After the UFC's March schedule gifted MMA fans with four straight weeks of exciting fight cards capped by stellar main events, including the much-anticipated return of Jon Jones, the promotion takes a one-week break this weekend. The UFC returns on April 8 will return with another can't-miss main event as former UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya challenges Alex Pereira in a rematch for the 185-pound title.
With a weekend off for the UFC, what better time to look at where each division stands and how they stack up after all the action thus far? Last December, it was the lightweight division that was voted as the best of the bunch. Where did the 155-pounders end up nearly four months later? Did Jones' return to the Octagon boost interest in the heavyweight division?
ESPN put together a panel to vote on power rankings, which we continually update throughout the year.
Note: Our panel ranks all 12 weight classes from top to bottom, taking stock of which divisions are performing the best now and which have the best pound-for-pound fighters. ESPN's panel includes Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim, Ian Parker, Andres Waters, Andrew Feldman and Eddie Maisonet.
1. Men's bantamweight: 135 pounds
Champion: Aljamain Sterling
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Sterling (No. 8, tie)
Biggest upcoming fight: Sterling vs. Henry Cejudo on May 6
The 135-pound title fight on May 6 is basically a champion vs. champion fight, because no one took Cejudo's title by force. He willingly vacated it in 2020 when he announced his retirement. Sterling has claimed ownership of the division in his absence, but if Cejudo is successful in his return, it will feel in some respects as though he never left. Additionally, it would set up massive storylines for Cejudo for the rest of the year: a high-profile defense against Sean O'Malley, followed by a potential move to 145. There's a lot of work to be done, but if Cejudo can win in 2023, he's set up beautifully.
Which fighter in the division is must-see TV?: Merab Dvalishvili. After seeing what he did to Petr Yan in a five-round fight last month, I can't wait to see him fight again. I see some complaints about the efficiency of his style, as it's more about sheer volume than its effective technique. And to that, I say, "So what?" Dvalishvili drowned a former champion and pound-for-pound candidate in a tsunami of activity. That's not only highly impressive, it's also entertaining. -- Okamoto
2. Lightweight: 155 pounds
Champion: Islam Makhachev
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Makhachev (No. 1, tie), Oliveira (No. 6)
Biggest upcoming fight: Charles Oliveira vs. Beneil Dariush at UFC 288 (May 6)
Makhachev won the UFC lightweight title last October, beating Charles Oliveira, and then defended it successfully in an incredible, close fight against featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 284 in February. Now, Makhachev is calling to move up to welterweight and challenge Leon Edwards for that belt. That seems unlikely. The UFC is going to want Makhachev to defend one of the premier titles in the promotion against a lightweight, and it'll likely happen in October in Abu Dhabi.
The question is, who will emerge as the challenger? There is no obvious answer right now. Beneil Dariush, in terms of résumé, seems the closest. But he has a fight against Oliveira at UFC 288 on May 6 in New Jersey. If Oliveira wins that, he could position himself for a rematch. And then there's Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje, two exciting fan favorites who have had title opportunities before against Makhachev's longtime friend and training partner Khabib Nurmagomedov. The 155-pound contender situation has to somehow work itself out by October.
Which fighter in the division is must-see TV?: He's coming off a loss to Gaethje earlier this month at UFC 286, but Rafael Fiziev didn't lose any stock in defeat. In fact, his fandom surely only increased. The fight was very close and Fiziev had his moments against the more heralded Gaethje. Pound-for-pound, Fiziev is one of the most technical strikers in MMA and he's not afraid to take risks and get into firefights, like the one with Gaethje. Not winning that fight put Fiziev a little out of the contender conversation for right now, but at age 30, he has plenty of time to work his way back. And he undoubtedly will. -- Raimondi
3. Welterweight: 170 pounds
Champion: Leon Edwards
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Edwards (No. 4), Kamaru Usman (No. 7)
Biggest upcoming fight: Gilbert Burns vs. Jorge Masvidal on Apr. 8
Yeah, I know, Dana White says Colby Covington is next "for a million reasons." It must be noted, however, that none of those reasons has anything to do with winning fights. Covington has yet to beat a top-10 welterweight. His past two wins came against fighters on a combined seven-fight losing streak. Edwards has pointed this out and indicated that Belal Muhammad, unbeaten in his past nine fights, is a more deserving challenger. Will the champ continue to stand up to the boss? That usually ends poorly.
