John Brannigan/Sherdog.com illustration
Ayaka Hamasaki closed out 2020 in style.
The 38-year-old Tokyo native captured the vacant Rizin Fighting Federation atomweight crown with a spectacular submission, tapping out Miyuu Yamamoto with a leg scissor choke in the opening stanza of their bout on New Year’s Eve in Saitama, Japan. Outside of a loss to Sherdog’s consensus No. 1 atomweight, Seo Hee Ham, Hamasaki has been on a roll since 2018, winning seven of her eight appearances within the Japanese promotion.
However, that lone defeat prevents her from climbing the ladder in our female pound-for-round rankings, as she remains positioned directly behind Ham at No. 13.
Note: Previous ranking in parentheses.
1. Amanda Nunes (20-4) Nunes was completely dominant against Felicia Spencer in the UFC 250 headliner, winning a lopsided unanimous verdict that wasn’t as close as the judges’ scorecards (50-44, 50-44, 50-45) indicated. That makes 11 consecutive triumphs for Nunes, who joins Daniel Cormier and Henry Cejudo as the only three fighters to successfully defend UFC titles in two different weight classes. “Lioness” was supposed to return for another 145-pound title defense against Megan Anderson at UFC 256 on Dec. 12 but was forced to withdraw from the bout due to undisclosed reasons. The title bout has been rebooked for UFC 259.
2. Valentina Shevchenko (20-3) It’s gotten to the point where if Shevchenko loses a round, her opponent can claim a moral victory. Although Jennifer Maia banked the second frame in their co-main event bout at UFC 255, the rest of the contest was all Shevchenko, as “Bullet” cruised to a clear-cut unanimous decision title to retain her flyweight crown. Shevchenko has won six straight fights since moving to 125 pounds and now eyes a showdown against either Jessica Andrade or Lauren Murphy.
3. Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino (23-2, 1 NC) Justino’s first featherweight title defense in Bellator was a breeze, as she dominated Arlene Blencowe en route to a rear-naked choke victory in the second round of the Bellator 249 headliner — the first submission triumph of the powerful Brazilian’s MMA career. “Cyborg” has won three straight contests since her upset loss to Amanda Nunes at UFC 232 and appears poised for a dominant reign as 145-pound champ in the California-based promotion.
4. Weili Zhang (21-1) One bout removed from a 42-second stoppage of Jessica Andrade, Zhang showcased an ability to prevail in a battle of attrition, as she outdueled Joanna Jedrzejczyk in a five-round classic to retain the strawweight crown in the UFC 248 co-main event. Zhang extended her winning streak to 21 thanks to superior punching power that left a grotesque hematoma on Jedrzejczyk’s forehead. Zhang’s victory was all the more impressive considering that her camp was altered due to coronavirus concerns in her homeland of China. Zhang and Jedrzejczyk could be destined for a rematch down the road, but it will be difficult to top their first meeting, which ranks as perhaps the greatest female fight of all-time.
5. Rose Namajunas (9-4) A devastating slam KO defeat to Jessica Andrade at UFC 237 had Namajunas contemplating retirement, but ultimately “Thug” Rose decided against calling it a career. The former champion made a triumphant return to the Octagon at UFC 251, where she racked up on early lead on the scorecards and held off a hard-charging Andrade down the stretch for a split-decision triumph at “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi. While a trilogy with Andrade could be in store someday, Namajunas likely earned herself a shot at reigning 115-pound champion Weili Zhang.
6. Jessica Andrade (21-8) Andrade became the first woman to earn victories in three different weight classes at UFC Fight Night 180, as she dispatched former flyweight title challenger Katlyn Chookagian with body punches 4:55 into the opening round of their co-main event encounter in Abu Dhabi on Oct. 17. With an impressive victory in her 125-pound debut, the former strawweight queen already looks primed for a title shot in her new weight class down the road.
7. Germaine de Randamie (10-4) De Randamie showcased a new element to her game at UFC on ESPN 16, as she submitted Julianna Pena with a guillotine choke in the third round of their bantamweight encounter at the Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi on Oct. 3. It was the first submission victory ever for the Dutch kickboxer, who rebounded from a five-round defeat to Amanda Nunes in a title bout at UFC 245 last December. De Randamie has won six of her eight promotional appearances, with her only two defeats both coming at the hands of Nunes.
8. Joanna Jedrzejczyk (16-4) Jedrzejczyk was all heart at UFC 248. Despite being left nearly unrecognizable by the end of her co-headlining bout with Weili Zhang, the Polish star never kept pressing the action in the strawweight championship clash. Although she outlanded her foe in significant strikes, Jedrzejczyk wasn’t as powerful as the Chinese champion in striking exchanges and came up just short in a split-decision defeat. Once one of the sport’s most dominant champions, Jedrzejczyk only raised her stock despite falling to 6-4 in UFC title fights.
9. Juliana Velasquez (11-0) In a championship matchup of undefeated fighters, Velasquez ended Ilima-Lei Macfarlane’s flyweight reign with a clear-cut five-round verdict in the Bellator 254 headliner on Dec. 10. The Brazilian judoka has been victorious in her first six promotional appearances and looks destined for a future showdown with Macfarlane training partner and former UFC title challenger Liz Carmouche. A rematch with Macfarlane or a clash with ex-Invicta champ Vanessa Porto are also possibilities.
10. Julia Budd (14-3) When she’s not facing Cristiane Justino, Budd is still just about as dominant as they come. The former featherweight champion was rarely threatened by Jessy Miele at Bellator 244, as she swept the scorecards in convincing fashion at Mohegan Sun Arena on Aug. 21. Few 145-pounders are a physical match for Budd, who has won 12 of her last 13 professional appearances. As long as “Cyborg” is champion, it may take another victory or two for Budd to get another shot at the belt.
Other Contenders: Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, Seo Hee Ham, Ayaka Hamasaki, Holly Holm, Xiaonan Yan.
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, Tudor Leonte, Keith Shillan, Mike Sloan, Tyler Treese and Lev Pisarsky.