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MMA Rankings, February 2022 update: Massive month ahead for the middleweights

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Welcome to the latest update to the MMA Fighting Global Rankings, where our esteemed panel of experts team up to sort out the movers and shakers of an ever-shifting MMA landscape.

All may be quiet on the rankings front after the first month of 2022, but things are about to heat up in a hurry. With 70 percent of the middleweight top 10 gearing up for action, and a multitude of massive fights lining the calendar, February has all the makings of a month to remember.

So before we turn our gaze to the upcoming slate, let’s see where things stand in the global rankings after a drama-filled January headlined by the return of the heavyweight king.

Don’t forget to listen to the new episode of the MMA Fighting Rankings Show below.

Before we begin, a quick refresher on some ground rules:

  • Our eight-person voting panel consists of MMA Fighting staffers Shaun Al-Shatti, Alexander K. Lee, Guilherme Cruz, Mike Heck, E. Casey Leydon, Steven Marrocco, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew.
  • Fighters will be removed from the rankings if they do not compete within 18 months of their most recent bout.
  • Updates to the rankings will be completed at the start of every month.
  • Fighters will be ranked in the weight class that their promotion regularly lists them at. That means ONE Championship fighters, who compete at a weight class one division above their counterparts in most other organizations (i.e. flyweights fight at 135 pounds, lightweights compete at 170 pounds, etc.) will be placed alongside fighters in the same listed division. In other words, use your common sense: Demetrious Johnson is a flyweight, people.
  • Should a fighter announce their retirement, our panel will decide whether that fighter should immediately be removed from the rankings or maintain their position until further notice (let’s put it this way: we’d have taken Khabib Nurmagomedov out of our rankings a lot quicker than the UFC did).
  • Fighters who regularly compete or hold titles in multiple weight classes are eligible to be ranked in multiple lists.
  • Holding a promotion’s title does not guarantee that fighter will be viewed as the best in their promotion.
  • Regarding all the above rules, any possible exceptions will be discussed internally and noted in the article.

In case you missed it, last month’s divisional rankings can be seen here.

And with that, let’s dive in.

Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Make your voice heard in the comments below.


UFC 270: Ngannou v Gane Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Heavyweight

Your eyes do not deceive you, Ryan Bader is back in the top 10.

Say what you want about the dearth of talent in Bellator’s big boy division, Valentin Moldavsky looked poised to become the undisputed champion at Bellator 273 this past Saturday — yet it was Bader who ended up unifying their belts and beginning what could be the last leg of his career on the right foot. Bader has said he’s done with light heavyweight and he already has his next heavyweight title defense booked: He’ll head to Paris in May to rematch Cheick Kongo after their first fight two years ago ended in a no-contest due to an accidental eye poke.

With a Fedor Emelianenko rematch also in play at some point in the future, Bader’s future is pretty clearly laid out, which definitely cannot be said for UFC champion Francis Ngannou who retained the No. 1 spot in the rankings with a gutsy win over interim champion Ciryl Gane.

Defeating his biggest rival should have cemented him as one of the UFC’s top stars, but the build to the bout was overshadowed by Ngannou and his team publicly discussing their demands for Ngannou’s next contract and then publicly airing their grievances with the promotion after Ngannou’s win.

Add in the fact that Ngannou plans to undergo knee surgery that will sideline him for what could be the entirety of 2022 and suddenly his spot atop the rankings seems anything but assured.

January results for ranked fighters (previous ranking shown): No. 1 Francis Ngannou def. No. 3 Ciryl Gane, No. 14 Ryan Bader def. No. 9 Valentin Moldavsky

February bouts featuring ranked fighters: No. 4 Derrick Lewis vs. No. 14 Tai Tuivasa (UFC 271, Feb. 12), No. 7 Jairzinho Rozenstruik vs. No. 11 Marcin Tybura (UFC Vegas 49, Feb. 26)

Fighters also receiving votes: Shamil Abdurakhimov, Alexander Romanov, Fedor Emelianenko, Phil De Fries, Arjan Bhullar, Augusto Sakai, Serghei Spivac, Marcos Rogerio de Lima


Light Heavyweight

And there goes Ryan Bader!

This month’s voting saw all but two panelists remove Bader from their 205-pound rankings following his announcement that he plans to stay at heavyweight. That may seem like a formality at this point given that Bader only has one win at light heavyweight since May 2018, but it’s noteworthy when you remember that “Darth” has been a mainstay in the 205-pound divisional rankings for the better part of the last decade.

