controversial half-pound penalty that likely would not have happened in most states.

The circumstances Oliveira went into UFC 274 were extremely difficult. In his opponent's home state. Under the shadow of doubt, which has turned into the theme of his entire career. And he still submitted Gaethje faster than even the great Khabib Nurmagomedov did a couple years prior. Even though Oliveira went on to lose to Islam Makhachev later in the year, in another title fight he took in enemy territory, this was the crowning achievement of his title reign. It was almost fitting that questionable circumstances officially robbed him of his belt, but the sport celebrated him as a champion more than it ever had. It was one of the top moments of the year, period. -- Okamoto

UFC Event of the Year: UFC 281 Adesanya vs. Pereira

Flashback: Alex Pereira beats Israel Adesanya at UFC 281 to claim middleweight gold

Alex Pereira defeats Israel Adesanya for the third time in their fighting career, the first in the UFC, to become the new middleweight champion.

It was a tough choice for UFC Event of the Year in 2022, particularly due to the March UFC Fight Night at the O2 in London.

Normally, it's hard to compare a UFC Fight Night lineup to a UFC pay-per-view, but the English crowd was so electric that night, and the English fighters performed so well, that UFC president Dana White changed his own schedule to return to the region quicker. That night definitely rivaled any PPV offering of 2022.

At the end of the day, however, UFC 281 on Nov. 12 inside Madison Square Garden was genuinely historic. The event saw 11 finishes, seven of which occurred in the first round. Both of those figures tied all-time UFC records.

In addition to the historic action on the card, the actual stakes of the fights were incredible. This event saw Adesanya lose for the first time as a UFC middleweight, but for the third time to Pereira across MMA and pro kickboxing. It also saw the second crowning of Weili as the UFC's strawweight champion and featured the final walk of all-time great Frankie Edgar's career. Add in Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler's Fight of the Year candidate and Renato Moicano's epic 'Moicano Wants Money!!' post-fight speech? This was one for the ages. -- Okamoto

Best On-The-Mic moment of the Year: Renato Moicano at UFC 281

Renato Moicano puts on stellar performance in submission of Brad Riddell

Renato Moicano forces Brad Riddell to tap out at UFC 281 in the featured prelim fight.

We'd have loved to post a transcript of Moicano's energetic and hilarious postfight interview at UFC 281, but frankly, it was far too profane. And that's OK. It will be remembered in its rawness without all the bleeps or dashes.

There was a lot to unpack after Moicano unloaded on the mic. For one, he's an enormous fan of Joe Rogan, whom he called the smartest man in the world. Secondly, he really wants more money, as he pointed out several times while speaking in the third person. The main point was that Moicano wanted more respect, to get bumped up in the rankings and find himself in a big fight next. The first two of those things have already been achieved. The third is likely to manifest itself, too. Yes, stopping Brad Riddell via first-round submission was impressive, but after UFC 281, it was Moicano's promo that everyone was talking about. It helps to say your piece after a big win, even if it's reminiscent of an off-kilter interview with the Ultimate Warrior in 1991. -- Raimondi