Wednesday, November 29, 2023

UFC Pound-for-Pound Fighter Rankings: Islam Makhachev takes over top spot with dominant showing

It turns out, Islam Makhachev had a right to feel slighted when he lost unanimous status as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world despite having beaten featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski in February. 

Considering I was one of those voters who still felt Volkanvoski had deserved the right to retain the honor given how well he performed up a weight class in such a disputed fight (while others, including UFC’s official rankings, favored a heavyweight-conquering Jon Jones), it was hard to avoid the feeling of finality in which Makhachev helped produce in last Saturday’s rematch at UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi

Sure, it must be said that Volkanovski accepted a second shot at becoming a two-division champion on just 12 days’ notice. But Volkanovski was so confident during fight week, even acknowledging that he would need a knockout to win in light of questionable cardio, that it became easy to take his word for it that he would be fine given his track record for greatness. 

It just turned out that Makhachev was not just the bigger fighter but that he’s also the better of the two as he became the first fighter since 2013 to stop Volkanovski when he connected with a left high kick that forced a stoppage at 3:06 of the opening round

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After possibly showing Volkanovski’s well-rounded game too much respect in their first fight, that wasn’t the case in the rematch as Makhachev completely muzzled the offensive output of his opponent by controlling distance so well with heavy leg strikes.

Just like his breakthrough title win over Charles Oliveira last October, which Makhachev won via second-round submission, the native of Dagestan, Russia, proved he didn’t need to rely on his overwhelming strength of grappling and instead showcased the full evolution of his striking as a true dual threat. 

Makhachev also showcased his incredible fight IQ by out-thinking such a brilliant chess player in Volkanovski. Even though Makhachev’s resume on the road to the title was once criticized for a lack of elite names, he now can claim victories over Oliveira and Volkanovski (twice) over the last 13 months alone, which goes a long way in giving him the nod over Jones, as well. 

While Jones cemented his status of G.O.A.T. by dominating Cyril Gane at heavyweight in their vacant title bout in March, that doesn’t automatically mean he’s the top P4P fighter today, at this moment. For as impressive as his 124-second dismantling of Gane was, it was also a wild indictment of just how remedial Gane’s ground game was and simply wasn’t a large enough sample size of who Jones at heavyweight really is after a three-year layoff. (Jones, who recently withdrew from his UFC 295 return in November, is expected to be out at least eight months and turns 37 next summer.)

Makhachev is fighting better competition more often right now — as is Volkanovski, who openly petitioned UFC to make a two-month turnaround against top featherweight contender Ilia Topuria — and continues to showcase at the peak of his physical prime just how versatile and dominant he is.

Using a criteria that takes into account everything from accomplishments to current form, let’s take a closer look at the top fighters inside the Octagon.

For CBS Sports’ updated divisional rankings, click here.

Men’s pound-for-pound rankings

1. Islam Makhachev — Lightweight champion

Record: 25-1 | Previous ranking: No. 2

Charles Oliveira’s withdrawal from his UFC 294 title rematch allowed Makhachev a last-minute second chance against featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski, whom he finished via first-round knockout via head kick. The victory brought an end to any P4P debate as Makhachev controlled the action from start to finish and now owns two stoppage victories in his last three fights against highly ranked P4P foes. 

2. Jon Jones — Heavyweight champion

Record: 27-1, 1 NC | Previous ranking: 3

Jones’ first title defense at heavyweight, scheduled for UFC 295 in November against former champion Stipe Miocic, was canceled after Jones suffered a pectoral tear in training. An eight-month recovery is expected for Jones, who will turn 37 next summer. The ill-timed injury not only creates havoc in the heavyweight title picture but there’s no guarantee that Jones, who was openly considering retirement after the Miocic fight, will ever compete again. 

3. Leon Edwards — Welterweight champion

Record: 20-3, 1 NC | Previous ranking: 4

Doubt him no more. Seven months removed from his real-life “Rocky” moment against Kamaru Usman via fifth-round knockout to commandeer the 170-pound title, Edwards doubled down in their UFC 286 rematch by taking home a majority decision. For his second title defense, Edwards is expected to face former two-time title challenger Colby Covington in December. 

4. Alexander Volkanovski — Featherweight champion

Record: 25-3 | Previous ranking: 1

Volkanovski’s decision to risk it all on 12 days’ notice to rematch Makhachev in Abu Dhabi turned out to be a disastrous one as the reigning 145-pound king never got out of first gear and appeared tentative en route to a first-round knockout loss. Volkanovski remains steadfast that a January return is still possible against top featherweight contender Ilia Topuria.

