Mixed martial arts has never been an exclusive boys club, but the representation of women used to be relegated to a few promotions around the world.
Slowly but surely, the numbers have increased—and so has the star power. Gina Carano's success led to Ronda Rousey, and now we are entering a new phase with the UFC having four divisions for women to compete in. In this new age, we are left wondering one question: Who is the best female fighter on the planet?
The criteria are not scientific, but they are technique, performance and dominance/competition.
Technical proficiency is the biggest factor in determining who is the best fighter, with in-cage performance coming in second. A fighter's dominance weighed by her level of competition is a virtual tiebreaker. Why? A one-dimensional fighter can appear dominant against lesser competition. Complete martial artists get better positioning, but one cannot outright discount a fighter's dominance.
Thus, let us get down to it and look at the five best women competing today.
In the honorable mention category, we are going to look at three young prospects to watch in the coming months and years.
Herica Tiburcio leads this charge. The 24-year-old is already a former Invicta FC atomweight champion, but her loss to Ayaka Hamasaki will only make her a better fighter in the long term. The Brazilian has a solid ground attack with growing stand-up acumen. If the UFC adds an atomweight division (with a 105-pound limit), look for Tiburcio to be one of the faces of it.
The UFC has added a 125-pound flyweight division, and there are two names to familiarize yourself with as it gets underway: Agnieszka Niedzwiedz and MacKenzie Dern.
Dern is a noted jiu-jitsu ace who is growing her game on the regional circuit, but don't be surprised if you see her ink a UFC deal before year's end. She's exceptionally talented with a high ceiling. Likewise, Invicta FC's Niedzwiedz is flying under the radar.
Niedzwiedz is undefeated at 10-0, and at just 22 years of age, she is already ranked No. 2 in the world, per MMARising.com.
Keep an eye on these names as they could be atop the MMA world sooner rather than later.
5. Valentina Shevchenko
Shevchenko narrowly lost to Amanda Nunes at UFC 196. Had she won, she would have likely gone for gold against Miesha Tate at UFC 200. Instead, she had to pick up wins over Holly Holm and Julianna Pena before getting a rematch with the now-champion Nunes. And she came up just short again.
Shevchenko is known for her world-class striking, but her ground game is very efficient. She showed that side of her game with a submission win over Pena.
What is perhaps even more remarkable about Shevchenko is that while she is almost at the top of 135, she is doing it as a flyweight. Shevchenko is actually a little undersized as a bantamweight, and with the new inclusion of flyweight in the UFC, perhaps we'll see her there soon.
Regardless, Shevchenko has shown all the tools in her arsenal that make her one of the elite fighters in the game. A few more punches here, a defended takedown there, and she may be wearing bantamweight gold and sitting a couple of spots higher. And if she moves to 125, she could turn into a dominant champion.
4. Claudia Gadelha
Gadelha could have the best strawweight technique in the world. But styles make fights, and she's come up short against Joanna Jedrzejczyk twice.
The Brazilian 115-pound contender made the move to Alburqueque to train under Chris Luttrell in the summer of 2016. The move appears to be paying off as she blew through No. 2-ranked contender Karolina Kowalkiewicz with ease in her last outing. In an interview with UFC.com's Thomas Gerbasi, Luttrell said her most recent loss to the champion may have been a result of overtraining.
Time will tell if that move pays off in gold, but if her performance against Kowalkiewicz is any indication, it is difficult to see how she won't ascend to the top of the division.
Gadelha has all of the tools at her disposal. Putting them all together would likely show the world that as an all-around fighter, she is the best.
3. Cris Cyborg
There is a good case for Cyborg to be at the top of the list. So, why isn't she?
Cyborg's lack of competition at 145 drastically hurts her cause. Because of a lack of featherweights, Cyborg routinely fought undersized women that helped bolster her record, from the likes of Vanessa Porto (currently an Invicta FC flyweight) to the woefully undersized Hitomi Akano to, most recently, Tonya Evinger.
One of the most impressive feats of Cyborg is her willingness to learn and improve in the face of dominating her opposition. She likely could have rested on her size and strength to overwhelm her opponents, but she actively worked on improving her technique.
That is how she dominated her Strikeforce opposition. It was a barrage of high pressure and strikes. She didn't put on technical masterpieces. However, you can see her evolution as a fighter since that time. Her grappling has improved tremendously, she is more patient with her stand-up, and Cyborg has turned her strength into power.
If featherweight had more credible opposition, then perhaps Cyborg would be at the top of this list, but it's difficult to thrust her onto the top of the mountain when she has never had anyone close to her equal standing opposite her in a cage.
2. Joanna Jedrzejczyk
Pound for pound, Joanna Champion may be the most entertaining fighter in MMA today.
The high output of highly technical strikes is something to behold. She works at the highest of levels in her stand-up, and no one at 115 pounds has been able to stop her. She has another level to her striking that others simply cannot withstand.
Jedrzejczyk also has excellent takedown defense. And she can hurt her opponents while defending takedowns with brilliant elbows from inside the clinch.
Jedrzejczyk only fails to top the list because she does lack a top-end ground game. Her jiu-jitsu, by itself, won't blow anyone away. Fortunately, this is MMA. Her defense and striking more than make up for her deficiencies as a pure grappler.
She is set to defend the title next against Rose Namajunas in November. Another title defense will tie Rousey's UFC record of six by a woman, and, if successful, we would be hard-pressed not to debate whether Jedrzejczyk is the greatest female mixed martial artist we have ever seen.
1. Amanda Nunes
The reigning UFC bantamweight champion tops the list. She is technically proficient on the feet and on the ground, and she has faced the stiffest competition.
Her current six-fight win streak includes Shayna Baszler, Sara McMann, Valentina Shevchenko (twice), Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey. That's a sensational run.
Nunes' biggest shortcoming in the cage is her cardio. She has always tended to fade after fast starts, but in those fast starts she is hurting her opponents and going for the finish. Ask Cat Zingano about how Nunes can fade; she scored a third-round TKO in Nunes' last loss in September 2014.
In her most recent title defense against Shevchenko, Nunes showcased improved stamina by pacing herself better throughout five rounds.
Nunes' all-around game puts her at the top of the list, but that doesn't mean she is not vulnerable. She has a tough road in defending her belt.
The scary part? She's just 29 and reaching her athletic peak. At American Top Team, with teammates like Jedrzejczyk, expect her growth to continue. We've only begun to see the best of The Lioness.