#1 – Dustin Poirier
Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier continues to remind us why he is one of the best fighters in the world. Poirier’s story has been one of consistency, and carving a path with nothing but grit, determination, and a pocket full of self belief.
The Diamond has now defeated former double-champion and UFC superstar Conor McGregor not once, but twice this year. Poirier shocked the world when he TKO’d McGregor in their rematch on the first PPV of the year. Afterwards, Poirier had the opportunity to fight for the vacant lightweight title against fellow contender Charles Oliveira. Instead, the former interim champion chose to settle the score with McGregor in a trilogy bout only 6 months later.
Poirier believed in himself enough to prioritize a third bout with McGregor over an immediate title shot, and it paid off. Dustin is now 2-1 against the biggest name MMA, and finds himself next in line for a crack at 155 pound gold.
#2 – Kamaru Usman
Welterweight Champion Kamaru Usman is slowly making a case to become the #1 Pound-for-Pound fighter in the world. If you had tried convincing me last year that Kamaru Usman would KO Gilbert Burns and Jorge Masvidal back-to-back this year, I might think you’re the one taking blows to the head. Now, Usman is being discussed as one of the greatest welterweights in MMA history, if not THEE WW G.O.A.T..
According to recent news, Usman will face #1 ranked Colby Covington in a rematch, nearly two years after beating Covington by TKO.
#3 – Ciryl Gane
Only 5 bouts into his UFC career and Ciryl Gane is already ranked #3 in the heavyweight division. If that isn’t impressive enough, Gane will also be challenging for the interim heavyweight title in his next appearance. In less than a year, with wins over Junior Dos Santos, Jarzinho Rozenstruik, and Alexander Volkov, Gane has completely taken the division by storm.
The 31 year old French fighter has crafted a perfect 9-0 record, with two wins already in 2021. If he can get past Derrick Lewis in his next fight, Gane will challenge his former teammate, Francis Ngannou for the heavyweight title.
#4 – Islam Makhachev
The torch has been passed. Longtime friend and training partner of Khabib Nurmagomedov has re-entered the lightweight conversation with two consecutive wins already in 2021. After a year-long layoff, Makhachev has collected two submission wins over ranked contenders Drew Dober and Thiago Moisés.
Makhachev’s performances this year have catapulted him into the top 5 rankings of the lightweight division. The Dagestani protege already feels it’s a matter of time before he takes over the legacy left behind by his teammate and former undisputed champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
#5 – Brandon Moreno
“Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, and maybe not the next month, but only one thing is true – I will be champion one day, I promise.”
Years ago Brandon Moreno made this promise to anyone who was willing to listen. Last month that goal was achieved. Twenty-seven year old Moreno is the first Mexican-born UFC champion, and his journey to the top has been anything but easy.
Brandon Moreno is someone who has carved himself out of stone, gaining everything he has through hard work, perseverance, and self belief. After being the last pick on The Ultimate Fighter, to being cut by the UFC, to fighting his way back in, Brandon Moreno has literally clawed his way to the top of the flyweight division.
At the end of 2020, Moreno shocked the world by bringing the significantly favored champion, Deiveson Figueiredo, to a majority draw. Exactly 6 months later Moreno finished Figueiredo in a rematch in the third round by submission to become the UFC Flyweight Champion of the world.
#6 – Rose Namajunas
“Thug” Rose Namajunas has made the most of her one and only fight so far this year. In the co-main event at UFC 261, Namajunas made history as the first female fighter to regain a UFC championship title. In Round 1, Rose landed a beautifully timed head kick on the former champion, Zhang Weili. As a betting underdog, many felt Rose had an uphill battle against the seemingly indestructible Weili. Still, Thug Rose made her dominant stoppage win seem effortless.
The prosperous 2-time UFC champion is still only 29 years of age, and if she chooses, Rose could continue to build her legacy for years to come. Considering everything she has already accomplished, it’s possible the best version of Rose is yet to come.
#7 – Charles Oliveira
This year has been a story of the underdogs. Add “Charlie Olives” to the list of inspiring new champions in 2021. Charles “Do Bronx” Oliveira joins Brandon Moreno and Rose Namajunas in becoming a world champion in their first fight of the year. Oliveira captured lightweight gold in May at UFC 262 against Michael Chandler. After nearly getting finished in the opening round, Oliveira ultimately defeated Chandler by TKO only 20 seconds into Round 2.
At 31 years of age, Oliveira has been fighting in the UFC for more than a decade. The road to the top has been a long and winding one for Charles, and the length and difficulty of his journey are what make his story so inspiring. Not all, but most of the Brazilian’s losses took place earlier in his career at 145 pounds. Since returning to 155 pounds Oliveira has lost only once, and is now on a 9-fight winning streak. The stars are beginning to align for the crafty veteran, and it could be now that Oliveira is finally entering his prime.
It seems evident that Oliveira’s first title defense will be against Dustin Poirier, presumably by the end of this year. If “Do Bronx” can protect his throne against perhaps the most dangerous contender in the division, then we could be on the cusp of witnessing yet another dominant lightweight title reign.
#8 – Beniel Dariush
In case anyone was wondering, the 155 pound division remains as deep with talent as ever. For a long time it seemed Beniel Dariush was swimming in place toward the latter end of the lightweight rankings. With one of the longest active winning streaks in the division (7), Dariush has finally secured his place within the top 5 rankings at #3.
This placement came after Beniel collected wins in February and May of this year against Diego Ferreira and Tony Ferguson. As one of the most well-rounded fighters in the division, Dariush is a difficult matchup for anyone in the top 10, and could potentially be one or two fights shy of earning himself a crack at the title.
#9 – Movsar Evloev
A dark horse in the featherweight division may have just emerged from the shadows this year. Undefeated (15-0 MMA, 5-0 UFC) Movsar Evloev of Russia has had an active start to the year with wins against Nik Lenz and Hakeem Dawodu. Evloev is now ranked #13 and will hopefully compete again before the year is over.
As he climbs the ranks, Evloev continues to have an answer for the obstacles in his path. Keep an eye out for the grappling heavy, fast-paced style of Movsar in his next appearance.
#10 – Terrance McKinney
This name may come as a surprise to some, but if there’s anyone on this list who has earned some recognition, it’s Terrance McKinney. When mentioning this lightweight contender, I may not be discussing title contention or upper rankings (yet), but I will refer back to inspiration.
McKinney has already fought four times this year, including his UFC debut last month at UFC 263. The UFC newcomer was a replacement, and accepted the bout on short notice against rising prospect Matt Frevola. McKinney was an enormous underdog, but that didn’t stop him from knocking out Frevola in the first 7 seconds of the fight.
McKinney has openly shared the troubles of his past, including a particular drug-related episode which resulted in him being tased by police, and clinically dying not once, but twice. Terrance has used fighting as a way to turn his life around, and it’s safe to say he has come a long way. Now that he has broken the record for fastest knockout in UFC lightweight history, perhaps he’ll break another UFC record for the most fights in a single calendar year.