As the UFC wants to start 2021 with two elements that were sorely lacking for most of 2020 – Conor McGregor and present fans – This short break in the calendar provides the perfect window to take stock and look ahead.
Who will have the best year of all? After a 2020 that was far from normal, there will be plenty of opportunities for fighters to distance themselves from the pack in 2021, and our MMA panel of experts is setting out to determine who will step forward.
This is not a list of the top 30 fighters in the UFC – it’s a ranking based on odds that fighters have already signed up for or that they are planning for the year ahead. It takes into account who they will be fighting and who might be facing them in their respective divisions over the next 12 months.
And while there are sure to be some surprises on this list, that doesn’t mean someone can’t dramatically improve their net worth in the next 12 months just because they didn’t make the cut in this top 30. Indeed, if you compare this year’s top 30 to what was planned for 2020the overlap is not as great as you can imagine.
With all of these explanations out of the way, it is time to reveal the top 10. If you missed the first two entries of the ESPN MMA Rank 2021, be sure to check them out who ranked from 21-30, as as well as 11-20.
Article by Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim.
Record 2020: 1-0 ((SUB1 via Cory Sandhagen)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: Not rated
Next fight: March 6th vs. Petr Yan (UFC 259)
Outlook for 2021: Sterling established himself as the clear next challenger for the bantamweight title with a stunning first round win Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250 in June. Sterling was scheduled to challenge champion Petr Yan at UFC 256 in December, but the fight ended due to an unknown problem with Yan. The title fight was recently rescheduled for March and should be another important showcase for two top fighters from a very deep division. Sterling has won five straight wins and earned more than his belt chance. Some have already rated Funk Master as the best in the world at £ 135. – Raimondi
Record 2020: 1-0 ((UD about Jorge Masvidal)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 4th
Next fight: February 13th vs. Gilbert Burns (UFC 258)
Outlook for 2021: Being the first UFC champion to defend a belt in 2021 is what you consider a great start to the new year. Usman will face a former teammate he has been waiting for a long time. He and Burns were initially due to fight in July and when that didn’t happen they were paired again for December, which also failed. The third booking is an opportunity for Usman to finally cross another £ 170 contender off his list, and the delay in implementation allows the division to face more challenges should he succeed. – Wagenheim
Record 2020: 1-0 ((TKO1 via Donald Cerrone)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 7th
Next fight: January 23 vs. Dustin Poirier (UFC 257)
Outlook for 2021: The plan for McGregor by 2020 was to fight at least three times, culminating in a second shot at the UFC lightweight title against Khabib Nurmagomedov. Then COVID-19 came into play, the idea for a “season” fell apart and Nurmagomedov withdrew. McGregor even announced his own resignation in June out of frustration. The former UFC doubles champion will be back this month against old rival Dustin Poirier, and a win in that fight will almost certainly give McGregor a title chance. The potential is there for a huge year. – Raimondi
Record 2020: 1-0 ((UD via Felicia Spencer)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 8th
Next fight: March 6th vs. Megan Anderson (UFC 259)
Outlook for 2021: The only remaining UFC champion champion had a busy 2020. She only fought once but was busy becoming a mom. Try to beat that in 2021. Well, defending the featherweight title successfully in two months would be a step in that direction. Then Nunes can turn her attention back to the bantamweight, which by then may have spawned a title challenger. If not, we’ll hear requests for a trilogy battle against the flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko. Where else should Nunes go? – Wagenheim
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 5
Next fight: TBD
Outlook for 2021: Most likely more dominance. Shevchenko has hit the women’s flyweight division hard for the past two years. Your next likely challenger is the powerhouse Jessica Andrade, the former UFC strawweight champion. That could be Shevchenko’s toughest test yet, but Shevchenko will likely still be a big favorite. Later in the year, there is a possibility that Shevchenko might get involved in a super fight, either against the women’s strawweight champion (currently) Zhang Weili) or in a trilogy fight against bantamweight and featherweight champion Amanda Nunes. – Raimondi
Record 2020: 1-0 ((SD via Joanna Jedrzejczyk)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 11
Next fight: TBD
Outlook for 2021: She only competed once in 2020, in March, but it seems like we saw Zhang a lot more than that because of the highlights of her brawl with Joanna Jedrzejczyk were shown over and over again for good reason. It was the fight of the year for pretty much anyone who rates these things. Next up could be another former champion Rose Namajunas. This is the fight that makes sense, but the UFC hasn’t booked it yet. Why the delay? It’s not very clear. It would be a duel of high-level skills and would get the UFC’s most competitive women’s division off to a good start into 2021. – Wagenheim
Record 2020: 1-0 ((KO1 via Jairzinho Rozenstruik)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 6
Next fight: TBD vs. Stipe Miocic
Outlook for 2021: Ngannou waited three years for a second shot in the UFC heavyweight title. Miocic beat him at UFC 220 in January 2018, but Ngannou has since made great improvements while training at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. It looks like Ngannou will finally make a jump at Miocic again sometime in the first or early second quarter of 2021. The hardest part for Ngannou over the past two years is that he has decimated everyone in his path while going through long stretches of inactivity because Very few fights make sense to him in a slow heavyweight class. – Raimondi
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: Not rated
Next fight: TBD
Outlook for 2021: 2020 will be a difficult task for Figueiredo. He became champion in a year when he was busy and dominant – at least until his last outing. He quickly got his way through his first three bouts of the year, including two against the perennial 125-pound No. 2 Joseph Benavidez. Then came the flyweight title defense last month, with which he traded leather Brandon Moreno for five exciting rounds in a classic that scored a draw. What now? UFC President Dana White has guaranteed Figueiredo-Moreno 2 is next. If Figueiredo remains champion thereafter, he could rule in an increasingly interesting flyweight division for a while. – Wagenheim
Record 2020: 1-0 ((UD via Dominick Reyes)
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 2
Next fight: TBD
Outlook for 2021: Jones did almost everything there is to do in MMA. He was the longtime UFC light heavyweight champion, was never beaten for that belt, and his lone career loss was a disqualification 12 years ago. His next frontier? The UFC heavyweight division. He cleared the light heavyweight belt last August and is ready to fight for the heavyweight belt next, likely against Stipe Miocic’s winner versus Francis Ngannou. Jones’ goal is to leave absolutely no doubt that he is the greatest of all time. – Raimondi
2020 ESPN MMA Rank: 3
Next fight: March 6 vs. Jan Blachowicz (UFC 259)
Outlook for 2021: If Adesanya becomes a champion champion by adding the light heavyweight belt to his trophy case, as he prefers when challenging Blachowicz, it will be a great feat. He will have moved up from middleweight – a 20 pound jump which is huge. And who doubts Adesanya? Nobody. His combination of poise and brutality in his knockout win against Costa increased his stature in the sport – and he already came into the fight as a champion. This super fight against Blachowicz is sure to unleash some of the performance art that makes Adesanya a must-see from strike to finish. – Wagenheim