"And new!" might be the most thrilling two words in mixed martial arts. They alert everyone within reach of a very loud voice that there has been a change in the power structure. There's a fresh coat of paint. There's ascension accompanied by the potential for memorable greatness. Even if it lasts for just one night.
Over the next few months, the phrase that brings tingles -- "And new champion of the world!" -- could be bellowed on a lot of late nights in arenas around the world. Or those words might be heard hardly at all, if the champs putting belts on the line take care of business.
There are more than a dozen title fights on the MMA schedule between now and the middle of January in the UFC and the other high-level promotions, Bellator and PFL. Some of the challengers in those bouts face steep uphill battles. In other cases, the crowning of a new champ is either extremely likely or practically guaranteed.
The PFL kicks off things in a big way on Wednesday night, closing out its 2021 season with playoff finals in six weight classes. Only two of those matchups include defending champs (Kayla Harrison, Ray Cooper III), and even in those fights the season-and-playoff format makes every coronation feel new.
Bellator continues the title fight run on Nov. 12 with one of its biggest stars, Cris Cyborg, defending her featherweight title against Sinead Kavanagh. And on Dec. 3 flyweight champ Sergio Pettis faces former titleholder Kyoji Horiguchi.
And then there's the biggest show in the sport, the UFC, which between now and Jan. 22 will see seven champions defend their titles. There are only 11 belt holders total in the promotion so the next few months could really shake up things at the top of the sport.
It would not be the first time. So far in 2021, UFC titlists have defended 11 times, and from those bouts we have seen the emergence of three new members of the champions club: Francis Ngannou, Brandon Moreno and, renewing her membership, Rose Namajunas. Plus, Charles Oliveira joined the club by winning a bout in which a vacant title was up for grabs.
Who'll lead the next wave of new UFC belt holders? Here's a ranking of upcoming challengers, sorted by what each is up against and who's most likely to hear those two magic words: And new!
Challenging women's bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes at UFC 269 on Dec. 11
Pena picks up second win in last three fights
Julianna Pena gets Sara McMann to tap out late in Round 3 of their bout.
Just like everyone else who has ever watched Nunes operate inside the Octagon, Peña has strongly suggested that this is not an even fight. The thing is, though, the challenger believes -- or at least says she believes -- the fight is not even because it is a mismatch in her favor. That sounds absurd, of course, but let's remember the combat sports adage: A confident fighter is a dangerous fighter. Wait, is that the saying, or is it: A confident fighter is an endangered fighter?
Either way, it's fair to say this matchup between the dismissively blustery Peña and the greatest fighter in the history of women's mixed martial arts is indeed an even matchup -- in terms of confidence. Beyond that, it's hard to imagine this one ending any differently from the last dozen Nunes fights: with the two-division champ getting her hand raised. The betting odds that favor Nunes by better than 6-to-1 are no slight on Peña specifically. Pretty much any woman who steps into a cage with "The Lioness" might as well be climbing Matterhorn.
6. Ciryl Gane (UFC interim heavyweight champion)
Challenging heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou at UFC 270 on Jan. 22
Ciryl Gane dominates early rounds in main event of UFC 265
Ciryl Gane stays cool, calm and collected as he dominates the early rounds vs. Derrick Lewis at UFC 265.
Gane has fought 13 times and won them all, making it look easy every step of the way. His third-round TKO of Derrick Lewis in August, in a bout Gane dominated from start to concussive finish, was the ninth knockout on the Frenchman's shiny resume. No one has come close to stopping him.
But need I remind you about the sledgehammers that will be swinging in Gane's direction? Ngannou dethroned Stipe Miocic in March on a night when he essentially worked overtime. Second round. Before that KO in the first minute of Round 2, Ngannou had won four fights in a row, all by knockout -- in 45 seconds, 26 seconds, 71 seconds and 20 seconds. These warp-speed thwackings came against two former champions (Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos) and two top-five contenders (Curtis Blaydes, Jairzinho Rozenstruik). There isn't an athlete in the game -- in any weight class -- who's on a run like "The Predator."
