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Where We Stand: UFC 2021 Division-By-Division Guide

Go division-by-division to see which champions and contenders are primed for a big 2021.

Any and every angle to 2020 has been written. It was a trying, tragic year for many as the coronavirus pandemic shook the world at every level, including in the UFC.

Through creativity, diligence and relative stubbornness, MMA’s worldwide leader marched forward in the New Normal, establishing protocols to keep athletes, camps and staff safe while also putting on entertaining fights. With a stage set, fighters delivered, and through these infamously unprecedented times, MMA fans still got to watch epic performances, highlight reel knockouts, slick submissions and legacy-defining moments in the Octagon.

In the spirit of moving forward and out of 2020, let’s take a look at where the top of each division stands as we move into 2021.

Strawweight

Champion: Zhang Weili

In The Mix: Rose Namajunas, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Yan Xiaonan, Carla Esparza

Zhang Weili Journey To UFC Champion
Zhang Weili Journey To UFC Champion
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Check-in With Zhang Weili

The revolving door that is the 115-pound title feels like it came to sort of halt after Zhang Weili defended the belt in 2020’s Fight of the Year against Joanna Jedrzejczyk. However – and this is likely a common theme as we walk through each weight class – the top of the division saw some stalemating as the COVID-19 pandemic created obstacles for UFC’s matchmakers. After UFC 248, Dana White said he wanted Zhang to make her next title defense in New York City. Obviously, that might not happen for a while, but she isn’t short of challengers. The rematch with Jedrzejczyk is a fight everyone would watch. Rose Namajunas redeemed herself against Jessica Andrade and proved herself ready to challenge for the belt once again.

Maybe one or two fights away from the title picture are fighters on opposite ends of the hype cycle. Yan Xiaonan continued her rapid climb up the rankings with a win over Claudia Gadelha, while former strawweight champion Carla Esparza has been grinding away in the middle of the top 10 and might find herself with a valid shout for a shot at the belt once again sooner than later. On the horizon, a slew of up-and-comers and veterans coming into their own are readying for their respective runs, and the specter of Tatiana Suarez’s return looms over the top of the division as well.

Names To Watch For In 2021: Mackenzie Dern, Angela Hill, Amanda Ribas, Tatiana Suarez

Women’s Flyweight

Champion: Valentina Shevchenko

In The Mix: Jessica Andrade, Lauren Murphy, Cynthia Calvillo, Joanne Calderwood

Valentina Shevchenko of Kyrgyzstan poses for a portrait backstage during the UFC 255 event at UFC APEX on November 21, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Valentina Shevchenko of Kyrgyzstan poses for a portrait backstage during the UFC 255 event at UFC APEX on November 21, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

Check-In With Valentina Shevchenko

Valentina Shevchenko has a bit of a stranglehold on the 125-pound division right now but, to her credit, she isn’t complaining about a lack of competition or interest. She is the biggest advocate for the division’s future, and so her dominance is a bit of a catch-22. The ongoing search for a legitimate challenger who will spark interest and doubt in Shevchenko’s reign has been a fruitless one since she captured the belt in December 2018. The streaking Lauren Murphy might be most deserving of a shot on merit as her rapid improvement has her in the best form of her career. Joanne Calderwood was a few months from a title shot before an ill-advised fight with Jennifer Maia sent her back down the ladder, and strawweights moving up a weight class are adding some much-needed depth to the top of the division, which brings us to Jessica Andrade.

The former strawweight champion scored a powerful, body shot knockout win over Katlyn Chookagian on Fight Island, loudly announcing her presence at 125 pounds. Her pedigree, power and experience in big fights makes her the most appealing challenger to Shevchenko’s reign as champion and it seems like the fight to make for this ever-growing division.

Names To Watch For In 2021: Roxanne Modafferi, Taila Santos

Women’s Bantamweight

Champion: Amanda Nunes

In The Mix: Aspen Ladd, Germaine de Randamie, Holly Holm, Irene Aldana

Amanda Nunes of Brazil waits for the start of the round during the UFC 245 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 14, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Amanda Nunes of Brazil waits for the start of the round during the UFC 245 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 14, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Not to always tie the two together, but much like Shevchenko, Amanda Nunes is cleaning out her division to the point of apathy toward her fights. She is that great – consensually considered The Greatest. She has taken out title challengers with such dominance and at a speed that hasn’t allowed for the up-and-comers at 135 to really build their resumes. Aspen Ladd’s knee injury in the summer prevented her from probably isolating herself as the logical next in line, but in terms of hype and expectation, Nunes stands above the rest.

