MMA Rank 20-11 – Which fighters will have the best 2021?

As the UFC looks to kick off 2021 with two elements that were sorely lacking for most of 2020 — Conor McGregor and fans in attendance — this brief pause in the calendar offers the perfect window to take stock and look ahead.

So who will have the best year of all? After a 2020 that was anything but normal, there will be plenty of opportunities in 2021 for fighters to distance themselves from the pack, and our panel of MMA experts sets out to determine who will step forward.

This isn’t a list of the 30 best fighters in the UFC — it’s a ranking based on opportunities that fighters have already signed on for or that they project to have in the coming year. It takes into account whom they’ll be fighting and who else could stand in front of them in their respective divisions over the next 12 months.

And while there are certainly some surprises to be found on this list, just because someone didn’t make the cut for this top 30, it doesn’t mean they can’t drastically improve their fortunes over the next 12 months. In fact, when you compare this year’s top 30 to what was projected for 2020, the overlap isn’t as big as you might imagine.

And so, with all of that explanation out of the way, let’s dig into the middle of the list — those who rank from 11-20. If you missed the first part of the list, check out 21-30.

Write-ups composed by Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim.

20. Cory Sandhagen (13-2)

2020 record: 1-1 (SUB1 loss to Aljamain Sterling; TKO2 over Marlon Moraes)

2020 ESPN MMA rank: Unranked

Next fight: TBD

2021 outlook: The future looks incredibly bright for Sandhagen after a bump in the road against Sterling — a quick, shocking submission loss. Sandhagen closed the year with a beautiful spinning wheel kick finish of Moraes. On his feet, he’s as tough of a matchup as anyone in the bantamweight division. Sandhagen is elusive, has great footwork and carries dangerous power in all of his limbs. In some ways, he’s the version 2.0 of longtime former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. A contender fight will await in early 2021, and this year is likely to be a very big one for the Colorado native. — Raimondi

19. Brian Ortega (15-1, 1 NC)

2020 record: 1-0 (UD over Chan Sung Jung)

2020 ESPN MMA rank: Unranked

Next fight: TBD

2021 outlook: That “TBD” soon will be replaced by the name Alexander Volkanovski, the men’s featherweight champion, if things go according to the UFC’s plans. And if Ortega looks anywhere near as fluid and sharp in that fight as he did against “The Korean Zombie” in October, he could end up wearing the belt. Ortega was coming off a long layoff prior to the Jung fight, but instead of ring rust he showed an added glimmer to his game. It’s going to be interesting to see how much of that carries over to his next fight, which will come against an opponent who will have seen all the new wrinkles and presumably will be less likely to be caught off guard. — Wagenheim

18. Khamzat Chimaev (9-0)

2020 record: 3-0 (SUB2 over John Phillips; TKO1 over Rhys McKee; KO1 over Gerald Meerschaert)

2020 ESPN MMA rank: Unranked

Next fight: March 13 vs. Leon Edwards

2021 outlook: Chimaev went from a largely unknown commodity with no UFC fights to becoming one of the hottest fighters in all of MMA in a span of just two months. His first two wins — devastating, dominant performances — came in a modern-day record of 10 days. Chimaev has the quickest three-fight winning streak in modern UFC history (66 days). He’ll take a major step up in competition in 2021, as he fights top contender Leon Edwards. This is the third time the fight’s been on the schedule, after two previous instances of it being postponed — the second after Chimaev was forced to withdraw with COVID-19-related lung issues. Chimaev is being fast-tracked, but with what he has already done, this is really the only option for the UFC. — Raimondi

17. Justin Gaethje (22-3)

2020 record: 1-1 (TKO5 over Tony Ferguson; TechSUB2 loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov)

2020 ESPN MMA rank: 17

Next fight: TBD

2021 outlook: Last we saw Gaethje, he was getting submitted by Nurmagomedov in a title fight in which he never seemed to get into a groove. Nurmagomedov seems to do that to everyone. The defeat didn’t severely damage Gaethje’s stock. He can still ride high on the laurels of his brutalization of Ferguson and the three straight wins that came before. He may have ended up in the exact same spot he landed on this list in 2000, but he’s likely not far from another title shot. UFC president Dana White is trying to match Gaethje against Charles Oliveira, but the fight isn’t yet booked and there have been reports of Oliveira balking because he believes he deserves a title fight. Regardless, Gaethje’s next bout will be with a top-tier lightweight, and that means opportunity. With Nurmagomedov having announced his retirement, the division has a battle royal feel to it. And in that kind of scrap, you can never count out “The Highlight.” — Wagenheim

