That time of the year is upon us for the annual Combat Press 50. What’s that you say? There is no Combat Press 50? Well, there is now. The Combat Press 50 is a countdown of the 50 best fighters in MMA right now.
A lot of criteria went into the selection of these 50 athletes: Their 2015 accomplishments, proximity to a title shot, talent and how well we felt they would do if matched up with one another, mostly at their own weight. For example, Karolina Kowalkiewicz is number 50. In our opinion, she would beat every woman in the world who is not ranked above her.
Special thanks goes to Rob Tatum, Bryan Henderson and my old podcast partner, TJ Craig, for help with the list.
Just to put the expectations out there, we expect full agreement on this list from everyone in the MMA world. Come on now, we know that’s ridiculous. What we expect is to hear feedback and for this to spark debate, like all lists do. So, let’s keep the debates clean and protect yourselves at all times.
In part one of the list, we looked at number 50 and counted down to the 36th spot. In part two, we continued at spot 35 and counted down to number 21. Here, we’ll complete the countdown by starting at number 20 and counting down to the top spot. Congratulations to those included.
With its big pairings of Michael Chandler with Eddie Alvarez and Will Brooks, the Bellator lightweight division has often been noted as the promotion’s most competitive. However, Daniel Straus has contributed to the bevy of talent that has made the Bellator featherweight class the current frontrunner as the organization’s hottest weight class. Straus, a former Bellator featherweight champion, made an unsuccessful challenge for the belt in early 2015 against Patricio Freire. He wasn’t deterred, though. After a bounceback win over Henry Corrales, Straus rematched Freire and battled his way to a hard-fought decision win.
2015: 2-1 with wins over Patricio Freire (Decision, Bellator 145) and Henry Corrales (Submission, Bellator 138, 2nd round, 3:47)
The light heavyweight division’s last true talent influx came when Jon Jones, Alexander Gustafsson and Ryan Bader were among those climbing the ranks. That changed in 2015 with the rise of Liam McGeary. The undefeated New Jersey-based Brit spent 2014 making a name for himself in a Bellator light heavyweight tournament, but 2015 was the year McGeary took his tourney win and converted it into championship gold when he outworked champion Emanuel Newton to claim the belt in a five-round decision nod. The towering 6-foot-6 light heavyweight returned to action in September for a high-profile title defense against UFC legend Tito Ortiz at Bellator 142: Dynamite 1. McGeary, who relied heavily on his striking to get the job done early in his career and appeared most vulnerable when placed on the mat, needed less than a round to submit Ortiz and cement his place as one of the latest additions to the top tiers of the light heavyweight ranks.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Tito Ortiz (Submission, Bellator 142: Dynamite 1, 1st round, 4:41) and Emanuel Newton (Decision, Bellator 134)
Quiet is kept when it comes to Marlon Moraes. He flies a little under the radar for a guy with his kind of skills. Despite not being on the tip of everybody’s tongue, he’s right there with the best in the world at his weight. Put him in there with undefeated Josh Hill and Hill becomes once defeated. Then the World Series of Fighting threw Sheymon Moraes in there with him. This is the same Sheymon Moraes that just had a devastating knockout up a weight class. What does Marlon Moraes do? He stands with him a little bit and then finds his back and chokes him out. It’d be nice to see a little more activity from him, but as is typically the case with a young promotion, his division lacks depth. He’s a training partner of Frankie Edgar, and 2016 might be a big year for both men.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Sheymon Moraes (Submission, WSOF 22, 3rd round, 3:46) and Josh Hill (Decision, WSOF 18)
They call him “The Flash.” Anyone who has seen him grapple can tell you why. The fighters in the lighter weight classes are known for their speed, but the transitions of this Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt take speed to a whole new level. The biggest knock on Fernandes, the reigning ONE Championship bantamweight champion, is his level of competition. Much of his career has been spent competing against untested opponents in the Asian region, and while this led to victories over the likes of Masakazu Imanari, Joe Warren and Joachim Hansen earlier in his career, the Brazilian has been busy facing prospects without household names in his more recent campaign with ONE. In 2015, the lone fight on his docket resulted in a third-round knockout finish of Toni Tauru, a Finnish fighter who now holds a 10-2-1 mark but who had never previously faced anyone near the level of Fernandes in terms of experience or skill. Fernandes already has his first bout of 2016 lined up for January — he’ll face Kevin Belingon at ONE Championship: Dynasty of Champions — but fight fans can only dream of Fernandes competing against UFC opponents. For now, it’d just be great to see this elite competitor in action more than once in a calendar year, regardless of the promotion.
