With the UFC looking to start 2021 with two elements that were sorely lacking for most of 2020 – Conor McGregor and the fans in attendance – this brief break in the calendar provides the perfect window to take stock and look ahead .
Who will have the best year of all? After a 2020 that was far from normal, there will be plenty of opportunities for fighters to distance themselves from the pack in 2021, and our MMA panel of experts is setting out to determine who will step forward.
This is not a list of the top 30 fighters in the UFC – it’s a ranking based on odds that fighters have already signed up for or that they are planning for the year ahead. It takes into account who they will be fighting and who might be facing them in their respective divisions over the next 12 months.
And while there are sure to be some surprises on this list, that doesn’t mean someone can’t dramatically improve their net worth in the next 12 months just because they didn’t make the cut in this top 30. When you compare this year’s top 30 with the ones planned for 2020, the overlap is not as great as you can imagine.
With all of these explanations out of the way, it is time to reveal the top 10. If you missed the first two entries of ESPN MMA Rankings 2021, check out those that ranked 11-20 between 21-30.
Article by Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim.
Record 2020: 1-0 (SUB1 via Cory Sandhagen)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: Not rated
Next fight: March 6th against Petr Yan (UFC 259)
Outlook for 2021: Sterling established himself as the clear next challenger to the bantamweight title with a stunning first-round win over Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250 in June. Sterling was supposed to challenge champion Petr Yan at UFC 256 in December, but the fight ended due to an unknown problem with Yan. The title fight was recently rescheduled for March and should be another important showcase for two top fighters from a very deep division. Sterling has won five straight wins and earned more than his belt chance. Some have already rated Funk Master as the best in the world at £ 135. – Raimondi
Record 2020: 1-0 (UD via Jorge Masvidal)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 4th
Next fight: February 13 against Gilbert Burns (UFC 258)
Outlook for 2021: Being the first UFC champion to defend a belt in 2021 is what you consider a great start to the new year. Usman will face a former teammate he has been waiting for a long time. He and Burns were initially due to fight in July, and when that didn’t happen they were paired again for December, which also failed. The third booking is an opportunity for Usman to finally cross another £ 170 contender off his list, and the delay in implementation allows the division to face more challenges should he succeed. – Wagenheim
Record 2020: 1-0 (TKO1 via Donald Cerrone)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 7th
Next fight: January 23 against Dustin Poirier (UFC 257)
Outlook for 2021: McGregor’s 2020 plan was to fight at least three times, culminating in a second shot at the UFC lightweight title against Khabib Nurmagomedov. Then COVID-19 came into play, the idea for a “season” fell apart and Nurmagomedov withdrew. McGregor even announced his own resignation in June out of frustration. The former UFC doubles champion will be back this month against old rival Dustin Poirier, and a win in that fight will almost certainly give McGregor a title chance. The potential is there for a huge year. – Raimondi
Record 2020: 1-0 (UD via Felicia Spencer)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 8th
Next fight: March 6 against Megan Anderson (UFC 259)
Outlook for 2021: The only remaining UFC champion champion had a busy 2020. She only fought once, but she was busy becoming a mom. Try to beat that in 2021. Well, defending the featherweight title successfully in two months would be a step in that direction. Then Nunes can turn her attention back to the bantamweight, which by then may have spawned a title challenger. If not, we’ll hear requests for a trilogy fight against flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko. Where else should Nunes go? – Wagenheim
Record 2020: 2-0 (TKO3 via Katlyn Chookagian; UD via Jennifer Maia)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 5
Next fight: TBD
Outlook for 2021: Most likely more dominance. Shevchenko has hit the women’s flyweight division hard for the past two years. Her next likely challenger is the powerhouse Jessica Andrade, the former UFC strawweight world champion. This could be Shevchenko’s toughest test yet, but Shevchenko will likely still be a big favorite. Later in the year, there is a possibility that Shevchenko could find himself embroiled in a super fight, either against the women’s strawweight champion (currently Zhang Weili) or in a trilogy match against bantamweight and featherweight champion Amanda Nunes. – Raimondi
Record 2020: 1-0 (SD via Joanna Jedrzejczyk)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 11
Next fight: TBD
Outlook for 2021: She only competed once in 2020, in March, but it seems like we’ve seen Zhang a lot more because the highlights of her brawl with Joanna Jedrzejczyk have been shown over and over for good reason. It was the fight of the year for pretty much anyone rating these things. Another former Master, Rose Namajunas, may be next in line. This is the fight that makes sense, but the UFC hasn’t booked it yet. Why the delay? It’s not very clear. It would be a duel of high-level skills and would get the UFC’s most competitive women’s division off to a good start into 2021. – Wagenheim
Record 2020: 1-0 (KO1 via Jairzinho Rozenstruik)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 6
Next fight: TBD versus Stipe Miocic
Outlook for 2021: Ngannou waited three years for a second shot in the UFC heavyweight title. Miocic beat him at UFC 220 in January 2018, but Ngannou has made major improvements since then while training at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. It looks like Ngannou will finally get another bang at Miocic sometime in the first or early second quarter of 2021. The hardest part for Ngannou over the past two years has been decimating everyone on his path while going through long stretches of inactivity because Very few fights make sense to him in a slow heavyweight class. – Raimondi
Record 2020: 3-0-1 (TKO2 via Joseph Benavidez; TechSUB1 via Benavidez; SUB1 via Alex Perez, majority against Brandon Moreno)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: Not rated
Next fight: TBD
Outlook for 2021: 2020 will be a difficult task for Figueiredo. He became champion in a year when he was busy and dominant – at least until his last outing. He was quick to get his way in his first three fights of the year, including two against 125-pound perennial No. 2 Joseph Benavidez. Then came the flyweight title defense last month, where he leather five exciting rounds with Brandon Moreno traded in a classic that drew. What now? UFC President Dana White has guaranteed Figueiredo-Moreno 2 is next. If Figueiredo remains champion after that, he could rule in an increasingly interesting flyweight division for a while. – Wagenheim
Record 2020: 1-0 (UD via Dominick Reyes)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 2
Next fight: TBD
Outlook for 2021: Jones did almost everything there is to do in MMA. He was the longtime UFC light heavyweight champion, was never beaten for that belt and his lonely career loss was a disqualification 12 years ago. His next frontier? The UFC heavyweight division. He cleared the light heavyweight belt last August and is ready to fight for the heavyweight belt next, likely against Stipe Miocic’s winner versus Francis Ngannou. Jones’ goal is to leave absolutely no doubt that he is the greatest of all time. – Raimondi
Record 2020: 2-0 (UD via Yoel Romero, TKO2 Paulo Costa)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 3
Next fight: March 6 against Jan Blachowicz (UFC 259)
Outlook for 2021: If Adesanya becomes a champion champion by adding the light heavyweight belt to his trophy case, as he prefers when challenging Blachowicz, it will be a great feat. He’ll have moved up from middleweight – a 20 pound jump which is huge. And who doubts Adesanya? Nobody. His combination of poise and brutality in his knockout win against Costa increased his stature in the sport – and he already came into the fight as a champion. This super fight against Blachowicz is sure to unleash some of the performance art that makes Adesanya a must-have from strike to finish. – Wagenheim