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Ranking 30 years of UFC rookie classes: Which year introduced the best UFC talent?

UFC 1: The Beginning
Royce Gracie fights Gerard Gordeau at UFC 1.
Getty Images

As you (hopefully) read earlier this week, MMA Fighting held its second annual MMA Draft, in honor of the NFL draft which is currently taking place. The concept is simple: What would it look like if the top promotions in combat sports were able to draft fighters? It’s not an exercise that accomplishes anything, but it does serve as a fairly instructive look into who are the biggest stars and best prospects in the sport today. As I was putting that together, I started thinking: This is great for current day, but what about the past? How do we consider that?

This year marks the 30th anniversary of UFC 1, which took place on Nov. 12, 1993, at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. That’s 30 years of new fighters joining the roster and trying to cut their teeth in the UFC. It’s a lot, and with well over 2,000 fighters having spent time in the octagon, it’s far too big of a project to dive into all of them. So instead of looking at them individually, let’s treat them like draft classes — 30 of them to be exact — and determine exactly what year was the best for burgeoning UFC talent.

A few quick notes:

  1. We’re using the year fighters debuted in the UFC, even if they were a well-known commodity before then.
  2. To keep this exercise somewhat manageable, we’re only including notable fighters from each debuting class in the writeup, meaning either they fought for a UFC championship (interims, BMF, and tournaments count) or are in the Hall of Fame (or have a realistic shot).
  3. The more recent years will suffer some because they simply haven’t had enough time to develop, so a lot of those placements will be pure conjecture. Perhaps we will revisit this exercise in a few years as necessary.

UFC 284: Della Maddalena v Brown
Jack Della Maddalena reacts after his submission victory over Randy Brown at UFC 284.
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

30. 2022

Hall of Famers: 0

Champions: 0

Title Challengers: 0

Total Title Wins: 0

Debuting Fighters: 70

Perhaps this is unfair, but when you really look at it, last year’s crop of rookies leaves a lot to be desired. A small class by modern standards, and one comprised largely of underwhelming Contender Series products, there are a few bright spots that inspire hope here, but it would be very aggressive to presume Jailton Almeida, Jack Della Maddalena, and Muhammad Mokaev are about to rewrite the record books. If they do, we can revisit, but for now, this is looking like a down year.

29. 1994

Hall of Famers: 1 — Dan Severn

Champions: 3 — Dan Severn, Guy Mezger, Steve Jennum

Title Challengers: 2 — Harold Howard, Kimo Leopoldo

Total Title Wins: 5

Debuting Fighters: 25

As you can imagine, the early years of the UFC will be featured prominently in the bottom of these rankings, in large part due to volume. Nowadays there are somewhere between 40 and 50 UFC events a year, but in the early stages of the UFC, there would only be a handful of cards per year, which means fewer rookies, and thus fewer all-time greats and champions. 1994 is the bottom of the barrel, with one only Hall of Famer and two other champions unlikely to make the Hall.

28. 2019

Hall of Famers: 0

Champions: 1 — Ciryl Gane

Title Challengers: 2 — Felicia Spencer, Taila Santos

Total Title Wins: 1

Debuting Fighters: 138

A better rookie class than 2022, but still unlikely to yield huge numbers. Arman Tsarukyan, Grant Dawson, Movsar Evloev, and Rafael Fiziev all show real promise though.

27. 1996

Hall of Famers: 2 — Don Frye, Mark Coleman

Champions: 1 — Jerry Bohlander

Title Challengers: 2 — Gary Goodridge, Scott Ferrozzo

Total Title Wins: 5

Debuting Fighters: 29

Two seminal figures in MMA ... and that’s it.

26. 2000

Hall of Famers: 0

Champions: 4 — Andrei Arlovski, Dave Menne, Josh Barnett, Murilo Bustamante

Title Challengers: 7 — Dennis Hallman, Gan McGee, Jeff Monson, John Alessio, Matt Lindland, Renato Sobral, Yuki Kondo

Total Title Wins: 7

Debuting Fighters: 39

Arlovski is guaranteed the Hall and any of the other three champs could make it. Add in the challengers and some guys like Shonie Carter and Chris Lytle, and this is a respectable but uninspiring class.

