MMA

UFC weight class power rankings: Why the UFC’s lightweight division reigned supreme in 2022

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The UFC’s last fight card will feature two of the best lightweights in MMA in Arman Tsarukyan and Damir Ismagulov (Saturday, 7 p.m. E.T. on ESPN+), who carry a combined record of 42-4 in their careers thus far. Neither is relatively close to contending for a title in 2023.

That’s how deep the 155-pound division is at the moment, with former champions scattered across the division. Plus, ESPN’s current No. 2 ranked pound-for-pound fighter Islam Makhachev is currently wearing the title gold. And this is the division that Alexander Volkanovski wants to play in next. Volkanovski, the current men’s featherweight champion, is the current pound-for-pound champion.

The lightweight division is the best weight class in the UFC, right?

Jon Jones is planning a return to heavyweight, and Francis Ngannou is also returning to health and is primed to defend his title. Could the big boys of the sport dethrone the lightweights?

What about the welterweight and women’s strawweight divisions? With new champions in Leon Edwards and Zhang Weili, the weight classes have new life and newfound depth, with the former champions still poised to make a run back for their belts.

So, how do the various weight classes in the UFC stack up? ESPN put together a panel to vote on power rankings, which we continually update throughout the year.

Note: Our panel ranks all 12 weight classes from top to bottom, taking stock of which divisions are performing the best now and which have the best pound-for-pound fighters. ESPN’s panel includes Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim, Din Thomas, Anthony Smith, Phil Murphy, Ian Parker, Andres Waters, Andrew Feldman and Eddie Maisonet.

1. Lightweight: 155 pounds

  • Champion: Islam Makhachev

  • Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Makhachev (No. 2), Oliveira (No. 6)

  • Biggest upcoming fight: Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski on Feb. 11

The UFC’s featherweight champ, Volkanovski — and the consensus No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world — moving up to challenge Islam Makhachev for the lightweight belt at UFC 284 in February may be the biggest storyline in the sport. Behind the scenes, this was not an easy fight to put together. Volkanovski was one of the only people who wanted it. His team wasn’t sold on it being the best move for him, not when he still has fights at 145 pounds. The UFC wasn’t sold on it, either. Any time a champion fights out of their weight class, it can tie up a division.

But at the end of the day, nobody could deny that Volkanovski had earned the right to try and make this fight happen. And the fact that this matchup will take place in Australia, Volkanovski’s home country, what a scene that will be.

Most intriguing fighter in the division: Rafael Fiziev. Makhachev is also intriguing, but looking down the rankings just a bit, you’ll find Fiziev is on his way up. The UFC has been looking at booking Fiziev and Justin Gaethje for a while now, possibly in March. Fiziev is good and he’s entertaining. He’s not far from his first crack at a UFC title. — Okamoto


2. Men’s bantamweight: 135 pounds

  • Champion: Aljamain Sterling

  • Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Sterling (No. 8)

  • Biggest upcoming fight: TBD

Aljamain Sterling is in the middle of one of the strangest title reigns in recent memory. He won the belt last year from Petr Yan via disqualification, eked out a close decision win over Yan in a rematch, and then beat a visibly injured former champion TJ Dillashaw via TKO at UFC 280 in October. Dillashaw has since had shoulder surgery and retired. None of those things is Sterling’s fault, but he surely is looking forward to the chance to make an emphatic statement in his next title defense.

Still, the question remains: Who will that defense come against? The buzz has been around former bantamweight and flyweight Henry Cejudo being the challenger in March. But Sean O’Malley, the fan favorite in the division, is waiting in the wings. O’Malley won’t return to the cage until July, which could set him up for the Sterling vs. Cejudo winner. O’Malley, with a chance to become UFC champion, might be one of the biggest stories of 2023.

Most intriguing fighter in the division: Any conversation about the bantamweight division next year has to include Marlon Vera. “Chito” has won four straight, coming off a highlight-reel knockout of former champion Dominick Cruz. One would have to imagine his next fight will be one of a top contender nature. And Vera’s storyline with O’Malley — the two fought before. Vera won, but O’Malley denies the legitimacy of the victory. That could come back into play over the next few months. — Raimondi


3. Welterweight: 170 pounds

Is it inevitable that Kamaru Usman will climb back to his rightful place at the top, or has doubt crept in? When Leon Edwards dethroned him in August, Usman did not look like a fighter who, at age 35, had lost a step. Usman was entirely in control of that fight until a fifth-round head kick put out his lights. But a knockout like that can change a fighter’s mentality — both fighters’ mentalities, actually. When they meet in a rematch, will Usman be either overly aggressive to avenge the KO or just a bit timid because of it? Will the concrete evidence embolden Edwards that he’s capable of such a massive victory?

