The UFC tier list: bantamweight

After Dominick Cruz won his nip-tuck decision over TJ Dillashaw you might be looking at the bantamweight division wondering- what happens next? There's Fights to…

By: Phil Mackenzie | 7 years ago
The UFC tier list: bantamweight
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

After Dominick Cruz won his nip-tuck decision over TJ Dillashaw you might be looking at the bantamweight division wondering- what happens next? There’s Fights to Make, and of course the official UFC rankings, but what do those rankings mean, really? What does the division underneath Cruz look like?

Aside from the always-troubling issue of inconsistent rankers, there’s the problem that someone can be ranked in the upper part of their division, and yet simultaneously nowhere near a title shot. Rather than being determined by something as simple as a numerical list, fighter movements are determined by a combination of momentum (“did the fighter win their last fight? How impressively?”), saleability (“do people want to watch this fighter?”) and boring old competitive relevance (“what people have they beaten”). So I decided to take a shot at constructing an image of how one of the UFC’s divisions might look like – more of a messy picture where fighters come in approximate blocks rather than in a ladder from top to bottom.

Bantamweight is particularly interesting and odd because it’s been an inert division for a while, and has recently begun to rouse itself into life, with a combination of new prospects and returning faces, so it might be one of the divisions that new fans are the most unfamiliar with. Maybe you decided to get into watching MMA in more depth, and Cruz-Dillashaw was your first major card. If you’re the kind of person who starts off their serious fandom with a 13 fight FS1 card on a Sunday, and is still reading articles about that weight class over a week later, then welcome. This article is for you. Weirdo.

This… is the bantamweight tier list. 

Tier 1: Immediate contenders

Those fighters are almost directly in line for the belt. Normally there’s one who’s ahead of the others. In this case, it’s likely…

Urijah Faber
Momentum: Medium-Low
Saleability: High
Competitive relevance: Medium-Low
Who? Dillashaw’s erstwhile mentor and Cruz’s old rival, he’s been cynically talking up a fight against TJ as well. He’s the only person who has a win over Cruz, and had a “close” decision loss to him a bit back. He’s always been the most saleable face in the bantamweight division and probably remains so after the McGregor season of TUF gave him a boost with a generation of Conor-centric fans. On the non-mercenary front, he hasn’t won a lot of big fights recently, and has already had three cracks at the bantamweight belt, but the UFC brass probably don’t give one solitary crap.
How’s he fight? Big right hand, attacking off clinch-breaks, scrambling. Brilliant at back-takes and choke submissions. Somewhat limited stand-up.
Fight booked? No.
Can he beat the champ? No.

TJ Dillashaw
Momentum: Medium-High
Saleability: Medium
Competitive relevance: High
Who? TUF runner up, he honed a flashy, aggressive fighting style under Duane Ludwig. The first Team Alpha Male champion, he then left the camp to go to Colorado. He wasn’t the first to leave and will not be the last.
How’s he fight? If you watched Cruz-Dillashaw, you probably know. Stalk, switching entry, flurry, headkick. Great top game, fantastic cardio and pace, almost impossible to effectively outwrestle.
Fight booked? No.
Can he beat the champ? Yes. There’s a strong argument that he did.

Tier 2: On the cusp

Not immediate contenders, but fighters who are one or two wins away from a crack at the belt.

Raphael Assuncao
Momentum: Low
Saleability: Low
Competitive relevance: High
Who? Who indeed. Raphael Assuncao is perhaps the UFC’s most anonymous contender. He represents bantamweight’s Underrated Gritty Brazilian Grappler Who Quietly Got Way Better at Striking Over the Years and Snuck up the Rankings, Potentially with the Help of Rafael Cordeiro, or UGBGWQGWBSOYSRPHRC. He beat Dillashaw in a close fight before TJ went on his title run, and then beat the unheralded but tough Bryan Caraway. His contention chances have been hugely damaged by time on the shelf.
How’s he fight? An accurate, heavy-handed counterpuncher. His takedown defense is solid, but he can be gotten to with aggressive chain wrestling. Has a strong grappling game from top.
Fight booked? No.
Can he beat the champ? He could, but probably matches up a bit better against Dillashaw, as he handily beat TJ in the standup but lost the wrestling when they fought.

Aljamain Sterling
Momentum: Medium
Saleability: Medium
Competitive relevance: Medium-High
Who? Young, outspoken and undefeated prospect. Has two wins over Top 10 fighters in Takeya Mizugaki and Johnny Eduardo. After finishing his contract he’s been negotiating with the UFC for a better deal (which he deserves). He’s been vocal about lower pay and attempting to find a fight, and has mentioned that after completing his recent contract, he may go to Bellator.
How’s he fight? A “funky” style focuses on chain-wrestling attacks and submissions. He’s a good kicker from the outside, but doesn’t appear to have much comfort throwing hands as yet.
Fight booked? No.
Can he beat the champ? Currently, no. Cruz is a phenomenal defensive wrestler and Sterling’s kickboxing is not there yet. He’s defensively sound and a fine athlete, however, so improvements are a given, but he needs to make sure he doesn’t go the Phil Davis route of only being able to kick and wrestle. Better chance against Cruz than Dillashaw due to aforementioned lack of comfort in the pocket.

