UFC in 2021: Each Division’s Fighter to Watch
- The UFC is about to kick off their 2021 schedule this Saturday the UFC on ABC: Holloway vs Kattar and we’re here to look at some of potential breakout athletes of the year
- Picking one fighter from each division, we predict who is most likely to find success in 2021 and move into the top-10 or higher of their division and potentially even earn a shot at their respected championship
- Be sure to look back at our 2020 Fighters of the Year as you may or may not see some familiar faces here
Amanda Ribas – Women’s Strawweight Division
We start this list with a fighter who helps kick off the UFC’s 2021 year on Fight Island as Amanda Ribas is scheduled to fight Marina Rodriguez on Fight Island on January 23 at UFC 257. In fact, the fun-loving Brazilian fighter has already arrived in Abu Dhabi.
Not only did Ribas have a solid 2020 but she also had an incredible 2019; a year in which she defeated Emily Whitmire by submission and became the first woman to beat top-prospect Mackenzie Dern via unanimous decision.
Her 2020 continued with much success. She first fought Randa Markos last March, beating her by unanimous decision. She followed that performance with an armbar submission victory over Paige VanZant at UFC 251. The fight ended up being VanZant’s last for the promotion.
Now Ribas is set to take on Rodriguez and is a -335 favorite to win. Anything can happen in the UFC, but should Ribas win as the number-14 ranked fighter in the division, what could come next? With her skills mixed with her personality, Ribas is a highly marketable fighter and we would expect a fight within the top-10 would follow. Our pick: Michelle Waterson. Waterson is coming off of a win against Angela Hill and was the original opponent slated for Ribas. However, Waterson had to pull out and was replaced.
We’d still like to see that one happen as Waterson is ranked above Ribas at number-seven and is a big name in the UFC as a whole.
Raulian Paiva – Men’s Flyweight Division
This 25-year-old Brazilian fighter joined the UFC in 2019 following a win on the Dana White Contender Series that saw him defeat Allan Nascimento via split-decision. He was 18-1 when he debuted for the promotion.
But Paiva had a rocky start in the UFC, losing back-to-back fights to Kai Kara-France and Rogerio Bontorin. However, the first loss was a very close split-decision. And the second loss was a TKO doctor’s stoppage due to a deep cut on Paiva’s eyebrow.
Paiva’s next two fights would go very differently as he knocked out Mark De La Rosa in the second round of their February 2020 bout and then defeated Zhalgas Zhumagulov via unanimous decision at UFC 251 last July. He did pull out of a September 2020 bout due to a knee injury but he expected to make a full recovery and should be cleared to return by March or April 2021.
Ranked as the number-ten flyweight, both Kara-France and Bontorin have ranked ahead of Paiva and a return bout against either of those fighters could seem likely. It would allow Paiva to avenge a loss and climb the rankings at the same time.
A fight against the number-six ranked Brandon Royval would also make a lot of sense as Royval is coming off of a November loss to Brandon Moreno. The recovery schedule of these two could line up in 2021.
Maycee Barber – Women’s Flyweight Division
Most people would have pegged Maycee Barber as the fighter to watch in 2020 – and she was. Unfortunately for Barber, though, her 2020 competitive year would come to an end in January. Kicking off the year with a fight against Roxanne Modaferri, Barber was coming into the fight with an undefeated 8-0 record. Unfortunately, Barber, the student of Ben Askren, suffered a knee injury during the bout. She finished the fight bravely but was ultimately deemed the loser via a unanimous decision.
She was on a collision course with the top-5 of the division prior to the injury. She won her bout on the Dana White Contender Series via TKO and subsequently won her first four fights in a row under the UFC banner, all of them by TKO. She even changed weight classes during that stretch. Yes, she was fighting as strawweight originally.
Luckily for Barber, she has made a full recovery. She even has a fight booked against another rising contender in Alexa Grasso. The fight is expected to take place on the UFC 258 card on February 13. Although Grasso is unranked (Barber currently sits in the number-ten position), a win over the Mexican fighter would still be huge for Barber as it would put the rest of the division on notice that she has made a full recovery and to watch out for her.
