Which divisions are the most intriguing in MMA right now?
Two UFC weight classes have champions who are not the best consensus fighters within their own divisions. Another is led by a champion who some say is second to the standard bearer in a second fiddle fight promotion.
What happened to the reigning champions?
Of course, there are a few dominant champions – most of them focused on the female side of the game. But with transcendent fighters such as Khabib Nurmagomedov and Jon Jones – one due to a surprise retirement, the other because of a bitter wage dispute – there are a lot of questions at the top of several weight classes in MMA.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Invincible champions have incredible appeal, but so does the drama contained in battles royals involving multiple perceived equals vying for a belt. And when the fight for position spreads outside the chain-link walls of the Octagon, the debate intensifies.
The UFC has 12 weight divisions – eight for men and four for women. Bellator has champions at nine of those weights. There is intrigue all over the place, really, even in the weight classes where at first glance it may seem like there isn’t.
Why is the female featherweight still a thing in the UFC, for example, when there’s no one on the list to give champion Amanda Nunes a run? Interestingly, the opponent she beat for the belt almost three years ago, Cris Cyborg, is essentially in the same position at Bellator, especially with ex-champion Julia Budd no longer under. contract. This separation of the best talent from the weight extinguishes the interest for all.
So if the female featherweight has the least intrigue among the MMA divisions, which ones stir up the most?
1. Lightweight men
This division would not have ranked anywhere near the top, in terms of competitive intrigue, no later than October 2020. At that time, and for several years before, Khabib Nurmagomedov was the undefeated champion and force. most dominant in the game. Other 155 pounds delivered dynamic performances, making this division home to some of the greatest fights in the sport, but there was a cap to what these top lightweight weights could achieve. No one even seemed close to being able to overthrow Nurmagomedov.
This matters when we assess the level of intrigue in a weight class. The brightest scene in 155 had no drama. Aside from the predictable results of the title fights, even the preparations for those fights weren’t particularly emotional, as the champion had put windy Conor McGregor in his rearview mirror and moved on to defend against respectful contenders Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje. These two guys are beloved by die-hard fans, but they weren’t talkative enough to drag hordes of casuals into an unexpected battle with the Indomitable Champion.
Now Nurmagomedov is gone, leaving the lightweight division with a somewhat wild and savage western feel. Charles Oliveira wears the title belt these days, but many consider Poirier the best in the division and Gaethje just behind. So it’s not so much that there’s a new sheriff in town at 155 pounds, it’s more about an overbearing old sheriff who ran away at sunset and everyone in town is waiting on their end. breath of knowing who will claim this mantle and lay down the law.
ESPN MMA’s Phil Murphy chats with Petr Yan after being disqualified for an illegal knee in the fourth round of his bantamweight title fight against Aljamain Sterling.
2. Men bantamweight
Bantamweight is another weight class where the champion could be second best.
Regardless of how one compares champion Aljamain Sterling and former champion Petr Yan, it can be said that the outcome of their fight in March was unsatisfactory. Sterling was crowned with disqualification around the time of the bout, as many observers began to come to terms with the fact that Title Yan’s reign was about to continue. It was Round 4, and the Russian was in control – until he lost control.
When Yan threw the illegal knee that cost him the belt, he also turned the 135-pound weight class upside down.
The plot does not end with a champion who reigns because of technicality and a former champion who still looks like a world batsman. There’s 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 US Anti-Doping Agency. He’s a two-time former champion, who was stripped of his belt after failing a PED test in 2019, and he’s reminded us on several occasions that he didn’t lose his title in a fight.
Dillashaw caused a stir on his return, beating a top contender to Cory Sandhagen in July. That Dillashaw was able to pass such a high-level test in his first appearance in 2.5 years was monumental. And yet, many believed Sandhagen should have gotten the green light from the judges in this fight. So don’t throw Sandhagen out of the mix of potential champions either.
Rob Font is also on the rise, and every night veterans like Jose Aldo or Frankie Edgar could rediscover the magic. There are a lot of high level moving parts at 135.
3. Men’s featherweight
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 stretching back over eight years to his fourth career fight. With the most recent of those wins over Jose Aldo and twice over Max Holloway, a win over Ortega would secure Volkanovsky’s place as the 145-pound king.
Or would he do it? In Bellator there is a dynamic new champion who has fought 18 times and won 18 times. AJ McKee won his title this summer by finishing both division champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire in under two minutes. He could very well be the only non-UFC champion who can rightfully claim to be the best in the world.
Having the best talent spread across two combat promotions is both a blessing and a curse. The good thing is that it stimulates debate. The not-so-positive part: The reinvigorated debate could very well rage for years to come, because unless something dramatic happens, Volkanovski and McKee won’t be sharing a cage anytime soon.
The debate is fine, but fans are hungry for answers. Does the Featherweight just make a lot of noise when it comes to who’s the # 1 that has no way of being resolved? If so, does that drop the weight class a few stakes in terms of plot? Maybe … that’s why this division is inserted where it is.
Chael Sonnen marvels at Rose Namajunas’ incredible knockout of Zhang Weili and apologizes for not having previously recognized her as one of the greatest of all time.
4. Straw weight
It’s the only women’s division in the UFC that’s even remotely competitive at the top of the food chain. Flyweight is the domain of Valentina Shevchenko, and Amanda Nunes not only leads the bantamweight with an iron fist, she is also basically the featherweight division on her own. These two women are miles ahead of the pack.
Strawweight champion Rose Namajunas is a second-time titlist with three former belt holders chasing her. Namajunas fought them all, and Carla Esparza is the only one to win against her, submitting “Thug Rose” in 2014 in the UFC’s very first strawweight title fight. But despite having won five in a row, Esparza is not next for the new / former champion.
It will be Zhang Weili, who will get his revenge on November 6. It will then be six months since Namajunas reclaimed the title with a first round TKO from Zhang, who had won 21 of his first 22 fights before being dethroned.
The other ex-champion chasing Namajunas is Joanna Jedrzejczyk. She has lost four of her last six games, but each of the losses has come at the hands of a champion: twice Namajunas, Shevchenko and Zhang. We’re not ruling out the longest-serving 115-pound champion, are we?
Since November 2017, there have been five reigns of the Strawweight Championship. This division has an impression of 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 the heel a bit awkwardly, but he fights a lot better than he talks about trash. And their first meeting, in 2019, was a thrill ride until it was knocked out.
Everything about this rematch is going to be amplified, from the bitter buildup to the cage trades. They are two die-hard athletes who might not let the crowd catch their breath.
If Usman can beat Covington again, there is already a line up of potential challengers – which the champion has all seen before. Leon Edwards is undefeated in his last 10 fights, a streak dating 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 Usman was injured early on. Vicente Luque, who trained with Usman, has won four in a row – all finishes – and 10 of his last 11.
Meanwhile, Bellator has a new champion, Yaroslav Amosov, who is 26-0 and looks stronger in every fight. Keep an eye out for him too.
But what earns welterweights a place on this list is Usman’s presence. When the number 1 pound for pound hits, it shouldn’t be missed.