5. Charles Oliveira — Lightweight

Record: 34-9 | Previous ranking: 5

The former 155-pound champion redeemed himself after losing his title by finishing Beneil Dariush in the first round at UFC 289. But the Brazilian submission threat suffered a costly cut above his right eye in sparring that pulled him from a title rematch at UFC 294 against Makhachev. “Do Bronx” must now hope UFC doesn’t pass him over for the next shot in favor of BMF champion Justin Gaethje. 

6. Sean O’Malley — Bantamweight champion

Record: 17-1, 1 NC | Previous ranking: 6

The “Sugar Show” is alive and well atop the deepest division in the sport following a second-round TKO of Aljamain Sterling at UFC 292. O’Malley silenced his critics by preventing Sterling from getting a takedown and appears ready to become the global superstar his talent and charisma have long teased. A December return is likely, with no shortage of big names rumored to be next. 

7. Alexandre Pantoja — Flyweight champion

Record: 26-5 | Previous ranking: 7

The Brazilian submission threat relied much more on his chin and iron will to edge Brandon Moreno by split decision at UFC 290 in one of the most thrilling and savage fights in flyweight history. At 33, Pantoja now owns three wins over Moreno and is riding a four-fight win streak. He returns at UFC 296 in December to face Brandon Royval in his first title defense.

8. Max Holloway — Featherweight

Record: 24-7 | Previous ranking: 9

A master of reinvention, the 31-year-old Hawaiian star still hasn’t lost to anyone not named Volkanovski at 145 pounds since 2013. Holloway bounced back big in 2023 by edging Arnold Allen in April before knocking out Chan Sung Jung in August. 

9. Aljamain Sterling — Bantamweight

Record: 23-4 | Previous ranking: No. 10

Frustrated by being unable to take down or bother Sean O’Malley at UFC 292, Sterling made a critical mistake that led directly to a TKO defeat. The loss snapped a nine-fight win streak as Sterling appeared on the verge of securing G.O.A.T. status at bantamweight. A move up to 145 pounds is possible for the 34-year-old former champion. 

10. Israel Adesanya — Middleweight

Record: 24-3 | Previous ranking: No. 4

What a whirlwind 2023 it has been for the former middleweight champion. First, he avenged a title knockout loss to rival Alex Pereira by dramatically reclaiming his belt in April. But a title defense against heavy underdog Sean Strickland in September saw Adesanya surprisingly outclassed in a flat performance. A title rematch could be next, per UFC president Dana White.

Dropped out: None
Just missed: Sean Strickland, Justin Gaethje, Alex Pereira, Dricus du Plessis, Khamzat Chimaev

Women’s pound-for-pound rankings

1. Zhang Weili — Strawweight champion

Record: 24-3 | Previous ranking: No. 1

The first Chinese-born UFC champion regained her 115-pound crown by dominating Carla Esparza at UFC 281 via second-round submission. She followed it up with a statistically historic beatdown of Amanda Lemos in August and, at 34, is at the top of her game.

2. Alexa Grasso — Flyweight champion

Record: 16-3-1 | Previous ranking: 2

The native of Mexico teamed up with former champion Valentina Shevchenko to co-author an exciting and tactical 125-pound title rematch at Noche UFC. A split draw was the result as the defending champion Grasso benefitted from a controversial 10-8 final round to curtail defeat. Whether or not a trilogy fight is next remains uncertain in such a crowded division.

3. Valentina Shevchenko — Flyweight

Record: 23-4-1 | Previous ranking: No. 3

The future all-time great stepped up her game at age 35 and nearly regained her flyweight title from Alexa Grasso in their September rematch. A disputed draw was the result, with Shevchenko openly considering an appeal in the aftermath. Either way, it’s hard to imagine that Shevchenko’s days of fighting for UFC gold are behind her.

4. Erin Blanchfield — Flyweight

Record: 12-1 | Previous ranking: 4

The native of New Jersey is 6-0 in the UFC and seemingly on the verge of a title shot following consecutive victories over Jessica Andrade and Talia Santos. Although Blanchfield’s grappling skills remain her calling card, her striking has improved tremendously. She also possesses a killer gas tank, as evidenced by the pace she put on Santos.

5. Manon Fiorot — Flyweight

Record: 11-1 | Previous ranking: 5

Add Fiorot’s name to the list of those who could be next for a shot at the 125-pound crown. The native of France is a dynamic kickboxer who is fresh off a unanimous decision win over former strawweight champion Rose Namajunas in September. 

Dropped out: None
Just missed: Yan Xionan, Tatiana Suarez, Talia Santos, Julianna Pena, Raquel Pennington 

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