Two of the more unheralded UFC weight classes had a chance to show out last month.
In the main event of UFC 277 on July 30, Julianna Peña and Amanda Nunes had their rematch for the UFC women’s bantamweight title, following Peña’s huge upset over Nunes at UFC 269 last December. Former champion Brandon Moreno took on Kai Kara-France in the co-main event with the interim UFC flyweight title on the line.
The two fights delivered. Nunes won a dominant unanimous decision to win the title back, but Peña’s stock didn’t go down. If anything, the heart and will Peña showed staying in the fight and trying to finish despite getting bludgeoned by Nunes’ elbows made her an even bigger star. Perhaps a trilogy fight will be in the offing to settle the score.
Meanwhile, Moreno finished Kara-France with a vicious running left kick to the liver in the third round. The bout was very competitive up until that point, with the judges’ scorecards all over the place, but Moreno got the job with one of the year’s best knockouts. Now, Moreno will likely get a fourth meeting with rival Deiveson Figueiredo, the flyweight champion in earnest, in a unification bout.
In May, ESPN’s panel placed men’s flyweight at No. 8 and women’s bantamweight tied for ninth. Could the strong performances by all four athletes raise the stocks of their respective divisions? And how do the rest of the various UFC weight classes stack up? ESPN’s latest divisional power rankings are below.
Note: Throughout the year, our panel is ranking all 12 weight classes from top to bottom, taking stock of which divisions are performing the best now and which divisions have the best pound-for-pound fighters.
1. Lightweight: 155 pounds
For a weight class that does not have a champion, lightweight is impressive with several of the best and most exciting fighters in the world calling it home. That lack of a champion thing — the result of Charles Oliveira missing weight at UFC 274 in May — should correct itself at UFC 280 on Oct. 22. Oliveira and Makhachev will meet for the title in Abu Dhabi in what is an intriguing stylistic matchup. Oliveira’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu and opportunistic submissions will be against Makhachev’s smothering wrestling and grappling. On the same card, perhaps the next title challenger will emerge in a bout between Beneil Dariush and Mateusz Gamrot.
Meanwhile, it appears like a highly anticipated fight between Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler will happen before the end of the year, potentially as soon as UFC 281 on Nov. 12 in New York. Those two got into a heated verbal altercation at UFC 276 last month. Oliveira has beaten both of them, but if Makhachev wins the title, it will open up to fresh matchups at the top of the division. The Poirier vs. Chandler winner could easily become the No. 1 contender. — Marc Raimondi
2. Men’s Bantamweight: 135 pounds
Previous ranking: No. 3
Champion: Aljamain Sterling
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Sterling (tied at No. 8)
Biggest upcoming fight: Sterling vs. TJ Dillashaw on Oct. 22
If you’re a fan of the UFC’s 135-pound division, then the promotion’s upcoming summer/fall schedule will have you salivating. Currently, eight of this division’s top 10 contenders have fights booked in the coming months, including the champion Sterling. And there are storylines galore within those fights. Dillashaw will attempt to regain the title he was forced to vacate after testing positive for banned substances in 2019. The living legend, Jose Aldo, has an important fight on the books against surging contender (and Sterling’s teammate) Merab Dvalishvili. Another legend, Dominick Cruz, has an equally important main event in his hometown this weekend against Marlon Vera. And, arguably the biggest name in the division, Sean O’Malley, recently signed to face Petr Yan in October, in a matchup that caught many in the sport off-guard.
Beyond that, this weight class has so much to watch for. Frankie Edgar has announced he’d like a retirement fight in November. Former champion Henry Cejudo is expected to rejoin the weight class at the end of the year. Ricky Simon has shown top-10 potential and is on the cusp of realizing it. Umar Nurmagomedov looks like he could be a real problem in the years to come.
In a recent interview with ESPN, Cruz said that there are multiple champions at this weight; it’s just a matter of who happens to get the job done on any given night. It’s easy to agree with him, there is a lot of elite talent here. — Brett Okamoto
3. Men’s Featherweight: 145 pounds
Volkanovski confirmed his status as the featherweight GOAT with a resounding victory over Holloway last month. Having settled their trilogy once and for all — the scoreboard reads 3-0 — the big question is: What comes next for Volkanovski? He has his eyes on “Champ-Champ” status with a move up to lightweight. Given what he has achieved at featherweight, he has every right to demand that opportunity. First, though, he has a broken hand to heal.