Which fighter in the division is must-see TV?: While others are jockeying for position with their words in the chase for a title shot, Muhammad just fights. And when he fights, he steps in with the best the UFC can put in front of him. His unbeaten streak was not a carefully curated assemblage of winnable fights. And yet he won, again and again. Is Muhammad the most exciting guy in the division? Not really. Is he eloquent at selling himself? Not at all. But if I want drama, I'll watch Shakespeare. -- Wagenheim
4. Men's featherweight: 145 pounds
Champion: Alexander Volkanovski
Interim champion: Yair Rodriguez
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Volkanovski (No. 1, tie)
Biggest upcoming fight: Max Holloway vs. Arnold Allen on Apr. 15
Volkanovski is operating in rare air at the moment. Despite his unsuccessful lightweight title challenge in February, plenty of people still have him as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He has been an absolute wrecking ball in his weight class, and even though there are real challengers still ahead, he's the odds-on favorite to reign over the division. And if he continues to rack up title defenses in dominant fashion, the UFC will revisit a rematch with Makhachev, which he badly wants. Volkanovski is such a master of his craft, anything he does right now is significant and overshadows any story that might be going on in the division.
Which fighter in the division is must-see TV?: Ilia Topuria only recently broke into ESPN's divisional rankings, but it shouldn't take long for him to crack the top 5 and then earn a title shot if he keeps performing well. He has a perfect 13-0 record, with four finishes in five UFC fights (12 finishes overall). He has one of the division's highest "danger" factors right now, which translates to potential star power. Don't be surprised if Topuria turns into the breakout fighter of 2023, in this division and the sport. -- Okamoto
5. Women's strawweight: 115 pounds
Champion: Zhang Weili
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Zhang (No. 2), Rose Namajunas (No. 7, tie), Carla Esparza (No. 10, tie)
Biggest upcoming fight: TBD
The No. 1 contender at women's strawweight has not been this unclear in quite some time. Maybe ever. Weili stopped Esparza via a second-round finish at UFC 281 last October to become a two-time champion. But over the past five months, no front-runner for a title shot has emerged. Namajunas would make sense. She's a former two-time champion and has already beaten Zhang twice. But considering they've fought twice already, and Namajunas lost to Esparza last year in an all-time stinker of a fight, the UFC might not want to go right back to that well.
Eventually, Namajunas should get another shot. She's one of the best women's fighters in UFC history. Yan Xiaonan, Zhang's countrywoman, is in the mix as well, and the UFC could do some good business in China with a Zhang vs. Yan matchup. But Yan will first have to get past Jessica Andrade on May 6. Andrade can earn a title shot with a win; she is a former champion and lost the belt to Zhang in 2019. But a loss at flyweight against Erin Blanchfield last month makes her recent record look a bit crooked. Then there's Amanda Lemos, who lost to Andrade but is coming off a win over Marina Rodriguez, another contender.
Which fighter in the division is must-see TV?: Not mentioned here is Yazmin Jauregui. She's not quite ranked yet, but she likely will be soon. The native of Tijuana, Mexico, has quickly become one of the most entertaining fighters in the women's 115-pound division after her first two bouts in the UFC. Jauregui beat Iasmin Lucindo and Istela Nunes in a pair of wars and she seems ready for a step up in competition. Jauregui came up training with UFC flyweight Brandon Moreno and surely will be part of the Mexican MMA boom that's happening right now with three UFC champions from the country. -- Raimondi
6. Middleweight: 185 pounds
Champion: Alex Pereira
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Israel Adesanya (No. 5), Pereira (No. 10, tie) Robert Whittaker (No. 10, tie)
Biggest upcoming fight: Pereira vs. Adesanya on Apr. 8
When Pereira arrived in the UFC in 2021, little was made of his MMA résumé. He was just 3-1, after all. But there was a compelling story surrounding his deeper past as a two-division kickboxing world champion. That was important to UFC fans because two of Pereira's wins in Glory had come against former UFC middleweight champion Adesanya, one by knockout. Still, the general thinking was that Pereira was in for a reckoning if he should meet "The Last Stylebender" in the Octagon. In November, however, Pereira took the belt away from Adesanya by knockout. They're scheduled to meet again on April 8, and many people still favor Adesanya over a guy who has now beaten him three times. Do we never learn?
