Why this year’s class impresses with poise and potential

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Why this year’s class impresses with poise and potential

The UFC is back at its Apex facility in Las Vegas this weekend, with a bantamweight main event between Cory Sandhagen and Song Yadong.

In addition to the headliner, 33-year-old Chidi Njokuani will make his third UFC appearance against Gregory Rodrigues. Njokuani is far from a beginner in mixed martial arts. He made his professional MMA debut in 2007, and his older brother, Anthony, was a fixture of the WEC and UFC for many years.

Still, technically speaking, Njokuani (22-7) is a UFC rookie this year — and he’s enjoying a fantastic rookie season. He has two first-round finishes already under his belt, over Marc-Andre Barriault and Dusko Todorovic. The middleweight division is primed for new blood, and if Njokuani can keep racking up the wins, he could soon find himself in a big fight against a title contender.

In addition to Njokuani, what other “UFC rookies” are putting together a great 2022? Here are five names who have already turned heads in their first calendar year with the UFC.

Jailton Almeida, light heavyweight/heavyweight



Jailton Almeida pulls out the dominant victory at UFC 279 with a submission of Anton Turkalj.

  • UFC debut: First-round TKO against Danilo Marques on Feb. 5

  • MMA record: 17-2-0, 6-1 by (T)KO, 11-0 by SUB

  • 2022 record: 3-0

Former interim bantamweight title contender Cory Sandhagen takes on Song Yadong on Saturday to determine who will move closer to a title opportunity.

UFC Fight Night: Sandhagen vs. Song
Saturday, Sept. 17, UFC Apex, Las Vegas
• Main card: 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+
• Prelims: 4 p.m. on ESPN+

Subscribe to ESPN+ to get exclusive live UFC events, weigh-ins and more; Dana White’s Contender Series; and more exclusive MMA content.

Almeida is a potential problem — in two divisions. The 31-year-old lands in a sweet spot between light heavyweight and heavyweight, but that might be a good problem because it looks like he can win in both. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Almeida has solid wrestling and athleticism to accompany his submission skills on the ground. He’s a proven finisher, with most of his career finishes coming inside the opening round. Right now, he’s saying he’ll compete at heavyweight, but we’ll see. The UFC has two pretty wide-open divisions that are ripe for a newcomer to come in and make a statement.



Muhammad Mokaev suplex-slams Charles Johnson to remain undefeated in the UFC.

  • UFC debut: First-round submission against Cody Durden on Mar. 19

  • MMA record: 8-0, 2-0 by (T)KO, 3-0 by SUB

  • 2022 record: 2-0

If you want someone more fitting of the “rookie” definition, it’s Mokaev. But while this 22-year-old is a rookie with just an 8-0 professional record, it should also be noted he spent his time in the minors. Mokaev’s amateur record is 22-0 and dates back to 2015. A dominant wrestler from Dagestan, the same Russian republic as the Nurmagomedov family, Mokaev set a divisional record of 12 takedowns in a three-round fight in his second UFC appearance. Mokaev is mature beyond his 22 years and has already said he doesn’t anticipate fighting for long. But one goal he has set is to become the youngest champion in UFC history, a distinction currently held by Jon Jones (23).



Jack Della Maddalena defeats Pete Rodriguez in his UFC debut with a nice left hook at UFC 270.

  • UFC debut: First-round knockout against Pete Rodriguez on Jan. 22

  • MMA record: 12-2, 10-1 by (T)KO, 1-1 by SUB

  • 2022 record: 2-0

There’s no reason for the UFC to rush Della Maddalena through its welterweight ranks, other than that he’s really good and might be ready for it at age 26. Representing Perth, Australia, a region far lesser known in the MMA world than the eastern part of that country, Della Maddalena thrives as a standup fighter who is a slick striker. Since losing the first two bouts of his professional career, he is 12-0 with 11 finishes. All but one of those finishes have come via knockout. The only victory of his career that has gone the distance was against another UFC 2022 rookie, Ange Loosa, in a Contender Series fight last year. Della Maddalena has confidence, power and about as much momentum as one can have riding into the end of 2022.



Michael Morales delivers a powerful blow to Adam Fugitt in the third round to drop him to the canvas and pick up the TKO win.

  • UFC debut: First-round knockout against Trevin Giles on Jan. 22

  • MMA record: 14-0, 11-0 by (T)KO, 1-0 by SUB

  • 2022 record: 2-0

Morales is a 23-year-old Ecuadorian prospect fighting out of Tijuana, Mexico. He’s not as polished as some of the other names on this list, but the UFC might have discovered a hidden gem here. He earned a contract as a contestant on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2021, as a pretty significant underdog against Kazakhstan’s Nikolay Veretennikov. He showed off his punching power in a quick finish against Giles, before showing off his resolve and perseverance in a back-and-forth fight against late replacement Adam Fugitt in July. Don’t mistake Morales as a finished product, but he has plenty of untapped potential. Plenty.



Andre Fialho manages to land a left hand that drops Cameron VanCamp to secure the knockout win.

  • UFC debut: Unanimous decision loss to Michel Pereira on Jan. 22

  • MMA record: 16-5, 13-3 by (T)KO, 1-0 by SUB

  • 2022 record: 2-2

Fialho’s .500 record this year won’t jump off the page, but let’s put it into context. On short notice, he made his debut against a top-15 talent in Pereira. He then racked up back-to-back first-round knockouts over quality opponents in Miguel Baeza and Cameron VanCamp. He’s coming off a TKO loss to Jake Matthews in a fight that might have been ill-advised. Staying active is one thing, but the Matthews fight was Fialho’s fourth in six months — and it was the second fight he took in 35 days. Whether fatigue played into that result or not, the 28-year-old Fialho has been thrown right into the mix at 170 pounds. He’s experienced, well-rounded and carries finishing ability. And obviously, he loves to fight frequently.