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.
Here’s the list, beginning with number 50 and counting down to the 36th spot. Please check back throughout the weekend as the countdown continues. Congratulations to those included.
It seems Poland has a knack for producing elite female mixed martial artists. UFC fans were introduced to Joanna Jędrzejczyk in 2014 and watched her ascend to the women’s strawweight throne by 2015. Now, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, another KSW champion, is poised to follow in Jędrzejczyk’s footsteps. The 30-year-old backed the hype when she first set foot on U.S. soil for the Invicta promotion and defeated Mizuki Inoue. The UFC scooped her up soon after, and she spent 2015 adding to her resume within the confines of the Octagon. Kowalkiewicz’s UFC debut came in February when she eked out Kalindra Faria via split decision. She turned in a more decisive showing in her sophomore effort in December when she earned a unanimous nod over Randa Markos. She’s still early into her UFC tenure, but it might not be long before the Muay Thai and Krav Maga practitioner enters into contention for a shot at the belt currently held by her fellow Polish striker.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Randa Markos (Decision, UFC on Fox 17) and Kalindra Faria (Decision, KSW 30)
Joseph Benavidez is as close to being a champion as one can get. In that regard, he’s in great company. Michael Bisping, Miesha Tate, Jon Fitch, Chael Sonnen, Carlos Condit, John Dodson and Josh Koscheck are all fighters who are/were among the very best in the world, but couldn’t either get the title shot or beat the champ. But don’t let that diminish who Benavidez is as a fighter. A lot of times the difference between a champion and a challenger is their coach. At the moment, with all due respect to those involved in his training, Benavidez’s coach is not commensurate to his skill set.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Ali Bagautinov (Decision, UFC 192) and John Moraga (Decision, UFC 187)
Some of the irony of Alistair Overeem is that while he was in his prime, particularly when he first got to the UFC, a lot was made about who he is and his future in the sport. Now, after some high-profile losses, he is putting together a nice run at the title while flying under the radar. Who would ever think that Overeem would do anything under the radar? But now that he has strung together victories over Roy Nelson and Junior dos Santos — the latter more impressive than the former — there is some title talk. In fact, had Stipe Miocic not been so impressive in his last victory, the next shot may have gone to Overeem. Keep an eye on the situation, as these things have a way of disappearing.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Junior dos Santos (TKO, UFC on FOX 17, 2nd round, 4:43) and Roy Nelson (Decision, UFC 185)
New weight class, same results. Utah’s DeAnna Bennett made the drop to strawweight in 2015 and kept her undefeated record intact with a pair of decision wins inside the Invicta FC cage. Bennett outworked late-replacement opponent Norma Rueda Center in February, before edging former champion Katja Kankaanpää in September. The wins helped earn Bennett a crack at Invicta gold to kick off 2016.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Katja Kankaanpää (Decision, Invicta 14) and Norma Rueda Center (Decision, Invicta 11)
When it comes to 2015, Aljamain Sterling finished it… well, you guessed it, in submission fashion. Would you expect any other way for a Matt Serra disciple to win in the UFC? His submission over Takeya Mizugaki took time and was a close fight until the end. In his fight with Johnny Eduardo, Sterling looked more like a seasoned vet with his stand-up and his ground game. With each of his wins, he moved up in competition and should continue to do so in 2016. His pending free agency is of interest to a great number of people. He is someone who could skyrocket up this list in 2016.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Takeya Mizugaki (Submission, UFC on Fox 15, 3rd round, 2:11), Johnny Eduardo (Submission, UFC Fight Night 80, 2nd round, 4:18)
It had to be a bittersweet year for Japanese flyweight Kyoji Horiguchi. The 25-year-old started the year with a dominant win over Louis Gaudinot at UFC 182 to earn a title shot against Demetrious Johnson. Horiguchi lasted until four minutes and 59 seconds of the final round with the champion before succumbing to an armbar in the fight’s final second. He rebounded from the title defeat to cruise past Chico Camus in September.
2015: 2-1 with wins over Chico Camus (Decision, UFC Fight Night 75) and Louis Gaudinot (Decision, UFC 182)
Jake Shields had his best day and his worst day all in 2015. His first win resulted in a title shot. His loss at the end of the year ended with him getting 50 hours of community service issued by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. His great start was overshadowed by the debacle of the title fight against WSOF champ Rousimar Palhares. Here is to a better New Year’s resolution. The thing that will always make Shields relevant is his resume. Some of the best fighters in the world — Robbie Lawler, Carlos Condit, Dan Henderson, Tyron Woodley, and Demian Maia — have losses to Shields.
2015: 1-1 with a win over Brian Foster (Submission, WSOF 17, 1st round, 2:51)
Vitor Belfort’s career has been as impressive for as long as anyone in the history of MMA. Despite being one of the early UFC champions, he remains relevant today. In 2015, he fell to Chris Weidman in unimpressive fashion (on his part), but his aggressiveness and skill set make him a guy who fans would love to see fight most of the top 10 at 185 pounds in the UFC. It was believed that title hopes were done for him when he lost, but new champ Luke Rockhold has a one in the loss column that Belfort provided. That may help the Brazilian’s chances at getting another title shot after all.