UFC 189: Lawler v MacDonald
Robbie Lawler reacts to his victory over Rory MacDonald at UFC 189.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

25. 2002

Hall of Famers: 1 — Robbie Lawler

Champions: 2 — Robbie Lawler, Tim Sylvia

Title Challengers: 1 — Hayato Sakurai

Total Title Wins: 8

Debuting Fighters: 23

Lawler is in the Hall for his fight with Rory MacDonald, and he’s a lock for individual induction as well. Sylvia could be as well. That’s enough to put them over 2000.

19. 2010

Hall of Famers: 1 — Rory MacDonald

Champions: 1 — Charles Oliveira

Title Challengers: 2 — Jake Shields, Mark Hunt

Total Title Wins: 2

Debuting Fighters: 79

Almost the same as 2002 only a much deeper group of “Other Guys” including Edson Barboza, Michael Johnson, Phil Davis, and Takanori Gomi.

23. 2021

Hall of Famers: 0

Champions: 1 — Alex Pereira

Title Challengers: 0

Total Title Wins: 1

Debuting Fighters: 91

There is some real projection in this one but Michael Chandler is basically guaranteed to make it into the Hall of Fame for the Justin Gaethe fight, and I’m very confident Erin Blanchfield puts together a phenomenal career. Add in the potential of Umar Nurmagomedov, Ian Garry, and Manel Kape, and a solid group of prospects are in here.

22. 2004

Hall of Famers: 1 — Georges St-Pierre

Champions: 1 — Georges St-Pierre

Title Challengers: 6 — David Terrell, Joe Riggs, Justin Eilers, Mike Brown, Patrick Cote, Travis Lutter

Total Title Wins: 13

Debuting Fighters: 18

This was among the hardest years to rank, because GSP is an anomaly. Without him, this would easily be the worst rookie class of all-time. But when it includes arguably the GOAT, how low can you really drop it? Ultimately this felt like the right spot, above the very weak classes, but below the classes with several Hall of Famers and potential Hall of Famers.

Also, yes, I’m counting Travis Lutter as a title challenger. Deal with it.

21. 1995

Hall of Famers: 0

Champions: 2 — Marco Ruas, Oleg Taktarov

Title Challengers: 3 — David Beneteau, Paul Varelans, Tank Abbott

Total Title Wins: 2

Debuting Fighters: 25

Controversial I’m sure, but in a just world, Ruas, Taktarov, and Abbott will all get enshrined in the Hall some day. They simply meant a lot to the development of this sport and of the UFC in general. And that’s enough to edge out GSP.

UFC 158: Condit v Hendricks
Carlos Condit punches Johny Hendricks at UFC 158.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

20. 2009

Hall of Famers: 1 — Alexander Gustafsson

Champions: 2 — Carlos Condit, Johny Hendricks

Title Challengers: 2 — Alexander Gustafsson, T.J. Grant

Total Title Wins: 2

Debuting Fighters: 78

Condit is guaranteed the Hall and it wouldn’t shock me if Hendricks also made it in one day. Most importantly, this is also the year we got Kimbo Slice in the UFC and a number of other important role players like Mike Pyle, Brian Stann, Roy Nelson, and Ben Rothwell.

And yes, I’m giving Grant credit as a title challenger. The man earned it, but the MMA Gods can be cruel bastards.

19. 2020

Hall of Famers: 0

Champions: 2 — Jamahal Hill, Jiri Prochazka

Title Challengers: 0

Total Title Wins: 2

Debuting Fighters: 123

Another projection, but 2020 was a loaded rookie class. It’s still early days but we’ve already had two champs and one guaranteed Hall of Famer (Prochazka is going in for that fight with Glover Teixeira). Plus with talent like Khamzat Chimaev, Shavkhat Rakhmonov, Tom Aspinall, Ilia Topuria, and Brandon Royval all in the title hunt, among others, this could wind up being the best year in some time.

