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Weili Zhang has kicked off her second championship reign in impressive fashion.
The Chinese standout reclaimed the strawweight throne with a second-round submission of Carla Esparza in the UFC 281 co-main event, ending Cookie Monster’s second stint atop the division without a successful title defense. After a 2021 that saw Zhang drop a pair of fights — along with the 115-pound belt — to Rose Namajunas, the Fight Ready export has bounced back in a big way this year, earning finishes of Esparza and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Whether she can maintain her footing in an always competitive strawweight division remains to be seen, but for now, Zhang ascends from sixth to fourth in the latest women’s pound-for-pound poll. Esparza, meanwhile, drops one spot to fifth after seeing a six-bout winning streak come to an end.
Note: Previous rankings listed in brackets.
1. Amanda Nunes (22-5) | UFC Nunes silenced the doubters in emphatic fashion in the UFC 277 headliner, as she captured a convincing unanimous decision triumph against Julianna Pena in their bantamweight championship rematch at American Airlines Arena in Dallas on July 30. Not only did “Lioness” bounce back from her shocking upset loss to Pena in 2021, but she re-established herself as a two-division title holder and the top pound-for-pound female talent in the sport. Trilogy fights against Pena or even Valentina Shevchenko remain possibilities, but Nunes could also defend one of her belts against a new contender in her next Octagon appearance.
2. Valentina Shevchenko (23-3) | UFC Shevchenko survived the most difficult title defense of her career to date, edging Taila Santos via split decision in the UFC 275 co-main event at Singapore Indoor Stadium in Kallang, Singapore on June 11. For much of the bout, “Bullet” struggled against her Brazilian foe in the clinch and on the mat, but the reigning flyweight queen got stronger as the fight progressed to earn her eighth victory in a UFC championship bout. Given the competitive nature of the fight, perhaps the calls for Shevchenko to move up to bantamweight will cease for the time being, as a rematch with Santos could potentially be in store.
3. Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino (26-2, 1 NC) | Bellator It took a little bit longer than their first meeting, but “Cyborg” nonetheless improved to 2-0 against Arlene Blencowe with a unanimous decision triumph in the Bellator 279 main event at Neil S. Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu, Hawaii, on April 23. The reigning featherweight queen has won six straight since her shocking loss to Amanda Nunes in December 2018 and still looks to be head and shoulders above the 145-pound field in Bellator. A potential cross-promotion with, say, the PFL for a superfight with Kayla Harrison would be quite intriguing, however. Whether that’s realistic remains to be seen. In the meantime, “Cyborg” enjoyed a successful professional boxing debut in September.
4. Weili Zhang (23-3) | UFC Zhang regained the strawweight throne with a second-round submission of Carla Esparza in the UFC 281 co-main event. The Chinese standout outclassed her wrestling-minded foe on the feet and on the ground and has now rebounded from back-to-back losses to Rose Namajunas in 2021 with emphatic victories over Esparza and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Given their recent history, it’s possible that a trilogy with Namajunas could be in store for the Fight Ready export.
5. Carla Esparza (19-7) | UFC Esparza’s second reign as strawweight champion was as short-lived as the first, as she relinquished the crown to Weili Zhang in a second-round submission defeat in the UFC 281 co-main event. “Cookie Monster” rebuilt her career after the first title bout loss to Joanna Jedrzejczyk in 2015, and it’s possible she could rise to the top again — especially if the title changes hands. After having a six-bout winning streak snapped in defeat, Esparza will be in line to face another highly ranked foe in her next outing.
6. Rose Namajunas (11-5) | UFC Namajunas gave one of the most perplexing performances by a defending champion in recent memory, as she refused to engage for the majority of 25 minutes against Carla Esparza in a split decision loss in the UFC 274 co-main event. Though Esparza didn’t do much to force the issue, the “Cookie Monster” did just enough to get the nod from two cageside judges and improve to 2-0 against “Thug Rose.” Namajunas may have new life in the division after Weili Zhang vanquished Esparza in the UFC 281 co-main event.
7. Jessica Andrade (23-9) | UFC After a three-bout stint at 125 pounds that saw her fail in a bid to capture championship gold against Valentina Shevchenko, Andrade made an impressive return to strawweight with a first-round submission of surging contender Amanda Lemos in the UFC Fight Night 205 main event on April 23. Not only did Andrade reassert herself as a person of interest in the division, but she also authored the first standing arm-triangle choke submission in the history of the Las Vegas-based promotion. Andrade will return against Lauren Murphy in a flyweight clash at UFC 283.
8. Liz Carmouche (17-7) | Bellator When it comes to making good on championship opportunities, the third time was the charm for Carmouche, who came up short in title bouts against Ronda Rousey and Valentina Shevchenko before claiming flyweight gold with a stoppage of Juliana Velasquez in the Bellator 278 main event. The Team Hurricane Awesome product survived an early knockdown before taking Velasquez down and advancing to a mounted crucifix, where she hammered away with elbows to secure a technical knockout victory in the fourth round. Carmouche was likely behind on the scorecards before the controversial finish, but she’ll get a chance to prove her victory was no fluke in a rematch with Velasquez at Bellator 289.
9. Julianna Pena (11-5) | UFC The fairy tale ended for Pena at UFC 277, as she was battered and dominated for five rounds in a clear-cut unanimous decision loss to Amanda Nunes in their bantamweight championship rematch at American Airlines Arena in Dallas on July 30. Pena’s grit was on full display against her “Ultimate Fighter 30” coaching counterpart, but other than a few fleeting moments of success, the fight belonged to Nunes. “The Venezuelan Vixen” remains relevant in the division thanks to her massive upset of the two-division champ at UFC 269, but it’s currently unclear if an immediate trilogy is in store.
10. Juliana Velasquez (12-1) | Bellator Velasquez appeared to be on the right track to victory through three rounds against Liz Carmouche in the Bellator 278 headliner, but that all changed when “Girl-Rilla” secured a mounted crucifix and rained down elbows to force a stoppage with 13 seconds remaining in the period. While Velasquez didn’t appear to be in danger from the strikes, her unblemished record is no longer. The Brazilian will have a chance for redemption when she meets Carmouche in a championship rematch at Bellator 289.
Other Contenders: Seika Izawa, Raquel Pennington, Seo Hee Ham, Kayla Harrison, Manon Fiorot.
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, Robert Sargent, Tudor Leonte, Keith Shillan, Mike Sloan, Tyler Treese, John Brannigan and Lev Pisarsky.
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