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!
Part 7 Begins Right Now!
#40: Vicente Luque
Reasoning Behind Ranking: This “Silent Assassin” has been continuing to make a loud bang in the welterweight division every time he sends a body to the floor. The “assassin” description is well-suited and tailor-made for Vicente Luque, as an astonishing 19 of his 21 career wins have been finishes, including his last four performances: stoppages of Niko Price, Randy Brown, and two ranked opponents: Tyron Woodley and Michael Chiesa.
The assassin finished his last two jobs cleanly and in the same fashion: putting his assignments to sleep with a flawlessly executed D’arce choke.
Heading Into 2022: Vicente Luque has quietly won 10 of his last 11 fights. Due to this hot streak, he enters the year ranked at #4 in the welterweight division. As of now, there is no sign of whom he might face next to kick off 2022 or when that bout might be.
#39: Brian Ortega
Reasoning Behind Ranking: The primary reason behind Brian Ortega’s ranking is because, at the moment, the only two fighters in the world to defeat him are the top two featherweights in the promotion: Alex Volkanovski and Max Holloway.
The reason for this is Ortega proving to be a versatile winner at the highest level. First, he can rock you on the feet, and he can always roll you on the mat. His winning percentage and the constant threat he poses to his opponent from start to finish of a bout factored largely in category #3. The latter was perhaps never more evident, even in a losing effort, than in the memorable Round 3 of his classic battle with Alex Volkanovski at UFC 266.
Also, while not in the same calendar year, his masterclass striking display against someone in the top 50 on our list, The Korean Zombie, also worked in Ortega’s favor in terms of the quality of recent performances. Additionally, Ortega has won performance bonuses in three of his last four fights.
Heading Into 2022: There is currently no word yet on who might be next for Ortega. The 30-year-old enters the year ranked #2 in the featherweight division.
#38: Derrick Lewis
Reasoning Behind Ranking: When it comes to being a winner, Derrick Lewis may be one of the most underrated fighters in UFC history. Sure, he is not a classic, textbook mixed martial artist. But when it comes to meeting the objective of winning and finishing fights, he’s a certified future Hall of Famer.
In category #1, Lewis’ recent performances only had one bump, which came against the undefeated and #1-ranked Ciryl Gane. Overall, he has won five of his last six fights, though, including a win over someone ranked in our top 50, Curtis Blaydes.
In category #2, which considers body of work and résumé, Lewis has made more tops drop than any other fighter in UFC history with 13 knockouts. Some of the notable names included on that list are the aforementioned Curtis Blaydes, Alexander Volkov, Marcin Tybura, and Alexey Oleynik to name a few.
This ranking is arguably on the low and conservative end for Lewis, all things considered. However, his consistent underperformance in his biggest fights, including a very lopsided loss to Ciryl Gane during the year, greatly impacted him. He has also struggled in many of the fights that he did win, which is considered by us and, more importantly, the oddsmakers and gamblers when contemplating how likely he actually is to win fights in the future.
Heading Into 2022: Derrick Lewis has never been far away from a title shot in recent years. He is currently ranked #3 at heavyweight. “The Black Beast” says he wants to focus on having fun, low-pressure fights moving forward. His 2022 debut against Tai “Bam Bam” Tuivasa at UFC 271 next month most certainly fits that description.
#37: Conor McGregor
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Yes, the selected image above was very intentionally chosen. It serves as a reminder of how much strength McGregor has in category #2 of our criteria, which considers body of work and résumé. When only considering category #1, this placement might be considered high for McGregor. After all, he hasn’t won a fight in two years now and is 1-3 in his last four fights.
It is for that reason that a fighter the caliber of McGregor is ranked as low as he is, comfortably outside of the top 25. There is no further penalty necessary for his recent performances, especially considering whom they came against and how exactly the fights unfolded. At UFC 229, he became the only fighter to win a round off of Khabib Nurmagomedov on all three scorecards. And at UFC 264, an obvious argument can be made that the fight ended too abruptly to be overly harsh on McGregor.
