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. Now, we’ll continue at spot 35 and count down to number 21. Please check back in the next few days as the countdown continues. Congratulations to those included.
The 125-pound division has been waiting for Henry Cejudo. He has the potential to be the guy who can really push Demetrious Johnson. He has world-class wrestling, an Olympic Gold medal on his mantle, evolving stand-up skills and a backstory that, if marketed right, could draw a lot of eyes to his fights. The Mexican-American fighter, along with Cain Velasquez and Kelvin Gastelum, may be the keys to bringing the Mexican audience over from boxing. In the cage, he has been very impressive in victory, but he hasn’t yet shown himself to be a finisher. But neither was Georges St-Pierre. The UFC may really have something in Cejudo, who could be part St-Pierre and part Oscar De La Hoya. It will be interesting to see if the stand-up and submission game ever catch up to the wrestling, but the wrestling will always make him a threat.
2015: 3-0 with wins over Jussier “Formiga” da Silva (Decision, TUF Latin America 2), Chico Camus (Decision, UFC 188) and Chris Cariaso (Decision, UFC 185)
The 185-pound division in the UFC has had its lean years. So much so that Anderson Silva was going up to the 205-pound division just to find challenges. This is not Anderson Silva’s middleweight division anymore. It is now a division stacked with young killers. Yoel Romero may not be young, but he is every bit the killer of his younger contemporaries. Prior to 2015, he beat the kind of guys you would expect him to beat: Derek Brunson, Tim Kennedy, the sort of Nos. 8-15 crowd. However, 2015 was the year he really established himself as a contender. He destroyed Lyoto Machida and won a split decision over Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. The win over Jacare didn’t demand a title shot, but he has heavy hands and world-class wrestling. That makes him a threat at all times.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Ronaldo “Jazare” Souza (Decision, UFC 194) and Lyoto Machida (KO, UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Romero, 3rd round, 1:38)
Arguably the greatest grappler in the history of MMA, Demain Maia found most of his success at middleweight. Once upon a time, he fought for the division’s belt, but he lost to Anderson Silva. Nowadays, Maia is a threat at 170 pounds, and there are not many who can handle him on the floor. This year, a submission win over Neil Magny was bookended by decision wins over Ryan LaFlare and Gunnar Nelson. Maia isn’t the guy who everyone is calling to fight Robbie Lawler for the welterweight title, but he just may be the type of change of pace that could defeat Lawler. Most fighters get pulled into a dogfight with Lawler, but Maia wouldn’t.
2015: 3-0 with wins over Gunnar Nelson (Decision, UFC 194), Neil Magny (Submission, UFC 190, 2nd round, 2:52) and Ryan LaFlare (Decision, UFC Fight Night: Maia vs LaFlare)
If rematches were based solely on who fought someone the best in a losing effort, Max Holloway would be fighting Conor McGregor. McGregor has finished everyone since he joined the UFC, except Holloway. The tallest fighter McGregor has fought, Holloway forced him to fight a different fight. The good news is that Holloway may have the style to beat McGregor. The bad news is he is not really a big fight for McGregor, so they may never fight again. However, should McGregor claim the lightweight belt, Holloway chances look good for going after the featherweight belt, assuming it is vacated by McGregor. One of the surest bets in MMA is that the 24-year-old Holloway will someday wear UFC gold. The young Hawaiian doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, but choking out Cub Swanson and knocking out Charles Oliveira is enough to prove the kid’s legit.
2015: 4-0 with wins over Jeremy Stephens (Decision, UFC 194), Charles Oliveira (TKO, UFC Fight Night 74, Round 1, 1:39), Cub Swanson (Submission, UFC on Fox 15, 3rd round, 3:58) and Cole Miller (Decision, UFC Fight Night 60)
Anthony “Rumble” Johnson took Alexander Gustafsson out. Quick. And the thing that is forgotten in all the Daniel Cormier talk is that Johnson put that same crack on DC and was four or five finishing strikes away from completing one of the most improbable career turnarounds ever. He used to fight at welterweight. Yeah, 170 pounds. The guy who fought as a heavyweight against Andrei Arlovski in the World Series of Fighting is the same guy who used to fight at welterweight. Those days are long gone, but here’s what we know now: He finished Gustafsson and dropped Cormier. Jon Jones is the unknown, but one thing is clear. For as good as the chin of Jones may be, Jones shouldn’t want anything to do with a Rumble overhand right.
2015: 2-1 with wins over Jimi Manuwa (KO, UFC 191, 2nd round, 0:28) and Alexander Gustafsson (TKO, UFC on Fox 14, 1st round, 2:15)
One of the most under-the-radar fighters in all of MMA, Invicta FC atomweight champion Ayaka Hamasaki became the first Japanese fighter to hold a belt with the promotion. Her hard-fought, split-decision win over Herica Tiburcio at Invicta FC 13 was her only action in 2015, but the 33-year-old proved that she’s the undisputed queen of the promotion’s lightest weight class.
2015: 1-0 with a win over Herica Tiburcio (Decision, Invicta FC 13)
It’s funny how one fight can change everything. Just ask Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm. Marcos Galvao was a good fighter, but not necessarily a great one. He traditionally lost whenever he faced a high-level guy. Brian Bowles, Damacio Page, Eduardo Dantas and Joe Warren were all opponents of Galvao and opportunities to show he could go to the next level. He lost to them all. Then finally in 2015, he earned a rematch with Warren for the bantamweight belt and found Warren’s leg and submitted him. Up next is a rematch with Dantas. This time Galvao is the champ and we can see if he can avenge this loss like he did the one against Warren.