2015: 1-0 with a win over Toni Tauru (KO, ONE Fighting Championship 29, 3rd round, 1:02)
Justin Gaethje fights like a war pilot from the 1940s. This kid loves a dogfight. He gets in there and doesn’t even really seem alive until he is going shot for shot. Everyone talks a big game about “kill or be killed” when they are in a cage, but there are few who lay it all on the line the way Gaethje does. In speaking to Gaethje or his coach, Trevor Wittman, they will acknowledge that he needs to take less punishment, but always with a wink in their eye that they like their odds if the fights keep going the way they have. He’s heard it all, folks, and he knows conventional wisdom is to change the way he fights, but he may not want to, nor does he have to. If an opponent wants to trade big shots with him, they can. But he’s gonna get to his before the opponent gets to theirs. In 2015, he was the biggest star in the promotion, but he fought the same guy twice. He did beat Luis Palomino more impressively the second time around, but with the 155-pound division being as stacked as it is, 2016 should be the year we really see Gaethje tested.
2015: 2-0 with two wins over Luis Palomino (TKO, WSOF 23, 2nd round, 4:40; TKO, WSOF 19, 3rd round, 3:57)
Frankie Edgar is part of an evolution of mixed martial arts that may be the future. He, Dominick Cruz, T.J. Dillashaw, Conor McGregor and others are fighters whose focus is movement, activity and pace. The genius of Edgar may not be fully realized until after he retires, but that is not what is of paramount concern to him. What is, is the next shot at McGregor. We’d say the featherweight title, but it seems that winning the title will not mean as much if it’s not McGregor he takes it from. Edgar did everything that a man can do to earn a title shot in 2015. He scored impressive wins over serious opponents. However, at the end of the day, it’s called the fight business for a reason. If the dollars don’t make sense for him to fight McGregor next, he may have to watch the champ fight dos Anjos and hope McGregor wins.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Chad Mendes (KO, TUF Finale: McGregor vs. Faber, 1st round, 2:28) and Urijah Faber (Decision, UFC Fight Night 66)
When the lightweight division is discussed, Will Brooks isn’t always mentioned. He should be. All he does is win. An upset win over Michael Chandler put Brooks on the map. When people thought it was a fluke, he went and knocked out Chandler in the rematch. The wins haven’t been as impressive this year, but nothing has changed as far as where Brooks stands among the best fighters in the world. In a perfect world, Aljamain Sterling or Benson Henderson would make their way to Bellator. They are the kind of high-profile opponents Brooks needs to solidify his reputation to the public.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Marcin Held (Decision, Bellator 145) and Dave Jansen (Decision, Bellator 136)
We’ve talked about plenty of career turnarounds over the course of this countdown, and there are a couple more ahead. However, there may be none quite as unexpected as the turnaround Tonya Evinger has experienced since 2013. Evinger, already a respected veteran of the sport by then, never could put it all together. The low point came on The Ultimate Fighter 18 when she was submitted by the then-unproven Raquel Pennington and failed to make it into the TUF house. Her head wasn’t in the right place and it seemed that she was bound to continue down a road of highs and lows. Then it all came together. Evinger signed with Invicta FC and defeated Sarah D’Alelio, Ediane Gomes and Cindy Dandois as she blazed a path of destruction straight to a title shot to kick off 2015. Evinger, always a tough-as-nails fighter, demonstrated a level of skill and composure on the feet and the mat as through these fights and in her fourth-round TKO finish of Irene Aldana for the Invicta bantamweight crown. Evinger added another win to her current streak when she topped Pannie Kianzad in a September showdown at Invicta FC 14. Once thought to be a middling fighter on her way to a mediocre career, the 34-year-old Evinger is now the best 135-pounder outside of the UFC.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Pannie Kianzad (TKO, Invicta FC 14, 2nd round, 3:34) and Irene Aldana (TKO, Invicta FC 13, 4th round, 4:38)
Daniel Cormier’s 2015 was probably the best of his career. He beat two of the top three fighters in his division and was crowned champion. But it may be the third fighter that haunts him. It’s curious to wonder, if you asked Cormier and got him in a moment of candor, whether he would rather have beaten Jon Jones and then lost the belt to either Anthony “Rumble” Johnson or Alexander Gustafsson. “Bones” Jones will forever define Cormier until he beats the former champ… and maybe even after. Jones is Cormier’s measuring stick. For now, though, Cormier has wins over the top guys and the belt, so he’s the king at 205 pounds.
