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 9 begins right now!
#20: José Aldo
Reasoning Behind Ranking: The incomparable José Aldo continues to hear the screams fill everywhere as he takes the necessary steps toward running another UFC division.
The fact that he ran the WEC/UFC featherweight division for as long as he did—from 2009 to 2015 and through nine successful title defenses—gave him a massive edge over almost everyone on this list in category #2. Much like Dominick Cruz, who appears earlier on this list, any time you have a résumé as extensive as José Aldo’s and you get on a winning streak, you will be provided full respect from our panel.
In 2021, Aldo went 2-0 to extend his winning streak to three. First, he defeated Pedro Munhoz via unanimous decision in August. Then, in his first main event since 2017, Aldo defeated a top-5 bantamweight (at the time) in Rob Font via unanimous decision. With that performance, Aldo put the bantamweight division on notice: ‘You’re next.’
All three of Aldo’s wins came against ranked opponents and none of the fights were close. So given his résumé and recent performances, categories #1 and #2 were both very strong for the Brazilian legend and are the main reasons for his ranking at #20.
Heading Into 2022: Don’t look now, but José Aldo may very well be one fight away from another title shot. He already fought Petr Yan for the championship, but that was three fights ago. That being said, his chances of getting another world title opportunity would probably be greater if he challenges a different champion, such as the current titleholder who will appear shortly on this list.
#19: Justin Gaethje
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Justin Gaethje will be the first to tell you straight to your face that he is a full-throttle warmonger. No one consistently puts on a show like him; no one promotes violence more ferociously than this “Highlight.” But beyond the performance bonuses and the thrilling clips, he’s also a first-rate competitor.
Gaethje has won five of his last six fights, with the lone loss coming to the unstoppable and damn-near unfair Khabib Nurmagomedov. Aside from that defeat, four out of those five wins were stoppages, and the latest win over Michael Chandler was considered Fight of the Year. Now, to be in a Fight of the Year candidate, that usually means you’ve left yourself wide open to suffering a loss.
This theoretically would impact category #3, his likelihood to win. However, when you’ve won in every non-Khabib fight you’ve had since 2018, you’ve built up enough credit in that area. And if anything, these wars have solidified that he is the most likely to emerge from near-fatal collisions as the sole survivor.
Gaethje’s career trajectory is also off the charts at the moment, with the American listed as the current #1 contender for the lightweight championship. This strengthens his case in Category #1, our most heavily weighted category.
Altogether, Gaethje’s performance quality, winning percentage, and body of work that includes wins over names like Tony Ferguson, Edson Barboza, and Michael Chandler have him pretty rock solid in all three categories.
Heading Into 2022: As noted, Justin Gaethje is currently the #1 contender and is currently expected to challenge champion Charles Oliveira for the world title this year.
#18: Aljamain Sterling
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Up next on our list is the reigning, albeit controversial, UFC bantamweight champion, Aljamain “Funk Master” Sterling. What isn’t controversial about this champion is his skill set. Sterling has won six straight fights, five straight by non-DQ. This includes wins over four competitors who have been ranked in the UFC: Cody Stamann, Jimmie Rivera, Pedro Munhoz, and our #29-ranked fighter, Cory Sandhagen.
None of those non-DQ victories were competitive. In fact, in the case of Sandhagen, Sterling was able to submit the #4-ranked bantamweight less than two minutes into their fight and take home Performance of the Night for his troubles. Overall, Sterling’s record is a pretty 20-3, holding a winning percentage that proves “The Funk Master” is always more likely than not to do a victory dance.
Currently in his prime and unbeaten since 2017, Aljamain Sterling’s career trajectory is arguably as high as anyone in the bantamweight division right now. All in all, Sterling checks off all the categorical boxes of our criteria.
Sterling edges out Gaethje for this spot mainly because, in his three losses, he has been finished one time while Gaethje has been finished three times. He also has a longer winning streak than Gaethje at the moment, and he holds a victory over Cory Sandhagen, who is ranked higher on this list than anyone Gaethje has defeated.
Heading Into 2022: Look, Aljamain Sterling loves it when people count him out. He’s proven to be a soldier with a growing attack arsenal that he expects will silence his critics once and for all when he rematches Petr Yan at UFC 273 in April. Those critics, of course, label Sterling as a fake champion after he won the title from Yan via disqualification. The only thing on Sterling’s mind as a competitor coming into 2022 is leaving no doubt about who is the rightful top dog at 135.
#17: Colby Covington
Reasoning Behind Ranking: As Kamaru Usman and Dana White have both stated in so many words, if ever there was an example of “If __ didn’t exist, he would be world champion,” it may be this man. Across two fights, Covington has demonstrated how narrow the gap is between himself and the UFC’s pound-for-pound #1-ranked fighter.
And outside of this rival, he has completely run through every opponent put in front of him since 2015. This includes lopsided victories over names like Demian Maia and former UFC champions Rafael dos Anjos, Robbie Lawler, and Tyron Woodley. Covington’s nonstop motor, enhanced striking, and suffocating wrestling make him visibly one of the most talented and well-rounded fighters in the entire promotion.