Names To Watch For In 2021:  Ketlen Vieira, Julia Avila, Macy Chiasson

Women’s Featherweight

Champion: Amanda Nunes

In The Mix: Megan Anderson, Felicia Spencer

Amanda Nunes of Brazil celebrates after her unanimous-decision victory over Felicia Spencer of Canada in their UFC featherweight championship bout during the UFC 250 event at UFC APEX on June 06, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Celebrating after defending against Spencer, June 06, 2020 (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Similar to her 135-pound kingdom, Nunes’ reign as the featherweight queen continued in earnest with a five-round beatdown of the always-tough Felicia Spencer. That brought the heavy-hitting Australian Megan Anderson to the title table, and although the two will wait an extra few months to do battle, they are expected to fight sometime in early 2021. Anderson has the power to give her the puncher’s chance to deliver an eye-popping upset, and her ground game has improved fight-to-fight but taking Nunes out is a tall task no matter the weight class, and the future of the 145ers is probably the murkiest of any division in the UFC.

Flyweight

Champion: Deiveson Figueiredo

In The Mix: Brandon Moreno, Askar Askarov, Alexandre Pantoja, Cody Garbrandt

UFC 256: Deiveson Figueiredo Post-Fight Interview
UFC 256: Deiveson Figueiredo Post-Fight Interview
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Deiveson Figueiredo talks about his majority draw at UFC 256.


Look Back At Deiveson Figueiredo's Epic 2020

From the brink of disassembly to debatably one of the most exciting weight classes in the UFC, the flyweight division seems to have found its feet after Demetrious Johnson’s trade to ONE Championship in 2019. Deiveson Figueiredo is legit and dethroning him will take a gargantuan effort – one that Brandon Moreno seemed game for in their Fight of the Year-contending battle at UFC 256. That rematch is likely, and the encore should surpass the first bout. Elsewhere, Askar Askarov quietly kept his record spotless and climbed the rankings, and Alexandre Pantoja is a talented presence hanging around the top of the ladder. Cody Garbrandt was slated to challenge Figueiredo before a positive COVID-19 test scratched that bout, but if “No Love” does want to move down to flyweight, then he is a high-profile name that would certainly bring exciting matchups to the division.

Names To Watch For In 2021: Brandon Royval, Kai Kara-France, Alex Perez

Bantamweight

Champion: Petr Yan

In The Mix: Aljamain Sterling, Cory Sandhagen, Rob Font, Cody Garbrandt

 Petr Yan of Russia celebrates after his TKO victory over Jose Aldo in their UFC bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Petr Yan of Russia celebrates after his TKO victory over Jose Aldo in their UFC bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bo

Perhaps the UFC’s most loaded division top to bottom, bantamweight saw Henry Cejudo’s reign end when “Triple C” called it a career (for now…) after defeating Dominick Cruz with relative ease. Since then, the division appears to have a bit of order for the first time since TJ Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt feuded. Russia’s Petr Yan dominated Jose Aldo to capture the vacant belt, and Aljamain Sterling earned his spot as Yan’s first challenger after he submitted Cory Sandhagen in the first round the same night Garbrandt thunderously returned with his Knockout of the Year contender against Rafael Assuncao.

Sandhagen responded with a wheel-kick knockout of Marlon Moraes to prime himself for another No. 1 contender fight, and Rob Font established himself as the probable dark horse of the top 5 after he returned from injury to knock out Moraes to end 2020. With Dillashaw’s suspension coming to an end at the turn of the new year, he’ll be yet another legit title contender added to the division as a slew of veterans float just outside the title picture hoping to make another run at gold.

