Turnover is a fact of life in the fight game — and few years demonstrated that more clearly than 2023. After 2021 and 2022 saw record-tying change among the UFC’s championship class, 2023 hoisted itself up and proclaimed loudly for all to see, ‘Nah, y’all ain’t seen nothing yet.’ Twelve UFC beltholders began this past year with gold sitting on their mantelpieces — just four managed to reached 2024 with that gold still intact, setting a new benchmark for the largest championship turnover in UFC history. Hell, even one entire division didn’t make it to the new year. (So long, women’s featherweight. We hardly knew ye.)
With such consistent and extreme volatility over the past several years, how could anyone be expected to predict the title picture with any degree of certainty? Well, I’m glad you asked. The annual contender draft is back! Frenemies Shaun Al-Shatti and Jed Meshew are here to once again expose their complete buffoonery by trying to answer the impossible question: Which three non-champions have the best chance of ending 2024 with UFC gold?
And of course, to do so, we once again return to the arena of kings: The fantasy draft.
Good luck, fellas. You quite literally can’t do worse than last year.
Al-Shatti: Oy vey, even the narrator is taking shots at us this year.
I hate to say it, Mr. Meshew, but we deserve such mockery. We’re hitting year No. 6 for this lovely little picks competition of ours — and a third in a row for you — so one would assume we’d at least somewhat know what we’re doing by now. But alas, you know what they say about assumptions. (Heavy sigh.) Yes, you and I combined to put up an all-time stinker of a performance in 2023, Jed. For the first time ever, literally zero combined picks hit their mark. Nada. Nothing. No one won. We were the Tony Snell meme given MMA flesh.
When we drafted last year, you were still the cocksure up-and-comer, so maybe you didn’t expect excellence. But me? I’m the grizzled vet. I’m supposed to be better than this.
It is what it is. We either win or we learn.
So before we start trying to redeem ourselves, let’s first refresh our audience by recapping a few basic ground rules and setting the stage for anyone who’s new around here.
1. Our goal here, as always, is to construct the three-fighter team who will end 2024 with the largest share of UFC gold. Interim titles don’t count. If you’re somehow able to pull off the first 3-for-3 sweep this competition has ever seen, hey, you’re a guaranteed winner. That almost certainly isn’t happening, though. More of the time, just one correct pick is enough to get the dub. Trust me, this exercise is much, much more difficult than it appears.
2. We’ll do a three-round snake draft. For the newcomers, that means the team who gets Pick 1 also gets Picks 4 and 5, while the opposing team gets Picks 2, 3, and 6.
3. The pool of available picks is limited only to fighters who are currently not the champion of the UFC division you’re selecting them for. For example: Picking Zhang Weili at 115 pounds? Sorry, not happening. But Zhang at 125 pounds? Totally fair game.
4. In order to push us to be more adventurous with our picks, teams are only allowed to select one name each from the pool of fighters already either scheduled or rumored to be the next title challenger. That means only one pick each from this exquisite group: Stipe Miocic, Jamahal Hill, Dricus du Plessis, Belal Muhammad, Charles Oliveira, Ilia Topuria, Maron Vera, Mayra Bueno Silva and Raquel Pennington, Valentina Shevchenko, and Yan Xiaonan. As always, this is meant to be an exercise in prognostication, not fight prediction.
I had the first pick last year (oof…) so this year it’s your turn to kick us off, Jed. Sound good?
Meshew: Of course everything sounds good because this year is the year I win, Al-Shatti. I very nearly took the prize in my first year doing this thing, and then last year things went sideways. My process was sound but it the MMA gods are cruel.
How was I to know that Alex Pereira would be the man Jiri Prochazka returned against? Who could have imagined that Amanda Nunes would retire but Valentina Shevchenko wouldn’t even be the flyweight champion anymore, much less move up to claim a second title?
It was fate and chance that ruined me last year. You, meanwhile, selected Israel Adesanya to reclaim the middleweight title, not recognizing that Sean Strickland was lying in wait. You fool. You utter buffoon!
You weren’t punished for such ridiculous selections last year because I was off my game, but not anymore. This is the year I take you down, Al-Shatti. Welcome to the Meshew Era.
Table of Contents
Team Meshew is on the clock! And with the first pick of 2023 contender draft … Who could it be? … Who else? … Of course, it’s Shavkat Rakhmonov!
Meshew: 2023 was a difficult year to do this because it didn’t look like there would be too many new champions and so the first overall pick was easily the best one. Everyone wanted Khamzat Chimaev and, it turns out, that wasn’t a good pick either! This year isn’t the same in that I have several names listed as S-Tier selections, but the top of them all has to be The Kazakh Catastrophe himself, Shavkat Rakhmonov.