Following a potential win over Grasso, we’d like to see Barber fight within the top-ten against a fighter such as former title challenger Jessica Eye. Of course, there’s always a chance Barber rematches with Modafferi, who is currently ranked in the number-seven position of the women’s flyweight division.
Jack Shore – Men’s Bantamweight Division
If you don’t know who Jack Shore is now, we’re betting you will by the end of the year. The 25-year-old fighter out of the UK is 13-0 as a professional and that record includes two rear-naked choke victories in the UFC. He debuted in the promotion in 2019 by choking out Nohelin Hernandez and followed that with another submission victory over Aaron Phillips last July.
Shore fights out of Wales with the Tillery Combat MMA Academy. He has finished 12 of his 13 fights and is a former Cage Warriors bantamweight champion – a title he relinquished in order to join the UFC.
With only two fights in the UFC, he is currently unranked. But, most likely, not for long. The bantamweight division in the UFC has stepped up this past year as one of the most interesting divisions in the promotion with a whole plethora of potential opponents for Shore. Our favorite potential next matchup? Song Yadong. Yadong was second on our list as the most exciting bantamweight to watch in 2021 so why not pit them against one another? Yadong is 5-0 in the UFC and ranked as the 14th-best bantamweight in the UFC.
A bout against rising superstar “Sugar” Sean O’Malley, however, also whets our whistle.
Aspen Ladd – Women’s Bantamweight Division
How is a fighter already 8-1 in the UFC, ranked as the third-best women’s bantamweight and the ninth-best pound-for-pound women’s fighter, on a list of breakout stars? Simple – she didn’t fight in 2020 and the first loss of her career is still fresh in our minds.
Aspen Ladd started her UFC career by going 3-0 before suffering the first loss of her career against former UFC women’s featherweight champion Germain de Randamie in the summer of 2019. She lost via TKO in just 16-seconds. The hype train was temporarily derailed.
Ladd bounced back in late 2019 when she earned a TKO victory over Yana Kunitskaya but she hasn’t been able to fight since. She did have a fight scheduled for June 2020 but was forced to pull out due to a knee injury.
As of October, it was reported that Ladd was back to light training and a return in 2021 seems likely. With that said, a rematch with Germaine de Randamie would be the most exciting. It would answer a lot of questions, mostly if the first fight was a fluke and if Ladd can perform under the pressure and avenge her only loss.
Of all the fighters on this list, Ladd could be just one big win away from a title shot against women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes – possibly even by the end of the year.
Grant Dawson – Men’s Featherweight Division
Grant Dawson hasn’t cracked the top-15 as of yet but he could very well find himself in the top-10 by the end of 2021.
Dawson appeared on the Contender Series boasting an 11-1 record with eight submission wins and 11 finishes overall. He fought Adrian Diaz on the show and – guess what? He submitted him in the second round. Dawson is now 4-0 in the UFC, with two submissions and two unanimous decision victories. His most recent bout came against Nad Narimani last July.
Still just 26-years-old, Dawson also holds a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and is poised to take the featherweight division by storm in 2021. We think the best possible next matchup for the prospect is to take on the fighter currently ranked at number-15: Edson Barboza. Not only is Barboza a big name in the UFC, he is also coming off of his first win in the featherweight division which occurred last October. Although known as a striker, Barboza would still keep things interesting with Dawson on the ground as he also holds a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It’s the perfect matchup to put Dawson in the top-15 as quickly as possible. If he were to finish Barboza, the win could see him climb even higher.
We end this one with an honorable mention to Ryan Hall. Considered one of the most talented grapplers within the entire UFC promotion, Hall is undefeated in the UFC and won season 22 of The Ultimate Fighter. He didn’t fight in 2020 due to injury but is expected back in 2021. He is currently ranked as the 13th-best featherweight in the promotion.
N/A – Women’s Featherweight Division
Unfortunately for the women’s featherweight division, there isn’t much to say heading into this year. Champion Amanda Nunes fights Megan Anderson in early 2021 and the odds are not in Anderson’s favor. There simply is no one left in the UFC for Nunes to fight at 145-pounds. Mix that with Nunes hinting towards being close to retirement and the division could seemingly come to a close by the end of 2021. Unless the UFC signs new contenders from other promotions (much like they did for Cris Cyborg) there simply isn’t enough talent in a division that lists only Amanda Nunes in the official rankings on the UFC website.
