As the UFC looks to begin the year 2021 with two elements that were sorely missed in the year 2020 – Conor McGregor and the fans in attendance – this short break in the calendar provides the perfect window to take stock and look ahead.

So, who’s having the best year ever? After a year that has been anything but normal, there is no shortage of opportunities for fighters to distance themselves from the pack in 2021, and our panel of MMA experts will be there to determine who will rise through the ranks.

This is not a list of the top 30 fighters in the UFC, but a ranking based on the opportunities for which fighters have already signed up or plan to sign up in the coming year. This takes into account who they will be fighting and who they may face in their respective divisions over the next 12 months.

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And while there are certainly surprises in this list, just because a person didn’t make the top 30 doesn’t mean they can’t improve dramatically over the next 12 months. If you compare this year’s top 30 with the 2020 projections, the overlap is not as great as you might think.

Without further ado, let’s look at the top ten on the list, those between the ages of 21 and 30.

Written by Mark Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim.

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Record 2020: 2-0 (UD via Darren Till; UD via Jared Cannonier).

Grade ESPN MMA 2020 : Not registered

Next fight: TBD

Forecast for 2021 : This time last year, Whittaker’s desire was still in question. He was exhausted from MMA and was considering retirement. But in 2021, the Grim Reaper is more relevant than ever. The former UFC middleweight champion returned to defeat Darren Till in July and Jared Cannonier in October. He has shown top form in both fights and is very willing to get revenge on the man who took his title: Israel Adesanya. As Adesanya moves up to the lightweight rank to challenge Jan Blachowicz for the belt in early March, Whittaker’s next big fight is approaching. — Raimondi

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Record 2020: 5-0 (TKO1 on Anthony Hernandez; TKO3 on Joaquin Buckley; SD on Darren Stewart; TKO1 on Charlie Ontiveros; KO1 on Jakar Souza).

Grade ESPN MMA 2020 : Not registered

Next fight: 20. Mars versus Derek Brunson.

Forecast for 2021 : What can the Netherlands do for a recall? Win six fights in 2021? No, from now on travelling from the Netherlands is a matter of quality, not quantity. After his victory over Souza in December, Holland took over, Brunson accepted and…. voilà! — Holland saw his fight in the top 10 (Brunson is No. 9 in ESPN’s middleweight rankings as 2021 approaches). If the Netherlands wins in March, he will probably be in the top five. In fact, he may only have two fights this year to get into the title picture. — Wagenheim

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Record 2020: 2-0 (TKO1 on Demian Maia; UD on Tyrone Woodley).

ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings : Not registered

Next fight: 13. February against Kamaru Usman (UFC 258)

Forecast for 2021 : It seems so far away, but in the early 2020s, before the pandemic stopped everything, Burns was the most prominent fighter in the UFC. In 2.5 months, he managed two more important victories, when the Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist knocked out Maia and completely dominated Woodley. This was enough to earn him a welterweight title against champion Kamaru Usman. But a week before their scheduled fight in July, Burns tested positive for KOVID-19 and had to leave. Usman fought Jorge Masvidal and defeated him unanimously. Burns will finally get his title next month. — Raimondi

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Record 2020: 1-0 (TKO2 on Courtney King).

ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings : Not registered

Next fight: TBD

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Forecast for 2021 : Supposedly, 2019 has been a great year for Harrison. She started the year with three professional MMA fights, but by New Year’s Day she still had four wins and $1 million in her bank account for winning the PFL Women’s Lightweight Championship. For the two-time Olympic judo champion, 2020 was not a very lucrative year, as Pandemic cancelled the entire LFP season and she had to temporarily move to Invicta FC to have a fight. Harrison will now continue his run at the PFL…. to make it a PFL domination. No one at the third level has been able to handle it, and that’s not expected to change in 21 years. There are no guarantees in sports, but they might as well write a check for an extra $1,000 to K-A-Y-L-A. — Wagenheim.