18. 2003

Hall of Famers: 2 — Frank Trigg, Rich Franklin

Champions: 1 — Rich Franklin

Title Challengers: 4 — David Loiseau, Frank Trigg, Hermes Franca, Nick Diaz

Total Title Wins: 3

Debuting Fighters: 24

With two Hall of Famers already enshrined, and Nick Diaz seemingly a lock to make it in there eventually, that’s enough to push 2003 past the potential of 2020’s class.

17. 1993

Hall of Famers: 2 — Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie

Champions: 2 — Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie

Title Challengers: 2 — Gerard Gordeau, Pat Smith

Total Title Wins: 6

Debuting Fighters: 10

The original class was the hardest to fit in. It’s obviously very small, but it had such an outsized effect on the sport, there’s a legitimate case for it to be No. 1, because without these men, none of this happens. Ultimately, I decided to reward the other classes for more robust rosters, but Gracie and Shamrock remain the pillars upon which this sport was built, and that alone is enough to outclass many rookie classes.

16. 2017

Hall of Famers: 0

Champions: 3 — Deiveson Figueiredo, Justin Gaethje, Nicco Montaño

Title Challengers: 7 — Alex Perez, Alexandre Pantoja, Dominick Reyes, Marlon Moraes, Paulo Costa, Tonya Evinger, Volkan Oezdemir

Total Title Wins: 5

Debuting Fighters: 117

Justin Gaethje is guaranteed to make it into the Hall and I’d be pretty surprised if Figgy Smalls didn’t join him. Same for Reyes, who should make it in off the Jon Jones fight alone — and we’re starting to cook here. Add in the high number of title challengers, and the potential for Alexandre Pantoja to either win the title or simply make it in off a fight, and this is a strong mid-tier class.

Islam Makhachev v Alex Volkanovski UFC284 Media Opportunity
Alex Volkanovski poses in front of a mural in Sydney, Australia.
Photo by Brett Hemmings/Zuffa LLC

15. 2016

Hall of Famers: 0

Champions: 4 — Alexa Grasso, Alexander Volkanovski, Brandon Moreno, Cris Cyborg

Title Challengers: 3 — Katlyn Chookagian, Josh Emmett, Marvin Vettori

Total Title Wins: 12

Debuting Fighters: 110

Flip a coin between this and the next entry, that’s how close they are. Volkanovski is a lock for the Hall and Cyborg should be (though may ultimate get passed over), and Moreno and Grasso are both very live for making it in there at the moment. The one downside to this class is the small crop of title contenders, but with other staples of the UFC like Curtis Blaydes, Irene Aldana, Belal Muhammad, and Paul Craig, this is a solid class.

14. 2018

Hall of Famers: 0

Champions: 3 — Israel Adesanya, Petr Yan, Weili Zhang

Title Challengers: 5 — Cory Sandhagen, Jennifer Maia, Kai Kara-France, Megan Anderson, Yana Kunitskaya

Total Title Wins: 13

Debuting Fighters: 124

Had we done this list a year or two ago, 2018 may have been higher. Adesanya and Zhang are locks for the Hall (Zhang twice for her fight with Jedrzejczyk) and Yan looked destined for there as well until his recent skid. But with the potential of Sandhagen and Kara-France, plus a strong selection of title defenses and a deep class of “Other Guys” (Jalin Turner, Bryce Mitchell, Mackenzie Dern, Sergei Pavlovich, Sodiq Yusuff, Kevin Holland, and Magomed Ankalaev, among others) put this one just slight ahead of 2016.