Bader handily won Season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter and then embarked on a successful UFC career that saw him score wins over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Ovince Saint Preux, Phil Davis, and Rashad Evans, before capturing the Bellator light heavyweight title. If this is the last we see of Bader at 205 pounds, then it’s been a hell of a run for him.

January results for ranked fighters (previous ranking shown): No. 8 Ryan Bader def. No. 9 HW Valentin Moldavsky (heavyweight bout)

February bouts featuring ranked fighters: None

Fighters also receiving votes: Israel Adesanya, Ryan Bader, Tomasz Narkun, Johnny Walker, Antonio Carlos Junior, Jamahal Hill


Middleweight

A month from now, the middleweight rankings could look very, very different.

First and foremost, the UFC middleweight championship is on the line at UFC 271 as Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker face off once more. Since their first meeting at UFC 243, both fighters have made the most of their time, with Adesanya logging three successful title defenses and even taking a crack at the light heavyweight belt. On the other side, Whittaker took some much-needed time off to recover from burnout before coming back strong with three straight wins over ranked opponents. This is as good as it gets in this division.

Whoever wins won’t be able to rest for long as top contenders Derek Brunson, Jared Cannonier, Jack Hermansson, and Sean Strickland also fight this month, and any one of those names could challenge for the belt before the year is through.

By the way, the best middleweight outside of the UFC is also in action, as No. 3 Gegard Mousasi defends his title against the undefeated Austin Vanderford at Bellator 275. Should Vanderford pull off what would be a massive upset, that might generate the biggest rankings tremor of all.

January results for ranked fighters (previous ranking shown): None

February bouts featuring ranked fighters: No. 1 Israel Adesanya vs. No. 2 Robert Whittaker (UFC 271, Feb. 12), No. 3 Gegard Mousasi vs. Austin Vanderford (Bellator 275, Feb. 25), No. 4 Derek Brunson vs. No. 6 Jared Cannonier (UFC 271, Feb. 12), No. 8 Jack Hermansson vs. No. 9 Sean Strickland (UFC Vegas 47, Feb. 5)

Fighters also receiving votes: Chris Curtis, John Salter, Nassourdine Imavov, Brad Tavares


Welterweight

With little happening at 170 pounds in January (don’t worry, we see you Michel Pereira) or February (we see you too Neiman Gracie and Logan Storley), the question that’s been hanging over the division for the past couple of months lingers: What’s next for Kamaru Usman?

There are certainly intriguing fights in the coming months that could shape the welterweight title picture, including a reported bout between No. 5 Vicente Luque and No. 6 Belal Muhammad, a much-talked about (but far from official) grudge match between No. 4 Gilbert Burns and No. 10 Khamzat Chimaev, and, of course, the highly anticipated UFC 272 main event between past Usman foes No. 2 Colby Covington and No. 11 Jorge Masvidal. And then there’s the possibility of No. 3 Leon Edwards getting a well-deserved shot over all of those guys anyway.

All of that assumes that Usman plans to stick to a conventional champion’s schedule. There’s always the possibility that he takes aim at 185 (especially if his pal Israel Adesanya loses his rematch with Robert Whittaker) or pursues opportunities outside of MMA. Regardless, you get the sense that this will be an eventful year for Usman, even if that doesn’t necessarily mean just racking up more title defenses.

January results for ranked fighters (previous ranking shown): None

February bouts featuring ranked fighters: None

Fighters also receiving votes: Douglas Lima, Geoff Neal, Jason Jackson, Shavkat Rakhmonov, Roberto Soldic


UFC 267: Makhachev v Hooker Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Lightweight

Much like middleweight, there’s about to be a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on at 155 pounds.

Islam Makhachev is about as destined as one can be to eventually compete for the UFC title, and all he has to do now is get through Beneil Dariush, his fellow No. 4 in our rankings. In reality, both men have done enough to earn a title shot, but with champion Charles Oliveira already booked to fight Justin Gaethje at UFC 274, they have no choice but to settle who is the true No. 1 lightweight contender.

A little farther down the rankings we have The Battle of the Rafaels, as former UFC champion Rafael dos Anjos fights Rafael Fiziev, one of the hottest names in the division. Fiziev’s thrilling striking and affable personality have already endeared him to the fans, and a win over “RDA” will earn him a spot in one of the toughest top 10s to crack.