16. Charles Oliveira (30-8)

2020 record: 2-0 (SUB3 over Kevin Lee; UD over Tony Ferguson)

2020 ESPN MMA rank: Unranked

Next fight: TBD

2021 outlook: Oliveira left one of the best, most lasting impressions of any fighter in the world in 2020. At UFC 256, Oliveira completely dominated former UFC interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson — the kind of one-sided performance that few have ever had against Ferguson. Oliveira is absolutely primed for a massive 2021. The only thing left for him at this point is a title eliminator against a fellow top contender. Oliveira has won eight straight in one of the most stacked divisions in the UFC. It wouldn’t be out of the question to see him in a title fight — or holding a belt — by the end of this year. — Raimondi

15. Colby Covington (16-2)

2020 record: 1-0 (TKO5 over Tyron Woodley)

2020 ESPN MMA rank: 16

Next fight: TBD

2021 outlook: His bluster and schtick might be no better than D-grade, but as a fighter, Covington is the second-best welterweight on the planet. Problem is, the champion, Kamaru Usman, knocked him out just 13 months ago, and Covington finds himself in a very similar position to where he started 2020 — hence his similar spot on this year’s list. To get another shot at the title, Covington is going to have to get through at least one top contender. White has said the fight that makes sense for Covington is a grudge match against his former teammate and roommate Jorge Masvidal. That heated scrap, pitting the two most recent 170-pound title challengers against each other, would serve as a 2021 springboard for one of them. — Wagenheim

14. AJ McKee (17-0)

2020 record: 1-0 (SUB1 over Darrion Caldwell)

2020 ESPN MMA rank: 19

Next fight: TBD vs. Patricio Freire-Emmanuel Sanchez winner

2021 outlook: McKee is the brightest potential star on Bellator’s roster. He’s 17-0 as a pro and just 25 years old. This year could be his massive, breakout campaign. McKee’s next fight will be for the Bellator featherweight title in the finals of the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix. If Freire beats Sanchez, a bout between Freire, the multiple-time champ, and McKee would be one of the most relevant Bellator title fights ever in terms of mainstream attention. McKee only fought once in 2020, but his rarely seen neck-crank-from-bottom submission over Caldwell was a highlight. — Raimondi

13. Alexander Volkanovski (22-1)

2020 record: 1-0 (SD over Max Holloway)

2020 ESPN MMA rank: 9

Next fight: TBD

2021 outlook: This year is going to test the UFC featherweight champion’s mental sharpness. Volkanovski is coming off two fights with Holloway that couldn’t have been more different. In the first, Volkanovski performed masterfully to capture the belt, and in the second he held onto that strap by in a close fight that many believe the champ lost. So when Volkanovski fights next time, presumably against No. 1 contender Brian Ortega, a big question looms: Will the champ overextend himself trying to right the ship in the most impressive manner, or will he just go on with his business of winning? — Wagenheim

12. Leon Edwards (18-3)

2020 record: 0-0

2020 ESPN MMA rank: 15

Next fight: March 13 vs. Khamzat Chimaev

2021 outlook: Edwards is the Rodney Dangerfield of MMA: The man gets no respect. Never mind that he has won eight straight in one of the UFC’s best divisions. He is rarely mentioned by opponents or fans as a potential next welterweight title contender. Part of the story is that Edwards has been unlucky. He was supposed to fight ex-champion Tyron Woodley in March, but the card was canceled because of COVID-19. Then he was set to face Chimaev, the red-hot prospect, in December and January. Both times, the bout was postponed. The first time, Edwards had the coronavirus, and the most recent one was called off because Chimaev was recovering from COVID-19 symptoms. It appears that Edwards is finally ready to step into the cage for the first time since July 2019, and he will have a chance to bolster his title contender status. — Raimondi

11. Petr Yan (15-1)

2020 record: 1-0 (TKO5 over Jose Aldo)

2020 ESPN rank: 26

Next fight: March 6 vs. Aljamain Sterling (UFC 259)

2021 outlook: For Yan, the year begins with a matchup that could have, and should have, been booked last July, when the UFC bantamweight title was vacant. But Yan instead was matched with Aldo, who was coming off two straight losses. Yan’s victory celebration was, to an extent, drowned out by Sterling seething on the sideline. Now they meet. If Yan can retain the belt, there’ll be another new challenger waiting for him, because the 135-pound division is relentless. If Yan can run the gantlet of Sterling and at least one other challenger, he could be a true star by year’s end. — Wagenheim

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