13. 2006

Hall of Famers: 3 — Anderson Silva, Clay Guida, Michael Bisping

Champions: 2 — Anderson Silva, Michael Bisping

Title Challengers: 3 — Mark Hominick, Thales Leites, Yushin Okami

Total Title Wins: 13

Debuting Fighters: 83

Having one of the five greatest fighters ever can carry a class a long way, particularly when backed up by a pair of Hall of Famers and some decent other names, including Joe Lauzon and Roger Huerta. Ultimately the pedigrees of Silva and Bisping mean more than most other classes can offer.

12. 2001

Hall of Famers: 2 — B.J. Penn, Matt Serra

Champions: 5 — B.J. Penn, Frank Mir, Matt Serra, Ricco Rodriguez, Sean Sherk

Title Challengers: 4 — Caol Uno, Elvis Sinosic, Gil Castillo, Vladimir Matyushenko

Total Title Wins: 11

Debuting Fighters: 23

2001 had a high efficiency rating as we got two Hall of Famers (plus at least one in waiting in Mir) from only 23 total rookies. Add in that the non-title picture fighters include MMA legends like Din Thomas and Yves Edwards, and even Phil Baroni, and 2001 was a sneaky strong year for the UFC.

11. 1999

Hall of Famers: 4 — Bas Rutten, Jens Pulver, Kevin Randleman, Matt Hughes

Champions: 6 — Bas Rutten, Evan Tanner, Jens Pulver, Kenichi Yamamoto, Kevin Randleman, Matt Hughes

Title Challengers: 3 — Andre Pederneiras, Jorge Patino, Katsuhisa Fujii

Total Title Wins: 16

Debuting Fighters: 34

Hughes and Pulver are pulling a lot of weight here, but with four Hall of Famers (and Tanner on the fringe) this slightly edges the 2001 class, in terms of champions, title wins, and overall importance to the sport.

TUF 1 Finale: Griffin v Bonnar
Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin react after their historic three-round battle in 2005.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

10. 2005

Hall of Famers: 4 — Diego Sanchez, Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Stephan Bonnar

Champions: 2 — Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans

Title Challengers: 11 — Chael Sonnen, Diego Sanchez, Gabriel Gonzaga, Joe Stevenson, Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, Kenny Florian, Nate Marquardt, Nate Quarry, Paul Buentello, Thiago Alves

Total Title Wins: 2

Debuting Fighters: 60

The top 10 is where the classes that really built the UFC start to show up, and what better place to start than the original The Ultimate Fighter cast? TUF was seminal for the UFC, which is why four fighters from those first two seasons are already in the Hall of Fame (with perhaps more to follow), but this year the UFC also got one of its biggest stars ever in Chael Sonnen, who made his debut against Babalu Sobral. Sonnen is a lock to get a gold jacket one day, meaning 2005 produced at least five Hall of Famers and nearly a dozen other stars that the UFC brand was built around in the coming years, including Chris Leben, Josh Koscheck, Keith Jardine, and Kenny Florian.

9. 2012

Hall of Famers: 1 — Khabib Nurmagomedov

Champions: 4 — Khabib Nurmagomedov, Glover Teixeira, Max Holloway, Robert Whittaker

Title Challengers: 6 — Al Iaquinta, Antonio Silva, Ian McCall, John Moraga, Stephen Thompson, Tim Elliott

Total Title Wins: 11

Debuting Fighters: 115

Tucked between two of the deepest classes ever, 2012 is the middle child rookie classes. Like the man who went to Penn became a doctor, just about anyone would call him a huge success ... until you learn that his older brother went to MIT and invented AI, and his younger brother cured cancer.

Four champions — all guaranteed to make it to the Hall of Fame — including the greatest lightweight of all-time, one of the greatest stories of all-time (Glover’s late title run and Fight of the Decade), and two top-25 fighters ever would be a coup for any draft class. But at this level, years are separated in the margins, and a relatively week crop of title challengers prevents 2012 from going any higher.