What more is there to say about Shavkat? The man has entered the territory of mononym, like Aristotle or Cher. And you only get elevated to such lofty airs when you are truly something world-bending. That’s who Rakhmonov is — 18-0 with 18 finishes, and more impressively, as his level of competition has increased, so too have his performances. The man is rewriting what dominance looks like in MMA, and after defenestrating Stephen Thompson with ease (first man to ever submit him, by the way), Shavkat is now undeniable.
Belal Muhammad is going to get the next title shot at Leon Edwards, but that works out because Shavkat needs time to heal up from an ankle injury. One that is settled, Shavkat is almost guaranteed to get a title shot against the winner later in the year, and when that happens, the outcome is set in stone.
Great pick by myself! Your move, Al-Shatti.
Team Al-Shatti is on the clock … They’re sprinting to the podium! … It seems they can’t get this pick in fast enough … Who is it?? … Oh my, IT’S TOMMY ASPINALL!
Al-Shatti: Oh, my sweet summer child. I can’t believe you’ve let me do this. You, of all people, the conductor of the #GaslightJonJones movement, the loudest and most vociferous proponent of Thomas Paul Aspinall in this MMA media space, allowed me to sneak right through your front door and steal everything you’ve been working for?
Look, Shavkat is a quality pick. I don’t hate it. He’s probably the best welterweight in the world. But foolishness is often afoot in this division. What if Belal Muhammad beats Leon Edwards? Is it really a lock that the UFC just moves on? Or will they let Leon try to take the belt off Muhammad as quickly as possible? Hell, what’s to stop them from reinjecting Kamaru Usman or (God forbid) Colby Covington back into the mix just to get a big-name title bout opposite Muhammad rather than the dude who’d rather be anywhere but in front of the microphone? Rakhmonov is probably the class of 170 pounds, but he’s still dealing with an ankle injury and welterweight isn’t exactly some bastion of meritocracy in the UFC.
Whereas, there are only two ways 2024 goes for the big boys. You know it, I know it, and hell, even the heavyweight champ probably knows it somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind. Either Jones vs. Miocic happens and both fighters retire afterward regardless of the result, or Jones beats a 41-year-old then falls into the trap you’ve so enthusiastically set for him, Jed, and decides to put his unbeaten legacy on the line in a year-end showdown against the one challenger no one actually expects him to fight. Either way, the result is the same: The pride of Salford, the finest fighting Englishman of a generation — and my ace in the hole for this annual picks competition — ends 2024 as the heavyweight champ.
This is Tom Aspinall’s year and you know it better than anyone. We’re off to a great start.
Team Al-Shatti is back on the clock for the third pick … And they’re looking smug as they hit the podium … They couldn’t do this again, could they? … Yes! They did!! … It’s Khamzat Chimaev!
Al-Shatti: You already know.
Is this the third year in a row I’ve picked the Chechen wolf? Yes. Yes, it is. Does that make me any less thrilled about it? No. No, it does not. Because look, the problem wasn’t that I was wrong — it’s that I was just too early. Virtually everyone with eyeballs knew Khamzat Chimaev was going to be a UFC champ from the moment he entered our lives in 2020 with three ridiculous wins over a two-month span. Nothing we’ve seen since has changed that. Could we have predicted all the various maladies and misfortunes that have slowed him down? Of course not. But now, finally, the runway is clear for Chimaev to fulfill his destiny.
Hell, the majority of this website agrees! Chimaev isn’t even booked for the next title fight and yet nine out of our 11 staffers still predicted him to win middleweight gold in 2024.
This year kicks off with a defense of the 185-pound belt, so all I need is just one more bite at the apple here over the next 11 months and I’m golden. Talent and opportunity are the two biggest factors for this draft, and of the available contenders, there was a clear top tier of Aspinall/Chimaev/Shavkat in some order when you consider how 2024 is already shaping up. Now I’ve managed to snag two of them. This is the best value pick on the board.
Your move, Meshew.
And the board turns back to Team Meshew … He skips gallantly up to the podium, stunned by his good fortune … With the fourth overall pick, Team Meshew selects … Erin Blanchfield!
Meshew: First off, credit where credit is due, Al-Shatti. Aspinall totally slipped my mind as a possible selection. That’s a great choice, because we all know Jon is simply too scared to fight him. But still, banking on any heavyweight to hold the title for longer than a cup of coffee is fraught with peril. It only takes one, after all.