January results for ranked fighters (previous ranking shown): None

February bouts featuring ranked fighters: No. 4 (tied) Beneil Dariush vs. No. 4 (tied) Islam Makhachev (UFC Vegas 49, Feb. 26), No. 8 Rafael dos Anjos vs. No. 11 Rafael Fiziev (UFC Vegas 48, Feb. 19)

Fighters also receiving votes: Arman Tsarukyan, Conor McGregor, Mark O. Madsen, Drew Dober, Ok Rae Yoon, Thiago Moises, Damir Ismagulov


Featherweight

In his first fight in a year, Calvin Kattar showed that he’s not just a fringe top-10 competitor — he’s coming for one of those top-5 spots.

Kattar swaps spots with Giga Chikadze this month, going from No. 10 to No. 8, after pummeling Chikadze for five rounds in the main event of Vegas 46. It was sweet vindication for Kattar after being on the receiving end of his own beatdown at the hands of Max Holloway last January, along with having to deal with Chikadze campaigning for a title shot before he’d even stepped into the octagon with Kattar.

Kattar’s win was a slap in the face for those prematurely declaring he wasn’t a true contender. Now its Chikadze who faces questions about his future with his first UFC loss on the record. Then again, Chikadze may want to take a look at how much taking time off from competition benefited Kattar and consider a similar hiatus.

Let’s just hope that the next time Chikadze is in the thick of the title picture, it’s after a performance that makes his case undeniable as opposed to the conversation being driven by him and his management.

January results for ranked fighters (previous ranking shown): No. 10 Calvin Kattar def. No. 8 Giga Chikadze

February bouts featuring ranked fighters: None

Fighters also receiving votes: Magomedrasul Khasbulaev, Bryce Mitchell, Ilia Topuria, Shane Burgos, Adam Borics, Mads Burnell, Aaron Pico


Bantamweight

Bantamweight has been the hottest division in MMA for the past few years, so we can excuse it slowing down for a second.

There’s still plenty to look forward to. Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling finally have a date for the rematch (UFC 273, April 9) that everyone has been calling for since Yan had one of the biggest brainfarts in the history of MMA title fights, which of course led to Sterling becoming the first-ever UFC champion by disqualification. And while contenders T.J. Dillashaw, Cory Sandhagen, Jose Aldo, and Merab Dvalishvili do not have fights lined up, there’s nary a bad matchup to be made for any of those four names at 135 pounds.

Making a major impact to start the year — and likely sitting just at the edge of most people’s rankings — were Said Nurmagomedov and former RIZIN standout Victor Henry, both of whom knocked off top-25 competitors at UFC 270. Nurmagomedov stunned veteran Cody Stamann with an airtight guillotine choke in under a minute, while Henry showed off his fan-friendly style with a clean sweep on the scorecards against Raoni Barcelos.

Even when it doesn’t look like things are happening at bantamweight, things are happening at bantamweight.

January results for ranked fighters (previous ranking shown): None

February bouts featuring ranked fighters: None

Fighters also receiving votes: Frankie Edgar, Ricky Simon, Song Yadong, Cody Garbrandt, Raufeon Stots, Patchy Mix, Said Nurmagomedov, Hiromasa Ougikubo


UFC 270: Moreno v Figueiredo Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Flyweight

Sorry other flyweights, but it feels like Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno could be doing this dance for a while.

A fourth fight between the two is inevitable, whether it happens immediately or somewhere down the road after Figueiredo has had the chance to defend against any number of worthy challengers. Figueiredo and Moreno have fought nobody but each other for over a year now, yet it’s inarguable that Moreno has done enough to earn one more title fight given that he finished Figueiredo in their second meeting and then put on an outstanding five-round performance in defeat at UFC 270.

Throwing them in a cage four times in a row may sound insane on paper, but sometimes the best are the best and you just have to get out of the way and let them sort it out.

If it’s not Moreno, then Askar Askarov, Kai Kara-France, Manel Kape, or Sumudaerji could be next in line for the flyweight title with a convincing performance in their upcoming fights, not to mention Alexandre Pantoja is waiting in the wings.

