Happy New Year, fight fans! To kick off our 20th anniversary, we will be rolling out the MMA News Top 100 UFC fighters of 2021 throughout the month of January as voted on by our panel.
This list is NOT solely based on fights and performances of 2021. Being active in 2021 is what QUALIFIES one to make the list. Instead of only considering performances of the year, we are taking a holistic look at who is the better overall fighter exiting 2021 based on our selected criteria. A full explanation of the criteria can be found below.
1: Career Trajectory/Recent Performances (50%)
Where are the fighters trending right now? How much evidence-backed momentum do they have?
2: Career Success/Body of Work (25%)
Championships, wins, résumé, etc.
3: Likelihood To Be The Betting Favorite In Any Fight In 2021 (25%)
This was determined using past betting history, betting lines during 2021, and the projected odds moving forward as determined by the panel. This category is being used to get a gauge of the talent level the public feels the fighter is/was at.
Be sure to keep checking back right here at MMANews.com for frequent updates to this list throughout the month of January as we continue to update this list!
#50: Thiago Santos
Reasoning Behind Ranking: For nearly a full decade, Thiago Santos has served as the unrelenting sledgehammer of the UFC. Santos is tied for the most knockouts in middleweight history. Whenever your name is linked with Anderson Silva’s in terms of in-cage achievements, you’ve done something right in your career. He also is tied for third in the most UFC knockouts overall. These facts were considered when awarded “Marreta” points in the “body of work” category.
Another quasi-achievement for Santos is being the only fighter to officially win a scorecard off of Jon Jones. Many fans credit Dominick Reyes or Alexander Gustafsson for giving Jones his greatest challenge, yet it was Marreta who came the closest to actually handing Jones his first non-DQ defeat. With scorecards of 48-47, 48-47, and 47-48, the fight literally could not have been any closer.
As far as recent success, Santos has not looked quite the same or as deadly since returning from surgery on both knees immediately following that bout against Jones. First, he was defeated by Glover Teixeira via rear-naked choke in November 2020. And last year, Rakić cruised to a unanimous decision victory over the Brazilian. However, his recent performances aren’t all dim, as he defeated countryman Johnny Walker with a unanimous decision victory of his own last October, albeit in a performance that still displayed a somewhat dulled Marreta.
Heading Into 2022: Thiago Santos is currently ranked #5 in the light heavyweight division. He will have a very tall task ahead of him in his next contest, when he faces surging Russian contender Magomed Ankalaev on March 12.
#49: Jared Cannonier
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Once lost in the grand shuffle, Jared Cannonier rebuilt and lifted himself to being amongst the middleweight elite. At heavyweight, Cannonier was 1-1 in the UFC. At light heavyweight, he went 2-3. Neither divisional records would hardly net someone a place on our Top 100 list.
Since moving down to middleweight, however, Cannonier has experienced a fresh start, with any past failures almost rendered irrelevant due to the obvious physical and performance differences between the Jared Cannonier of old and the 4-1 Killa Gorilla that has become a problem for the middleweight division.
Cannonier’s only loss in the division came to former champion Robert Whittaker, in what was a competitive fight in which Cannonier was able to take one round off “The Reaper” on each of the judges’ scorecards in a 29-28 unanimous decision loss. In 2021, Cannonier was able to rebound with a unanimous decision victory over Kelvin Gastelum in the main event of a Fight Night event last August.
Heading Into 2022: Jared Cannonier is ranked #3 in the middleweight division. The wide belief is that he is one win away from receiving his first UFC title shot. That one win must come against Derek Brunson at UFC 270 in two weeks.
#48: Giga Chikadze
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Six fights into his professional MMA career, Giga Chikadze appeared on Dana White’s Contender Series looking for a contract in MMA’s premier promotion. When the advanced kickboxer was shut down by the grappling of his opponent and stopped with a rear-naked choke, it looked as though we would never see what could become of the flashy yet precise striker.
Four years later, not only did Chikadze make it to the UFC, but he’s gone 7-0 since his arrival in 2019. In fact, in his most recent victory, he managed to outclass one of the UFC’s most versatile and respected strikers: Edson Barboza.
This finish made for the third straight for Chikadze, joining TKO wins over another UFC vet, Cub Swanson, as well as Jamey Simmons. Meanwhile, there has yet to be a UFC battle that this Ninja hasn’t survived, and no moment has been too big for this dual-sport athlete who eyes featherweight gold.