Names To Watch For In 2021: TJ Dillashaw, Jose Aldo, Frankie Edgar, Dominick Cruz

Featherweight

Champion: Alexander Volkanovski

In The Mix: Max Holloway, Brian Ortega, Zabit Magomedsharipov, Calvin Kattar

Alexander Volkanovski of Australia prepares to fight Max Holloway in their UFC featherweight championship fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Alexander Volkanovski of Australia prepares to fight Max Holloway in their UFC featherweight championship fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bot

While the featherweight division remains one of the deepest in the UFC, 2020 was a relatively quiet year for the weight class. Volkanovski bested Max Holloway in a razor-close decision win that had many blasting the “robbery” horn, but regardless, the Australian, at the very least, proved his qualities as champion. He’ll likely face a refreshed and revamped Brian Ortega after “T-City” dismantled Chan Sung Jung on Fight Island.

Other than that, not many title-shaping fights went down as Zabit Magomedsharipov and Yair Rodriguez never made the walk in 2020. Somebody who stayed busy, however, was Massachusetts’s Calvin Kattar. The Boston Bomber scored a huge knockout win over Jeremy Stephens to establish himself in the division’s elite before taking home a hard-fought main event win over Dan Ige just a couple months later. His calendar-opening date with Holloway is important for both men in terms of establishing the next in line for a title shot, priming much more movement in the weight class in 2021.

Names To Watch For In 2021: Chan Sung Jung, Josh Emmett, Arnold Allen, Sodiq Yusuff, Dan Ige

Lightweight

Champion: Khabib Nurmagomedov (or N/A)

In The Mix: Conor McGregor, Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier, Charles Oliveira, Michael Chandler

UFC 254: Khabib Nurmagomedov Octagon Interview
UFC 254: Khabib Nurmagomedov Octagon Interview
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UFC’s premier division for quality and drama delivered, starting with Conor McGregor’s knockout win over Donald Cerrone to open the year (albeit in a welterweight contest). Justin Gaethje set up a unification bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov after dismantling Tony Ferguson in the UFC’s restart at UFC 249, and “The Eagle” responded with perhaps his best performance to date – submitting Gaethje in the second round of what he would announce afterward as the final bout of his dominant career.

With the lightweight title likely up for grabs, the lightweight feeding frenzy gets off to a high-profile start with McGregor and Dustin Poirier – who reminded everyone why “The Diamond” is championship quality in a Fight of the Year contender against Dan Hooker – set for a rematch at UFC 257. On the precipice of title contention is Charles Oliveira, who rides an eight-fight winning streak and appears to have come into his own. Former Bellator champion Michael Chandler still has yet to make his UFC debut, but he figures to become a factor in the title picture as well.

Names To Watch For In 2021: Tony Ferguson, Dan Hooker, Rafael Dos Anjos

Welterweight

Champion: Kamaru Usman

In The Mix: Colby Covington, Gilbert Burns, Leon Edwards, Jorge Masvidal, Stephen Thompson

Kamaru Usman of Nigeria battles Jorge Masvidal in their UFC welterweight championship fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Kamaru Usman of Nigeria battles Jorge Masvidal in their UFC welterweight championship fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Ah, welterweight. Never short of trash talk, never short of drama and never short of delivering fun fights – the men at 170 delivered all those things once again in 2020. Gilbert Burns skyrocketed up the rankings to earn a shot at the belt, but when that fight fell through, Kamaru Usman earned another dominant win after the “BMF” Jorge Masvidal stepped in on short notice to challenge for the title on Fight Island’s debut card. Colby Covington dominated Tyron Woodley to give himself a credible shout at a rematch with Usman, but a potential fight with Masvidal continues to rumble to the surface.

Leon Edwards’ trajectory was undoubtedly impacted the most among championship-caliber fighters after the coronavirus pandemic shutdown what was to be a main-event bout with Tyron Woodley in London. Edwards never made the walk in 2020 after COVID-19 complications scratched a scheduled bout with 2020’s breakout star, Khamzat Chimaev, leaving Edwards without that marquee win necessary to really carry weight in the title picture. Also on the outside loudly looking in is Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, who returned from a year-long, injury-induced layoff to dominate Geoff Neal on 2020’s final fight night. “Wonderboy” has shown he is very much still in the mix with the best at 170, so 2021 holds plenty of potential for the division.

