Thursday, July 25, 2024

UFC Pound-for-Pound Fighter Rankings: Alex Pereira maintains spot in top three by adding to legendary resume

A funny thing happened to Alex Pereira during his late career transition from professional kickboxing to mixed martial arts.

The Brazilian slugger became an unlikely breakout star, two-division champion and future Hall of Famer. 

And the scariest part? At age 36, “Poatan” is only getting better with each history making performance. 

Pereira (11-2) continued his unique and largely unprecedented march into the MMA record books by returning on just 77 days’ notice on Saturday (despite a pair of broken toes) to save a floundering UFC 303 card headlining International Fight Week in Las Vegas and deliver a violent head-kick knockout of former champion Jiri Prochazka in their last-minute rematch. 

Not only was the victory even easier than the second-round stoppage he delivered of Prochazka for the vacant title last November, Pereira seemed to pull the entire thing off — from accepting the fight late to being accused of using black magic by Prochazka during fight week — with the same frightening nonchalance that has become his calling card. 

By becoming a two-division UFC champion, headlining massive pay-per-view cards and scoring a whopping six victories over current or former champions in just nine trips to the Octagon, Pereira has redefined what is possible over the last three-plus years. And he has done so by cleaning up the natural growing pains that come from transitioning from the top level of one combat sport (after a Hall-of-Fame run as a two-division Glory kickboxing champion) to another in essentially record time. 

When Pereira first came to the UFC in 2021, he was seen as nothing more than a specialist who may be able to cut the line in the middleweight title rankings because of his history with then-champion Israel Adesanya, which saw Pereira score a pair of upset wins over him in kickboxing. But Pereira has quickly become much more than that by relying on his incredible focus, fight IQ and technique to make the frightening power he already holds in all four striking limbs even more dangerous. 

The reality is that Pereira shouldn’t be this good, especially given all of the experience he doesn’t have as a ground fighter. But he has evolved so quickly under head coach and mentor Glover Teixeira that it almost hasn’t mattered as Pereira’s gas tank, chin and competitiveness have helped him eliminate mistakes. 

One would think Pereira’s unprecedented success would allow him to call his own shots within the UFC, but CEO Dana White said after UFC 303 that he would prefer “Poatan” defend his 205-pound title belt a few more times before doing what the fighter continues to publicly push for. That, of course, is a shot at MMA immortality by being allowed to move up to heavyweight in search of becoming the first three-division champion in UFC history.

In one sense, what White says isn’t crazy. Not only is the heavyweight title picture already a convoluted mess due to interim champion Tom Aspinall’s rise and the seeming disinterest defending champion Jon Jones has in ever facing him, Pereira hasn’t even been light heavyweight champion for a full year. 

But every once in a while the rules of normal combat sports promotion get thrown out the window when there’s a specialty case at hand. Pereira, in this case, is undoubtedly special because of the unique nature of his overnight stardom and the fact that he’s on the verge of some legitimate (and unchartered) history. 

Even with the potential of a title trilogy with Adesanya still available at 205 pounds (should the former middleweight champion regain his title against Dricus du Plessis in August before moving up), the idea of Pereira pursuing history at heavyweight is potentially the biggest story in all of MMA. And if you add in the fact that Pereira’s presence at heavyweight could lead to Jones choosing to stay around longer rather than retire, it seems as if UFC would be crazy not to entertain the idea.

Jones-Pereira is the kind of fight that could fill a football stadium. And even if Jones isn’t part of the equation, Aspinall-Pereira could be just as worth it commercially, especially if the fight was staged in a London soccer stadium.

What Pereira is trying to do is also the very definition of what makes a pound-for-pound great exactly that. An ability to move up or down in weight without dramatically changing one’s chances of winning.   

True greatness is generational. It only comes around every once in a while. Here’s to hoping UFC truly realizes what it has in Pereira and gives him every possible chance to achieve the impossible. 

Men’s pound-for-pound rankings

1. Islam Makhachev — Lightweight champion

Record: 26-1 | Previous ranking: No. 1

A closer-than-expected victory over future Hall of Famer Dustin Poirier at UFC 302 in June did nothing to move Makhachev off of the top spot in the rankings. Despite suffering a cut over his left eye from an elbow, Makhachev held off a late rally and put Poirier to sleep in Round 5. Makhachev’s win, which extends his streak to 14 (two shy of Anderson Silva’s UFC record), also moves him into a tie for most title defenses (3) in lightweight history.

2. Jon Jones — Heavyweight champion

Record: 27-1, 1 NC | Previous ranking: 2

Jones’ first title defense at heavyweight, scheduled for last November against former champion Stipe Miocic, was canceled after Jones suffered a pectoral tear in training. Jones, who turns 37 this summer, is expected to return against Miocic this November despite cries from critics that Jones, who has threatened retirement, is purposely avoiding interim titleholder Tom Aspinall. 

3. Alex Pereira — Light heavyweight champion

Record: 11-2 | Previous ranking: 3

The 36-year-old Brazilian slugger not only headlined the promotion’s biggest event in history at UFC 300 in April, he finished former champion Jamahal Hill with the first significant punch he landed. Two months later, he got called in again (despite a broken toe) to replace Conor McGregor at UFC 303 in July. In the main event of International Fight Week, Pereira knocked out Jiri Prochazka in their rematch via violent head kick.