Mark Madsen – Lightweight Division
This is one of our favorites. In the words of fellow lightweight fighter Michael Chandler, “here for a good time, not a long time”. That seems to be the plan for 36-year-old Danish fighter Mark Madsen who debuted for the UFC in late 2019.
Mark Madsen is a legendary wrestler in his home country of Denmark, boasting an Olympic silver medal in Greco-Roman wrestling and four World Wrestling Championship medals. He also trains at Xtreme Couture with another greco-roman wrestling legend: Randy Couture. Plus, he now works his striking with Martin Kampmann – a former top-welterweight and devastating striker. Simply put, Mark Madsen is more than qualified to be on this list – even in a UFC lightweight division considered to be the toughest division in the entire promotion.
Madsen debuted for the UFC as an undefeated MMA fighter with a record of 8-0. He had his first fight for the promotion in September of 2019 where he fought Danilo Belluardo. It was his first fight as a lightweight and he went on to win via TKO in just over one minute of the first round. He followed that performance with a unanimous decision win over Austin Hubbard at UFC 248 last March. He dominated the whole fight despite breaking his jaw during the bout.
And, unfortunately, that’s what could limit Madsen in 2021 – his recovery time. At the time of this writing, he has had ten-months off but recovery from a broken jaw also greatly affects your diet and therefore your weight and strength. Still, there is a good chance we could see Madsen return to action by the late spring or early summer and we would love to see him put his grappling skills up against Gregor Gillespie. Gillespie was 13-0 before being knocked out by Kevin Lee in late 2019. The strategic battle between the two would be incredible and it seems only fair as both are coming off of injury.
Khamzat Chimaev – Welterweight Division
Not really a surprise here as Khamzat Chimaev was one of the breakout stars of 2020 for the UFC. He wasn’t included on our list of each division’s fighter of the year simply because his three wins in last year were spread across two different weight classes.
So why pose him as the welterweight star to watch? Although only one of his three wins in the UFC came at welterweight, Chimaev is poised to have the biggest fight of his career and it comes against the number-three ranked welterweight Leon Edwards. A win over Edwards automatically catapults him into the top-five of the division. Cutting to welterweight also gives him a notable size advantage over some of the best welterweights in the UFC.
Unfortunately, we still have to wait for that fight against Edwards as it has been canceled twice due to both fighters testing positive for COVID-19 on separate occasions. But the UFC is sticking to this plan as no replacement opponent was ever offered to either man.
The real advantage Chimaev has here heading into 2021 is that he’s already established himself as a star in the eyes of the UFC and their fans. He’s outspoken and fun to watch. The fight against Edwards is a win-win for Chimaev as he is currently only ranked at number-15 in the division. As long as he’s not finished within seconds, even a loss will move Chimaev up the rankings.
With that said, win or lose we would like to see Chimaev take on Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson following the Edwards fight. Most other welterweights are booked up or injured and “Wonderboy” is coming off of a dominant win over Geoff Neal just one month ago. It would be high pressure, exciting fight worthy of a Fight Night main event or pay-per-view co-main event in the first or second quarter of 2021.
Sean Strickland – Middleweight Division
A former welterweight fighter, Sean Strickland made the move up to the UFC middleweight division last year. The move to middleweight followed a two-year layoff after Strickland was in a motorcycle accident. Prior to that, he hadn’t fought as a middleweight since 2015.
With a record of 20-3 heading into his return bout, Strickland took on Jack Marshman last Halloween. Marshman missed weight by 1.5-pounds but it made little difference as Strickland defeated Marshman by unanimous decision. Now 21-3, Strickland took on Brendam Allen only two-weeks later at a catchweight of 195-pounds and – oh my goodness – defeated him with an incredible knockout that earned him a performance of the night bonus.