8. 1998

Hall of Famers: 4 — Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson, Pat Miletich, Pete Williams

Champions: 4 — Carlos Newton, Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson, Pat Miletich

Title Challengers: 7 — Chris Brennan, Igor Zinoviev, Jeremy Horn, John Lober, Mikey Burnett Pedro Rizzo, Wanderlei Silva

Total Title Wins: 13

Debuting Fighters: 30

Four Hall of Famers (with Wanderlei Silva seemingly likely to follow) from only 30 rookies is extremely high efficiency from this class, and that’s what put it in front of 2012. Liddell is one of the most important figures in UFC history and he carries a lot of weight here, but Henderson and Miletich are also bonafide legends that played pivotal roles in the growth of the sport and the UFC. Like 2012, the crop of title challengers is weak, but grading on a curve because of the time, it’s still good enough to keep it in front of Khabib and company, particularly with 13 championship victories to back it up.

7. 2015

Hall of Famers: 0

Champions: 6 — Cody Garbrandt, Francis Ngannou, Holly Holm, Islam Makhachev, Kamaru Usman, Valentina Shevchenko

Title Challengers: 3 — Darren Till, Jared Cannonier, Karolina Kowalkiewicz

Total Title Wins: 20

Debuting Fighters: 102

Now we’re cooking!

All things considered, 2015 was a bit of a reset year for the UFC. Not in terms of talent, obviously, but with only 102 new signings, it was a major step back from the escalation we’d seen over the rest of the 2010s (2014 had 230 new fighters). But despite this downshift, Sean Shelby and company knocked it out of the park in 2015.

Holly Holm, Kamaru Usman, and Valentina Shevchenko are guaranteed to make the Hall of Fame, and Makhachev is well on his way. Plus, in a just world Ngannou would still be in the UFC and making his own case for that honor. So that’s four Hall of Famers and six champions, two of the 15 greatest fighters ever, and still some hope that other rookies like Arnold Allen or Matheus Nicolau could add to the raw numbers. That’s a hell of an effort for a “reset” year.

6. 2008

Hall of Famers: 1 — Jon Jones

Champions: 6 — Brock Lesnar, Cain Velasquez, Jon Jones, Junior dos Santos, Rafael dos Anjos, Shane Carwin

Title Challengers: 1 — Dan Hardy

Total Title Wins: 27

Debuting Fighters: 77

When you’ve got the greatest fighter of all-time, well, let’s just say that’s a good damn start to having a successful year. Just look at the stats: 27 championship wins is fourth all-time for any rookie class, and the vast majority of those wins come from Jones. (Considering he’s still an active champion, it’s almost a certainty 2008 moves up to third all-time in championship wins, as they are one only behind the next entrant in this list.) But Jones is just the tip of the iceberg, because aside from adding five other champions into the mix, 2008 also brought us one of the five biggest stars in the history of the sport.

For those who weren’t around at the time, it’s hard to overstate how big Brock Lesnar was for the UFC. Though he was only in the company for three years (plus a brief return in 2016), he’s responsible for three $1 million pay-per-view events (and he really was the draw behind UFC 200 as well). He expanded the MMA fan base in a way no other fighter had up to that point. Was he the best champion? No. But when you’ve got Jon Jones in the class, you don’t need more all-time greats. He’s got that covered.

The one down spot for this class is the lack of title challengers. Dan Hardy is looking lonely up there, and that kept 2008 from making it into the top five.

UFC 44 - Couture v Ortiz
Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture wait for the decision at UFC 44.

5. 1997

Hall of Famers: 4 — Kazushi Sakuraba, Maurice Smith, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz

Champions: 8 — Frank Shamrock, Kazushi Sakuraba, Kevin Jackson, Mark Kerr, Maurice Smith, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Vitor Belfort

Title Challengers: 6 — Dan Bobish, Dwane Carson, Marcus Silveira, Nick Sanzo, Steven Graham, Tony Fryklund

Total Title Wins: 28

Debuting Fighters: 38

The top five is where you really start to see the pillars that built the UFC empire. Tito, Randy, and Frank are some of the most important figures in the sport’s history and only a longstanding vendetta against Frank is preventing him from joining the other two in the Hall. Add in in Vitor and those four names really drove much of the UFC’s early growth, with Vitor even playing a critical part much later in his career as well.