Most intriguing fighter in the division: There are some climbing contenders, most prominently Belal Muhammad. But the most intriguing names are two already near the top, Colby Covington and Khamzat Chimaev. Covington was exiled to no-man’s land after twice losing to Usman, but he’s back in play as a contender now that Edwards owns the belt. Yet, Covington has not competed since last March. A fight against Chimaev would seem like an intelligent No. 1 contender showdown booking, no? — Wagenheim


4. Women’s strawweight: 115 pounds

Could Rose Namajunas be Zhang’s kryptonite? The fact is, Zhang has looked virtually unstoppable inside the Octagon, except for her two fights against Namajunas. Against every other opponent, Zhang has looked not only the part of a strawweight champion, but also someone who could hold that belt for a long time. She could even give the flyweight queen, Valentina Shevchenko, a run for her money at 125 pounds.

Zhang knows she’s capable of becoming a two-division champ, and has already started to push that narrative in the media. And considering Zhang is from China, the sheer weight of what her fanbase could become if she keeps winning — we’re talking about one of the biggest stars in UFC history, if she can tap into the Chinese market. But for all of that potential, she is 0-2 against Namajunas. And that’s an issue that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Most intriguing fighter in the division: Namajunas. She is the most intriguing fighter in this division and arguably the entire sport. When she is on and confident, she is pure magic to watch. At 30, she’s already a two-time UFC champion, and few would bet against her winning it again. Still, she’s also coming off one of most bizarre performances in UFC title fight history against Carla Esparza in May. During the fight, she barely attempted any offense and seemed to receive conflicting advice from her cornermen. Namajunas has always had a unique relationship with combat sports, and how that relationship develops into 2023 is a major story to watch. — Okamoto


5. Men’s featherweight: 145 pounds

  • Champion: Alexander Volkanovski

  • Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Volkanovski (No. 1)

  • Biggest upcoming fight: Yair Rodriguez vs. Josh Emmett on Feb. 11

The featherweight division might be in some flux heading into next year. Volkanovski, the current champion, will challenge Islam Makhachev for the UFC lightweight title at UFC 284 on Feb. 11 in Australia. Yair Rodriguez will fight Josh Emmett on that same card for the interim featherweight title. Presumably, Volkanovski will face the winner of Rodriguez vs. Emmett later in 2023. But what if Volkanovski wins the lightweight title, too? There would be obligations for him at 155 pounds, as well.

Volkanovski has said he would be very active (which he usually is, anyway) and defend both titles. But no fighter has ever been a two-division champion and done so efficiently, unless you count Amanda Nunes. But women’s featherweight isn’t much of a division. Meanwhile, men’s lightweight and featherweight are two of MMA’s most stacked weight classes. If Volkanovski loses to Makhachev, it will bring stability — and a full-time champ — back to 145 pounds.

Most intriguing fighter in the division: Rodriguez and Emmett are deserving of those spots in the interim title fight. But the odd man out was Arnold Allen, who is 10-0 in the UFC and has not lost a fight since 2014. One would have to imagine he will be fighting for the title sometime in 2023. Anything less would be somewhat insulting, even if Allen’s last win over Calvin Kattar was mired by a knee injury in October. — Raimondi


6. Middleweight: 185 pounds

Will Israel Adesanya figure out a way? Yes, he was ahead on the scorecards in last month’s title defense against Alex Pereira before getting caught and finished in the fifth round. And yes, Adesanya was seconds from scoring a finish at the end of Round 1. So there’s reason to believe the former champ can take back the belt from Pereira. But this was Pereira’s third victory over Adesanya, including their time in kickboxing, and two of those wins came by knockout. To suggest that no doubts have crept into the mind of “The Last Stylebender” would be naive. Can he push past that and reassert himself as the king at 185 pounds?

