Two weight classes in the UFC have champions who are not the best consensual fighters within their own divisions. Another is headed by a champion who some would say is second to the standard-bearer.
What happened to the reigning champions?
Sure, there are some dominant champions, most of them focused on the female side of the game. But with such transcendent fighters as Khabib Nurmagomedov and Jon Jones out of the picture, one due to a surprise retirement, the other due to a bitter salary dispute, there are many questions at the highest levels of various weight classes in MMA.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. Invincible champions have incredible appeal, but also drama contained in actual battles involving multiple peers perceived to be vying for a belt. And when the fight for position extends beyond the chain link fences of the Octagon, the debate escalates.
The UFC has 12 weight divisions: eight for men and four for women. Bellator has champions at nine of those weights. There really is intrigue across the board, even in weight classes where at first glance it might seem like there aren’t any.
Why is the women’s featherweight still intriguing in the UFC, for example, when there is no one on the roster to compete with champion Amanda Nunes? Interestingly, the opponent she beat for the belt nearly three years ago, Cris Cyborg, is in essentially the same position as at Bellator, especially with former champion Julia Budd who is no longer on a contract. This separation of the best talents of the peso arouses the interest of all.
So if the women’s featherweight has the least intrigue among MMA divisions, which ones are getting the most agitated?
1. Lightweight (men)
This division would not have ranked anywhere near the top, in terms of competitive intrigue, as recently as October 2020. At the time, and for several years prior, Khabib Nurmagomedov was the undefeated champion and the most dominant force in the game. Another 155 pounds were putting on dynamic performances, making this division home to some of the biggest fights in the sport, but there was a limit to what those top lightweights could accomplish. No one seemed even close to being able to topple Nurmagomedov.
That’s important when evaluating the level of intrigue in a weight class. The most dramatically lit stage in 155 had no drama on it. The predictable results of the title fight aside, even the preparations for those fights weren’t particularly poignant, because the champion had put the stormy Conor McGregor in his rearview mirror and stepped forward to fend off respectful contenders Dustin Poirier and Justin. Gaethje. Both guys are loved by hardcore fans, but they weren’t talkative enough to engage hordes of casuals in a battle, against all odds, with the indomitable champion.
Now Nurmagomedov is gone, leaving the lightweight division with a hint of the Wild West. Charles Oliveira is wearing the title belt these days, but many see Poirier as the best in the division and Gaethje right behind. So it’s not so much that there’s a new sheriff in town at 155 pounds, it’s more a matter of the dominant old sheriff riding off into the sunset and everyone in town waiting breathlessly to find out who will claim. that cloak and will enforce the law.
2. Bantamweight (men)
Bantamweight is another weight class in which the champion could be second best.
Regardless of how champion Aljamain Sterling and former champion Petr Yan are compared, it’s safe to say that the outcome of their fight in March was unsatisfactory. Sterling was crowned by disqualification almost at the time of the fight as many viewers were beginning to reconcile with the fact that Yan’s title reign was going to continue. It was the fourth round and the Russian was in control, until he lost control.
When Yan threw the illegal knee that cost him his belt, he also disrupted the 135-pound weight class.
The intrigue doesn’t end with a champion reigning on a technicality and a former champion still looking like a world champion. There is also a third fighter walking around right now with the arrogance of a champion. TJ Dillashaw is back after serving a two-year suspension from the United States Anti-Doping Agency. He is a two-time former champion, who was stripped of the belt after failing a PED test in 2019, and has repeatedly reminded us that he did not lose his title in a fight.
Dillashaw caused quite a stir on his return, beating a top-tier contender in Cory Sandhagen in July. That Dillashaw was able to pass such a high-level test in his first appearance in two and a half years was monumental. And yet, many believed that Sandhagen should have gotten the go-ahead from the judges in that fight. So don’t discount Sandhagen from the mix of potential champions, either.
Rob Font is also on the rise, and on any given night, veterans like Jose Aldo or Frankie Edgar could rediscover magic. There are many high-level moving parts in 135.
3. Featherweight (men)
Alexander Volkanovski defends his UFC belt against Brian Ortega in less than three weeks. If he wins, it would be his 20th consecutive victory, a streak that stretches back more than eight years to the fourth fight of his career. With the most recent of those victories against José Aldo, and twice against Max Holloway, a victory against Ortega would secure Volkanovski’s place as the 145-pound king.
Or would it? At Bellator, there is a dynamic new champion who has fought 18 times and won 18 times. AJ McKee won his title this summer by defeating two-division champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire in less than two minutes. It is quite possible that he is the only non-UFC champion who can make a legitimate claim to be the best in the world.
Having the best talent spread across two wrestling promotions is both a blessing and a curse. The good news is that it invigorates the debate. The not-so-positive part: The heated debate could go on for years, because unless something dramatic happens, Volkanovski and McKee won’t be sharing a cage any time soon.
The debate is all well and good, but fans crave answers. Is featherweight creating a lot of buzz talking about who’s number one that has no way to resolve? If so, does that take the weight class down a few points in terms of intrigue? Maybe … that’s why this division is located where it is.
4. Straw weight
This is the only women’s division in the UFC that is remotely competitive at the top of the food chain. Flyweight is the domain of Valentina Shevchenko, and Amanda Nunes not only rules bantamweight with an iron fist, but she’s also basically the dominator of the featherweight division. Both women are way ahead of the rest.
Strawweight champion Rose Namajunas is a champion who regained the title and has three former belt holders behind her. Namajunas has fought them all, and Carla Esparza is the only one with a win over her, submitting “Thug Rose” in 2014 in the first fight for the UFC strawweight title. But despite having won five in a row, Esparza is not the next opponent for the new / old champion.
It will be Zhang Weili, who will have his rematch on November 6. By then it will be six months since Namajunas regained the title with a first-round TKO over Zhang, who had won 21 of his first 22 fights before being dethroned.
The other former champion chasing Namajunas is Joanna Jedrzejczyk. He has lost four of his last six, but each of the losses was at the hands of a champion: Namajunas twice, Shevchenko and Zhang. We’re not ruling out the oldest 115-pound champion, are we?
Since November 2017, there have been five strawweight championship reigns. This division has a feeling that anything is possible.
The long-awaited announcement that Kamaru Usman will defend his UFC title against Colby Covington for the second time on November 6 added new electricity to an already supercharged weight class.
Their rivalry has all the ingredients. Usman is the pound-for-pound king of the sport and has won 18 fights in a row. Covington plays with the heel somewhat awkwardly, but he fights a lot better than he talks badly. And their first meeting, in 2019, was an exciting journey to the finish by knockout.
Everything about this rematch will be magnified, from the bitter build-up to the exchanges in the cage. These are two relentless athletes who may not let the crowd breathe.
If Usman can beat Covington again, a queue of potential rivals is already forming, all of whom the champion has seen before. Leon Edwards is undefeated in his last 10 fights, a career that dates back to a 2015 loss to Usman. Gilbert Burns has won eight of his last nine, with the only loss coming in a title fight last February, in which he had Usman hurt early. Vicente Luque, who used to train with Usman, has won four in a row – all before the limit – and 10 of his last 11.
Meanwhile, Bellator has a new champion, Yaroslav Amosov, who is 26-0 and looks stronger with every fight. Keep an eye on it too.
But what gives the welterweight a place on this list is Usman’s presence. When the No. 1 pound-for-pound pays off, you can’t lose sight of it.