Eight champions is also nothing to sneeze at (fourth-most overall), and really the only knock on this class is the group of title challengers who were almost exclusively one-and-dones. Still, the peaks of 1997 were as good as any and elevate this class to the elite tier.

UFC 104: Machida vs. Shogun
Lyoto Machida battles with Mauricio Rua during their title fight at UFC 104.
Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

4. 2007

Hall of Famers: 2 — Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mauricio Rua

Champions: 6 — Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Fabricio Werdum, Frankie Edgar, Lyoto Machida, Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson

Title Challengers: 4 — Anthony Johnson, Demian Maia, Gray Maynard, Nate Diaz

Total Title Wins: 12

Debuting Fighters: 80

2007 was a crowning moment for Dana White and the UFC. After years of battling it out with Pride FC for supremacy of the MMA world, the UFC, riding the success of The Ultimate Fighter, finally claimed victory, buying out Pride and acquiring most of its roster. As you can imagine, that was a huge win for the promotion and for the fans, as the influx of talent made the next couple of years some of the most exciting in the history of the sport. Shogun, Big Nog, Werdum, and Rampage all grabbed titles, and even those who didn’t led to some of the biggest moments of the decade. Remember when Cro Cop got Cro Copped? Anyone who was a fan at that time will never forget it. Plus, this is the year Nate Diaz joined the circus.

All told, 2007 has two current Hall of Famers and seven more I would bet my life on getting in (Cro Cop, Rampage, Machida, Edgar, Werdum, Nate, and Maynard for the Frankie fights). Nine Hall of Famers from a class of 80 is pretty absurd, but it just goes to show how big of a deal Pride was once upon a time.

UFC 223: Namajunas v Jedrzejczyk
Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk congratulate each other after UFC 223.
Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

3. 2014

Hall of Famers: 1 — Doo Ho Choi

Champions: 10 — Aljamain Sterling, Carla Esparza, Colby Covington, Eddie Alvarez, Henry Cejudo, Jan Blachowicz, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Leon Edwards, Rose Namajunas, Yair Rodriguez

Title Challengers: 10 — Brian Ortega, Claudia Gadelha, Derrick Lewis, Gilbert Burns, Jessica Penne, Joe Soto, Kevin Lee, Lauren Murphy, Ray Borg, Valerie Letourneau

Total Title Wins: 26

Debuting Fighters: 230

As things currently stand, 2014 is was the year the most rookies started in the show, and while that hurts its efficiency, the overall numbers are staggering. An astonishing 10 champions (with a few more people still having some shot to win a belt — here’s looking at you, Beneil Dariush and Marlon Vera) is third all-time, and in 20 years, 2014 will be responsible for at least seven Hall of Famers — and could very easily move into double digits, depending on the future. Perhaps most impressive from this year, though, is the sheer volume of high-level role players it produced though.

Dan Hooker, Paul Felder, Tecia Torres, Sean Strickland, Pedro Munhoz, Rob Font, Renato Moicano, Angela Hill, Joanne Wood, and Paige VanZant are just a few of the names who won’t ever fight for a title but have been foundational pieces for nearly a decade. The old saying is you want quality over quantity, but in 2014, the UFC got both.