January results for ranked fighters (previous ranking shown): No. 2 Deiveson Figueiredo def. No. 1 Brandon Moreno, No. 8 (tied) Brandon Royval def. No. 14 Rogerio Bontorin

February bouts featuring ranked fighters: No. 7 Alex Perez vs. Matt Schnell (UFC 271, Feb. 12)

Fighters also receiving votes: Amir Albazi, Ali Bagautinov, Danny Kingad, Jeff Molina, Matt Schnell


Women’s Bantamweight

The ground is still settling after Julianna Peña’s earth-shattering upset of Amanda Nunes, and unfortunately, that means there is little to report at 135 pounds.

With respect to No. 15 Alexis Davis, who fights Julija Stoliarenko this Saturday at UFC Vegas 47, it’s going to be some time before Peña has her first title defense. The good news is that No. 4 Holly Holm and No. 8 Ketlen Vieira are expected to fight in May and either would be a fresh opponent for Peña. Another option is Germaine de Randamie, who owns a submission win over the champ, though the status of “The Iron Lady” is uncertain after an injury in September forced her off of UFC 268.

Injuries, postponements, and a lack of new talent at 135 pounds have left what was once the UFC’s only women’s division in shambles, so let’s cross our fingers and hope that someone like Macy Chiasson, Karol Rosa, Julia Avila, or Jessica-Rose Clark experience a breakthrough this year to give bantamweight a desperately needed shot in the arm.

January results for ranked fighters (previous ranking shown): None

February bouts featuring ranked fighters: No. 15 Alexis Davis vs. Julija Stoliarenko (UFC Vegas 47, Feb. 5)

Fighters also receiving votes: Jessica-Rose Clark


Women’s Flyweight

Katlyn Chookagian might be a gatekeeper, but she’s a damn good one — and as long as she keeps going home with two checks in her pocket, you can bet she couldn’t care less about the designation.

In a mostly unnecessary rematch, Chookagian again outpointed No. 6 Jennifer Maia to hold on to her top 3 spot and stay in line for a rematch with Valentina Shevchenko that likely isn’t coming anytime soon. The biggest storyline coming out of the fight was actually that Chookagian is a free agent.

It sounds absurd, but Chookagian’s continued success is almost anathema to the UFC matchmakers, as she doesn’t have a fighting style that appeals to a broad audience but does have a fighting style that is conducive to winning and knocking off fresh contenders. It’s entirely possible that the UFC just decides to cut bait on one of its best flyweights.

Should that happen, it might turn out to be what’s best for Chookagian, as she could jump to another promotion — say, Bellator — and immediately be positioned as a contender. Not only that, there’s a path to a world title that doesn’t go through Shevchenko.

Pick the right promotion and maybe Chookagian won’t be wearing that gatekeeper label for much longer.

January results for ranked fighters (previous ranking shown): No. 3 Katlyn Chookagian def. No. 6 Jennifer Maia

February bouts featuring ranked fighters: No. 14 Casey O’Neill vs. Roxanne Modafferi (UFC 271, Feb. 12)

Fighters also receiving votes: Maycee Barber, Cynthia Calvillo, Jessica Eye, Manon Fiorot, Melissa Gatto, Roxanne Modafferi, Miranda Maverick, Vanessa Porto


Strawweight

Let’s put some respect on Xiong Jingnan’s name!

ONE’s reigning strawweight champion recorded her sixth straight title defense at the promotion’s “Heavy Hitters” event this month and remains undefeated when competing at her natural weight class with a perfect mark of 17-0. Her two career losses are to Angela Lee at atomweight (Xiong defeated Lee when Lee came for her strawweight title) and a distant loss to Colleen Schneider in a 132-pound bout.

Xiong has been holding down a top-15 spot for a while now, and admittedly, inactivity (she’s fought just twice in the past two years before this month’s win over Ayaka Miura) has been as much of a reason for her lack of upward movement as the fact that she fights outside of the United States against relatively unknown competition. But if she can rattle off a few more wins this year, she could make a case for a spot in the top 10.

As for the UFC’s strawweight division, it remains in a holding pattern with Rose Namajunas awaiting her next challenger, which will be either Carla Esparza or Marina Rodriguez if Rodriguez defeats Yan Xiaonan in March.

January results for ranked fighters (previous ranking shown): No. 14 Xiong Jingnan def. Ayaka Miura

February bouts featuring ranked fighters: None

Fighters also receiving votes: Emily Ducote, Kanako Murata, Stamp Fairtex, Luana Pinheiro