Challenging light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz at UFC 267 on Oct. 30
Santos, Teixeira leave it all in the Octagon
Glover Teixeira and Thiago Santos each have their own chance to end the fight early in their main event matchup at UFC Fight Night.
Oh, boy, the buildup to this weekend's main event sure has been heated, hasn't it? Nah, you haven't missed a thing. Not a syllable of trash talk has been flung back and forth between these guys. They're a well-matched pair, both of them fighters, not orators.
To me, what's especially interesting about Teixeira being so low-key is that it nudges Blachowicz into an unfamiliar place: under the spotlight. His past three bookings were opposite a superstar (Israel Adesanya), an heir apparent (Dominick Reyes) and a rising contender (Corey Anderson). This time, it is Blachowicz's show. He's the champ. He's the winner of nine of his past 10 fights. And he's the A-side of a record that's not going platinum, not even gold, but has the potential to get five-star reviews.
Challenging welterweight champion Kamaru Usman at UFC 268 on Nov. 6
Flashback: Usman defends title vs. Covington
Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington slug it out, with Usman getting the win in Round 5. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Covington should find it the utmost compliment that he's this high on the list despite facing the pound-for-pound No. 1 fighter in the world. But it's unlikely that a guy who play-acts a victim's role would find it on brand to accept a compliment. What he probably would say in retort is that he is the pound-for-pound No. 1, not Usman. Does he believe that? Who knows what he really believes about anything.
It's challenging to grasp reality while swimming through Covington's turgid sea of misdirection. He blames the ref for the 2019 loss to Usman. He didn't get knocked down that night, he insists, he slipped on a banana peel. But setting aside the B-movie overacting, the man can fight. That first meeting with the champ was a rumble. It feels, though, like Usman has become even sharper since then. Let's see if Covington can still match him.
Challenging men's flyweight champion Brandon Moreno at UFC 270 on Jan. 22
Flashback: Brandon Moreno wins UFC flyweight title
Take a look back at Brandon Moreno's big win over Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 263.
The strongest memories of these two scrapping are the most recent ones. So it's tempting to perceive Moreno as a step above Figueiredo, because he certainly was on the night back in June when he choked him out to take away the belt. But let's not forget what happened exactly six months earlier. They fought to a draw in a bout whose result was swayed by Figueiredo having a point taken away for an illegal strike. Figueiredo appeared to be the better man back then. And now? Now we get the trilogy, where the truth will come out.
2. Zhang Weili
Challenging strawweight champion Rose Namajunas at UFC 268 on Nov. 6
Anik, Rogan and DC absolutely lose it after Namajunas' KO
After Rose Namajunas' stunning knockout of Zhang Weili, Jon Anik, Daniel Cormier and Joe Rogan have an incredible reaction.
Fast knockouts are a thrill ride but they leave so much undone. Imagine if Conor McGregor and Jose Aldo had stood toe-to-toe for five rounds, not 13 seconds. And what if Ben Askren had lasted long enough to score a takedown on Jorge Masvidal? We'll never know on both counts, but we are about to see a little more than the 78 seconds we got between Zhang and Namajunas in April. That was Zhang's first loss since her pro debut in 2013, ending a 21-fight winning streak. Could it all fall apart again?
Challenging lightweight champion Charles Oliveira at UFC 269 on Dec. 11
It feels like cheating to rank Poirier here. It feels like semantic contortion to even refer to him as a challenger. When Khabib Nurmagomedov vacated the title a year ago, much of the MMA public looked Poirier's way. He was a level below the champ, but he was the next best thing and it was his time. Rather than compete for the title, though, he opted to cash in with his second dance in a year with Conor McGregor. Still, Poirier remains the consensus king at lightweight.
Oliveira certainly doesn't like that, and not only does he have a resume worthy of arguing against that pecking order, he has an opportunity next month to make it abundantly clear why he wears the belt. As for Poirier, now that he has set up his family for life financially, it's time for him to add to his legacy. It won't be easy to unseat Oliveira. He is skilled everywhere, and his mojo is churning these days. But Poirier is the man until proven otherwise.