Which fighter in the division is must-see TV?: Robert Whittaker. He's not "must watch" in that he's next in line, because that's not where he sits in the hierarchy. He's not flashy, as Adesanya sometimes can be. He's not a one-punch threat, like Pereira. But Whittaker is so damn good that every one of his performances is a joy to watch. Other than in his two losses to Adesanya, Whittaker has been the man to watch at 185 pounds for the better part of a decade. -- Wagenheim
7. Women's flyweight: 125 pounds
Champion: Alexa Grasso
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Valentina Shevchenko (No. 3), Grasso (No. 5), Andrade (No. 7), Blanchfield (No. 9)
Biggest upcoming fight: TBD
Just like when Amanda Nunes suffered an upset loss to Julianna Peña in 2021, the world feels slightly out of order following Shevchenko's loss to Alexa Grasso at UFC 285. The question is: Will order be restored in an immediate rematch between Grasso and Shevchenko? Or, is this the new order? Everybody loves a good comeback story, as they say, and seeing how a long-reigning champion reacts to her first loss in ages carries a lot of intrigue. Shevchenko's utter dominance was the biggest story of this weight class for so long. Of course, her bounce-back from defeat will mark the biggest storyline until it plays out.
Which fighter in the division is must-see TV?: We could be looking at a legitimate phenom in Blanchfield. At only 23 years old, she's already the No. 4 ranked contender at flyweight. She's coming off a decisive finish over a former champion in Andrade. Her grappling ability is a potential trump card in every matchup at 125. It's wild to say this, but she looks like she could be championship ready right now -- and she's likely only scratching the surface of her long-term potential. -- Okamoto
8. Heavyweight: 206-265 pounds
Champion: Jon Jones
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Jones (No. 3)
Biggest upcoming fight: Sergei Pavlovich vs. Curtis Blaydes on Apr. 22
All eyes are on Jon Jones. The longtime former light heavyweight champion took three years off, then moved up to heavyweight and stunned Ciryl Gane via submission to win the vacant heavyweight title in just over two minutes. UFC president Dana White made it clear that Stipe Miocic, the former two-time heavyweight champ, is next up for Jones. It would be a historic battle. Jones is the greatest light heavyweight of all time, and Miocic is the most successful UFC heavyweight ever. Both are future Hall of Famers. Jones and Miocic want the bout in July, but nothing is official yet.
How long can Jones hold the belt? Can he get past Miocic? And then, how does he fare against some of the younger athletes in the division? Blaydes takes on Pavlovich on April 22 in what very well could be a title eliminator fight. Either one would give Jones a fascinating look at heavyweight. Blaydes is a dominant wrestler who has power in his hands. Pavlovich is a hulking Russian with huge knockout power -- he has finished five straight in the first round via knockout.
Which fighter in the division is must-see TV?: Tom Aspinall. When he returns to the Octagon, Aspinall should also be back in contention. He tore his MCL in a loss to Blaydes last summer. But before that, the Englishman was an exciting, up-and-coming talent who has amassed quite a fan following in his native United Kingdom. Jones' coach Greg Jackson told me that he was already keeping an eye on Aspinall two years ago in advance of Jones' move to heavyweight. That's how well-regarded the 29-year-old Aspinall is. And if Instagram photos are any indication, he is in terrific shape leading into a likely return to the cage later this year. -- Raimondi
9. Men's flyweight: 125 pounds
Champion: Brandon Moreno
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Moreno (No. 8, tie)
Biggest upcoming fight: TBD
Every title bout in this division since 2020 has been Brandon Moreno vs. Deiveson Figueiredo. All four fights were fiery and worth watching, but enough is enough. It's time for someone else on the merry-go-round to get a chance to grab the golden ring. Alexandre Pantoja appears to be in the best position, riding a three-fight winning streak and with two victories (one of them an exhibition on The Ultimate Fighter) over Moreno. Brandon Royval and Matheus Nicolau also could be heard from. Finally.