Most intriguing fighter in the division: Robert Whittaker is a former champ who, after dropping the belt to Adesanya in 2019, firmly established himself as the top contender at middleweight. But two losses to Adesanya, the second coming earlier this year, made Whittaker almost a nonfactor among contenders — until Pereira changed everything. Even if Adesanya regains the title, Whittaker will be in the mix. And he has to have been energized by seeing Adesanya lose to a 185-pounder. — Wagenheim


7. Heavyweight: 206-265 pounds

  • Champion: Francis Ngannou

  • Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Ngannou (No. 4, tie)

  • Biggest upcoming fight: TBD

The time for Jon Jones’s heavyweight debut is now. Right? The time could have been in 2018. Or 2019. Hey, 2020, 2021 or 2022 would have been good, too. But now, it really is the time. It’s going to happen.

Jones vacated his light heavyweight belt more than two years ago. We all thought he would have competed at heavyweight since then, but contract issues and circumstances around his potential opponents have continued to push it back. However, the UFC and Jones are on the same page, and Jones will make his heavyweight debut in the first half of 2023. When that becomes the primary focus of both parties, there’s reason to be confident it’s a sure thing. Even if the ideal opponent doesn’t materialize — talking about Ngannou, here — the UFC and Jones will finally move on and book a different heavyweight bout for Jones. If that bout comes in the form of a championship fight against Ngannou, it will be one of the year’s most significant fights. But even if it doesn’t, seeing arguably the greatest fighter of all time finally get back in the Octagon at a different weight will be massive.

Most intriguing fighter in the division: Jones, for all of the reasons mentioned above. Of course, the situation between Ngannou and the UFC is a massive deal for all parties. And if Ngannou elects to leave and sign elsewhere, although the UFC challenges his status as a free agent — that story would rocket through the roof regarding its impact on the sport at large. But within the competitive parameters of the heavyweight division, Jones is the most intriguing going into 2023. Surging names like Sergei Pavlovich and Tom Aspinall are not far behind. — Okamoto


8. Light heavyweight: 205 pounds

  • Champion: Vacant

  • Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Jiří Procházka (No. 9)

  • Biggest upcoming fight: Glover Teixeira vs. Jamahal Hill on Jan. 21

The UFC will look to fix a mess at the beginning of 2023. Former champion Glover Teixeira and Jamahal Hill will fight for the vacant light heavyweight title at UFC 283 on Jan. 21 in Brazil. Presumably, there will be a titleholder crowned after that fight, which was not the case when former champ Jan Blachowicz fought Magomed Ankalaev in the main event of UFC 282 last weekend. That fight ended in a lackluster split draw, forcing the UFC to try and make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what by booking Teixeira vs. Hill, literally minutes after the conclusion of UFC 282.

Jiří Procházka beat Teixeira for the belt at UFC 275 back in June and looked to be the exciting, intriguing champion the UFC wants out of its top man at light heavyweight, once the promotion’s premier division. But Procházka badly tore up his shoulder in training, and he’ll be out for at least one year. It’ll be interesting to see where the division is when he returns, with Teixeira, Hill, Blachowicz, Ankalaev and others all title factors.

Most intriguing fighter in the division: Another guy to keep an eye on is Ryan Spann. He’s coming off a violent knockout of Dominick Reyes at UFC 281 last month and has won seven of nine UFC fights. The kicker is, Spann said in his postfight interview that the Reyes fight was the first one that he trained for with a full fight camp. Well, if that’s the kind of performance the 6-foot-5 Spann is capable of, he will be a major problem for those at the top of the 205-pound division. — Raimondi


9. Men’s flyweight: 125 pounds

Where have you gone, Demetrious Johnson? The 125-pound division turns its lonely eyes to you. Back when “Mighty Mouse” ruled this UFC weight class, and few fans paid attention, the thinking was maybe Johnson was too dominant for his own good. But when Henry Cejudo took over, flyweight continued to fly under the radar. Now, we’re amidst a two-year, multi-fight tug-of-war between champ Deiveson Figueiredo and former champ Brandon Moreno, and the division’s profile still hasn’t risen among the public. Maybe fans should open their eyes to a weight class that’s more hotly contested than ever with several viable contenders — if any of them can cut in on the Figueiredo-Moreno dance marathon.