As for the image, it shows a man who was the first simultaneous double-champion in UFC history. It shows a man with victories over not one, not two, but three men ranked high on our list: Max Holloway, Dustin Poirier, and of course, José Aldo in arguably the most historic knockout in UFC history.
In category #3, Conor McGregor is still among the most respected fighters in the world in terms of likelihood to win a fight strictly because of the danger he possesses on the feet, especially in the early rounds. And while it is true McGregor hast lost three of his last four fights, it’s important to remember who the losses came against: Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier, so we’re talking about the best of the best.
Just to provide a glimpse of how respected McGregor’s skill is despite these losses: He was favorited to defeat Dustin Poirier both times in 2021 and was the smallest underdog against Khabib Nurmagomedov (+135) since 2014.
Heading Into 2022: “The Notorious” could see about a billion in the next two years, and yet, by all appearances, he’ll still be down for a proper scrap. McGregor’s desire to compete despite his generational wealth seems to be well intact as he looks to make his return no later than the summer of this year. The big question is: Who will it be against?
#36: Carla Esparza
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Coming in at #36 on our list is Carla Esparza. Some newer fans may think of Esparza as a gatekeeper who has just recently caught a hot streak. More knowledgable MMA fans are aware that she is, in fact, a historic champion, not unlike Conor McGregor.
In Esparza’s case, she is the first strawweight champion in UFC history. She may not get the respect of Conor McGregor or many others in category #3, likelihood to win a fight, but the primary reason for her placement over McGregor and the 65 others is because of category #1, the quality of her recent performances and career trajectory, which is our highest weighted category.
In addition to that, she was also awarded strong points in category #2 (body of work/résumé) for her status as a former champion. She also holds a victory over someone ranked higher on our list, Rose Namajunas. Lopsided losses to Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Tatiana Suarez are the two main reasons that prevent Esparza from being ranked higher. She also has suffered split-decision losses to Claudia Gadelha and even Randa Markos.
Heading Into 2022: Those setbacks are now in the past. “The Cookie Monster” has harvested her sorrows and used them to help cultivate her recent bloom, which has produced five consecutive wins and a #2 ranking in the strawweight division. Esparza is currently expected to challenge Rose Namajunas in a rematch of their 2014 bout.
#35: Askar Askarov
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Askar Askarov is the 35th ranked fighter on our list due to his career trajectory and likelihood to win fights. In terms of career trajectory, he is currently ranked #2 in the flyweight division, behind only former champion Deiveson Figueiredo. That is because he remains undefeated at 14-0-1, which of course earned him heavy points in category #3, his likelihood to win fights. And oh, by the way, that one draw was against current flyweight champion Brandon Moreno.
Askar’s winning percentage factors into category #2 as well, awarding the Russian for what he has accomplished thus far. And it’s worth noting that he is winning and competing against strong competition, including wins over the legendary Joseph Benavidez as well as someone who appeared just outside the top 50 on our list, Alexandre Pantoja.
Heading Into 2022: Askar Askarov has been confident that his time to reign will come since his arrival, just waiting on the UFC to pull the trigger and allow him to bullet through another target. The next target has been identified as Kai Kara-France on the date of March 26. With a win, it is highly probable that this flyweight bullet will be aimed directly toward a title shot.
#34: Gilbert Burns
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Gilbert Burns has only had one scratch on his smooth welterweight playlist that has contained a medley of hits featuring names like Gunnar Nelson, Demian Maia, Tyron Woodley, and Stephen Thompson. Burns has won seven of his last eight fights in total, with the lone loss coming to the UFC’s #1-ranked pound-for-pound fighter, Kamaru Usman.
Burns was greatly awarded in all three categories for his welterweight résumé and winning percentage. The quality of recent performances is the only area where there could be some pushback, as in his 1-1 2021 campaign, he was knocked out by Usman and won what many considered to be an underwhelming fight over Stephen Thompson at UFC 264.
