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!
And Part 8 begins right now!
#30: Leon Edwards
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Leon Edwards’ placement in the top 30 of our list should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the run he has been on since 2016. After losing to current champion Kamaru Usman in 2015, Edwards’ wins have kept spinning like the rims of a Cadillac. This includes victories over two names on our list: Belal Muhammad and Vicente Luque. In total, Edwards has remained unbeaten after 10 fights, which naturally gives him a strong edge in the “likelihood to win fights” category.
So why isn’t he ranked higher if he’s been unbeaten in so many fights? Firstly, Edwards’ lack of activity has hurt him in regards to the “recency” of his performances. He has only won one fight since July of 2019. Second, none of his wins have come against someone at the top of the division. As you’ll see with someone later on our list, however, that doesn’t necessarily prevent a higher ranking. The difference between that individual and Edwards is they have been able to finish opponents with more decisive victories while Edwards generally has not, even having a spit decision against Gunnar Nelson three fights ago.
Heading Into 2022: The #3-ranked Leon Edwards’ next fight is uncertain. But with Jorge Masvidal now booked against Colby Covington and Khamzat Chimaev and Gilbert Burns in the works, there’s a good chance that leaves Edwards as the odd man in for once, and he may very well finally get his title shot against Kamaru Usman.
#29: Cory Sandhagen
Reasoning Behind Ranking: No lengthy winning streaks here. Nope, just an exquisite fighting style and talent that was clearly developed through years of crafting and hard work. Make no mistake about it, though, Sandhagen has deployed these talents to generate results in the line of combat. Indeed, “The Sandman” has shut out the lights of many men with lofty dreams of war, including one of the best knockouts of 2021 over Frankie Edgar.
More than half of Sandhagen’s victories have come by way of KO/TKO, including his last two victories that came over ranked opponents Edgar and Marlon Moraes. As was the case with Edgar, the Moraes KO was also a frontrunner for KO of the year in 2020.
As for that missing winning streak? One of the losses came against the “super interim” bantamweight champion, if you will, Petr Yan, in what was a fairly competitive fight overall and won Fight of the Night, and the other was against former champion T.J. Dillashaw in a fight that was about as close as it gets, with many fans and pundits scoring the fight in Sandhagen’s favor.
In essence, we are not counting the Dillashaw fight as a “full” loss due to just how much of a legitimate coin toss the bout was. That plus his much higher finishing rate gives him the slightest of edges over Edwards. Additionally, the only time Edwards faced anyone around the level of Dillashaw was against Kamaru Usman in a fight where he was soundly defeated.
Sandhagen’s résumé and likelihood to win a fight were both awarded extra points when considering his wins over other respected names like John Lineker and Raphael Assunção. His only losses have come to the very best in the division: the aforementioned Yan and Dillashaw as well as current champion Aljamain Sterling.
Heading Into 2022: Despite his setbacks, Cory Sandhagen remains ranked #4 in the elite bantamweight division. There’s no word on who is next for him. A fight against fellow striker Rob Font could be enticing, with the two currently ranked right next to one another and both coming off a loss, or perhaps a potential masterpiece of MMA art against fellow flowing mover Dominick Cruz.
#28: Zhang Weili
Reasoning Behind Ranking: It was nothing but “Magnum” bullets kicking down the door when Zhang Weili burst onto the UFC scene in 2018. From 2014-2021, Zhang compiled a total of 21 straight victories with only one prior defeat. She also holds wins over notable opponents Tecia Torres and our #42-ranked fighter and former strawweight champion, Jéssica Andrade, to capture the title in 2019 with a first-round blitz. And who can forget her victory over Joanna Jędrzejczyk in one of the greatest fights in the entire history of MMA?
The reason Zhang is not ranked higher is because of category #3. Her likelihood to win fights at the highest level has been brought into question over the past three fights. First, though her bout against Jędrzejczyk was an all-time war and an admirable showing by both women, that fight could have gone either way, which causes a direct impact on her likelihood to win a major fight.
Her loss to Rose Namajunas in her next bout was obviously the biggest impact to Zhang in this third category, where she was knocked out in under two minutes at UFC 248. Then, although the judges’ scorecard could have gone her way against Namajunas at UFC 268, she again came up short in a major fight. That said, if one more round had gone against her in the Jędrzejczyk fight, she very easily and plausibly could be on a three-fight losing streak right now.
Heading Into 2022: Zhang Weili remains ranked #1 in the strawweight division and due to the closeness of her last fight against Namajunas, she could still be within one win from another title shot. Her next fight is currently unknown, but her former foe in the aforementioned MMA classic, Joanna Jędrzejczyk, likes the idea of running it back.
#27: Stipe Miocic
Reasoning Behind Ranking: The primary reason for Miocic’s somewhat low ranking given his body of work and well-established talent is not because he got knocked out by Francis Ngannou. Anyone knows there’s no shame in that. It’s simply because that’s the only image of him in the Octagon since August 2020. And his win before that came in 2019. That means he is 2-2 in his last four fights and had a poor showing in 2021. So it was category #1 that was the main hindrance from Miocic being ranked higher on our list.
