Combat Sport Power Rankings for January (Combined Boxing and MMA)

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2022

Combat Sport Power Rankings for January (Combined Boxing and MMA)

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    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    The combat sports world is, in a word, hot.

    The UFC is once again packing buildings for its monthly pay-per-view extravaganzas, while a tasty selection of high-profile matchups are on tap for the next several months in the boxing ring too.

    And at the top of the violence business is a handful of burgeoning superstars.

    The ones whose recent fights have generated buzz. The ones whose next fights will generate PPV cash.

    The ones who, at least for the moment, are atop the mid-January water-cooler discussion heap.

    The B/R combat sports team got together to discuss which fighters fit those descriptions in order to assemble a definitive top-10 list, power rankings-style.

    Read through to see what we came up with, and feel free to drop a viewpoint or two in the comments.

10. Julianna Pena

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    Chase Stevens/Associated Press

    Is she a dual-weight class champion? No.

    Is she the greatest female fighter of all time? No.

    But if you're Julianna Pena and you just finished the person who wore both those crowns into the cage at UFC 269 in Las Vegas, you're certainly riding the crest of a power rankings wave. 

    The Venezuelan Vixen was a credible mixed martial artist long before she entered T-Mobile Arena, but the mettle she showed in surviving a first-round barrage and subsequently pouncing on Amanda Nunes' competitively exhausted carcass provides all the evidence needed to warrant a top-10 position.

    Will she be a favorite to do it again if there's a rematch? Probably not.

    But even if Pena never wins another fight, she deserves her moment in the spotlight.

9. Jake Paul

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    OK, we know.

    While it's true that purists hear Jake Paul's name and immediately turn up their noses, it's no less true that he brought a lot of eyes, clicks and dollars with him across three fights in 2021.

    The crowd for December's rematch with Tyron Woodley in Tampa, Florida, was jammed with Gen Z fans drawn by his social media street cred, not to mention a handful of players from the venue's full-time occupant—the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning—and potential UFC rivals Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz.

    Though they may cringe while doing so, a host of would-be 2022 foes are already lining up for their turn to share a marquee with the sport's reigning and defending lightning rod. And if you don't think his gravitas had something to do with Amanda Serrano's rise to a springtime date in New York City, you're wrong.

    Precisely no one with any sense is suggesting he's a world title threat or even a significant challenge for those who have spent a lifetime in the ring, but if attracting attention is a worthwhile criterion for a power rankings position—and we're saying it is—then Paul undeniably belongs here, if not even higher.

8. Charles Oliveira

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    Chase Stevens/Associated Press

    Charles Oliveira has been a UFC pro since 2010.

    He's won far more than he's lost and set records for finishes and performance bonuses along the way.

    But it's not until his early 30s that he's finally gotten a requisite level of respect.

    The affable Brazilian was an underdog while vying for the vacant lightweight title against Octagonal newcomer Michael Chandler last spring in Houston, and then, even after a crunching second-round KO, was just as big of a long shot heading into a match with PPV stalwart Dustin Poirier in December.

    As it turned out, Poirier didn't last much longer than 10 minutes before tapping out to a choke.

    And while those two wins are no guarantee of a multiyear title reign for Oliveira, they have provided him a place on the UFC's pound-for-pound list, not to mention the prospect of register-ringing showdowns with Conor McGregor, Justin Gaethje and even Khabib Nurmagomedov.

    It's good to be the king, even if it takes a while for everyone to bow.

7. Israel Adesanya

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    Andy Brownbill/Associated Press

    Let's face it, Israel Adesanya can make a strong case for a higher spot based on skill set.

    He's lost once in 22 career UFC fights, and that defeat came in a dare-to-be-great challenge of then-light heavyweight champ Jan Blachowicz, against whom he lasted 25 minutes without suffering significant damage.

    At middleweight, though, he's shown nothing less than preeminence.

    Adesanya won the 185-pound belt in 2019 with a second-round finish of Robert Whittaker and has gone on to make three successful defenses in which he's lost barely a minute, let alone a round.

    In fact, he's so good in his weight class that it's difficult to see a viable threat.

    His next bout is a runback of the title win against Whittaker in February, which seems to be the UFC's admission that he's a flat-out menace—but not one for whom it has a whole lot of ideas.

6. Oleksandr Usyk

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    Frank Augstein/Associated Press

    Oleksandr Usyk had a nice little thing going.

    He was an Olympic gold medalist as an amateur and then turned pro and had his way with an entire boxing weight class while winning all four widely recognized championship belts.

    His problem? That weight class was cruiserweight.

    That is the competitive equivalent of being the best ice hockey player in Costa Rica.

    So Usyk put on a few pounds and jumped to heavyweight, where he won his first two fights but hadn't exactly impressed the masses heading into a September challenge of once-beaten British star Anthony Joshua.