Which fighter in the division is must-see TV?: Moreno. He has fine-tuned his game over the past few years. He has had to, in order to get the better of Figueiredo. Now Moreno is ready to move on to new challenges. If he faces Pantoja, who has gotten the better of him twice, it will be fun to see how much better Moreno fares. However that fight or any title challenge goes, Moreno will surely bring excitement. -- Wagenheim
10. Light heavyweight: 205 pounds
Champion: Jamahal Hill
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking:
Biggest upcoming fight: TBD
He is a champion; no one can ever take that from him. Regardless of how long his reign lasts, Hill did earn that belt. However, due to the nature in which he earned it, there is further validation for him to seek. The defending champ, Jiří Procházka, got injured. Hill didn't have to face the contenders ranked ahead of him (Jan Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev) because they fought to a draw in December. There was luck involved in his title fight coming as soon as it did. No luck in him winning the fights to be there, and then defeating Glover Teixeira, but it's impossible to claim he wasn't fortunate to get that fast track to the belt. As the champ, he's about to have plenty of opportunities to prove himself as the best 205-pounder in the world. Procházka is eager to return. Ankalaev will still have his say at some point. And if middleweight champion Alex Pereira defeats Adesanya next week, I can guarantee he'll be talking about a move to light heavyweight almost immediately.
Which fighter in the division is must-see TV?: Procházka. Procházka's injury was so unfortunate. You never want to see someone hurt, ever. But the timing of the injury was regrettable. This division has been up and down since Jones left. There have now been four different champions since he left in 2020, plus a title fight that ended in a draw and failed to crown a champion. Procházka had a lot of potential as a champion to defend the belt multiple times and put his stamp on it. He's a unique guy in and out of the cage. Once he's fully back to health (hopefully sometime this year), he is a must-see, and the UFC has already promised his first fight back will be for a championship. -- Okamoto
11. Women's bantamweight: 135 pounds
Champion: Amanda Nunes
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Nunes (No. 1), Julianna Peña (No. 6)
Biggest upcoming fight: TBD
Amanda Nunes has the title back now after getting shocked by Peña in December 2021. Now, what's next? Peña could find herself in a trilogy bout, or the UFC could tab Irene Aldana, who has won four of five and finished two straight. It would be interesting if the bout happened in Mexico later this year, along with a title defense from one of the UFC's two Mexican-born undisputed champions, Moreno and Grasso, the latter a teammate of Aldana's.
It would be hard to deny Peña a title shot at some point, though. She handed Nunes her first loss in seven years, and even though Nunes beat her last July in the rematch, Peña had moments. Maybe Peña will have to win one more, perhaps against Raquel Pennington, who has quietly won five straight. Then, there's Holly Holm. She has won three out of four and owns wins over Aldana and Pennington (twice). But Nunes knocked her out in 2019. Peña vs. Holm would be interesting, as well.
Which fighter in the division is must-see TV?: In a division devoid of top prospects -- the aforementioned names have all been in the UFC since the dawn of women fighting in the promotion -- Mayra Bueno Silva is the closest thing to it. "Sheetara" has won three straight, the past two by submission. She's an entertaining fighter who isn't afraid to get into a brawl. And she has charisma on the microphone, as well. She'll fight Miesha Tate on June 3, and a win there could vault her into a contender position. If so, she'd breathe fresh air in a stagnant weight class. -- Raimondi
12. Women's featherweight: 145 pounds
Champion: Amanda Nunes
Fighters in ESPN P4P ranking: Nunes (No. 1)
Biggest upcoming fight: TBD
Hello! Is anybody home? Hello?
What is there to say about a weight class with barely any fighters or fights, where the champ, Amanda Nunes, has not defended her belt in over two years? There's nothing to say. The storyline here might be the UFC's curious choice to allow this division to wither on the vine rather than putting it out of its misery.
Which fighter in the division is must-see TV?: C'mon, now. -- Wagenheim