2015: 2-1 with wins over Alexander Gustafsson (Decision, UFC 192) and Anthony Johnson (Submission, UFC 187, 3rd round, 2:39)
Ronda Rousey was a phenomenon, both in the Octagon and outside of it. She took the UFC to a part of the mainstream that many thought it would never reach. While some believe all of this vanished the day Holly Holm beat her, it’s hard to believe Rousey’s persona and stature is that fragile. The dominance she exhibited since she walked into the UFC, and for most of 2015, is still within her. Holm just caught her slipping or she’s really that much better. Either way, the gap between these two ladies and the rest of the women in the world is substantial. Rousey is still the very tip of the sword, but someone may just have her number.
2015: 2-1 with wins over Bethe Correia (KO, UFC 190, 1st round, 0:34) and Cat Zingano (Submission, UFC 184, armbar, 0:14)
The smartest move T.J. Dillashaw may have made was realizing that there could be a ceiling at Team Alpha Male. For whatever the gym has in the ability to recruit, it may lack in championship pedigree. Dillashaw discovered that hitting the bricks with Duane “Bang” Ludwig may be what is best for him on a lot of fronts. First, the Ludwig infusion is what led to the defeat of Renan Barão and the acquisition of a championship belt to go around his waist. Second, it has opened the door for a fight with Team Alpha Male’s alpha male, Urijah Faber, which may be the most lucrative of either fighter’s career if they are open to airing dirty laundry. In the cage in 2015, Dillashaw, like some of the other fighters, should have had more fights, but he established his level and little occurred to change it.
2015: 1-0 with a win over Renan Barão (KO, UFC on Fox 16, 4th round, 0:35)
It was always believed that the road of Robbie Lawler’s career would at some point intersect with a championship. However, it’s the route that surprised us all. Lawler came on the scene billed in the same light as Vitor Belfort and B.J. Penn. He was seen as a young gun with a bright future. It didn’t happen then, but it’s happening now. Lawler, much like Fabricio Werdum, is hitting his stride at an age when most are fading. Also like Werdum, Lawler’s lack of activity has given us more time to further laud the accomplishment that was his victory over Rory MacDonald. Lawler walks through hell as well as anyone in combat sports. He will take you there and, if it’s too hot for you, he will take you out.
2015: 1-0 with a win over Rory MacDonald (TKO, UFC 189, 5th round, 1:00)
2015 was an interesting year for Fabricio Werdum. He only fought once, but in the time that was available to assess him without a pending fight, he started to be viewed as an all-time great heavyweight. The resume is certainly there, and the finish over Cain Velasquez bolsters the claim even further. Up next for Werdum is another fight with Velasquez, who has shown that he comes back stronger in rematches. If Werdum can spend more time in the cage in 2016, it will allow him to solidify his place in history.