Waiting in the wings at featherweight is Yair Rodriguez, who defeated Brian Ortega a few weeks ago after Ortega dislocated his shoulder in their bout. Ortega will likely seek a rematch. But he, like Rodriguez, is set for a significant spell outside the Octagon. There is a high level of uncertainty at featherweight moving forward as a result of all that, with an interim showdown potentially in the offing amid Volkanovski’s injury and plans. What is abundantly clear, however, is that we don’t need to see Volkanovski-Holloway 4. — Sam Bruce
4. Welterweight: 170 pounds
Previous Ranking: Tied at No. 4
Champion: Kamaru Usman
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Usman (No. 1)
Biggest upcoming fight: Usman vs. Leon Edwards on Aug. 20
In our last power rankings, this is what we said about the 170-pounders: “If you want to watch the best fighter in MMA today, you come to the welterweight division.” Nothing has changed there. Usman, No. 1 in ESPN’s pound-for-pound rankings, will be going for his 20th win in a row when he defends his belt against Edwards at UFC 278 on Aug. 20. If Usman passes that test, his next one could be against Khamzat Chimaev, if the high-profile contender gets past Nate Diaz next month.
Looking beyond that big fight, a future title challenger could be determined by the October matchup between Belal Muhammad, who is riding an eight-fight unbeaten streak, and undefeated Sean Brady. Usman has his work cut out for him. — Jeff Wagenheim
5. Women’s Strawweight: 115 pounds
Don’t be fooled by the lack of action in the last title fight. The strawweight top 10 has plenty of talent and a variety of styles. As we wait for the next challenger for Esparza, there are rising contenders that will shape the future of the division in the years to come.
Mackenzie Dern and Yan Xiaonan have a main event coming up that can shake things up, especially if Dern, a BJJ standout and fan favorite, can win in a solid manner. Also, Marina Rodriguez is facing Amanda Lemos at UFC 280, a fight that can give Rodriguez the respect that she´s been asking for.
Esparza has the skillset to neutralize strikers like Namajunas or Weili, but she must be aware of grapplers like Dern and Jessica Andrade who will be looking for a title shot in any division. The category’s unranked fighters might lack experience, but the top 10 is packed with talent and every fight could be entertaining. — Carlos Contreras Legaspi
6. Middleweight: 185 pounds
Previous ranking: No. 6
Champion: Israel Adesanya
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Adesanya (tied at No. 3)
Biggest upcoming fight: Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira on Nov. 12
Adesanya’s reign at the top of the middleweights continues, but the largely flat title defense against Jared Cannonier did little to quiet a growing legion of MMA fans lamenting for the days when the champ put the style in “Stylebender.” Adesanya defeated Cannonier via unanimous decision, but there were only fleeting moments of the show-stopping highlights that were the hallmark of his ascent to the top of the division.
But ask, and you shall receive. Over the weekend, it was confirmed that Adesanya would face off with Pereira. Pereira is one of the few men to know what it feels like to defeat Adesanya, having done so twice, inside the kickboxing ring. That fight will headline UFC 281 and will be arguably the most anticipated fight of the year. In the meantime, Adesanya’s other great rival, Robert Whittaker, faces off with Marvin Vettori next month in Paris in a fight that, pending the result from Madison Square Garden, could create a path back to another title shot for either fighter. — Bruce
7. Heavyweight: 205-265 pounds
This division started the year with a lot of promise — Ngannou vs. Gane headlined UFC 270 in January — but has been in a bit of a holding pattern. Ngannou is still out after knee surgery and it’s unclear if he’ll be able to return before the end of 2022 or sometime early next year. It seemed like the UFC had a layup interim title matchup between Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic all queued up, but that has not happened. The UFC, sources said, is waiting to know more about Ngannou before making any decisions. A bout between Ngannou, the baddest man on the planet, and Jones, the man with the best fight résumé ever, would be a blockbuster.
The UFC London main event between contenders Curtis Blaydes and Tom Aspinall last month was supposed to bring further clarity to the top of the heavyweight division, but Aspinall sustained a leg injury early in the first round and now there are more questions than answers. Blaydes believes he should move up the ladder with a victory, but he has been knocked out twice by Ngannou and once by Derrick Lewis, who just fell to upstart Sergei Pavlovich at UFC 277. Gane will try to get back into the title conversation against fan favorite Tuivasa on the UFC’s first France card Sept. 3 in Paris, where Gane lives and trains. — Raimondi
8. Men’s Flyweight: 125 pounds
Previous ranking: No. 8
Champion: Deiveson Figueiredo, Brandon Moreno (interim)
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Figueiredo (No. 7)
Ten years after the division was introduced in the UFC, it’s looking better than ever. The rivalry between Moreno and Figueiredo will be settled in the fourth fight next, but talent is abundant in the 125-pound division.
