Two UFC weight classes have champions who are not the consensus top fighters within their own divisions. Another is headed by a champion who some would argue is second to the standard-bearer in a second-fiddle fight promotion.
Whatever happened to champions reigning supreme?
Sure, there are a few dominant champs — most of them concentrated on the women’s side of the game. But with transcendent fighters such as Khabib Nurmagomedov and Jon Jones out of the picture — one due to a surprise retirement, the other because of a bitter pay dispute — there are a lot of questions at the uppermost reaches of several weight classes in MMA.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unconquerable champs do have incredible appeal, but so can the drama contained in battle royals involving several perceived equals vying for a belt. And when the jockeying for position extends 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 champs at nine of those weights. There’s intrigue across the board, really, even in weight classes where at first glance there might appear to be none.
Why is women’s featherweight still a thing in the UFC, for instance, when there’s no one on the roster to give champ Amanda Nunes a run? Interestingly, the opponent she beat for the belt nearly three years ago, Cris Cyborg, is in essentially the same position over at Bellator, especially with ex-champ Julia Budd no longer under contract. This separation of the weight’s best talent douses interest for all.
So, if women’s featherweight has the least intrigue among MMA divisions, which ones are stirring up the most?
1. Men’s lightweight
This division would not have ranked anywhere near the top of the heap, in terms of competitive intrigue, as recently as October 2020. At that time, and for several years before then, Khabib Nurmagomedov was the undefeated champion and the most dominant force in the game. Other 155-pounders were putting on dynamic performances, making this division the home of some of the greatest fights in the sport, but there was a ceiling to what those top lightweights could achieve. No one appeared even close to being capable of unseating Nurmagomedov.
That matters when we’re assessing the level of intrigue in a weight class. The most dramatically lit stage at 155 had no drama on it at all. Predictable title fight outcomes aside, even the leadups to those fights were not particularly stirring, because the champ had put the blustery Conor McGregor in his rear-view mirror and moved on to defend against respectful contenders Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje. Both of those guys are loved by hardcore fans, but they weren’t trash-talky enough to hook hordes of casuals into an against-all-odds battle with the indomitable champ.
Now Nurmagomedov is gone, leaving the lightweight division with a bit of a wild, wild west feel to it. Charles Oliveira wears the title belt these days, but many view 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 old, domineering sheriff having ridden off into the sunset and everyone in town breathlessly waiting to find out who will claim that mantle and set down the law.
ESPN MMA’s Phil Murphy speaks with Petr Yan after being disqualified for an illegal knee in the fourth round of his bantamweight title fight vs. Aljamain Sterling.
2. Men’s bantamweight
Bantamweight’s another weight class in which the champion might be second best.
Regardless of how one stacks up champ Aljamain Sterling and former champ Petr Yan, it’s safe to say the result of their fight in March was unsatisfying. Sterling was crowned via disqualification at just about the time in the fight when many watching were starting to reconcile with the fact that the Yan title reign was going 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 threw the 135-pound weight class into disarray.
The intrigue does not end with a champ who reigns because of a technicality and a former champ who still looks like a world beater. There’s also a third fighter walking around right now with the swagger of a champion. TJ Dillashaw is back after serving a two-year US Anti-Doping Agency suspension. He’s a two-time former champ, who was stripped of the belt after failing a PED test in 2019, and he has repeatedly reminded us that he did not lose his title in a fight.
Dillashaw made a big splash in 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 2½ years was monumental. And yet many believed that Sandhagen should have got the judges’ nod in that fight. So don’t discard Sandhagen from the mix of potential champions, either.
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 victory in a row — a streak that extends back over eight years to his fourth career fight. With the most recent of those wins having come against Jose Aldo, and twice against Max Holloway, a victory against Ortega would secure Volkanovski’s place as 145-pound king.
Or would it? Over in Bellator, there’s a dynamic new champion who has fought 18 times and won 18 times. A.J. McKee won his title this summer by finishing two-division champ Patricio “Pitbull” Freire in under two minutes. He might very well be the one non-UFC champ who can make a legitimate claim to being the best in the world.
Having the top talent spread across two fight promotions is both a blessing and a curse. The positive is that it invigorates debate. The not-so-positive part: The invigorated debate could very well rage on for years, because unless something dramatic happens, Volkanovski and McKee will not share a cage anytime soon.
Debate is all well and good, but fans crave answers. Is featherweight just creating a lot of noise with talk of who’s No. 1 that has no means of being resolved? If so, does that knock the weight class down a few pegs in terms of intrigue? Maybe … which is why this division is slotted where it is.
Chael Sonnen marvels at Rose Namajunas’ amazing knockout of Zhang Weili and apologizes for previously not recognizing her as one of the greatest of all time.
This is the only women’s division in the UFC that’s even remotely competitive at the top of the food chain. Flyweight is Valentina Shevchenko‘s domain, and Amanda Nunes not only rules bantamweight with an iron fist, she’s also basically the featherweight division all by herself. Both of those women are miles ahead of the pack.
The champion at strawweight, Rose Namajunas, is a second-time titlist who has three former belt-holders hot on her trail. Namajunas has fought them all, and Carla Esparza is the only one with a win over her, submitting “Thug Rose” in 2014 in the very first UFC strawweight title fight. But despite having won five straight, Esparza is not next for the new/old champ.
It will be Zhang Weili, who gets her rematch on Nov. 6. By then it will have been six months since Namajunas reclaimed the title with a first-round TKO of Zhang, who had won 21 of her first 22 fights before being dethroned.
The other ex-champ chasing Namajunas is Joanna Jedrzejczyk. She has dropped four of her last six, but every one of the defeats came at the hands of a champion: Namajunas twice, Shevchenko and Zhang. We’re not discounting the longest-running 115-pound champ, are we?
Since November 2017, there have been five strawweight championship resigns. This division has an anything-is-possible feel to it.
Their rivalry has all the ingredients. Usman is the sport’s pound-for-pound king and has won 18 fights in a row. Covington plays the heel somewhat ham-handedly, but he fights a lot better than he trash talks. And their first meeting, in 2019, was a thrill ride right up to its knockout finish.
Everything about this rematch is going to be magnified, from the bitter buildup to the in-cage exchanges. These are two relentless athletes who might not let the crowd take a breath.
If Usman can beat Covington again, there’s already a queue forming of potential challengers — all of whom the champ has seen before. Leon Edwards is undefeated in his last 10 fights, a run extending back to a 2015 loss to Usman. Gilbert Burns has won eight of his last nine, with the lone loss coming in a title fight this past February, in which he had Usman hurt early. Vicente Luque, who used to train 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 looking stronger every fight. Keep an eye on him, too.
But what earns welterweight a spot on this list is the presence of Usman. When the pound-for-pound No. 1 performs, it’s not to be missed.
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