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Even without a belt around his waist, Max Holloway is still among the best the sport of mixed martial arts has to offer.
The “Blessed” Hawaiian proved that point yet again at UFC Fight Night 197, when he emerged from a classic five-round battle against Yair Rodriguez with a unanimous decision triumph. In addition to his patented combination striking, Holloway landed a career-best three takedowns and utilized timely clinch work to get the nod over an opponent who pushed him until the final bell.
Holloway’s 2021 will be remembered for a pair of sublime performances in wins over Rodriguez and Calvin Kattar, and that work could propel him into a long-awaited featherweight championship trilogy against Alexander Volkanovski next year. For now, Holloway moves up one spot to No. 13 in Sherdog.com’s pound-for-pound poll – and it’s hard not to feel like he’s a little bit undervalued.
Note: Previous ranking in brackets.
1. Kamaru Usman (20-1) Usman kept on trucking at UFC 268, earning a unanimous decision triumph over Colby Covington in a championship rematch at Madison Square Garden in New York on Nov. 6. “The Nigerian Nightmare” dropped Covington twice in the second round then survived a late push in the championship frames from his opponent to close the book on his rivalry with the controversial Covington. Usman now has 15 consecutive UFC triumphs under his belt, a streak that is only surpassed by middleweight great Anderson Silva.
2. Alexander Volkanovski (23-1) In his first title bout against someone other than Max Holloway, Volkanovski delivered in the UFC 266 main event, outlanding Brian Ortega by 126 significant strikes and surviving a couple of dangerous submissions en route to a unanimous decision victory. The City Kickboxing representative has won 20 consecutive professional fights and 10 straight in UFC competition to further cement his place as one of the sport’s top pound-for-pound talents. Despite a 2-0 record against Holloway, a third date with the talented Hawaiian could loom, provided he gets past Yair Rodriguez in November.
3. Israel Adesanya (21-1) After failing in his bid to become a two-division champion this past March, Adesanya showed the world that he still reigns supreme at middleweight, as he cruised to a five-round verdict over Marvin Vettori in the UFC 263 headliner at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., on June 12. It was a much more decisive triumph than their first meeting, when “The Last Stylebender” captured a split verdict over his Italian rival at UFC on Fox 29 in April 2018. With 10 consecutive middleweight triumphs under his belt, the City Kickboxing stalwart now turns his attention to a rematch with ex-champ Robert Whittaker.
4. Francis Ngannou (16-3) Ngannou brought the same ferocious knockout power into his rematch with Stipe Miocic at UFC 260, but improved takedown defense allowed him to use it much more effectively. The end result was a second-round knockout victory that made “The Predator” the 17th heavyweight champion in UFC history. The Cameroonian-born Frenchman has laid waste to some of the division’s best during his run to the top. Up next, a title unification bout against Ciryl Gane looms at UFC 270 on Jan. 22.
5. A.J. McKee (18-0) McKee had a star-making performance at Bellator 263, as he rocked Patricio Freire with a head kick and then rendered his opponent unconscious with a guillotine choke in their headlining encounter at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on July 31. Not only does McKee claim featherweight gold, but he earned a cool $1 million for making it through the promotion’s 145-pound bracket. McKee finished all four of his opponents — Freire, Darrion Caldwell, Derek Campos and Georgi Karakhanyan — in the grand prix and now looks poised to be one of the sport’s top featherweights for years to come.
6. Brandon Moreno (19-5-2) Moreno made history at UFC 263, becoming the first Mexican-born champion in promotion history with a third-round submission of Deiveson Figueiredo at the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., on June 12. Moreno was much more dominant in the rematch after battling the Brazilian to a majority draw in their first meeting at UFC 256. “The Assassin Baby” is unbeaten in six Octagon appearances since his initial release from the promotion. Moreno will have to vanquish Figueiredo again when they square off in a trilogy matchup at UFC 270.
7. Dustin Poirier (28-6, 1 NC) Though it may not have ended exactly as he would have liked it, there’s no question that Poirier was impressive during the opening round of his trilogy bout against Conor McGregor at UFC 264. Prior to the leg injury suffered by McGregor that prompted a doctor stoppage, “The Diamond” was on the verge of securing a finish by virtue of his heavy ground-and-pound from above. While a fourth meeting with the Irishman may yet be in the cards, Poirier has more pressing matters at hand: A shot at current 155-pound champion Charles Oliveira is on tap for UFC 269 on Dec. 11.
8. Stipe Miocic (20-4) When his wrestling failed against Francis Ngannou in the UFC 260 headliner, so did Miocic’s bid to make another successful heavyweight championship defense. Miocic saw his reign end in a second-round KO defeat at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas on March 27, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Ohio-based firefighter has already established himself as the organization’s most consistent heavyweight king with records for most victories in title bouts and consecutive title defenses. Though requesting a trilogy wouldn’t be out of line for the 38-year-old, Miocic’s Octagon forays have become less frequent in recent years, making it unclear when he might be willing to return for another matchup with Ngannou – or anyone.
9. Justin Gaethje (23-3) More than a year removed from his lightweight championship loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 254, Gaethje staked his claim to another title shot at UFC 268, where he outdueled Michael Chandler in a “Fight of the Year” candidate at Madison Square Garden in New York. Gaethje endured some early adversity when he was rocked by the former Bellator champion, but he relied on a more technical approach to pull away from Chandler for a unanimous decision triumph. The former World Series of Fighting title holder has said he will “riot” if he is not next in line to face the winner of the Dustin Poirier-Charles Oliveira title bout at UFC 269..
10. Patricio Freire (32-5) Freire is a champ-champ no longer, as he was relieved of his 145-pound belt in a first-round submission loss to A.J. McKee in the Bellator 263 headliner on July 31. “Pitbull” is still arguably the greatest talent to compete under the Bellator banner, but he recently vacated his lightweight belt to pursue a rematch with McKee at 145 pounds. It’s worth nothing that Freire has bounced back from adversity before: The Brazilian has twice lost featherweight title bouts in the California-based promotion only to avenge those defeats further down the road.
Other Contenders: Glover Teixeira, Jan Blachowicz, Max Holloway, Deiveson Figueiredo, Robert Whittaker.
Sherdog’s divisional and pound-for-pound rankings are compiled by a panel of Sherdog.com staff members and contributors: Tristen Critchfield, Mike Fridley, Brian Knapp, Ben Duffy, Jay Pettry, Edward Carbajal, Marcelo Alonso, Tudor Leonte, Keith Shillan, Tyler Treese and Lev Pisarsky.