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 fighters have already signed up for or plan to fight 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 we compare this year’s top 30 with the 2020 projections, the overlap is not as great as one might think.

And so, with all these explanations, let’s dig into the middle of the list – those ranked from 11 to 20. If you missed the first part of the list, check 21-30.

Written by Mark Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim.

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2020 record: 1-1 (SUB1 loss against Aljamain Sterling; TKO2 against Marlon Moraes).

ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings : Not registered

Next fight: TBD

Forecast for 2021 : The future looks incredibly bright for Sandhagen after he defeats Sterling – a quick and shocking loss of submission. Sandhagen closed the year with a nice ride from Moraes. When he gets back on his feet, he’ll be as strong a fighter as anyone in the welterweight division. Sandhagen is elusive, has excellent footwork and has dangerous power in all his limbs. In a way, it’s version 2.0 of former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. A shot for the title is expected in early 2021, and this year will likely be very important for the Colorado-born fighter. — Raimondi

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Record 2020: 1-0 (UD via Jang Seong Joon)

ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings : Not registered

Next fight: TBD

Forecast for 2021 : According to UFC plans, this TBD will soon be replaced by the name of Alexander Volkanovsky, the men’s champion. And if Ortega looks as skilled and spirited in this fight as he did against the Korean zombie in October, he might end up with the belt. Before the fight with Jung, Ortega was out of the game for a long time, but instead of rusting in the ring, he showed a brilliant asset in his game. It will be interesting to see how well that plays out in his next fight, which will be against an opponent who will see more and more wrinkles and will likely be less easily caught off guard. — Wagenheim

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Record 2020: 3-0 (SUB2 vs. John Phillips; TKO1 vs. Reece McKee; KO1 vs. Gerald Meerschaert).

ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings : Not registered

Next fight: 13. Marching against Leon Edwards.

Forecast for 2021 : In just two months, Shimaev has gone from a virtually unknown commodity with no UFC fight to one of the hottest fighters in all of MMA. His first two wins – devastating and dominating performances – were part of a modern ten-day record. Chimaev has the fastest three-game winning streak in modern UFC history (66 days). He will take a big step forward in the league in 2021 when he faces his main rival, Leon Edwards. The fight is scheduled for the third time after the previous two were postponed – the second after Shimaev had to leave with lung problems related to COVID-19. Chimaev puts his foot down, but with what he’s already done, it’s really the only option for the UFC. — Raimondi

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Record 2020: 1-1 (TKO5 against Tony Ferguson; TechSUB2 loses to Khabib Nurmagomedov).

Grade ESPN MMA 2020 : 17

Next fight: TBD

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Forecast for 2021 : The last time we saw Gaethje, he was introduced by Nurmagomedov in a title fight where he never really seemed to get going. Nurmagomedov seems to be doing this to everyone. The defeat didn’t do much damage to Gathe’s stock. He can still rest on the laurels of his brutal fight against Ferguson and the three consecutive victories that preceded it. It may have ended up in the same place on that list as it did in 2000, but it’s probably not far off another title opportunity. UFC President Dana White is trying to take on Charles Oliveira, but the fight still hasn’t been taped and it looks like he’s holding onto the ball because he thinks he deserves a shot at the title. In any case, Gaethje’s next fight will be against a top light heavyweight, which means opportunity. After Nurmagomedov announced his retirement, there is a royal feeling in the division. And in such a flap you can never count the climax. — Wagenheim

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Record 2020: 2-0 (SUB3 via Kevin Lee; UD via Tony Ferguson).

Grade ESPN MMA 2020 : Not registered

Next fight: TBD

Forecast for 2021 : Oliveira left one of the best and most lasting impressions of any fighter in the world in 2020. At UFC 256, Oliveira completely dominated former interim UFC Lightweight champion Tony Ferguson – the kind of one-sided performance that few people have ever seen against Ferguson. Oliveira is absolutely ready for a huge 2021. All he has left is a title playoff against one of his best opponents. Oliveira has eight wins in one of the busiest divisions in the UFC. It’s not impossible to see him in a title fight by the end of the year… or with a belt on his hands. — Raimondi

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Record 2020: 1-0 (TKO5 on Tyrone Woodley)

ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings : 16

Next fight: TBD

Forecast for 2021 : His confidence and fighting spirit may not be better than that of a Grade D, but as a fighter, Covington is the second best welterweight on the planet. The problem is that the champion, Kamaru Usman, knocked him out just 13 months ago and Covington is in a very similar position to where he started in 2020 – hence his similar place on this year’s list. To still have a chance to win the title, Covington will need to overtake at least one better challenger. White says the match that makes sense for Covington is a grudge match against his former team-mate and roommate Jorge Masvidal. This hard-fought battle between the final two contenders for the 170-pound title will serve as a springboard for one of them in 2021. — Wagenheim

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Record 2020: 1-0 (SUB1 via Darryon Caldwell).

ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings : 19

Next fight: Winner of the TBD against Patricio Freire-Emmanuel Sanchez.

Forecast for 2021 : McKee is the brightest potential star on Bellator’s list. He’s 17-0 as a pro and only 25 years old. This year could be his big breakthrough campaign. McKee’s next fight will be for the Bellator World Featherweight title at the Bellator World Featherweight Grand Prix finale. If Freire beats Sanchez, the fight between Freire, the multiple champion, and McKee will be one of Bellator’s most important fights in terms of overall attention. McKee only fought once in 2020, but his rare appearance in the Caldwell game was a highlight. — Raimondi

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Record 2020: 1-0 (SD via Max Holloway)

ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings : 9

Next fight: TBD

Forecast for 2021 : The mental acuity of the UFC Bantamweight champion will be put to the test this year. Volkanovsky is coming off two fights with Holloway that couldn’t be more different. In the first fight Volkanovski performed a masterful feat of ripping the belt off, and in the second he held the belt in a close fight that many believe the champion lost. The question of when Volkanovsky will fight next, likely against number one contender Brian Ortega, is therefore important: Will the champion outdo himself and try to right the ship as impressively as possible, or will he just go about his business of winning? — Wagenheim

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Record 2020: 0-0

ESPN MMA 2020 Rankings : 15

Next fight: 13. March against Hamzat Shimaev

Forecast for 2021 : Edwards – Rodney Dangerfield MMA: The man is not respected. It doesn’t matter that he’s won eight straight in one of the best divisions in the UFC. He is rarely mentioned by his opponents or fans as a potential challenger in the next welterweight division. Part of the story is that Edwards was unlucky. He was supposed to fight former champion Tyrone Woodley in March, but the card was cancelled due to COVID-19. Then in December and January he had to face Chimaev, an ardent advocate. Both times the fight was postponed. Edwards had coronavirus the first time, and it was cancelled the last time because Chimaev was recovering from symptoms of COVID-19. It looks like Edwards is finally ready to enter the cage for the first time since July 2019 and has a chance to elevate his status as a title contender. — Raimondi

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Record 2020: 1-0 (TKO5 on Jose Aldo)

ESPN 2020 Rankings : 26

Next fight: 6. Mars vs Aljaman Sterling (UFC 259)

Forecast for 2021 : For Ian, the year begins with a fight that could and should have been booked last July, when the UFC Bantam Weight Championship title was vacant. But instead Ian turned to Aldo, who had lost twice in a row. The celebration of Jan’s victory was somewhat drowned out by Sterling’s stew on the sidelines. Now they’re together. If Yan can keep the belt, a new challenger will be waiting for him, as the 135-pound division is relentless. If Yan Sterlings can take care of Gantlet and at least one other competitor, he could be a real star by the end of the year. — Wagenheim

 

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