Accordingly, he would almost surely be favorited over any fighter at 170 pounds not named Kamaru Usman, which grants him large credit in category #3, and his résumé which includes the aforementioned victories affirm that he does NOT suck and gives him strong credit in category #2 as well.
Had Covington been more active, he might have found himself ranked even higher than this. That is how talented he has proven himself to be. But with the lack of steady activity recently and not winning a fight since September 2020, the #17 placement is very generous, if anything. But even in terms of recent performances, his latest loss to Usman was not treated as a net negative by our panel due to this performance validating just how close Covington is to being the best in the world.
Heading Into 2022: Colby Covington will finally get his long-requested grudge match against Jorge Masvidal in the main event of UFC 272 in March, and that’s one fight—and buildup—that you won’t want to miss a single second of.
#16: T.J. Dillashaw
Reasoning Behind Ranking: In another tricky placement on our list this year, T.J. Dillashaw comes in at a healthy #16 despite only having one fight since 2019.
Beginning with category #1, T.J. Dillashaw remains next in line for the winner of Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan II, which demonstrates his career trajectory is still trending very high. As far as recent performances, he emerged victorious from a classic battle against someone ranked high on our list, Cory Sandhagen, in his return after a two-year layoff. This is the only true “recent” performance from Dillashaw, which is the primary reason he is not ranked higher.
In category #2, though no doubt tainted by the USADA suspension of 2019, the fact remains the following victories occurred without any positive test results and must be fully acknowledged by our panel: prime Renan Barão (2x), Raphael Assunção, John Lineker, and two wins over Cody Garbrandt that were huge statement victories at the time. Furthermore, his championship loss to Dominick Cruz in 2016 was considered by most to be a toss-up that could have gone either way.
In category #3, Dillashaw has established himself as one of the most well-rounded fighters on the UFC roster. He can fight an entire contest on his feet with grace and efficiency, he can outwork his opponent with elite wrestling, and he also has among the highest fight IQs in the game.
Additionally, his victory over Cory Sandhagen helped answer questions on how likely he is to continue winning after his USADA suspension, and it also poses the question: if Dillashaw performed that well after a two-year layoff, how will he look moving forward?
Heading Into 2022: Now that he’s back in the world he loves, the #2-ranked Dillashaw isn’t shedding any tears about his past but looking to continue validating his career by becoming a three-time UFC champion. That may or may not require one more fight after he returns from knee surgery. One likely opponent for Dillashaw if that additional fight is required is the #3-ranked contender and fellow ex-UFC champ, José Aldo.
#15: Glover Teixeira
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Who would have thought two years ago that a 42-year-old Glover Teixeira would be world champion and rank at #15 on the MMA News Top 100 Fighters of 2021 list?? Based on the confidence he’s built on since his winning streak began three years ago, Teixeira’s self-belief was always there. And by taking it day by day, paying the requisite price, and bleeding for it, Teixeira now sits as the king of the UFC’s light heavyweight jungle.
Things haven’t always gone smoothly for Teixeira, but as far as his recent performances go, he has now won six consecutive victories, including the magnum opus of his career: submitting Jan Blachowicz to finally become UFC world champion.
During this career-defining stretch, Teixeira has defeated names like former title challengers Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos, but of course, it was the victory over Blachowicz that earned Teixeira this placement on our list more than anything else.
It’s important to note that in terms of his body of work, this stretch, as remarkable as it has been, is not all that defines Teixeira’s legendary career. He has 33 career wins in total, which also includes wins over the likes of Rashad Evans, Ryan Bader, and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson among many others.
Heading Into 2022: Still an underdog heading into the new year, Teixeira is not expected by the oddsmakers to exit 2022 with the gold he came in with. He’ll have his first chance to prove the doubters wrong again if his anticipated bout against Jiří Procházka goes down this year.
#14: Dustin Poirier
Reasoning Behind Ranking: When it comes to the respect of our panel, Dustin Poirier is getting paid in full by this placement at #14 of our list despite coming up short in his quest for lightweight gold at UFC 269.
Although this loss was Poirier’s most recent performance, he still came away with many points in Category #1 due to his back-to-back victories over Conor McGregor. Prior to that, he soundly defeated Dan Hooker via unanimous decision.
But what is ironically Dustin Poirier’s strongest category is still perhaps his body of work and résumé, despite failing to become UFC champion in 2021. Since 2017, Poirier’s record stands up against the very best of the best, with the Louisiana native going 8-2 in this stretch, including victories over former champions Anthony Pettis, Eddie Alvarez, Max Holloway, and another fighter who, like Holloway, is prominently featured on this list: Justin Gaethje.
Dustin Poirier has developed a reputation of having the resolve and stubbornness to keep pressing forward even after the most disheartening stumbles. So as someone who has never lost back-to-back fights in his 13-year career, the odds seem likely that he’ll be getting his hand raised once again sometime soon.
Heading Into 2022: The accompanying questions are following this latest bounceback attempt: What division will Poirier return to? And who will be his opponent?
While Poirier has made no secret that he’d love nothing more for the answers to those questions to be a welterweight bout against Nate Diaz, recent stalls in those negotiations leave those questions unanswered until further notice.