And as for your other selection: HA! Going back to the Chimaev well, AGAIN?! Chimaev is like Bigfoot: We all know he’s real, but have any of us ever actually seen him. The man gets concerningly sick as often as he fights. Sure, if he ever fought for a title, he’d probably win it, but if I had wheels, I’d be a wagon. This isn’t Wish Land. Taking the best fighter in a division only helps you if you pick one who actually gets to fight for a title. Hence my selection.
Erin Blanchfield is pretty clearly the best flyweight in the world. I don’t think there are many people who would even debate that at this point. She’s the next standard bearer for the division, the only question is when will the reign start. Well, the answer is this year.
Blanchfield takes on Manon Fiorot in March in a no-doubt-about-it No. 1 contender match. She’s going to rinse her. Fiorot is New Age Kaitlyn Chookagian — good but limited — and once Blanchfield has dispatched her, there will be nothing left but title town. That’s why eight of us (including you, Shaheen!) predicted her to become champion this year.
She is … inevitable.
The board stays with Team Meshew … He has an evil look on his face … What sort of villainous machinations is he plotting? … Oh no. No. It’s can’t be … It is! … Team Meshew selects Tatiana Suarez!
Meshew: This right here, this is the double tap. This is where I twist the knife. I’m going to beat you, and I’m going to do it with your own fighter!
For years you’ve been the world’s biggest Tatiana Suarez supporter. Even throughout her four-year layoff, you remained convinced that she would return and wreak havoc on the division she should be queen over. And then, finally, in 2023 she did it! She came back to the cage and she absolutely blew through her opposition. Now she’s on the precipice of fulfilling her destiny and you choose Khamzat Chimaev?! I’ve never seen such betrayal.
Fortunately, I still believe Tatiana. And why wouldn’t I? She demolished Montana De La Rosa and Jessica Andrade last year, and now all that stands between her and a title shot is Amanda Lemos. She too will fall, and then so too shall your dreams as you are forced to root against Suarez in her title shot against Weili Zhang.
Of course, it won’t matter at all. Like Shavkat and Blanchfield, Suarez is inevitable. She is the moon and the tide and the inexorable march of progress, ever onward. She will lay waste to Weili and your dreams and finally deliver unto me the title I so justly deserve.
Is there a sweeter feeling in the world than hoisting your enemies by their own petard? I think not.
Team Al-Shatti has just run off the stage … They look a little shaken and need to regroup … OK, here we go … With the final pick of the 2024 Contender Draft … It’s the Spanish sensation! It’s Ilia Topuria!
Al-Shatti: Savvy moves, Meshew. Savvy moves. I won’t lie, you threw our war room into minor disarray with that Tatiana pick. My GM assured us that you’d pick your girl Marya Bueno Silva here instead. (He won’t make the mistake again. He’s been relieved of his duties.) Fortunately, you still left the door open for us with your second selection, because sure, Erin Blanchfield is probably the best flyweight in the world, but there’s also a more-likely-than-you’d-expect chance that she doesn’t even get her shot in 2024. Think about it: Dana White is all-in on this Noche UFC show at the Las Vegas Sphere in September 2024. If Brandon Moreno loses to Amir Albazi in February, there will be exactly ONE (1) viable Mexican fighter to headline a Mexican Independence Day title bout: Alexa Grasso.
I’m not saying it’ll happen, but the UFC shelving Grasso vs. Shevchenko 3 for its big Noche UFC debut at The Sphere would be far from the craziest thing we’ve ever seen them do — and that would effectively delay Blanchfield’s shot until 2025. Just something to think about.
But Ilia Topuria? Oh, we know he’s going to get his chance at gold. Alexander Volkanovski is already the oldest champion under 170 pounds in UFC history. When he faces Topuria in February, it’ll be less than four months after suffering a potentially career-changing knockout at the hands of Islam Makhachev. Jose Aldo was dominant until he wasn’t. Max Holloway was dominant until he wasn’t. Unless your name is George St-Pierre, all good things end badly in combat sports, especially when you’re on the wrong side of 35, otherwise they wouldn’t end at all. History tells us that Volkanovski’s time is coming.
And when it does, it’ll win Team Al-Shatti this whole damn draft.
Game. Set. Match.
And thus concludes the 2024 contender draft! Let’s take a look at our final rosters.
Team Al-Shatti: Tom Aspinall, Khamzat Chimaev, Ilia Topuria
Team Meshew: Shavkat Rakhmonov, Erin Blanchfield, Tatiana Suarez
Who won? Vote in the poll and let your voice be heard in the comments below.
Whose team is more likely to end 2024 with a bigger share of UFC gold?
Team Al-Shatti: Tom Aspinall + Khamzat Chimaev + Ilia Topuria
Team Meshew: Shavkat Rakhmonov + Erin Blanchfield + Tatiana Suarez
44 votes total