As for why he’s ranked as high as he is despite going 0-1 in 2021 and 2-2 in his last four, the reason for that is fairly clear given Miocic’s body of work and résumé. He has put on for The Land by decorating it with gold, with more successful title defenses than any heavyweight in UFC history. He holds wins over Junior dos Santos, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem, and perhaps the two biggest feathers in his cap: a one-sided victory over current champion Francis Ngannou and two wins over someone who was once in the heavyweight GOAT running himself, Daniel Cormier.
Because of all of the above, Miocic remains the consensus HW GOAT in the eyes of many and there is no indisputable evidence that he is on the decline. But that uncertainty works both in his favor and against him since we do not have any more evidence about where he stands due to a lack of consistent activity.
Had Miocic gone 1-0 or even 1-1 in 2021, he’d likely find himself in or right outside our top 10. But after getting dominated and knocked out in his only fight of the year without a win since the summer of 2020, it’s hard not to reward fighters who have been more active and/or had a better 2021 record.
Heading Into 2022: Stipe Miocic is truly in a state of limbo at this present time and there is no sign whatsoever of who he’ll fight in 2022 or if he would even be willing to fight this year in any bout that isn’t a title shot. Nevertheless, the two-time former champion is ranked #2 in the heavyweight rankings coming into the year.
#26: Beneil Dariush
Reasoning Behind Ranking: After coming out from the shadows of his last loss in 2018 against Alexander Hernandez with a unanimous decision win over Thiago Moisés, Beneil Dariush is still rolling with seven consecutive wins. For Dariush to be placed over the likes of Stipe Miocic, Zhang Weili, Conor McGregor, etc., it is clearly because of the fact that he hit a home run in our highest-weighted category (category #1), which factors in career trajectory and recent performances that has brought his momentum to a boil.
In terms of career trajectory, he is likely one win away from a world title shot in arguably the most competitive division in the UFC (lightweight). And in recent performances, he has not only remained highly active, but four of Dariush’s seven straight wins have earned him performance bonuses, including his latest KO over Scott Holtzman.
Dariush’s win streak includes victories over Moisés, Drew Dober, Carlos Diego Ferreira, and someone whom our panel still has a lot of respect for and thus carries a lot of weight: Tony Ferguson.
Because of the quality and longevity of his winning streak, Dariush also warrants a great deal of respect in category #3, his likelihood to win fights. Because not unlike Charles Oliveira, although Dariush may have encountered many setbacks throughout his career, there is nothing that says one can’t flip a switch and enter a new, championship gear. As of this writing, there is no evidence that Dariush hasn’t flipped that switch.
Heading Into 2022: If Dariush is able to get past his next challenge, Islam Makhachev, then he will almost be guaranteed to have a much higher ranking next year, regardless of what else happens in 2021. As far as the UFC rankings go, he currently sits at #3 in the division.
#25: Jan Blachowicz
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Jan Blachowicz comes in at #25 on our list, which may be a controversial placement due to him being behind not one, but two light heavyweights on this year’s list. One reason for this conservative placement is because his latest loss to Glover Teixeira was a poor showing overall, with Teixeira defeating him with relative ease despite coming in as the underdog. That greatly impacts category #1.
Category #3 was also awarded less than many others ranked ahead of him because, to this day, Blachowicz is not given the full respect from oddsmakers and pundits as someone who just held the world title. In fact, in his next fight against #3-ranked Aleksandar Rakić, the odds are even, and he is not expected to be champion by the end of the year. Furthermore, what was also taken into consideration with category #3 is some other setbacks that have occurred throughout his career, with losses to names like Corey Anderson, Patrick Cummins, and Jimi Manuwa.
That said, you have to give Blachowicz his respect and credit in all three categories for his victory over Israel Adesanya in March of 2021. Blachowicz was able to earn a unanimous decision against one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world and a reigning champion. A victory over Adesanya is a huge notch on his résumé that no one else in the world can claim. He also holds a victory over someone else on our list, Dominick Reyes, where he was able to capture the championship in September 2020. Plus, prior to his loss to Teixeira, he had won five straight, meaning he is 5-1 in his last six fights.
Heading Into 2022: Now 38 years old, Jan Blachowicz will once again become the hunter after briefly being the hunted. Coming off a painful defeat to Teixeira in October, will his fire that was forged in flame drown from the huntsman’s pain? Or will he emerge from last year’s wreckage with the use of Polish Power? We’ll get our first and perhaps only answer this year when he takes on Aleksandar Rakić on March 26.
#24: Jiří Procházka
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Right out the gate, we’d like to point out that these rankings do not only consider success in the UFC. We take a holistic approach to a performer’s entire body of work, as evident with Michael Chandler, who also cracked the top 50 of our list. In the case of Jiří Procházka, he serves as living proof that one can build a very strong résumé and body of work outside of the UFC, especially when that résumé is validated upon your performances upon entering the Octagon.
For category #2, which factors in body of work, for those who solely have a UFC-centric mindset, this ranking will likely be a bit too generous, maybe even disrespectful to someone like Jan Blachowicz who has been champion. However, unlike Blachowicz, Procházka is on a crazy winning streak, winning 12 consecutive fights, without losing a fight since 2015.