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Record 2020: 1-0 (UD via Jessica Andrade)

Grade ESPN MMA 2020 : 27

Next fight: TBD

Forecast for 2021 : Namajunas bounced back from their reigning defeat by beating Andrade in a brilliant rematch in July. Apparently the Namajunas should now be next in line for a chance to reclaim the UFC Women’s Bantam Weight Title, but there seems to be a delay in negotiations for a fight between the Namajunas and champion Zhang Valley. Even if he’s lucky, Namajunas has a chance to get the belt back in 2021, and that could be a big year for him. — Raimondi

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Record 2020: 1-0 (UD via Dan Hooker).

Grade ESPN MMA 2020 : 20

Next fight: 23. January vs Conor McGregor (UFC 257)

Forecast for 2021 : It all comes down to UFC 257, right? If Poirier beats McGregor, the lightweight division is his, and that would look awfully low in the rankings. The reason Poirier was so low, of course, is that many of our voters, as well as bettors, voted McGregor in the 23rd. With the month of January being favorable, McGregor is significantly higher in these rankings (more spoilers). But what better way for Poirier to establish herself at 155 pounds, less than a year and a half after a failed race for the title? A win over McGregor would be the most important thing, and with the retirement of Khabib Nurmagomedov, there would be no ceiling for Poirier. — Wagenheim

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Record 2020: 2-0 (TKO4 vs Julia Budd; SUB2 vs Arlen Blenkov)

Grade ESPN MMA 2020 : Not registered

Next fight: TBD

Forecast for 2021 : Last year, Cyborg became the only female fighter in history to win titles in four major organizations when she defeated Budd to win the Bellator Women’s Heavyweight Championship. She closed out the year with the first win of her career in MMA against Blenkov. Cyborg, one of the top two female MMA fighters, has proven she still has plenty of armor and remains a fearsome name at the top of Bellator’s 145-pound women’s division. The coming year will undoubtedly be an important one for Cyborg, who will attend a boxing match with a big name like Katie Taylor. — Raimondi

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Record 2020: 2-0 (KO1 vs Corey Anderson; TKO2 vs Dominic Reyes).

ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings : Not registered

Next fight: 6. March against Israel Adesanya (UFC 259)

Forecast for 2021 : Few people in MMA have managed a 1-2 knockout as brilliantly as Blachowicz did last year. And for his efforts, he faces one of the hottest and most dangerous opponents in the sport. But that’s not a problem, as Blachowicz plans to move to the top of the lightweight division to put him in a cage with Jon Jones, #2 pound-for-pound and a GOAT competitor. From this point of view, a fight against a middleweight, even if he is an outsider, doesn’t seem all that intimidating. If Blachowicz foils Adesanya’s alleged coronation, the powerful Pole would have an even bigger year in 2021. — Wagenheim

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Record 2020: 2-0 (SUB1 against Mikhail Oleksemchuk; KO1 against Modestas Bukauskas)

ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings : Not registered

Next fight: 27. March against Johnny Walker

Forecast for 2021 : Crute has been named the best MMA fighter under 25 in 2020 by ESPN. This 24-year-old Australian is one of the most intriguing fighters in the world. Crute has nine wins in 12 career and is on track to win the light heavyweight title. New blood is needed in this division, and Krut has the chance to be a 205-pound mailer for a while. Crute’s first opponent in 2021 will be the exciting Walker, another top fighter in the division. If Crute can win this fight, it will put him in the conversation to fight in the top light heavyweight division. — Raimondi

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Record 2020: 1-0 (KO1 via Pedro Carvalho)

ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings : Not registered

Next fight: TBD v. Emmanuel Sanchez.

Forecast for 2021 : The man known as Pitbull is the only champion in both Bellator divisions, and that could make him a very busy man this year. Freire hasn’t competed in lightweight races since winning the belt in May 2019, so something needs to be done about it. But how can he put 155 pounds to work when he’s so busy at 145? If he manages to overtake Sanchez in the semifinals of the Bellator World Featherweight Grand Prix, the final could be the biggest fight in the promotion’s history: Pitbull Freire against the undefeated A.J. McKee. Bellator fights, even the best ones, sometimes compete for attention in the UFC-centric MMA world, but this fight will be a special case. — Wagenheim

 

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