    Coming out of that, impressing the masses is no longer a problem.

    Now in possession of Joshua's cache of jeweled title belts, Usyk can pursue a rematch, a few defenses or a full-fledged unification bout with another British behemoth to be named later.

    No matter the path, he's graduated to the top level.

5. Terence Crawford

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    Chase Stevens/Associated Press

    Boxing people know.

    Terence Crawford is the real deal.

    He was a champion in three weight classes before his 31st birthday and has reigned in one of the sport's traditional marquee divisions—welterweight—with barely a push for more than 1,300 days and counting.

    But like it or not, he's still in pursuit of career-defining validation.

    A 147-pound duel with fellow title claimant Errol Spence Jr. is quickly becoming this decade's Mayweather-Pacquiao, with concern growing by the day that it won't happen until well after its sell-by date, if at all.

    Short of that, Crawford's best win at the weight is a November stoppage of ex-champ Shawn Porter, who retired after the loss with a suggestion that Crawford was better than Spence, who outpointed him in 2019.

    Maybe that will be enough to soothe the 34-year-old Nebraskan as he enters his career's final stages.

    But we hope not.

4. Francis Ngannou

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Francis Ngannou is the latest fighter to claim "baddest man on the planet" high ground.

    And given that he's 6'4", 250-plus pounds and has shown a repeated ability to render grown men semi-conscious with a single punch, there aren't many likely to challenge his words anytime soon.

    Such is the dominion of a UFC heavyweight champion.

    Still, with a title defense against compelling foe Cyril Gane approaching on Saturday, Ngannou is at something of a crossroads.

    Gane presumes to present the most dynamically skilled challenge the French Cameroonian has encountered, and Ngannou is on record as telling ESPN (h/t MMA Junkie's Farah Hannoun) that, even with a win, he will not sign another deal with the UFC unless it allows him to explore options in boxing, which could open a series of lucrative crossover possibilities.

    Suffice to say, there's a lot of tumult, so check back next time around.

    But for the moment at least, Ngannou is in a position of strength.

3. Tyson Fury

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    Chase Stevens/Associated Press

    Speaking of heavyweights looking to expand their reach, we give you Tyson Fury.

    The brash Brit is 6'9" and weighs something close to 270 pounds, and he's shown precisely no indication that he's likely to lose to anyone campaigning in a boxing ring.

    A rivalry with Deontay Wilder ended in his favor with two brutal KOs, leaving a mundane string of mandatory defenses or a unification with the aforementioned Usyk as the only imminent in-ring titillation. 

    Unless, of course, he cajoles Ngannou into accepting the crossover challenge he issued earlier in January.

    Think a super-sized Mayweather vs. McGregor.

    "You want to come in to my world, calling me and Wilder out to a boxing match," he tweeted. "What I can guarantee you would be knocked out and also paid your highest purse to be so! So have a think."

2. Kamaru Usman

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    This just in: Kamaru Usman is the best fighter in the UFC.

    He's lost precisely zero of his 15 fights since arriving to the promotion in 2015.

    Usman won the title in a marquee division—welterweight—three years ago and has successfully defended five times against contenders ranking highly in both aptitude and acclaim.

    Jorge Masvidal was vaporized in one of 2021's best KOs.

    Colby Covington was outlasted in one of 2021's best fights.

    Streaking third-ranked contender Leon Edwards appears to be next in line, as UFC President Dana White told Aaron Bronsteter of TSN, in a re-do of a 2015 duel, which may mean Usman's most daunting task in 2022 will be simply maintaining the motivation to stay atop the pound-for-pound rankings for another 12 months or until a new threat like Khamzat Chimaev moves into range.

1. Canelo Alvarez

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    Steve Marcus/Associated Press

    You know you've made it when you've become a one-name commodity.

    In this case, the one name is Canelo.

    Formally known as Saul Alvarez, the cinnamon-haired Mexican has been cashing hefty pay-per-view checks since riding shotgun to Floyd Mayweather Jr. as a 23-year-old in 2013.

    He's 15-0-1 with nine KOs in 16 fights since suffering that lone career loss, picking up title belts in three additional weight classes—middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight—while climbing to the top of The Ring's pound-for-pound list and becoming one of the most recognizable figures in sports.

    And though a laundry list of foes are lining up to have a combative audience at 168 or 175 pounds, Alvarez recently suggested he will jump all the way to cruiserweight for yet another out-of-the-box challenge, this time against reigning WBC titleholder Ilunga Makabu.

    Why? Because he can.

    "Right now, I can do whatever I want," Alvarez said at the WBC convention last fall. "I faced all the 168-pound world champions. I took the title from all of them. Now I do what I want."

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