Through his decade-long tenure as a formal mixed martial artist, this retro ninja has been the ruination of lesser men. In what may be the craziest statistic available on this year’s list, a mindblowing 25 of Procházka’s 28 wins have come by KO/TKO, including his two wins inside the Octagon. Those wins were both over former title challengers: Volkan Oezdemir and someone who appears on this very list: Dominick Reyes, taking home Performance of the Night for both victories and Fight of the Night as well against Reyes in what was one of the best fights of 2021.
Procházka’s victory over Reyes after running straight toward danger and adversity also showcased his ability to win, which gives the samurai an extra boost in category #3. What also gives him a boost in this category is the fact that oddsmakers and experts have him pegged as the most likely person to end the year as light heavyweight champion.
Heading Into 2022: While it has not been confirmed, all indications point to Procházka being the first challenger to Glover Teixeira’s reign as light heavyweight champion. Should he win that fight and maybe tag on one successful title defense, we could be talking top-5 territory for Procházka in next year’s list depending on how dominant those performances were.
#23: Deiveson Figueiredo
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Next up on our list is former flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo. Figueiredo is placed higher than former champions Jan Blachowicz and Zhang Weili for a variety of reasons.
Figueiredo’s career winning percentage is significantly higher than Blachowicz’s, which directly impacts category #3, and his recent performances from the span of 2020-2021 were stronger than Zhang’s on the whole. Figueiredo went 3-1-1 during this stretch with all finish victories while Zhang went 1-2 with the lone victory being a split decision.
Furthermore, Figueiredo was one groin kick away from defeating current champion Brandon Moreno at UFC 256 in what was ultimately a majority draw. Also, similar to Procházka, when Figueiredo wins, he makes a statement, with 17 of his 20 victories being stoppages. He also doesn’t discriminate on the method in which he gets it done with nine wins coming by KO and eight by submission. When Figueredo’s work is done, there may be no one left standing to destroy this God of War.
Figueiredo’s finish count is less than Procházka’s number, but the Brazilian is ranked higher due to being rewarded for being a former champion, which is tied to category #2. Additionally, Figueiredo has more victories/finishes in the UFC.
Heading Into 2022: Entering the year, Figueiredo is ranked #1 in the flyweight division. His next bout will be a trilogy fight against reigning champion Brandon Moreno at UFC 270 next weekend.
#22: Julianna Peña
Reasoning Behind Ranking:
They said she would never make it
But she was built to break the mold
And capture the only dream that she’d been chasing on her own.
I think we all know what the reason behind this placement is.
In terms of recent performances, it’s pretty hard to top submitting the consensus WMMA GOAT in her prime after outgrappling and submitting an Olympic silver medalist wrestler (Sara McMann), both in the same calendar year. And as the new champion who is still only 32 years old and having just bested the biggest threat in her division, her career trajectory is also at or near a 10/10. Thus, the points awarded to Peña in Category #1, our most significant category, are about as high as anyone on our list.
The new champion also does not come up empty in category #2 (body of work, achievements, and résumé), as she is the first woman to ever win The Ultimate Fighter. She also holds victories over names like Cat Zingano, former champion Nicco Montaño, and former title challenger Jessica Eye.
And in our final category (likelihood to win fights), not only did she just earn a heap of credibility by soundly defeating the WMMA GOAT, but her only losses in the UFC have come against former champions Valentina Shevchenko and Germaine de Randamie. In those bouts, she took one round against both fighters before losing. This helps support her frequent claim that she is often underestimated and is among the best in the world. And as long as she has the bantamweight strap wrapped around her waist, she is the best in the world.
Heading Into 2022: What’s up next for the champ seems pretty clear cut: a rematch with Nunes in what Dana White feels certain will be the biggest women’s fight in UFC history.
#21: Brandon Moreno
Reasoning Behind Ranking: What lands Brandon Moreno at #21 and ahead of Julianna Peña is his hyperactivity over the past two years and the fact that he is unbeaten in his last seven fights. Moreno’s 2021 only had one performance, but he sure did make it count when he became the first man to ever submit Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 263.
14 of the UFC’s baby-faced assassin’s 19 victories have been stoppages, including his last two wins over Figueiredo and Brandon Royval. And in his draw against Figueiredo at UFC 256, he took home Fight of the Night and participated in one of the greatest flyweight fights of all time.
In addition to the unbeaten streak and his UFC 263 performance, Moreno was also awarded heavy points in Category #1 for his career trajectory. The fact that Moreno has demonstrably and steadily improved and is only 28 years of age made him one of the top earners in this category.
In category #3, although he was once seen as an underdog, the fact that he is currently listed as a steady betting favorite over the #1 contender and is undefeated in his last seven fights makes him the most likely to win a fight in his division at the close of 2021.
Heading Into 2022: As noted earlier, Brandon Moreno will now be taking on Deiveson Figueiredo in a trilogy fight at UFC 270 next weekend to further cement himself as the guy in the UFC flyweight division.
Stay tuned to find out who is next on the MMA News Top 100 Fighters Of 2021 in Part 9!