#13: Islam Makhachev
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Islam Makhachev does not have the names on his résumé as a Dustin Poirier or even a Justin Gaethje. But he has earned something that neither of them or any other current lightweight has: a reputation of being completely and utterly unstoppable.
This perception of Makhachev has been cemented through his nine consecutive dominant victories where he’s left his opponents demoralized and victimized. Since 2016, whenever opponents have stepped inside the Octagon against Makhachev, he has left them utterly confused, without relief, and searching for any way out of there.
In his last three victories, as the levels of competition have increased, so has the degree of dominance: with impressive submissions over Drew Dober, Thiago Moisés, and someone who appears on this list: Dan Hooker. Makhachev holds another victory over someone on this list, Arman Tsarukyan in what won Fight of the Night. To get an idea of just how dominant this guy is, even when he wins Fight of the Night, it’s still a 30-27, 30-27, 29-28 unanimous decision!
The fact that Makhachev’s recent performances have been increasingly dominant through these nine fights and because he is now right smack dab in his prime at 30 years old, his career trajectory is arguably as high as anyone in the entire promotion who is not currently wearing UFC gold. And there is a very good chance that Makhachev would be the betting favorite over anyone in the division right now. Evidence of this can be found in him being a major -390 favorite over our #26-ranked fighter, Beneil Dariush, despite Dariush being on a monster winning streak himself.
The strength Makhachev carries in Categories 1 and 2 is what has earned him this lofty spot on our list.
Heading Into 2022: Conventional wisdom holds that Islam Makhachev is only one fight away from having the opportunity to join his mentor Khabib Nurmagomedov in the hall of UFC lightweight champions. But first, as mentioned, he must get past #3-ranked Beneil Dariush in a fight scheduled for February 26.
#12: Ciryl Gane
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Coming in hot and high on our list at #12 is the undefeated and remarkable Ciryl Gane.
In many ways, Ciryl Gane is ranked somewhere near where Khamzat Chimaev might be if he had four ranked, established, and highly respected names on his résumé like Junior dos Santos, Jairzinho Rozenstruik, Alexander Volkov, and Derrick Lewis, with none looking as if they had any business being in the cage with Gane. Meanwhile, this ascending star has no signs of fear or discomfort in front of the cameras and just dazzles like it’s second nature.
Unlike Chimaev, Gane isn’t known to steamroll his opponents in the first round. Instead, he’s able to pick them apart flawlessly over a prolonged stretch in the most dangerous division, which in some ways is even more impressive.
Chimaev comparisons aside, Ciryl Gane has brought an entirely fresh and new style to the heavyweight division that he showcases with smooth ease, as if partaking in a sparring session while his opponents are giving maximum effort.
The quality of Gane’s recent performance and career trajectory cannot be overstated. When you receive a heavyweight title shot after only 10 professional fights, that can only be due to a 10/10 rating on career trajectory and recent-performance quality. Most recently, Gane completely outclasses Derrick Lewis in Lewis’ hometown of Houston to become the interim UFC heavyweight champion.
Despite Islam Makhachev having more wins than Gane, the fact that Gane is undefeated with wins over a much higher level of competition scores Gane a spot above the Dagestani grappler.
And in regards to category #3, Gane’s flawless record joined with the fact that the odds have him dead even with the most feared man in the company and one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, Francis Ngannou, shows just how much respect he’s been given by the public despite his young career.
Heading Into 2022: Next weekend, Ciryl Gane will take part in the first blockbuster fight of 2022 when he faces the aforementioned “Predator” Francis Ngannou in a heavyweight title unification bout at UFC 270 live from the Honda Center in Anaheim, California.
#11: Robert Whittaker
Reasoning Behind Ranking: Robert Whittaker has shown the world that he can be touched, he can be moved, he can be rocked, he can be shaken,
It looked as though perhaps “The Reaper” might have been turned into a relic after reigning champion Israel Adesanya finished him at UFC 243. But stories of his demise were greatly exaggerated.
Since that loss, Whittaker has earned major points in Category #1 with three straight unanimous decision victories in his recent performances over other premier strikers Darren Till, Jared Cannonier, and Kelvin Gastelum.
Whittaker also hits both categories #2 and #3 with the facts that he is a former world champion and has won an incredible 12 out of his last 13 fights. This is especially noteworthy when considering who he’s faced. We’re talking about a prime Jacare Souza, Yoel Romero (2x), and Derek Brunson, along with the other aforementioned names and many others.
Robert Whittaker is without question worthy of a spot in our top 10. What gives our next fighter the oh-so-slight edge over him is the fact that they are a current titleholder. You can find out who that person is in the conclusion of our list tomorrow, as well as who fills out the rest of the top 10.
Heading Into 2022: Robert Whittaker will have an opportunity to fix that “not a champion” blip when he faces Israel Adesanya in a rematch of their 2019 bout at UFC 271 next month.
Stay tuned to find out who all are in the top 10 of our list in the exciting conclusion of the MMA News Top 100 Fighters of 2021 list tomorrow!