Most intriguing fighter in the division: Matheus Nicolau. I’ve been saying for over a year that Alexandre Pantoja is a champion-in-waiting, and this might be his year. But if Pantoja doesn’t get busy, he might be leapfrogged by Nicolau, his fellow Brazilian. Nicolau is in his second UFC run after being released in 2019, when the UFC appeared to be on the verge of dissolving this weight class. Since being re-signed last year, Nicolau has won four in a row and is rising through the ranks. — Wagenheim


10. Women’s bantamweight: 135 pounds

  • Champion: Amanda Nunes

  • Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Nunes (No. 1), Julianna Peña (No. 5)

  • Biggest upcoming fight: TBD

How long does Amanda Nunes want to do this? After Julianna Peña’s massive shakeup of the division in late 2021, order was restored in 2022. So, we’re back to that old question of how much longer Nunes will remain motivated to run through underdog opponents. She has hinted at retirement numerous times, only to flip a switch and claim she’s nowhere near done. The truth? Only Nunes knows — and maybe even she doesn’t know. Perhaps her level of motivation legitimately is up and down. Such is life as one of the most dominant champions in UFC history. But that’s the big storyline in 2023. Does Nunes look motivated, and who exactly is going to motivate her? She has a couple of potential new challenges in Ketlen Vieira and Irena Aldana, but neither is considered a huge threat, not to mention a blockbuster event. Unfortunately, if Nunes is to continue to rule this division for years to come, her motivation might need to keep coming from within.

Most intriguing fighter in the division: Probably Vieira, but the real answer is Nunes. Everything in this division is essentially connected to Nunes, because every single win in this division, whether it’s against Nunes or not, is often judged on whether it means the winner would have any chance against Nunes down the road. Vieira is intriguing because she’s likely next up in the title pecking order, and she does offer a few challenges — namely, size and athleticism. A sleeper pick for most intriguing is Germaine de Randamie. Some fans still haven’t forgiven her for the way she’s handled certain parts of her career, but that doesn’t change the fact she is one of the best female fighters of all time. She’s 38 and recently announced her pregnancy, so the intrigue in 2023 is basically, ‘Will you fight again or not?’ I’ll also throw in Peña here. It feels like most fans have forgotten about her a bit since she surrendered the title back over to Nunes, but that series still stands at 1-1, and Peña will do everything she can to remind fans of that next year. — Okamoto


11. Women’s flyweight: 125 pounds

  • Champion: Valentina Shevchenko

  • Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Shevchenko (No. 2), Jessica Andrade (No. 8)

  • Biggest upcoming fight: Andrade vs. Lauren Murphy on Jan. 21

Valentina Shevchenko, one of the most dominant champions currently in the UFC, showed signs she was human in a win over Taila Santos at UFC 275 in June. Santos was very effective in the fight, despite being slowed down by what ended up being a broken orbital bone following a clash of heads. Shevchenko pulled off the victory, but it wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as most others on her impressive résumé.

In recent interviews, Shevchenko has said she’s most interested in defending next against rising French contender Manon Fiorot. Santos is still recovering from injury, but one would figure she would have a case to be made for a rematch. It’s worth watching next year whether or not Shevchenko can retain her iron grip on the division. Title reigns don’t last forever and there seems to be something in the water lately. Just ask Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya.

Most intriguing fighter in the division: A wildcard at 125 pounds is Erin Blanchfield, who has looked excellent in winning four straight to start her UFC career, including a pair of finishes in her last two fights. Blanchfield is just 23 years old and has excellent grappling skills. If there is an heir apparent to Shevchenko, it might be the New Jersey native. — Raimondi


12. Women’s featherweight: 145 pounds

Hello? Is anyone in there? The biggest storyline in the women’s 145-pound division — the only storyline, really — is an existential one. How long can a weight class exist with a roster so minuscule it cannot fill out a top 10? Is this the year the UFC moves on from featherweight and tells two-division champion Amanda Nunes to focus on bantamweight?

Most intriguing fighter in the division: There aren’t enough fighters here to brew any intrigue. What would be intriguing, honestly, would be to quiz fans to see how many of them could name a single UFC women’s 145-pounder other than the champ. I know Norma Dumont and Stephanie Egger compete at this weight, and I believe there’s a second Nunes in the mix, Josiane. But that was about it for me until I looked up the roster on UFC.com. — Wagenheim

Source : ESPN.com

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