2015: 1-1 with a win over Dan Henderson (KO, UFC Fight Night 77, 1st round, 2:07)
You’d be hard pressed to find a fighter that had a bigger year in 2015 than Sharon Jacobson, an active-duty member of the U.S. Army. A first-round knockout in January helped her secure a spot under the Invicta FC banner, where she earned “Fight of the Night” honors in a three-round war with Delaney Owen. Just two weeks later, Jacobson captured the U.S. Nationals in wresting, still sporting a black eye from the Owen fight. The wrestling stalwart built on her success with another “Fight of the Night” performance at Invicta FC 14, where she bested Jamie Moyle.
2015: 3-0 with wins over Jamie Moyle (Decision, Invicta FC 14), Delaney Owen (Decision, Invicta FC 12) and Ashley Deen (KO, NMEF Annihilation 53, 1st round, 2:25)
The UFC career of Rose Namajunas started in interesting fashion. She went from being kind of an afterthought in The Ultimate Fighter house to being the underdog to being the unofficial favorite in the pre-fight talk. She lost the TUF Finale when, in surprising fashion to those in the know, she was submitted by Carla Esparza. However, what she did next may have defined who she is as a person and as a fighter. She bounced back and won her next two fights, both submission finishes. The biggest win of the year for Namajunas came in the full-blown knocking of a hype train clear off the tracks when she defeated Paige VanZant. Namajunas is poised to take on the best in her division. A rematch with Esparza might be very interesting right now.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Paige VanZant (Submission, UFC Fight Night 80, 5th round, 2:25) and Angela Hill (Submission, UFC 192, 1st round, 2:47)
It’s a tough situation when you are looked at as one of the best fighters in your division, but you just can’t beat the champ. All of the same things apply here that apply to Joseph Benavidez. However, John Dodson has interstellar talent. This kid does things at a pace few can match with power few can handle. All signs are pointing to a change in weight class. Since styles make fights, he may be able to find more openings with the champ of his new division than he did with the flyweight kingpin, Demetrious Johnson. However, one thing is sure to remain the same: Dodson is one of the best lower-weight fighters in the world.
2015: 1-1 with a win over Zach Makovsky (Decision, UFC 187)
Neil Magny fights. A lot. And he wins. A lot. And he does so against a lot of people most were not prepared for him to beat. The biggest of these opponents yet was Kelvin Gastelum. Magny fought five times in 2015 and went 4-1, with the lone loss coming to Demian Maia. Sometimes perspective is needed in properly assessing a fighter. The knock on Magny is his grind-it-out nature, but Georges St-Pierre and Jon Fitch built great careers with this approach. Magny should get credit for his ability to neutralize opponents. You win enough and before too long you have to get the best fighters in the world. That time may be coming for Magny.
2015: 4-1 with wins over Kelvin Gastelum (Decision, TUF Latin America 2 Finale), Erick Silva (Decision, UFC Fight Night 74), Hyun Gyu Lim (TKO, UFC Fight Night 66, 2nd round, 1:24) and Kiichi Kunimoto (Submission, UFC Fight Night 60, 3rd round, 1:22)
Another fighter that wins a lot is Tony Ferguson. Since he won The Ultimate Fighter in 2011, he’s only lost once, via decision to Michael Johnson. He’s had some pretty high-profile wins, too. In 2014, it was Danny Castillo and Abel Trujillo. In 2015, though, he kicked it up a notch with a decision win over Josh Thomson bookended by submission victories over Gleison Tibau and Edson Barboza. For all the fights he’s won, it’s the one he didn’t get to fight that may define the year for him. A canceled bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov would have certainly put Ferguson in line for a title shot had he won it. But for now, he has to do what he has been doing — winning and waiting.
2015: 3-0 with wins over Edson Barboza (Submission, TUF Finale: McGregor vs Faber, 2nd round, 2;54), Josh Thomson (Decision, UFC Fight Night 71) and Gleison Tibau (Submission, UFC 184, 1st round, 2:37)
Thomas Almeida’s record is outstanding, but it isn’t just his record that impresses. It’s the way he got it. He’s 21-0, and every fight except the last one in 2014 against Tim Gorman has been a finish. Think about that. 21 fights, 20 finishes. We wrote earlier in the year how Almeida has single-handedly resurrected the Chute Boxe name, but the biggest name he is making now is one for himself. He may be the best fighter at 135 pounds. In 2015, he fought three times and finished everyone, with not one man seeing the third round. These are real guys, too. Yves Jabouin, Brad Pickett and Anthony Birchak are not bums. To take these guys out means the top of the division can’t be too far away.
2015: 3-0 with wins over Anthony Birchak (KO, UFC Fight Night 77, 1st round, 4:24), Brad Pickett (KO, UFC 189, 2nd round, 0:29) and Yves Jabouin (TKO, UFC 186, 1st round, 4:18)
The sad thing about Rousimar Palhares is how someone so talented can so consistently sabotage his career. The Brazilian has a history of being overzealous in the application of submissions. It is what lost him his spot on the UFC roster, and it now has his spot on the WSOF roster in jeopardy too. What is undeniable is his skill set. He is on the short list of best cage grapplers in the world. Palhares finishes a lot of his opponents. In his only fight of 2015, he finished Jake Shields. The victory told the entire story of Palhares. He’s a talented enough guy to be the only one ever to submit Shields in a cage and a troubled enough guy to hold the submission too long. He’s ranked on talent, but all the talent in the world may not matter if he doesn’t start to respect his opponents.
2015: 1-0 with a win over Jake Shields (Submission, WSOF 22, 3rd round, 2:02)