2015: 1-0 with a win over Cain Velasquez (Submission, UFC 188, 3rd round, 2:13)
Luke Rockhold has been talking a big game since he beat Lyoto Machida quickly and decisively in April at UFC on Fox 15. He said he was the best 185-pound fighter in the world. Then, with all due respect to Rafael Carvalho and David Branch, he went out and proved it. Rockhold dominated and stopped Chris Weidman to bring another belt back to San Jose, Calif., and the American Kickboxing Academy gym.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Chris Weidman (TKO, UFC 194, 4th round, 3:12) and Lyoto Machida (Submission, UFC on Fox 15, 2nd round, 2:31)
Arguably the most feared female fighter on the planet, Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino spent less than two minutes in the cage in 2015. The Brazilian earned a pair of devastating knockouts to retain her Invicta FC featherweight title. First came her 46-second destruction of Canadian Charmaine Tweet in February, which earned her the promotion’s “Knockout of the Year” award. She followed up in July with a 45-second finish of New Zealand’s Faith Van Duin to cement her place as the best featherweight in the world.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Faith Van Duin (TKO, Invicta FC 13, 1st round, 0:45) and Charmaine Tweet (TKO, Invicta FC 11, 1st round, 0:46)
In 2015, Rafael dos Anjos separated himself from the pack at 155 pounds. He took the title from Anthony Pettis in a dominating fashion most didn’t see coming at the time. Then he absolutely ran through Donald Cerrone. Dos Anjos is doing what few have. Once a very flawed, middling fighter, he has cleaned up his game and taken it all the way to the title. It’s those flaws of his youth that make this division interesting. While he is far and away the best at lightweight right now, there are seven men who walk the planet thinking they know the secret to beating him. The number bumps up to eight if you count Conor McGregor, who appears to be the Brazilian’s most likely next opponent in what is truly a superfight in a sport that doesn’t see many of them.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Donald Cerrone (TKO, UFC on Fox 17, 1st round, 1:06) and Anthony Pettis (Decision, UFC 185)
The year certainly started out in more dominant fashion for Joanna Jędrzejczyk than it ended. She began the year by showing Carla Esparza and the rest of the world how serious things were going to be at the top of the strawweight division. At the end of the year, she went the distance with Valerie Letourneau. While she looked impressive against Letourneau, the Canadian’s size — Letourneau was a former bantamweight — and her grit showed that a bigger, potentially more skilled fighter could maybe take the belt from Jędrzejczyk. But these are hypotheticals and nitpicking. Jędrzejczyk started the year undefeated and dominant and ended it the same way.
2015: 3-0 with wins over Valerie Letourneau (Decision, UFC 193), Jessica Penne (TKO, UFC Fight Night 69, 3rd Round, 4:22) and Carla Esparza (TKO, UFC 185, 2nd round, 4:17)
Speaking of gaps between someone and the rest of their division, let’s talk about Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. Johnson fought two men in 2015. While they mostly went the distance with him, Kyoji Horiguchi being part of the record-setting latest stoppage in UFC history, they weren’t really close. John Dodson, the perceived biggest threat to Johnson’s belt, looked outclassed and slower. Johnson may be the best fighter in the world, but he needs more challenges. It’s time to explore superfights or pair him with Henry Cejudo.
2015: 2-0 with wins over John Dodson (Decision, UFC 191) and Kyoji Horiguchi (Submission, UFC 186, 5th round, 4:59)
Holly Holm’s year may have started out questionably, but it ended spectacularly. The fact that she couldn’t finish her two previous opponents was troubling, but you just can’t discount what she did to Ronda Rousey. If you couple the perceived gap between Rousey and the rest of her division with the gap between Holm and Rousey on that night, at this moment Holm is light years ahead of most of the rest of the women in the world.
2015: 3-0 with wins over Ronda Rousey (KO, UFC 193, 2nd round, 0:59), Marion Reneau (Decision, UFC Fight Night 71) and Raquel Pennington (Decision, UFC 184)
Conor McGregor started 2015 in a cage in Boston with Dennis Siver and a lot of questions about how good of a fighter he was. Eleven months later, we know. He’s the best fighter in the world right now. Three victories in 2015, all finishes, all “Performance of the Night” bonuses. He beat the No. 1- and 2-ranked featherweights in the world, and it was a destruction in both fights. No one expected McGregor to do what he did to José Aldo. In doing so, he claimed his title and his legacy.
2015: 3-0 with wins over José Aldo (KO, UFC 194, 1st Round, 0:13), Chad Mendes (TKO, UFC 189, 2nd Round, 4:57) and Dennis Siver (TKO, UFC Fight Night 59, 2nd Round, 1:54)