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As the 2010s come to an end, it has led to reflection in many sectors about the events of the last 10 years. In mixed martial arts, there have been plenty of important developments. From the rise of Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator MMA’s move to streaming services in their deals with ESPN+ and Dazn, the sport’s landscape has undergone a number of big changes. When looking back, gradual changes tend to get overlooked relative to major singular developments, but that makes them no less significant. One such quiet development that has gone largely unnoticed is the way the UFC has rebuilt the strength and credibility of its titles.
It wasn’t that long ago that chaos and uncertainty reigned in many of the UFC’s divisions. McGregor won the lightweight and featherweight championships, only to vacate them without a single title defense; Georges St. Pierre similarly vacated the middleweight crown; Germaine de Randamie was stripped of the women’s featherweight title shortly after winning it; Nicco Montano was stripped of the women’s flyweight belt without a defense; and Jon Jones was the biggest chaos agent of all, stripped of a light heavyweight title on three separate occasions.
With so many titles being held up and so many interim titles being created, the prestige of UFC championships decreased across the board. It wasn’t clear who the best fighter was in a number of divisions. In other divisions, a top active fighter was established but hadn’t defeated the previous champion and thus was viewed as a lesser competitor. It’s just not as much fun for fans when there isn’t a strong champion and clear challengers lined up to try to dethrone that champion.
It has taken quite some time, but order has been reestablished in pretty much all the divisions. McGregor is still the biggest star in the sport, but he no longer towers over the lightweight and featherweight divisions like he once did. Khabib Nurmagomedov’s decisive victory over McGregor solidified him as a genuine star in his own right and as the deserving lightweight champion. Tony Ferguson still lingers and creates doubt with his 12-fight winning streak, but that’s not such a bad problem given that Ferguson continues to compete and is scheduled to fight Nurmagomedov in April (knock on wood). Justin Gaethje also hovers around the periphery as a challenger in what has become a marquee division.
Similarly, the McGregor’s shadow has been lifted from the featherweight division. Max Holloway didn’t have the opportunity to beat McGregor and avenge his previous loss, but the Hawaiian’s excellence over time made fans take notice and forget about what came before him. Alexander Volkanovski earned the top spot with his win over Holloway, and there are great potential challengers like Zabit Magomedsharipov, Chan Sung Jung and Yair Rodriguez waiting in the wings.
The UFC middleweight division has similarly moved past St. Pierre. Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya established themselves as the top two fighters, and then Adesanya proved himself the best inside the Octagon. Adesanya’s challengers aren’t as clear given the injury to Paulo Henrique Costa, but his fighting style and personality should be enough to carry the division for the time being.
A similar dynamic has emerged in the women’s featherweight and flyweight divisions. There aren’t many 145-pound female fighters in the UFC, but there’s no questioning the status of Amanda Nunes as the best given the way she has dominated a who’s who of the sport. Valentina Shevchenko looks like she could reign as women’s flyweight champion for years to come given her remarkable skill. Weili Zhang doesn’t have the same resume as Nunes or Shevchenko, but she beat the woman who beat the woman who beat the woman, and she has the deepest lineup of challengers in what should be a fun division to follow in the years to come.
Even the light heavyweight division is finally getting into better shape. Jones has racked up three wins since returning to action and is the clear top dog. He hasn’t gotten into any trouble of late, allowing the focus to be on the sport. He’ll be a heavy favorite against Dominick Reyes, but the undefeated Californian is on paper the strongest challenger to knock on Jones’ door in some time, with a 12-0 record and six UFC victories. Divisions like heavyweight and welterweight were pretty well sorted out and remain so, and the fantastic Kamaru Usman-Colby Covington bout should help both men.
If there is one area where things are more turbulent, it’s in the men’s flyweight division. Henry Cejudo didn’t technically win the UFC bantamweight title from T.J. Dillashaw since Cejudo’s title was on the line when Cejudo knocked out Dillashaw. However, that win combined with the win over Marlon Moraes established Cejudo as a solid bantamweight king. Cejudo’s multiple division titles and Olympic gold medal make him yet another impressive current champion.
The problem in Cejudo’s move to 135 pounds is where it has left the moribund UFC flyweight division. Cejudo will vacate without losing the title in the cage. The UFC cut many of the division’s fighters. Arguably the three best fighters in the division in the world don’t fight there: Cejudo, Demetrious Johnson and Kyoji Horiguchi. Given the difficulty the UFC had in creating interest in the 125-pound weight class back when there was more talent, it’s going to be an uphill climb in the coming years. Still, if that’s the entirety of the serious issues in the current UFC championship picture from heavyweight to strawweight, the sport is in a very healthy place as we enter the 2020s.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.