Names To Watch For In 2021: Khamzat Chimaev, Michael Chiesa, Vicente Luque

Middleweight

Champion: Israel Adesanya

In The Mix: Robert Whittaker, Marvin Vettori, Paulo Costa

UFC 253: Israel Adesanya Post-Fight Interview
UFC 253: Israel Adesanya Post-Fight Interview
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Israel Adesanya’s encore to his breakout 2019 campaign might have been uneven, but it was also a testament to the “what have you done for me lately?” philosophy. After some of the hype cooled on him due to a methodical fight against a shockingly shelled-up Yoel Romero, “The Last Stylebender” settled beef with human granite block Paulo Costa with incredible ease on Fight Island. The performance was enough to stir up all the buzz Adesanya gained after defeating Robert Whittaker in 2019, but with Whittaker putting together a solid resume for a rematch with wins over Darren Till and Jared Cannonier, it seems like Adesanya is eyeing Jan Blachowicz and “champ champ” status, as well as a fight with Jon Jones.

That leaves Whittaker with the task of fending off would-be challengers, whether that be Costa or the streaking Marvin Vettori following the Italian’s impressive win over Jack Hermansson. Any time a fighter goes for gold in another division, it puts their original weight class in a bit of a holding pattern. However, Adesanya’s penchant for keeping an active schedule and the slew of contenders building their resumes leads to thinking that middleweight won’t suffer that same fate we’ve seen in recent years.

Names To Watch For In 2021: Jared Cannonier, Darren Till, Jack Hermansson, Derek Brunson, Kevin Holland

Light Heavyweight

Champion: Jan Blachowicz

In The Mix: Israel Adesanya, Glover Teixeira, Thiago Santos

Jan Blachowicz of Poland reacts after defeating Dominick Reyes in their light heavyweight championship bout during UFC 253 inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on September 27, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
Jan Blachowicz of Poland reacts after defeating Dominick Reyes in their light heavyweight championship bout during UFC 253 inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on September 27, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

2020 was the end of a decade-long era when Jon Jones declared his intention to move to heavyweight and Daniel Cormier, though he hadn’t fought at 205 pounds since 2018, called it a career after concluding his trilogy with Stipe Miocic. That shake-up seemed to breathe life into the light heavyweight division, and Polish wrecking ball Jan Blachowicz bulldozed his way to the title. It was a disappointing outcome for Dominick Reyes, who many believed defeated Jones in their duel at UFC 247.

Alas, Blachowicz’s immediate future is murky. It seems like Adesanya wants to grab a second belt but standing right there with a genuinely solid case for a shot is Glover Teixeira. The 41-year-old veteran is on a five-fight winning streak, most recently submitting Thiago Santos, and is a feel-good story in the title picture. On the edges of the picture, a group of younger, well-rounded up-and-comers appears to have gone through the cycles of establishing themselves as the new class at 205.

Names To Watch For In 2021: Dominick Reyes, Aleksandar Rakic, Jiri Prochazka

Heavyweight

Champion: Stipe Miocic

In The Mix: Francis Ngannou, Jon Jones, Curtis Blaydes, Jairzinho Rozenstruik, Derrick Lewis

Stipe Miocic poses for a portrait after his victory during the UFC 252 event at UFC APEX on August 15, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Stipe Miocic poses for a portrait after his victory during the UFC 252 event at UFC APEX on August 15, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

The end to Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier’s trilogy means the heavyweight division might move along quickly in 2021. Miocic’s win over Cormier likely earned him a place in the heavyweight G.O.A.T. discussion, and he has plenty of legacy-shaking fights ahead. Francis Ngannou blitzed Jairzinho Rozenstruik with such ease that it seems like he is the clear No. 1 contender. He’s a different fighter than when he first fought Miocic for the belt, and so that fight does have plenty of appeal. Jon Jones is lurking for whoever wins that fight, though. While other heavyweights – namely Curtis Blaydes, Rozenstruik and Derrick Lewis – have earned their own turn at fighting for gold, the allure of Jones finally fighting at heavyweight is something any fight fan would watch with high interest. Heavyweight is probably at its most interesting spot in years with the crop shaping up into 2021.

Names To Watch For In 2021: Alistair Overeem, Ciryl Gane