2015: 1-0 with a win over Joe Warren (Submission, Bellator 135, 2nd round, 0:35)
2015 was the year that all Donald Cerrone’s hard work finally paid off. Already one of the most active fighters in MMA, Cerrone fought four times in 2015, matching his totals from 2013 and 2014. Cerrone got his long-awaited shot at the title in a rematch with Rafael dos Anjos. Though the fight didn’t go his way, we may have found a settling point for Cerrone in the rankings. He is a top-three lightweight and could probably spend the next couple of years looking for another title fight, his third with dos Anjos or one with whoever holds the belt. However, he is moving up to welterweight for his next fight after falling into the Miesha Tate and Junior dos Santos scenario of having two losses to the champion of his natural division.
2015: 3-1 with wins over John Makdessi (TKO, UFC 187, 2nd round, 4:44), Benson Henderson (Decision, UFC Fight Night 59)
Carlos Condit should be the welterweight champion of the UFC. It’s not a belief shared by everyone, but it is a belief shared by a lot of people. Even those who thought Robbie Lawler won would have to be honest enough to say that he was only one round better than Condit. Condit is the MMA fan’s dream. He’s technical enough to satisfy the diehards and bloodthirsty enough to satisfy the casuals. The balance of those two may be what keeps him away from UFC gold, but that’s a conversation for another day. He’s one of the top guys in the world, in his full prime, and if he chooses to continue to fight, he will be vying for titles for years to come.
2015: 1-0 with a win over Thiago Alves (Doctor Stoppage, UFC Fight Night 67, 2nd round, 5:00)
The year ended on a sour note for Brazilian featherweight Patricio “Pitbull” Freire,
as he lost his title to Daniel Straus by decision at Bellator 145. Prior to the loss, Pitbull submitted Straus by rear-naked choke to kick off the year and also defended his belt with a second-round knockout of Daniel Weichel. With two wins over Straus on his resume, don’t be surprised if Pitbull is fighting for gold again in 2016.
2015: 2-1 with wins over Daniel Weichel (KO, Bellator 138, 2nd round, 0:32) and Daniel Straus (Submission, Bellator 132, 4th round, 4:49)
Heading into 2015, very few fans outside of Brazil knew about Livia Renata Souza, the woman who would go on to become the unbeaten Invicta FC strawweight champion. Her promotional debut came in April against Finnish grappler Katja Kankaanpää. The back-and-forth affair ended when Souza locked up a fight-finishing triangle choke in round four to claim the title. The entertaining performance was overshadowed, however, by Souza’s post-fight press conference. The confident young fighter announced herself as “The Brazilian Gangsta” and ensured that her next outing will be a can’t-miss affair for fans.
2015: 1-0 with a win over Katja Kankaanpää (Submission, Invicta FC 12, 4th round, 3:58)
What can you say about a man who holds titles in two different weight divisions concurrently?
Well, you don’t have to say much because that speaks for itself. David Branch’s 2015 was more prolific in terms of accomplishment than in terms of the men he beat to achieve the accomplishment. However, that’s not Branch’s problem. He beat the men that were put in front of him in impressive fashion. Here’s the thing that should scare the hell out of both the 185- and 205-pound divisions in the World Series of Fighting: Branch is improving and he doesn’t view getting the titles as his ultimate defining accomplishment. He is hell-bent on defending the titles — both of them — multiple times. He’s a smart guy who has thought a lot about this. Don’t bet against him.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Teddy Holder (Submission, WSOF 23, 1st round, 2:21) and Jesse McElligott (Submission, WSOF 20, 2nd round, 1:28)
2015 was all set to be Chris Weidman’s year, but somebody forgot to tell Luke Rockhold. Let’s not be too quick to dismiss Weidman, though. He was out-matched, but some people, including Grudge head coach Trevor Wittman, felt that Weidman was coming back. So Rockhold and Weidman may be closer than a lot of people may think. The real test for Weidman is dealing with the loss, which marks the first of his career. Weidman seemed to have a lot wrapped up in being an undefeated champion. That is gone. One of his coaches, Matt Serra, did something similar. He upset a legend and that was all he needed to define his career. Weidman seems to want more and this next year will afford him the opportunity. He’s not in the immediate picture for the next shot at the title. There are some serious contenders he has to go through to see Rockhold again. It seems that it’s Rockhold and Weidman and some space between the next guy, but only time will tell.
2015: 1-1 with a win over Vitor Belfort (TKO, UFC 187, 1st round, 1:53)
Stipe Miocic does the fight game part-time. Think about that. He’s one of the only fighters who has a real job and yet he’s still one of the best heavyweight fighters in the UFC. 2014 ended with a bit of a stumble against Junior dos Santos in Phoenix, but Miocic recovered amazingly in 2015 with a year of big wins with big finishes over big names. He finished Mark Hunt late and Andrei Arlovski early and now is poised to either be one fight away (Alistair Overeem, anyone?) or be the next challenger for the heavyweight title.
2015: 2-0 with wins over Andrei Arlovski (TKO, UFC 195, 1st round, 0:54) and Mark Hunt (TKO, UFC Fight Night 65, 5th round, 2:47)
It was a crazy year for Jon Jones. OK, that may be a vast understatement. Going into 2015, he was arguably the best fighter in the world. He may still be. The issue here is you just can’t know how all of the outside the cage stuff will affect him. As Jones battles demons, the rest of the division has been closing on him. In fairness to “Bones,” he has overcome his demons in all his other fights. This is different, though. This time is going to be tough. When he is motivated, well trained and fully focused, he rips any other 205-pound fighter to shreds. A move to heavyweight can’t be too far off in the future. If he had he kept his title and beaten Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, the division would have been cleaned out. Here’s hoping that in 2016 Jones is as in control out of the cage as he is in it, so we can see more of one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport.
2015: 1-0 with a win over Daniel Cormier (Decision, UFC 182)