UFC weight class power rankings: A new division claims No. 1

Islam Makhachev has not defended his lightweight title against a fellow lightweight yet. Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The first two times a UFC champion put a title up for grabs this year, the challenger took home the belt. That has become a common result in a sport where dominant longtime champs seem to be a thing of the past. Then again, perhaps these matters are beginning to stabilize. The last three title defenses inside the Octagon went to the champs.

The balance of power up and down the UFC's weight classes is ever-changing, and the same holds true for the divisions themselves. When ESPN last ranked the fight promotion's 11 divisions, in September, men's bantamweight was at the head of the pack, followed by lightweight and welterweight. That order has shifted significantly.

Our panel has voted again, and Brett Okamoto, Andreas Hale and Jeff Wagenheim have details on where we ended up.

1. Lightweight: 155 lb (PR: 2)

Dustin Poirier grabs exhilarating KO victory over Benoit Saint-Denis

Dustin Poirer lands a barrage of strong punches to grab a win via knockout vs. Benoit Saint-Denis.

A division that has the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world in Makhachev, three fighters (Justin Gaethje, Charles Oliveira and Dustin Poirier) who have had a placement on the P4P list and one fighter (Arman Tsarukyan) knocking at the door of greatness is pretty special. But then you include the likes of a fighter on the rise (Mateusz Gamrot) and several fighters (Rafael Fiziev, Michael Chandler, Benoît Saint Denis and Bobby Green) who are a lock for the fictional "All Action Team" and you have the best division in the UFC. And, if you care to include the BMF champion (Max Holloway) in the division, you can forget about it.

Biggest upcoming fight: Makhachev vs. Poirier at UFC 302 on June 1. Can Poirier finish the story, or will Makhachev further assert himself as the best fighter in the world? -- Hale

2. Men's Bantamweight: 135 lb (PR: 1)

  • Champion: Sean O'Malley

  • P4P fighters in top 10: One - O'Malley (5)

The 135-pound division is arguably the deepest and most dynamic it's ever been -- which is saying something -- for a notoriously talented weight class. O'Malley is not just a marketable superstar, he's also one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. Merab Dvalishvili is seemingly a nightmare matchup for anyone, and it appears he'll get his first title shot in the fourth quarter of 2024. And the division goes so far beyond that, as it's full of veterans, up-and-comers and multiple guys with championship-level experience. Even guys who have retired and then returned and nearly recaptured the belt, such as Henry Cejudo and Jose Aldo.

Biggest upcoming fight: Cory Sandhagen vs. Umar Nurmagomedov. O'Malley vs. Dvalishvili is the obvious answer, but we don't have a date for it, and I'd like to shine some light on Sandhagen vs. Nurmagomedov. One of these two will likely hold the belt at some point in their career, and possibly both eventually will. -- Okamoto

3. Men's Featherweight: 145 lb (PR: 5)

Ilia Topuria celebrates after stunning knockout of Alexander Volkanovski

Ilia Topuria celebrates in disbelief after knocking out Alexander Volkanovski in the main event of UFC 298.

The champion, Topuria, is No. 4 in the ESPN pound-for-pound rankings. The man from whom he won the title, Volkanovski, is No. 7. And the guy Volk beat for the belt, Holloway, is ranked ninth. No other men's weight class has as many fighters in the P4P top 10. I voted for this division to be at the top of the hierarchy, and maybe it would have landed there if only Volkanovski and Holloway hadn't spent so much time up at lightweight. The next men in line will present solid challenges ahead for Topuria.

Biggest upcoming fight: Arnold Allen vs. Giga Chikadze. No title bout is booked, but Volkanovski and Holloway are foremost among several would-watch options. Allen vs. Chikadze is the best fight currently slated on the upcoming schedule. Just last year, Allen was viewed as a potential title challenger before back-to-back unanimous decision losses to Max Holloway and Movsar Evloev set him back. -- Wagenheim

4. Welterweight: 170 lb (PR: 3)

UFC 304: Who has the edge in Leon Edwards vs. Belal Muhammad's rematch?

Daniel Cormier and Chael Sonnen discuss the impacts of Leon Edwards and Belal Muhammad headlining UFC 304.

  • Champion: Leon Edwards

  • P4P fighters in top 10: One - Edwards (2)

A division full of UFC unbeaten streaks led by Edwards (13), Belal Muhammad (10), Ian Machado Garry (7) and Jack Della Maddalena (7) is strong to begin with. Add in what appears to be a champion in the waiting with Shavkat Rakhmonov and his 100% finish rate to go along with his perfect MMA record of 18-0 and you have another strong division. Kamaru Usman, Colby Covington and Gilbert Burns are still hanging around and can knock off anybody on any given night. And newcomer Michael "Venom" Page is a wild card who may find himself challenging for a title at some point.

Biggest upcoming fight: Edwards vs. Muhammad 2 at UFC 304 on July 27. It may not be the most exciting fight on paper but Muhammad has done more than enough to earn this opportunity to challenge for the championship. Which unbeaten streak will end? -- Hale

5. Women's Flyweight: 125 lb (PR: 4)

Manon Fiorot wins via unanimous decision in main event

Manon Fiorot defeats Erin Blanchfield in the main event of UFC Fight Night via unanimous decision.

This division was the last one the UFC added on the women's side. And for a while, as the weight class was establishing itself, it was the weakest of the three. Unsurprisingly, it's settled in as the premiere weight class for women's MMA. As some former strawweights have moved up in weight, we've seen the emergence of new talent in names such as Fiorot and Blanchfield that have truly given this weight class a firm identity.