Alexandre Pantoja can be a challenger one day and Matt Schnell just featured the best comeback in the division’s history. After Moreno vs. Figueiredo 4, there will be plenty of options for the division — something that the promotion couldn´t have imagined a few years ago.
From veteran ranked fighters like Kai Kara-France, Alex Perez or Askar Askarov to future stars like Muhammad Mokaev, flyweights are fast, skilled and entertaining. Expect a lot of great fights shortly there.— Legaspi
9. Women’s Bantamweight: 135 pounds
Previous ranking: No. 9
Champion: Amanda Nunes
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Amanda Nunes (No. 1), Julianna Peña (tied at No. 4)
Biggest upcoming fight: Irene Aldana vs. Macy Chiasson on Sept. 10
Depending on how you view it, Peña either did this division a huge favor or disservice over the last eight months. On the one hand, she appears to have reignited a fire in Nunes that looked like it was starting to wane. By taking Nunes’ belt in December, Peña motivated Nunes in a way she hadn’t been in years. And the fans of this sport reaped the rewards because we all got to see Nunes raise her game in the rematch in July. Do you know who might not have benefitted from that? The other contenders in this division who will look to take Nunes’ belt in the coming year(s).
Once again, this division is completely centered around Nunes. The most intriguing storylines revolve around who might earn a shot against her next and what chances that fighter might have. At the moment, the top two names to keep an eye on are Ketlen Vieira and Aldana. Nunes has not fought either one, and both pose their problems. They are both big and athletic bantamweights. They each possess finishing prowess. And of course, you also have the possibility of a Peña trilogy in the near (or distant) future. For as good as Nunes is, and for as long as she’s been dominant, these are all legitimate options for title defenses. It sounds impossible, but there’s still work for her to do in the division. — Okamoto
10. Light Heavyweight: 205 pounds
Previous ranking: No. 10
Champion: Jiri Prochazka
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Prochazka (No. 6)
There’s been a changing of the guard at the top of the division since our last rankings, as Prochazka took the championship away from Glover Teixeira in June. That instability opens up many possibilities. Will the new champ’s first title defense be a rematch against Teixeira? Or will the title shot go to Magomed Ankalaev, whose knockout of Anthony Smith a week ago was his ninth straight victory? Also waiting his turn is another former champion, Jan Blachowicz. And how about Jamahal Hill? His gritty fourth-round finish of former title challenger Thiago Santos on Saturday won’t put him into a title bout right away, but what a future he has. As does the 205-pound division in general. — Wagenheim
11. Women’s Flyweight: 125 pounds
For the first time ever, Shevchenko looked vulnerable in her title defense against Taila Santos in June. The always dominant flyweight champion barely squeaked by Santos via split decision. Many within the sport felt Shevchenko lost that fight. And more still, believe she was on her way to losing that fight before Santos was compromised by a facial injury resulting from an accidental headbutt. Now, just because Shevchenko had a close title defense, does that mean she’s lost a step? On the contrary, it almost feels like that was the night for someone to beat her, and Santos still fell just short. Expectations moving forward are still high for Shevchenko.
On one hand, she is running out of options. Shevchenko has already defeated each of the top four women ranked below her. We were supposed to see an important fight between Alexa Grasso and Viviane Araujo this weekend, but that fight fell through recently when Grasso was forced to withdraw. Still, a group of young talent is making its way up to Shevchenko. That includes budding contenders like Grasso (28 years old), Manon Fiorot (32), Maycee Barber (24), Casey O’Neill (24), Erin Blanchfield (23) and Tracy Cortez (28). Shevchenko would be a massive favorite over each of them, but as you can see by their ages, this division has young talent with plenty of upside to monitor. — Okamoto
12. Women’s Featherweight: 145 pounds
One lingering question remains for the “champ-champ” Amanda Nunes — which title will she defend next? After Nunes dethroned Julianna Peña to reclaim her bantamweight title, Peña proclaimed she’s “ready to go round 8 right now,” during the UFC Vegas 59 post-fight show. But what about her title at 145? Would the UFC consider putting someone like Macy Chiasson against Nunes early next year? Could the promotion look outside like they’ve done in the past like Megan Anderson and Felicia Spencer? Whatever the UFC decides, the division’s fate could be at stake as a result. — Eddie Maisonet