As the UFC looks to kick off 2021 with two elements that were sorely lacking for most of 2020 — Conor McGregor and fans in attendance — this brief pause in the calendar offers the perfect window to take stock and look ahead.
So who will have the best year of all? After a 2020 that was anything but normal, there will be plenty of opportunities in 2021 for fighters to distance themselves from the pack, and our panel of MMA experts sets out to determine who will step forward.
This isn’t a list of the 30 best fighters in the UFC — it’s a ranking based on opportunities that fighters have already signed on for or that they project to have in the coming year. It takes into account who they’ll be fighting and who else could stand in front of them in their respective divisions over the next 12 months.
And while there are certainly some surprises to be found on this list, just because someone didn’t make the cut for this top 30 it doesn’t mean they can’t drastically improve their fortunes over the next 12 months. In fact, when you compare this year’s top 30 to what was projected for 2020, the overlap isn’t as big as you might imagine.
And so, with all of that explanation out of the way, it’s time to reveal the top 10. If you’ve missed the first two entries of the 2021 ESPN MMA Rank, check out those who ranked from 21-30, as well as 11-20.
Write-ups composed by Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim.
2020 record: 1-0 (SUB1 over Cory Sandhagen)
2020 ESPN MMA rank: Unranked
Next fight: March 6 vs. Petr Yan (UFC 259)
2021 outlook: Sterling established himself as the clear-cut next challenger for the bantamweight title with a stunning, first-round submission win over Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250 in June. Sterling was scheduled to challenge champion Petr Yan at UFC 256 in December, but the bout fell through because of an undisclosed issue with Yan. The title fight was recently rebooked for March, and it should be another major showcase for two top fighters from a very deep division. Sterling has won five straight and more than deserves his chance at the belt. Some already have “Funk Master” pegged as the best in the world at 135 pounds. — Raimondi
2020 record: 1-0 (UD over Jorge Masvidal)
2020 ESPN MMA rank: 4
Next fight: Feb. 13 vs. Gilbert Burns (UFC 258)
2021 outlook: Being the first UFC champion to defend a belt in 2021 is what you call getting the year off to a good start. Usman will be taking on a former teammate, one whom he has been waiting a long time to face. He and Burns initially were slated to fight in July, and when that didn’t happen they were paired again for December, which also fell through. The third booking is an opportunity for Usman to finally cross another 170-pound contender off his list, and the delay in making it happen allows the division to line up more challenges, should he succeed. — Wagenheim
2020 record: 1-0 (TKO1 over Donald Cerrone)
2020 ESPN MMA rank: 7
Next fight: Jan. 23 vs. Dustin Poirier (UFC 257)
2021 outlook: The plan for McGregor going into 2020 was to fight at least three times, culminating with 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 retired. McGregor even announced his own retirement in June out of frustration. The former UFC double champion will be back this month against old rival Dustin Poirier, and a win in that fight will almost surely earn McGregor a title opportunity. The potential is there for a massive year. — Raimondi
2020 record: 1-0 (UD over Felicia Spencer)
2020 ESPN MMA rank: 8
Next fight: March 6 vs. Megan Anderson (UFC 259)
2021 outlook: The UFC’s only remaining champ-champ had an eventful 2020. She fought only once, but she was plenty busy becoming a mom. Try to top that, 2021. Well, a successful featherweight title defense in two months would be a step in that direction. Then Nunes can switch her attention back to bantamweight, which by then might have produced a title challenger. If not, we’ll start hearing pleas for a trilogy fight against flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko. Where else is Nunes to go? — Wagenheim
2020 record: 2-0 (TKO3 over Katlyn Chookagian; UD over Jennifer Maia)
2020 ESPN MMA rank: 5
Next fight: TBD
2021 outlook: More domination, most likely. Shevchenko has run roughshod over the women’s flyweight division over the past two years. Her next likely challenger is powerhouse Jessica Andrade, the former UFC women’s strawweight champion. That could be the toughest test to date for Shevchenko, but Shevchenko will likely still be a heavy favorite. Later in the year, there’s a chance Shevchenko could be thrust into a superfight, either against the women’s strawweight champion (currently Zhang Weili) or in a trilogy fight against women’s bantamweight and featherweight champ Amanda Nunes. — Raimondi
2020 record: 1-0 (SD over Joanna Jedrzejczyk)
2020 ESPN MMA rank: 11
Next fight: TBD
2021 outlook: She competed only once in 2020, way back in March, but it seems like we’ve seen Zhang way more than that because highlights of her brawl with Joanna Jedrzejczyk have been shown over and over, with good reason. It was the fight of the year for pretty much everyone who ranks those things. Next up might be another former champion, Rose Namajunas. That is the fight that makes sense, but the UFC has not yet booked it. Why the delay? It’s not entirely 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 to 2021. — Wagenheim
2020 record: 1-0 (KO1 over Jairzinho Rozenstruik)
2020 ESPN MMA rank: 6
Next fight: TBD vs. Stipe Miocic
2021 outlook: Ngannou has been waiting three years for a second shot at the UFC heavyweight title. Miocic beat him at UFC 220 in January 2018, but Ngannou has made major improvements since then, while training at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. It looks like Ngannou will finally get another crack at Miocic sometime in either the first or early second quarter of 2021. The toughest thing 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 for him in a slow-moving heavyweight division. — Raimondi
2020 record: 3-0-1 (TKO2 over Joseph Benavidez; TechSUB1 over Benavidez; SUB1 over Alex Perez, majority draw against Brandon Moreno)
2020 ESPN MMA rank: Unranked
Next fight: TBD
2021 outlook: For Figueiredo, 2020 is going to be a tough act to follow. He became champion during a year in which he was busy and dominant — at least until his most recent outing. He quickly imposed his will in his first three fights of the year, including two against perennial 125-pound No. 2 Joseph Benavidez. Then came last month’s flyweight title defense, in which he traded leather with Brandon Moreno for five thrilling rounds in a classic that was scored a draw. Now what? UFC president Dana White has guaranteed that Figueiredo-Moreno 2 is next. If Figueiredo remains champ after that one, he could reign for a while in what’s becoming an increasingly interesting flyweight division. — Wagenheim
2020 record: 1-0 (UD over Dominick Reyes)
2020 ESPN MMA rank: 2
Next fight: TBD
2021 outlook: Jones has done 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 vacated the light heavyweight belt last August and is primed to fight for the heavyweight strap next, likely against the Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou winner. Jones’ goal is to leave absolutely no doubt he’s the greatest of all time. — Raimondi
2020 record: 2-0 (UD over Yoel Romero, TKO2 Paulo Costa)
2020 ESPN MMA rank: 3
Next fight: March 6 vs. Jan Blachowicz (UFC 259)
2021 outlook: If Adesanya becomes a champ-champ by adding the light heavyweight belt to his trophy case, as he is favored to do when he challenges Blachowicz, it will be an awesome accomplishment. He will have moved up from middleweight — a jump of 20 pounds, which is huge. And who’s doubting Adesanya? Nobody. His combination of poise and brutality in his knockout win over Costa elevated his stature in the sport — and he came into the fight already a champion. This superfight against Blachowicz is sure to unleash some of the performance art that makes Adesanya must-see from walkout to finish. — Wagenheim