WEC: Aldo vs. Faber
Jose Aldo battles Urijah Faber at WEC: Aldo vs. Faber.
Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

2. 2011

Hall of Famers: 4 — Cub Swanson, Donald Cerrone, Jose Aldo, Urijah Faber

Champions: 11 — Anthony Pettis, Benson Henderson, Chris Weidman, Demetrious Johnson, Dominick Cruz, Dustin Poirier, Jose Aldo, Renan Barao, Stipe Miocic, T.J. Dillashaw, Tony Ferguson

Title Challengers: 12 — Alistair Overeem, Chad Mendes, Chan Sung Jung, Chris Cariaso, Donald Cerrone, Eddie Wineland, John Dodson, Joseph Benavidez, Michael McDonald, Ricardo Lamas, Scott Jorgensen, Urijah Faber

Total Title Wins: 51

Debuting Fighters: 125

After acquiring the WEC in 2006, Zuffa finally brought the baby brother into the UFC fold — and then the baby brother started kicking ass. Folding the WEC into the UFC opened up two new weight classes with featherweight and bantamweight, and turned the lightweight division into the most electric division in the sport. It also gave us a few all-time great fighters in Demetrious Johnson, Jose Aldo, and Dominick Cruz. Then, outside of the WEC move, 2011 was also the first UFC fights for the likes of Stipe Miocic, Chris Weidman, and Tony Ferguson.

2011 was a banner year for the UFC and kicked off another boom period for the organization. The 2011 rookie class leads all years in most championships wins, is tied for the most number of champions, is second in most title challengers, and will likely hold the record for most Hall of Famers soon (when it’s all said and done, 2011 could be the debuting year for as many as 18 of them). That is insane. The sheer volume of A+ fighters that joined the organization in 2011 is mind-boggling, and would have unquestionably earned top honors if it weren’t for . . .

UFC 205 photos
Conor McGregor poses with his second UFC championship at UFC 205.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

1. 2013

Hall of Famers: Daniel Cormier, Ronda Rousey

Champions: 11 — Amanda Nunes, Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier, Germaine de Randamie, Jessica Andrade, Jorge Masvidal, Julianna Peña, Luke Rockhold, Miesha Tate, Ronda Rousey, Tyron Woodley

Title Challengers: 17 — Alexis Davis, Ali Bagautinov, Anthony Smith, Bethe Correia, Cat Zingano, Gilbert Melendez, Jessica Eye, Kelvin Gastelum, Kyoji Horiguchi, Liz Carmouche, Ovince Saint Preux, Raquel Pennington, Roxanne Modafferi, Sara McMann, Thiago Santos, Wilson Reis, Yoel Romero

Total Title Wins: 36

Debuting Fighters: 144

2013 was an unparalleled year for UFC rookies from top to bottom. Like with the WEC and Pride before it, the influx of talent into the UFC from the Strikeforce acquisition was an enormous boon. Five future champions joined the UFC as a result of that move, not to mention a host of contenders. Perhaps more importantly though, the UFC bringing Strikeforce into the fold also meant adding women’s divisions to the fray, and as a result, the UFC filled out its roster with dozens of talented fighters from Invicta. All told, 2013 was responsible for 11 champions, a staggering 17 title challengers, and two Hall of Famers with at least four more to follow. It was a great year by any measure, but that’s not why 2013 tops this list. It tops this list for two reasons: Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey.

Of the 19 pay-per-views in UFC history that have sold over 1 million buys, McGregor and Rousey are responsible for more than half of them. They’re the two biggest stars in MMA history and the UFC picked them both up in the same year! If any other organization had done that, perhaps the entire power dynamics of MMA would have shifted. Instead, Rousey and McGregor drove MMA to unseen heights, and ultimately lifted the UFC to a point where just three years later it was sold for $4.2 billion and now has an estimated worth of $12.1 billion. Add in the fact that Rousey is single-handedly responsible for the proliferation of women’s MMA (if the UFC doesn’t add women’s divisions, which it wouldn’t have without her, women’s MMA is a fraction of what it currently is today, and that’s just the reality) and 2013 is really running up the score.

If ranking rookie classes was just a numbers game, 2013 would invariably fall short to the staggering numerical achievements of the 2011 class. But Rousey and McGregor are the great equalizers. If you asked Dana White which rookie class he would pick if he had to choose, he’s going to pick 2013 every time, because all things considered, it is the greatest UFC rookie class ever.

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