With the UFC looking to start the year 2021 with two elements that were sorely missed in the year 2020 – Conor McGregor and the fans in attendance – this short break in the calendar provides the perfect window to take stock and look ahead.
So, who’s going to have the best year ever? After a year that was anything but normal, there’s no shortage of opportunities for fighters to distance themselves from the pack in 2021, and our panel of MMA experts will be there to determine who will rise through the ranks.
This is not a list of the top 30 fighters in the UFC, but a ranking based on the opportunities fighters have already signed for or plan to fight in the coming year. This takes into account who they will be fighting over the next 12 months and who they may be facing in their respective divisions.
And while there are certainly surprises in this list, just because someone isn’t in the top 30 doesn’t mean they can’t drastically improve over the next 12 months. If we compare this year’s top 30 with the 2020 projections, the overlap is not as great as one might think.
And so, after explaining all this, it’s time to reveal the top 10. If you missed the first two entries in the ESPN MMA 2021 Rankings, check out the spots 21-30 and 11-20.
Written by Mark Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim.
Record 2020: 1-0 (SUB1 on Cory Sandhagen).
Grade ESPN MMA 2020 : Not registered
Next fight: 6. March against Piotr Jahn (UFC 259)
Forecast for 2021 : Sterling emerged as the next challenger for the heavyweight title with a stunning first-round victory over Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250 in June. Sterling was supposed to challenge champion Peter Jan for UFC 256 in December, but the fight fell through due to an undisclosed issue with Jan. The fight for the title was recently postponed to March, and this should be another great showcase for two of the best fighters in a very deep division. Sterling has won five in a row and has more than earned his chance at the belt. The Funk Master has already been named by some as the best in the world at 135 pounds. — Raimondi
Record 2020: 1-0 (UD via Jorge Masvidal)
Grade ESPN MMA 2020 : 4
Next fight: 13. February against Gilbert Burns (UFC 258)
Forecast for 2021 : Being the first UFC champion to defend the belt in 2021 is what you call a good start to the year. Usman will be up against the former teammate he has been waiting for. He and Burns were originally supposed to face each other in July, but when that fell through, they were reunited for December, which also fell through. The third caveat is Usman’s chance to finally eliminate another 170-pound prospect from his list, and the delay in eliminating him allows the league to line up if he succeeds. — Wagenheim
Record 2020: 1-0 (TKO1 on Donald Cerrone)
Grade ESPN MMA 2020 : 7
Next fight: 23. January against Dustin Poirier (PDU 257)
Forecast for 2021 : McGregor’s plan for 2020 was to have at least three fights, culminating in a second fight for the UFC Lightweight Championship title against Khabib Nurmagomedov. Then came COVID-19, the idea of the season collapsed, and Nurmagomedov resigned. McGregor even announced his retirement in June out of frustration. The former two-time UFC champion returns this month against longtime rival Dustin Poirier, and a win in that fight would almost certainly give McGregor the title. The potential is there for a whole year. — Raimondi
Record 2020: 1-0 (UD via Felicia Spencer).
ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings: 8
Next fight: 6. March against Megan Anderson (UFC 259)
Forecast for 2021 : The only remaining UFC champion has had an eventful year in 2020. She only fought once, but she was very busy as a mother. Try to get over that number, 2021. Now, a successful defense of the bantamweight title in two months would be a step in that direction. Nunes can then move up to bantamweight, which would allow him to win the title. Otherwise, we will begin to hear pleas for a trilogy fight against bantamweight champion Valentina Shevchenko. Where else can the Nunes go? — Wagenheim
Record 2020: 2-0 (TKO3 against Kathleen Chukagian; UD against Jennifer Maya)
ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings: 5
Next fight: TBD
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Forecast for 2021 : More dominance, more opportunities. Shevchenko has had a rough couple of years in the women’s bantamweight division. Her next likely opponent will be Jessica Andrade, the former UFC Bantamweight Champion. This could be the toughest test for Shevchenko, but it is likely that he will always be the clear favorite. Later in the year, Shevchenko could be drawn into a redundant fight against the featherweight champion (now Zhang Wiley) and a trilogy fight against featherweight champion Amanda Nunes. — Raimondi
Record 2020: 1-0 (SD via Joanna Jedrzejczyk)
ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings: 11
Next fight: TBD
Forecast for 2021 : She only competed once in 2020, last March, but we seem to have seen a lot more of Zhang, as highlights of her fight against Joanna Jedrzejczyk have been frequent, and for good reason. For almost everyone in their line, it was the battle of the year. Another former champion, Rosa Namajunas, could be next. This fight makes sense, but the UFC hasn’t booked it yet. Why the delay? It’s not entirely clear. It would be a high-level duel that would give the most competitive women’s division in the UFC a strong start to 2021. — Wagenheim
Record 2020: 1-0 (KO1 on Jairzinho Rosenstruyk)
ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings: 6
Next fight: TBD versus Stipe Miocic.
Forecast for 2021 : Ngannou has waited three years for a second attempt at the UFC heavyweight title. Miocic defeated him at UFC 220 in January 2018, but Ngannou has greatly improved since then by training at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. It looks like Ngannou will get another chance to take on Miocic in the first or early second quarter of 2021. The hardest thing for Ngannou these last two years has been to destroy everyone in her path. He went through long periods of inactivity because little fighting made sense to him in a slow moving heavyweight division. — Raimondi
Record 2020: 3-0-1 (TKO2 vs. Joseph Benavidez; TechSUB1 vs. Benavidez; SUB1 vs. Alex Perez, Major Draw vs. Brandon Moreno).
ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings: Not registered
Next fight: TBD
Forecast for 2021 : For Figueiredo, 2020 will not be an easy year. He became champion during a busy and dominant year – at least until his final expression. He quickly imposed his will in his first three fights of the year, including two against perennial contender for the No. 2 title, Joseph Benavidez, at 125 pounds. Last month, he shared skin with Brandon Moreno for five thrilling rounds in a classic that was declared a draw. What’s the next step? UFC president Dana White has guaranteed that there will be a Figueiredo-Moreno 2. If Figueiredo remains champion after that, he could reign for a while in an increasingly interesting light division. — Wagenheim
Record 2020: 1-0 (UD via Dominic Reyes)
ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings: 2
Next fight: TBD
Forecast for 2021 : Jones has done just about everything you can do in MMA. He has been a long-time UFC light heavyweight champion, but has never been defeated and his only career loss was a disqualification 12 years ago. His next frontier? UFC Heavy Vehicle Division. He left the light heavyweight belt last August and is set to fight for the next heavyweight belt, most likely against Stipe Miocic winner Francis Ngannou. Jones’ goal is to leave no doubt that he is the greatest of them all. — Raimondi
Record 2020: 2-0 (UD via Yoel Romero, TKO2 Paulo Costa)
Grade ESPN MMA 2020 : 3
Next fight: 6. Mars v Jan Blachowicz (UFC 259)
Forecast for 2021 : If Adesanya becomes champion by adding a light heavyweight belt to his trophy case, as he would like if he challenges Blachowicz, it would be an extraordinary achievement. He goes from middleweight – a jump of 20 pounds, which is huge. And who doubts Adesanya? None. The combination of composure and ferocity in his knockout victory over Costa made him a household name in the sport – and he was already going into the fight as a champion. This redundancy against Blachowicz will certainly unleash some of the power that runs Adesanya from the alley to the finish. — Wagenheim