A former King of the Cage middleweight champion, Sean Strickland currently finds himself unranked in the UFC. But having his name on this list obviously means that we here at WSN think that will soon change. Returning from a two-year injury following a motorcycle crash to win two in a row is a great, feel-good story. But Strickland has all the tools to continue the success.
Whoever is next for Strickland could be anyone’s guess as nothing has been finalized. Especially considering he just pulled off two fights in two weeks to end the year. But, we’d love to see him test his mettle against a former middleweight champion: the number-11 ranked Chris Weidman. Weidman is not the fighter he once was but he still has value. And, in his most recent fight against Omari Akhmedov last August, Weidman was able to snap his two-fight losing streak. A win over a top-prospect helps Weidman. And a win over a former champion definitely helps Strickland.
Considered as the comeback-fighter-of-the-year in 2020, we predict he will be in contention for the title of middleweight fighter-of-the-year for 2021.
Jamahal Hill – Light Heavyweight Division
Light heavyweight Jamahal Hill broke into the top-15 of the division by the year’s end and for good reason.
First getting noticed on the Dana White Contender Series where Hill defeated Alexander Poppeck by TKO, Hill went on to debut for the UFC in January 2020. He fought fellow prospect Darko Stosic and defeated him via unanimous decision. He was now 7-0 as a professional.
Hill had a bit of a hiccup in his next bout that came against Klidson Abreu last May. Originally a first-round TKO victory for Hill, the bout was later overturned to a no-contest after Hill tested positive for marijuana. He served a small suspension of six-months.
He returned to end 2020 with one final fight and it’s the bout that led him to the top-15. On December 5, 2020, Hill took on light heavyweight mainstay Ovince St. Preux. St. Preux was returning to the division after a failed stint at heavyweight and missed the 206-pound limit by 1.5-pounds. Hill impressively defeated St. Preux in the second round with a TKO following a barrage of punches.
The future looks bright for “Sweet Dreams” heading into 2021 – especially in a division that should see more action and movement within the top-5 now that Jon Jones has left. Many opponents stand out for Hill, including Johnny Walker and Paul Craig, but personally, we’d love to see him fight someone that we wanted to include as an honorable mention in this list: Magomed Ankalaev. Hill is now 8-0 as a professional and Ankalaev is a knockout machine riding five straight wins with only one loss on his 14-1 record. Although Ankalaev is scheduled to face Nikita Krylov this February.
It’s been a long time since the light heavyweight division was considered exciting and Jamahal Hill could see himself as a big part of the division’s resurgence in 2021 and could very well see himself in the top-10, if not higher, by the end of the year.
Ciryl Gane – Heavyweight Division
French-born 30-year-old Ciryl Gane is as heavyweight as they come. Standing at 6 ft. 5 in. tall and usually weighing in around the 250-pound mark (not to mention an 82-inch reach), Gane has only faced one fighter taller than him in the UFC (one inch) and he beat that man by heel-hook submission. That man was Don’Tale Mayes and it was Gane’s second fight, second submission, and second win for the UFC.
After those two bouts, Gane fought and defeated Tanner Boser via unanimous decision. With all of those fights occurring in 2019, Gane was now 3-0 in the UFC and 6-0 overall as a professional.
Gane’s 2020 schedule didn’t go as planned due to injuries, ailments, and cancellations on both his end and that of his opponent’s. He fought only once in 2020 but it was a fight that made a statement. On December 12, 2020, at UFC 256, Gane took on the former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos. Gane went on to win the fight via TKO in the second round. The win moved him up into the number-seven spot in the heavyweight rankings.
Moving forward, one matchup seems likely and it’s a fight that Gane has called for himself. As one of the only other top-10 heavyweights not currently booked to a fight, Gane could see himself put up against the number-three Jairzinho Rozenstruik. Rozenstuik’s most recent fight (and win) also came against Junior dos Santos. Prior to that win, Rozenstruik had been knocked out by Francis Ngannou.
And speaking of Ngannou, Gane and the number-one contender are former training partners. Although they seem unwilling to face off against one another for the time being, Gane has stated that he would be willing to fight his friend and former training partner if it were to be for the undisputed UFC heavyweight title.
We predict to see Gane crack the top-five this year provided he (and the world) stay healthy.