Biggest upcoming fight: Grasso vs. Shevchenko 3. This is one of the biggest fights in women's MMA history. Shevchenko has now faced Grasso twice and doesn't have a win to show for it, having fought to a submission loss and a split draw. Two years ago, that would have felt unfathomable. This is the biggest fight of Shevchenko's career. -- Okamoto

6. Middleweight: 185 lb (PR: 6)

This division is a free-for-all. When Du Plessis won the title in January, he became the fourth 185-pound champ in the past 18 months. One of them is Alex Pereira, who has moved on to light heavyweight, where he now reigns as champ. But Adesanya and Sean Strickland are still hanging around, as are ex-champ Robert Whittaker and perennial threat Khamzat Chimaev.

Biggest upcoming fight: Whitaker vs. Chimaev on June 22. The winner of this fight could be elevated to a title shot. Or maybe the victor will have to wait in line behind Adesanya, who has the starry fan appeal that the UFC craves. Appealing matchmaking possibilities seem endless at this weight, and many revolve around "The Last Stylebender," even as a non-champion. -- Wagenheim

7. Women's Strawweight: 115 lb (PR: 7)

Zhang Weili cruises to second straight title defense

Zhang Weili defeats Xan Yiaonan via unanimous decision to retain the UFC women's strawweight championship.

Strawweight sits in the middle of the pack because there is much uncertainty beneath the dominant forces of Suarez and champion Weili. It feels like the talent gap between Zhang and Suarez and the rest of the division is nearly a football field wide. Aside from Zhang and Suarez, nobody has built enough momentum to feel like a real threat to the division's top.

Biggest upcoming fight: Zhang vs. Suarez. This fight has yet to be booked, but it feels inevitable. Suarez has bullied opponents since her UFC debut and has everything necessary to knock Zhang off her lofty perch. Whenever it is made, it will be a battle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object -- you can pick who is who. -- Hale

8. Light Heavyweight: 205 lb (PR: 10)

Carlos Ulberg needs just 12 seconds to finish Alonzo Menifield

Carlos Ulberg finishes Alonzo Menifield in just 12 seconds at UFC Fight Night.

  • Champion: Alex Pereira

  • P4P fighters in top 10: One - Pereira (3)

For the first time in years, this division feels it's on the rise. It was once arguably the golden division of the UFC. It featured names such as Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Rashad Evans, Shogun Rua, Rampage Jackson, etc. Light heavyweight went through somewhat of an identity crisis in recent years though, with multiple champs dropping the belt due to injuries. Pereira gives this division a ton of life, though. And ESPN's light heavyweight top 10 is probably the most talented it's been for a while.

Biggest upcoming fight: Carlos Ulberg vs. whoever. Ulberg has won six in a row, including a 12-second knockout of Alonzo Menifield in May. Obviously, whenever Pereira fights, he is the must-see attraction of 205 pounds. But Ulberg is new blood with a lot of upside. And he's now on the cusp of being ranked inside the top 10. -- Okamoto

9. Men's Flyweight: 125 lb (PR: 9)

Alexandre Pantoja successfully defends title in dominant fashion

Alexandre Pantoja defends his title vs. Steve Erceg in the main event of UFC 301 in Rio de Janeiro.

Pantoja will be a year into his reign as champ this summer, but it hasn't been easy. Brandon Royval, whom Pantoja had finished in under seven minutes less than two years earlier, took the champ the distance in December. Earlier this month, Steve Erceg did the same -- and some even saw that fight as a win for the Australian challenger. That kind of tight competition makes this division wide open, something that was not the case in the immediate aftermath of Pantoja taking the title from Brandon Moreno in his third victory over the Mexican.

Biggest upcoming fight: Manel Kape vs. Muhammad Mokaev at UFC 304 on July 27. Both Kape (No. 7) and Mokaev (No. 8) are ranked inside ESPN's divisional top 10. This bout might not set up an immediate title challenge, but it will build toward something for the winner. -- Wagenheim

10. Heavyweight: 265 lb (PR: 8)

Outside of champions Jones and Aspinall, this simply isn't a division loaded with talent. Sergei Pavlovich, Jailton Almeida and Ciryl Gane are fun, but flawed. And there are a lot of fighters who are getting long in the tooth. The bottom half of the division is a struggle. Somehow, Stipe Miocic has managed to hang around despite not winning a fight in four years. It's rough at heavyweight from a talent perspective.

Biggest upcoming fight: Jones vs. Aspinall. No, it's not booked, but this is the only fight that matters. Jones defending against an aged Miocic isn't a fight that people think Jones will lose. And Aspinall defending the interim title against Curtis Blaydes is only happening because of the injury Aspinall suffered 15 seconds into their first matchup in 2022. The best fighters need to square off each other, but something tells me that Jones will call it a career after facing Miocic, thus further weakening a division struggling to find depth and new talent. -- Hale

11. Women's Bantamweight: 135 lb (PR: 11)

Raquel Pennington wins UFC women's bantamweight belt

Raquel Pennington defeats Mayra Bueno Silva in the co-main event of UFC 297 to win the women's bantamweight title.

With respect to the athletes in this weight class, it's in a slump. It's extremely thin. Some women featured in the divisional rankings hold some unimpressive records as of late. There are few up-and-comers to keep an eye on. The champion, Pennington, is a great example of perseverance, but she suffers from the same fate any champion would currently have in this division -- she's trying to follow the act that was Amanda Nunes, which is impossible. Harrison moving over from the PFL is fun and a major story to watch, but this division needs help beyond that.

Biggest upcoming fight: Pennington vs. whoever. Give the champ her credit. When she defends her title, that will be the most important fight in this division. Everyone knows how high the intrigue is in Harrison, though. If and when Harrison fights for the belt and wins, she's the only person who could draw Nunes out of retirement, which would be massive. -- Okamoto