Given the lack of events thanks to COVID-19, there’s been a lot of time for me and my fellow MMA journalists/analysts to go over many greatest ever lists. It’s always hard to do so when comparing different generations. Even though there are less generations to cross compare than there are in other sports, it still doesn’t feel right to compare Royce Gracie to the likes of GSP, even if they fought in the same weight class… roughly. So, how about breaking down the last decade, especially since we’re entering a new one as it is.
In many divisions, it’s easy to pick the best fighter in every division. But what about the top 10 in every division? A little bit more debatable. In fact, a lot more debatable. One of my favorite article types has always been the type that can be open to debate. All the rankings will be done by me and me alone. I can promise I’ve made careful consideration, but I also know everyone isn’t going to agree. Feel free to voice your opinions in the comments, making your own rankings or critiquing my rankings. It isn’t going to hurt my feelings.
I decided to start with the smaller weight classes and move my way up. I would like to go down to women’s atomweight, but I don’t believe there have been enough participants in the last decade to create the type of discussion amongst readers that would interest them. It’s unfortunate, but I do hope that can change in the next decade.
I’ll also admit there is a lot of recency bias with the women’s divisions. Even now, those divisions are still evolving at a more rapid pace than the men’s division. At the beginning of the decade, it could be said they were in their infancy. Thus, women like Zoila Frausto Gurgel, Megumi Fuji, and Mei Yamaguchi were certainly taken into consideration, but I don’t believe at their peaks, they would defeat those who did make the bottom of the list. As a result, I couldn’t put as much weight into their notable accomplishments earlier in the decade. Feel free to disagree… that’s the point of this article. The other honorable mentions are listed below.
Let us begin!
1. Joanna Jedrzejczyk: Could there have been a different option other than Joanna Champion? The queen of the division for over two-and-a-half years, the division has entered a state of chaos ever since she was dethroned, making her five successful title defenses that much more of an imposing number. The only losses on her ledger at strawweight for the decade came to Rose Namajunas – her loss to Valentina Shevchenko came at flyweight and the Zhang fight was this year – but Joanna holds wins over five of the other names on this list, the most out of anyone.
2. Rose Namajunas: As soon as Namajunas came into her own, she looked like the unstoppable creative force that many predicted she would become when she first burst onto the scene in the early part of the decade. Handing Jedrzejczyk not one, but two losses signified Namajunas as a dominant force as opposed to her first performance being a fluke and solidifying her as the champion. Prior to dropping the belt to Jessica Andrade, Namajunas was winning before being KO’d in brutal fashion. Namajunas routinely wavers on her fighting future, but she may very well be the best when her head is in the right place.
3. Jessica Andrade: Andrade spent several years on the UFC roster plying her trade at bantamweight, even securing a win against future title challenger Raquel Pennington. She really hit her stride when she dropped to 115, winning seven of her first eight at her new home on her way to wresting the belt from Namajunas. Many were shocked when she lost her first defense to Zhang, though many believe she’s likely to work her way back to the top of the mountain as the Brazilian is still only 28. Like Namajunas, she may not yet be in her prime.
4. Claudia Gadelha: The highest ranked member on the list who never held the UFC strawweight title, Gadelha made history when she fought Tina Lahdemaki in the first ever women’s strawweight contest in the UFC. Many would also say she deserved the decision against Jedrzejczyk when they collided for the first time in 2014. Throughout it all, she has always been near the top of the division since the UFC introduced the division, turning away all but the very best, even on occasions when she doesn’t appear to be at the top of her game.
5. Carla Esparza: The first strawweight champion in the UFC’s history, Esparza may be the most underappreciated member of the strawweight roster. Always uber-tough, Esparza developed into a sound boxer after the rest of the division adapted to her wrestling. Though the chances of her ever again becoming champion seem slim, she’s one of the most battle-tested veterans in the division and never goes away quietly. Many tend to forget, she was also the inaugural Invicta FC strawweight champion.
6. Jessica Aguilar: For those of you only familiar with Aguilar’s UFC run, this placement may come as a surprise. However, for those who saw her run in Bellator and WSOF, some may argue she should have been ranked higher. Unfortunately, her UFC run came after her physical prime as age and injury took their toll. Regardless, Aguilar may have been the best strawweight in the world in the early part of the decade, without a proper platform to definitively make that statement.
7. Weili Zhang: Perhaps this spot seems low to some of you, but this is only taking into account the 2010’s and Zhang’s incredible battle with Joanna was this year. In fact, a part of me was reluctant to put the reigning UFC strawweight champion this high as she has only burst onto the scene in the last two years. However, becoming the first to finish Aguilar since Aguilar’s debut in the sport in 2007 looked pretty good. So did her dominance of Tecia Torres. And finishing Andrade in less than a minute? That’s three wins over three names on this list. Yeah… Zhang accomplished a hell of a lot in a very short period of time… and continues to do so.
8. Tatiana Suarez: Much like Zhang, Suarez hasn’t accomplished as much as many on this list simply due to her late entry into the sport in terms of this decade. She debuted in 2014 and only has eight fights under her belt. However, all of those fights have been victories and no one has come close to notching her first loss on her belt. Her win over Esparza was particularly impressive. No one should discount her win over Nina Ansaroff either. Suarez is dealing with a neck injury at this point, but if she can work her way past that, she’s assuredly going to end up on this list for the next decade.
9. Karolina Kowalkiewicz: Kowalkiewicz might have made it higher had her entire KSW career taken place at strawweight, but she put together a solid resume nonetheless. Undeniably, her win over Namajunas is the biggest highlight, launching Kowalkiewicz into a title fight against Jedrzejczyk. A Muay Thai practitioner prior to getting into MMA, Kowalkiewicz is well onto the backside of her career. Still, it was a notable run for her as she was able to inject her name into the top of the division for several years.
10. Tecia Torres: There is nobody on this list who would have benefited more from the UFC instituting an atomweight division than Torres. Anytime she ran up against the best of the division, Torres was bullied and turned away, a victory over a green Namajunas being the only win on her ledger against others on this list. Nonetheless, she racked up 10 wins in her first 11 contests. Plus, the UFC thought enough of a win over her to give three of her opponents who defeated her title shots after dispatching of the Tiny Tornado. Not a claim any fighter would necessarily want to make as it insinuates losing, but it’s still a notable mark.
Honorable Mentions: Michelle Waterson, Nina Ansaroff, Livia Renata Souza.
Waterson’s resume is split between strawweight and atomweight, the bulk of the best wins coming at 105. Ansaroff’s accomplishments came too little, too late. Quality wins are too few and far between for Souza.