2022 MMA Fighters of the Year: Alex Pereira comes from nowhere; Zhang Weili returns to the top

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 12: Alex Pereira of Brazil reacts after his TKO victory over Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship bout during the UFC 281 event at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Alex Pereira went 3-0 in 2022 and became UFC middleweight champion. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Ten months were in the books in 2022 and not a soul was talking about Alex Pereira as a potential MMA Fighter of the Year. It's just like after four rounds in his middleweight title fight against Israel Adesanya on Nov. 12 in New York, few were talking about Pereira as the next middleweight champion.

But Pereira, urged on by a talking to from his corner after the fourth, roared back in the fifth to badly hurt Adesanya and become the UFC's middleweight champion. And, along with a decision over Bruno Silva and a KO of Sean Strickland, it was enough for "Poatan" to earn the honor as the 2022 Yahoo Sports Male MMA Fighter of the Year.

There were plenty of good contenders this year, and tops on my list as runners-up were lightweight champion Islam Makhachev, bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling, featherweight champion and pound-for-pound No. 1 Alex Volkanovski, welterweight champion Leon Edwards, welterweight contender Belal Muhammad and heavyweight contender Sergei Pavlovich.

Pavlovich was 3-0 and defeated Shamil Abdurakhimov, Derrick Lewis and Tai Tuivasa. Each of the wins were first-round KOs and the wins over Lewis and Tuivasa came in under a minute. That would be enough to get it done most years, given the quantity and quality of his work.

But Sterling is my first runner-up after winning title defenses over a pair of former champions, scoring a decision over Petr Yan and a second-round finish of T.J. Dillashaw.

Edwards only won one fight, though it was a huge one as he defeated then-pound-for-pound king Kamaru Usman to claim the welterweight title. Volkanovski scored impressive wins over Chan Sung Jung and Max Holloway.

But Pereira gets the nod because of the impressiveness of the win over Adesanya, the brutal KO of Strickland and the win over Silva. He began the year with just five fights to his ledger, and only one in the UFC. He went 3-0 with two KOs and ended the year as the UFC middleweight champion and the 2022 Yahoo Sports Male MMA Fighter of the Year.

Zhang Weili of China celebrates after winning the women's strawweight title bout against Carla Esparza of the United States at the UFC 281 in Madison Square Garden in New York, the United States, Nov. 12, 2022. China's first UFC champion Zhang Weili reclaimed women's strawweight champion with a second-round submission on Carla Esparza at UFC 281 on Saturday night. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Zhang Weili was 2-0 in 2022 and regained the UFC strawweight title, earning recognition as the Yahoo Sports female Fighter of the Year in MMA. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Zhang takes honor among women

There were not nearly as many candidates for the women's award as there were for the men. Three of the best — double champion Amanda Nunes, flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko and former champion Julianna Peña fought just once apiece — and Kayla Harrison, who was so dominant, lost in the PFL finals.

That leaves UFC strawweight champion Zhang Weili as the 2022 Yahoo Sports Female Fighter of the Year in MMA after going 2-0 and submitting Carla Esparza to win the title. She also knocked the legendary ex-champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk into retirement with a KO.

Manon Fiorot won decisions over Jennifer Maia and Katlyn Chookagian to push herself into title contention. The PFL's Larissa Pacheco went 4-0 with three first-round knockouts and the epic five-round decision over Harrison. Vanessa Demopoulos introduced herself to the MMA world in a big way by submitting Silvana Gomez Juarez at UFC 270. She then won decisions over Jinh Yu Frey and Maria Oliveira to go 3-0 in 2022 and stamp herself as a fighter to watch in 2023.

But Zhang's wins over two former champions in such one-sided fashion easily is enough to earn her the Fighter of the Year award.