4. Leon Edwards — Welterweight champion

Record: 21-3, 1 NC | Previous ranking: 4

Edwards packed his UFC 286 trilogy win over Kamaru Usman with a second title defense in December against long-time contender Colby Covington. Finally, longtime contender Belal Muhammed will get his chance at UFC gold when he challenges Edwards at late July’s UFC 304 card in Manchester, England.

5. Ilia Topuria — Featherweight champion

Record: 15-0 | Previous ranking: 5

A changing of the guard atop the 145-pound division at UFC 298 in February might have produced the next breakout star of the sport. Topuria did everything he said he would against Alexander Volkanovski, including finishing him in the first two rounds. His precision was only trumped by his one-punch power as Topuria patiently dismantled one of the best fighters in history.

6. Max Holloway — Featherweight

Record: 26-7 | Previous ranking: 6

Don’t call it a comeback, Holloway has been among the P4P elite for years. But it has been this particular three-fight win streak at age 32 that has been so rejuvenating. Two years ago, following his third defeat to Alexander Volkanovski, Holloway’s future was in doubt. Now, he’s the reigning BMF champion after his walk-off knockout of Justin Gaethje at UFC 300 and a title contender in two divisions.

7. Sean O’Malley — Bantamweight champion

Record: 17-1, 1 NC | Previous ranking: 7

The “Suga Show” turned in quite possibly the best striking performance of his career over five rounds in dominating Marlon Vera at UFC 299 to make his first title defense. O’Malley avenged the only defeat of his pro career but has an uphill challenge next as he’s expected to defend his title against Merab Dvalishvili this fall. 

8. Alexandre Pantoja — Flyweight champion

Record: 28-5 | Previous ranking: 7

After relying much more on his iron will than his P4P skills to take the flyweight title from Brandon Moreno last summer, the Brazilian submission expert has stayed busy since with a pair of title defenses against Brandon Royval (in their rematch) and Steve Erceg. Pantoja’s passion and dogged determination has become his calling card of late as his title reign continues to grow

9. Dricus du Plessis — Middleweight champion

Record: 21-2 | Previous ranking: 9

Unbeaten in his seven trips to the Octagon, the proud native of South Africa can now call himself champion after edging Sean Strickland via split decision at UFC 297 in January. Du Plessis, who called out former champion Israel Adesanya in the aftermath, has evolved at an alarming rate to mix technique and a deep gas tank to his big power and takedown threat. 

10. Merab Dvalishvili — Bantamweight

Record: 17-4 | Previous ranking: 10

By improving his win streak to 10 fights, Dvalishvili finally secured a title shot thanks to his breakthrough win over Henry Cejudo at UFC 298. The victory now gives Dvalishvili three straight over former UFC champions. Dvalishvili, 33, has a gas tank like no other and remains a problem for any style of opponent he will face as he continues to campaign for the belt.

Dropped out: None
Just missed: Robert Whittaker, Sean Strickland, Alexander Volkanovski, Israel Adesanya, Aljamain Sterling

Women’s pound-for-pound rankings

1. Zhang Weili — Strawweight champion

Record: 25-3 | Previous ranking: No. 1

Zhang improved to 9-0 in the UFC against everyone not named Rose Namajunas when she outlasted Chinese countrywoman Yan Xiaonan at UFC 300 and did so by relying on her cardio, IQ and improved grappling after nearly scoring a pair of early finishes. Her toughest test may still be to come, however, in the form of Tatiana Suarez. 

2. Alexa Grasso — Flyweight champion

Record: 16-3-1 | Previous ranking: 2

The native of Mexico teamed up with former champion Valentina Shevchenko to co-author an exciting and tactical 125-pound title rematch at Noche UFC. A split draw was the result as the defending champion Grasso benefitted from a controversial 10-8 final round to curtail defeat. The two fighters will coach opposite one another on “The Ultimate Fighter” this spring ahead of a September trilogy fight, expected to be in Las Vegas at The Sphere.

3. Valentina Shevchenko — Flyweight

Record: 23-4-1 | Previous ranking: No. 3

The future all-time great nearly regained her flyweight title from Alexa Grasso in their September rematch. A disputed draw was the result, with Shevchenko openly considering an appeal in the aftermath. Now, at 36, Shevchenko will coach opposite Grasso on TUF before a likely third meeting in September.

4. Manon Fiorot — Flyweight

Record: 12-1 | Previous ranking: 4

A shutout five-round decision over red-hot Erin Blanchfield looks to be the final hurdle that the 34-year-old native of France will have to clear en route to a title shot. Fiorot’s takedown defense and ability to avoid danger on the ground set the perfect stage for her pinpoint striking to shine. For now, Fiorot will need to wait for the Grasso-Shevchenko rivalry to play out. 

5. Tatiana Suarez — Strawweight

Record: 10-0 | Previous ranking: NR

Despite losing nearly four years of her prime due to chronic injuries, Suarez is back on the scene in a big way. Her dominant submission of former champion Jessica Andrade in August might be all Suarez needs to immediately return to 115-pound title contention. Few can match her grappling prowess alone and even less can equal the relentless competitive streak which fuels her resolve. 

Dropped out: None
Just missed: Kayla Harrison, Erin Blanchfield, Rose Namajunas, Raquel Pennington, Julianna Pena

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