Heading Into 2022: Burns is currently ranked #2 in the stacked welterweight division. While it is still unofficial, it is highly likely that he will be facing Khamzat Chimaev at UFC 273 in April.
#33: Dominick Cruz
Reasoning Behind Ranking: When you have been as great as Dominick Cruz has been throughout his career and manage to get on a winning streak again, no matter how slim it is, you are going to get maximum respect from our panel.
Cruz’s points in category #2 (achievements/body of work) are obviously the main reason behind this placement. The one and only bantamweight “Dominator” has held the title twice and completed five title defenses going back to his WEC days. In addition to that, his recent performances include a 2-0 record in 2021 to show that he is still very much relevant.
Also, in terms of category #3 and his likelihood to win, his record of 24-3 remains one of the best in the entire company. And one of the losses, against Henry Cejudo at UFC 249, had a stoppage that many felt was premature. And when you see how Cruz survived to come back and defeat Pedro Munhoz at UFC 269, that argument is provided a little more credence.
Given his age of 36, which is considered to be on the older end in the bantamweight division, there are still many questions on how likely Cruz is to win a fight against the fighters at the top of the division, especially since he’s 2-2 in his last four fights. So despite his winning percentage, that was all considered and prevented him from being placed higher on our list. Additionally, his victory over an unranked Casey Kenny was only a split decision, which also dinged “The Dominator” a bit in the Quality of Recent Performances section.
Heading Into 2022: Dominick Cruz is currently ranked #7 in the bantamweight division. Knock on wood, if he can stay healthy and active the way he did in 2021, then it is inevitable that we find out just how high a level Cruz is still operating at in the modern bantamweight landscape. It is unknown who his next opponent will be, but he has expressed interest in a dream fight against José Aldo.
#32: Marvin Vettori
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Michael Bisping has said that if Israel Adesanya did not exist, Marvin Vettori would be the UFC middleweight champion. Given the fact that the only two losses in Vettori’s last 10 fights came against Adesanya adds some support to that argument. Indeed, “The Italian Dream” keeps getting W’s, winning six of his last seven fights, which includes victories over two names on our list: Jack Hermansson and Paulo Costa.
His victory over Costa earned him Performance of the Night. The quality of this victory from both a name and performance standpoint was weighed heavily in multiple categories.
Additionally, the fact that Vettori was favored to beat Costa, who had only lost to Israel Adesanya coming into that fight, illustrates how respected Vettori is as a fighter in terms of his likelihood to win fights.
During this seven-fight stretch, Vettori’s wins have all been comfortable, coming by unanimous decision along with one submission victory over Karl Roberson.
Heading Into 2022: Marvin Vettori is ranked #2 in the middleweight division behind only former champion Robert Whittaker. There is currently no word on who might be next for the proud Italian.
#31: Aleksandar Rakić
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Aleksandar Rakić comes in at a healthy #31 on our list. The primary reason behind this placement is his career trajectory and his likelihood to win fights.
Aleksandar Rakić only has one loss in the UFC and this was in a split decision (Volkan Oezdemir). Outside of that, Rakić has been nothing short of impressive. In the UFC, he is 6-1, including recent wins over two former title challengers who made our list: Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos. It was the performance against Smith that really put light heavyweights on notice, as Rakić executed his game plan masterfully and looked swift, sharp, and lethal in his attacks.
In that fight, he also showed an ability to adapt and explore various paths to victory, including grappling when necessary. Based on the eye test, Rakić is one of the most skilled overall strikers in the division and also has the fight IQ to deftly employ his full arsenal.
Odds-wise, Rakić is currently placed at about a pick ’em against former champion Jan Blachowicz. This illustrates the respect Rakić is being given by oddsmakers.
Heading Into 2022: Aleksandar Rakić enters 2022 ready for war as always, whether it’s against Jan Blachowicz, Jiří Procházka, and whoever else is placed in front of him this year. Up first is Blachowicz. After that? Well, that could very well be a world title shot.
Stay tuned to find out who is next on the MMA News Top 100 Fighters Of 2021 in Part 8!