Heading Into 2022: In order to get that crack at the title in 2022, Chikadze will first need to defeat Calvin Kattar this weekend at UFC Vegas 46. He had hoped to be selected to fight Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 272 on short notice, but instead, as of this writing, it appears that honor will go to the next man on our list.
#47: Chan Sung Jung
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Whenever Chan Sung Jung competes, he never fails to bring the crowd out of their seats, with lively chants of “Zombie! Zombie! Zombie!” Throughout his 15 years as a pro, he’s managed to do this by ending 14 of his 17 fights before they had a chance to go to the judges.
Some of the names he’s notched onto his résumé include Dustin Poirier, Renato Moicano, and former lightweight champion Frankie “The Answer” Edgar, with each of those victories winning Performance of the Night, with the chants growing louder.
In fact, six of The Korean Zombie’s seven UFC victories have earned him performance bonuses. And in terms of his current career trajectory, he has won three of his last four fights, most recently over Dan Ige last June.
Heading Into 2022: It is unknown what is next for Zombie as he enters the year as the #4-ranked featherweight. However, as alluded to earlier, there are very strong indications that Zombie will be challenging Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 272 as of this writing. Should Jung be able to capture UFC gold after a decade-plus run in the WEC/UFC, those chants will ring louder than ever before.
#46: Michael Chandler
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Michael Chandler may still be considered the new kid on the block to many UFC fans, but this Division I All-American has been competing for world championships since 2011 when he captured the Bellator lightweight championship by defeating Eddie Alvarez via rear-naked choke.
Throughout his nine-year Bellator run, Chandler managed to capture the lightweight title on three separate occasions. In addition to his victory over Alvarez, he also holds wins over notable names like Benson Henderson, Brent Primus, and Patricky Pitbull among others.
Once he arrived in the UFC, he instantly showed the world that he could shake up any lightweight division in the world in a single round.
Chandler had already paid his dues by his UFC arrival, but his knockout of Dan Hooker at UFC 257 made it clear that he belonged in MMA’s ultimate proving ground. And even though he would lose his next two fights, he did win a round against the current lightweight champion Charles Oliveira, seemingly being within blowing distance of becoming champion himself. He then took part in what was arguably the 2021 Fight of the Year against Justin Gaethje. For these reasons, Chandler earned a spot within the top 50 of our list.
Heading Into 2022: Michael Chandler is ranked #5 at lightweight. There have been strong rumblings of a potential fight against Tony Ferguson being first up for “Iron” Mike, but Chandler has let it be widely known that he would much rather prefer a big fight against Conor McGregor.
#45: Derek Brunson
Reasoning Behind Ranking: In Derek Brunson, you are looking at a man whose strength of schedule is comparable to anyone in our sport who has never been champion. He’s shared the Octagon with names like Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, Robert Whittaker, Yoel Romero, Israel Adesanya, and many others. He’s managed to continue fighting the best of the best by having his arm raised far more often than not.
At the moment, Brunson is riding the second five-fight winning streak of his decade-long UFC career, including a dominant, statement victory over one of the names on our list, Darren Till, and wins over middleweights who, at the time, were riding major waves of momentum: Kevin Holland and Edmen Shahbazyan. By now, Blonde Brunson has given everyone plenty of reasons to believe in his rebirth.
Heading Into 2022: In addition to the quality of recent performances, which weighed strongly for Brunson, his career trajectory as a whole is as promising as it’s ever been. If he is able to defeat Jared Cannonier at UFC 270 in two weeks, then Blonde Brunson will almost assuredly have an opportunity to become Gold Brunson.
#44: Curtis Blaydes
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Coming in at #44 is one of the more underrated fighters on our list, Curtis Blaydes. Curtis Blaydes is the type of guy who will beat you in a fighting game by tapping the same buttons over and over, no matter what you or those watching have to say about it. But make no mistake, Blaydes is the real deal—a true, authentic martial artist who has fought at the highest levels of MMA’s version of Mortal Kombat.
While Blaydes hasn’t always wowed with his performances, especially in his most recent wins, the fact remains that when he does win, you can count on it being a one-sided victory, which means that each of his 15 victories has either been a finish or a unanimous decision. This, along with the fact that he’s only ever been defeated by the current champion (Francis Ngannou) and the #3-ranked heavyweight (Derrick Lewis) means that Blaydes is one of the strongest fighters in our third category of likelihood to win a fight.
In category #2, which considers body of work, he holds dominant victories over heavyweight legends Junior dos Santos and Alistair Overeem, and 10 of his 12 UFC wins have been over heavyweights who have been ranked in the UFC. And in terms of recent performances and career trajectory, Blaydes has won five of his last six fights and 9 of his last 11.
Heading Into 2022: Curtis Blaydes still finds himself ranked #4 in the company’s most dangerous division. He is in a bit of a tricky spot, seeing as how he’s already faced so many fighters in the division, including reigning champion Francis Ngannou, who holds two victories over Blaydes. With this in mind, it’s anyone’s guess who will make the one-man cut to be Razor’s next opponent.
#43: Khamzat Chimaev
Reasoning Behind Ranking: In what is easily the trickiest placement on our list, Khamzat “Borz” Chimaev comes in at #43. Let’s examine how Chimaev ended up here based on the criteria.
First, for category #1, which considers career tajectory and recent performances, those who say Chimaev’s placement is too high will no doubt argue that his recent performances should not be overvalued due to the level of competition they came against. We would counter this by pointing out that Li Jingliang was and still is ranked at welterweight And yet, Khamzat Chimaev effortlessly did this to the man…
We would also like to point out that despite the other three victories coming over unranked opponents, going a total of four fights while only suffering one significant strike has to be worth special consideration. In fact, this incredible statistic also impacts category #2 (achievements/body of work/résumé) because that stat is an achievement no fighter in UFC can say after four fights.
In category #3 (likelihood to win a fight) the eye test and common sense make it clear that the guy is special. The only real question is: How special? The validity and uncertainty of that question along with the lack of notable wins is why Borz could not be ranked higher, although we believe him to be a top-10 talent as we speak.
To further support the strong points awarded to Chimaev in the third category is the following example: Even after only four UFC fights, he was listed as a -210 favorite against Leon Edwards in a hypothetical fight, despite Edwards being the UFC’s #3-ranked welterweight on a 10-fight unbeaten streak.
Heading Into 2022: With four easy smeshings now behind him, Borz is very hungry for more. He has regularly expressed his intentions to eat up his opponents, and next up to the plate may very well be Gilbert Burns at UFC 273 according to the latest reports.
#42: Jéssica Andrade
Reasoning Behind Ranking: “Borz” isn’t the only fighter on our list who knows about smashing. Our #42-ranked fighter, Jéssica Andrade, has been known to smash, pile drive, and womanhandle her opponents for years. The notable difference between Andrade and Chimaev is that Andrade is a former world champion and holds a victory over someone ranked higher on our list, Rose Namajunas. In fact, Andrade nearly holds two victories over Namajunas, seeing as how their rematch in the summer of 2020 was a split decision.
16 of Andrade’s 22 career wins have been finishes, and she holds big victories over names like Claudia Gadelha, Tecia Torres, and Kaitlyn Chookagian among many others. She is also the only woman in UFC history to have wins in three different weight classes in the UFC. And in terms of recent performances, Andrade has won two of her last three fights, with the loss coming against Valentina Shevchenko, which is difficult to fault anyone for.
Heading Into 2022: Jéssica Andrade is currently ranked #1 in the women’s flyweight division. It is unknown what her next move will be, but a potential trilogy fight against Rose Namajunas this year could make sense if Andrade opts to move back down to strawweight.
#41: Magomed Ankalaev
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Magomed Ankalaev is one of the toughest assignments for any light heavyweight in the world right now. Since entering the UFC in 2018, he has shown no holes in his game but has rather been constantly sharpening his well-rounded skill set. And whenever his opponents believe they’ve found a door that leads to victory, Ankalaev puts an end to their elaborate plans.
Even in his sole loss in the promotion, which came in his UFC debut, Ankalaev was dominant for the entirety of his bout against Paul Craig until Craig pulled off a literal last-second submission.
Since then, he has gone on to win his next seven fights without issue, including four finishes, to improve his overall record to 16-1. Most recently, Ankalaev coasted to a victory over former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir at UFC 267. Due to his lengthy streak and impressive performances, Ankalev was awarded heavy points in category #1, especially considering that his career trajectory has him potentially one win away from a title shot.
Heading Into 2022: As mentioned earlier in this installment of the MMA News Top 100 Fighters of 2021, Ankalaev will next have an opportunity to extend his winning steak to eight along with a guaranteed spot within the top 5 in the division if he can get past #5-ranked Thiago Santos. The fact that Ankalaev is favored to do so against a former title challenger is an example of the respect he is given for his likelihood to win fights, which is weighted into our third category.
Entering 2022, this ranking for Ankalaev may be considered on the high end, but at the rate he’s going and with the way he has performed thus far, this number could be much, much higher next year.
Stay tuned to find out who is next on the MMA News Top 100 Fighters Of 2021 in Part 7!