Thomas Almeida
Momentum: Medium-High
Saleability: Medium
Relevance: Medium-Low
Who? Young, undefeated and unspeakably violent Brazilian prospect. Has one “name” win in in Brad Pickett which was on the hugely popular UFC 189 card, and recently knocked out Anthony Birchak.
How’s he fight? A tornado of punches, kicks and knees, with a rare and terrifying combination of pace and power
Fight booked? No.
Can he beat the champ? Possibly. Although his wrestling defense (and defense in general) is a little suspect, his capacity for putting out pure violence makes him a scary fight for everyone. Dillashaw likely easier for him than Cruz due to the range Ill Dill likes to fight at, which is also Almeida’s range.

Tier 3: Fringe contenders

Those who need about one good win to get into the cusp, but who likely haven’t had the consistency necessary to be seriously considered for title shots yet.

Michael McDonald
Momentum: Medium
Saleability: Medium
Relevance: Low
Who?: Once one of the hottest prospects in the WEC, McDonald was sidelined with hand injuries coming off a deflating loss to Urijah Faber. Due to general divisional stagnation (and dumb rankers) at bantamweight he managed to retain a top 10 spot. He recently had a comeback submission win against Mitsunori Kanehara.
How’s he fight? Boxing and submissions. Great natural athleticism translates into big punching power and dangerous subs. However, rather than going to a good gym, he trains with his brothers and thus has sizable gaps in almost every area of his game.
Fight booked? No.
Can he beat the champ? Very unlikely. His power makes him a wild card, but he’s just too exploitable. While he’s still young, he had stopped making tangible improvements, even before he got injured.

Bryan Caraway
Momentum: Medium-Low
Saleability: Low
Relevance: Medium
Who? Along with Assuncao, Caraway would be on the first team of the UFC’s most underrated fighters, partially because people don’t like him. There was some… thing with him and Rousey and his girlfriend Miesha Tate and… oh god who cares. He’s coming off a win over the fading Eddie Wineland.
How’s he fight? Used to be just a single-minded grappler, now has layered some efficient if unspectacular boxing over the top. The division’s classic tough out, who’ll make you look bad even if you beat him.
Fight booked? Probably, against John Dodson
Can he beat the champ? No. Good chance he’d make it an awesomely ugly fight though. Better chance against Cruz than Dillashaw because Cruz is a bit more wrestling reliant.

Renan Barao
Momentum: Very low
Saleability: Medium-Low
Relevance: High
Who? Barao took the interim belt against Urijah Faber when Cruz was injured, then upgraded it to the full-fat version later on. It’s up in the air whether he stays at bantamweight after two vicious, soul-destroying losses to Dillashaw. He’s spoken about wanting to go to 145, but this may change now that Dilly’s no longer the belt holder.
How’s he fight? Crisp jab and leg kicks, near-impenetrable takedown defense and a great top game, but a pronounced tendency to swing for the fences in the pocket.
Fight booked? No.
Can he beat the champ? Unlikely. He’s just too slow. Could conceivably boot Cruz from the outside though, as Cruz would be unable/unwilling to get into close range and chainsaw him to death as Dillashaw did.

John Lineker
Momentum: Medium-Low
Saleability: Medium
Relevance: Medium-Low
Who? A violence-dealer at flyweight, he blew weight repeatedly until the UFC forced him up to bantamweight, despite winning a de facto title eliminator against Ian McCall. He’s coming off his 135lb debut, a brief and hilarious punch-fest where he submitted Francisco Rivera.

How’s he fight? Walkin’ and punchin’ and walkin’ and punchin’. Lineker was neither tall or quick at flyweight but had silly power and a ridiculous chin. He is an angry cannonball with arms.
Fight booked? Yes, against Cody Garbrandt in Pittsburgh on Feb 21st.
Can he beat the champ? Unlikely. Limited footspeed and reach have always translated into struggles against outside fighters for Lineker, specifically those who bait him in and hit takedowns. His takedown defense and ability to hit reactive guillotines in scrambles has gotten better, but by far the most likely scenario would just be 5 rounds of him getting mad.

Tier 4.1 Familiar faces:

These fighters are relatively well-known to the UFC brass and fans (by the standards of the bantamweight division, anyway). This means they have some decent cachet, and they’re coming off either wins or losses which didn’t hurt them too badly. Momentum and suchlike isn’t really that important here- few fighters are all that saleable or have a significant amount of wins strung together.

John Dodson
Who? A gifted but capricious joker, he started getting serious when he hit the UFC, starting off his Zuffa career proper by knocking out TJ Dillashaw to take TUF 17. He moved to flyweight, where he had a close and great fight with Demetrious Johnson, but was shut out in the rematch and moved back to bantamweight.
How’s he fight? Lots of movement, and sudden, shocking explosions of power. Incredibly fast, very hard to take down and keep down. Volume and consistency are problems.
Fight booked? Probably going to fight Bryan Caraway
Can he beat the champ? Superspeed and brick fists mean he has a chance against everyone, and he could stop takedowns and then dust Cruz midway through a stance switch (like he did to Dillashaw back in the day). However, Dodson is an athletically dependent fighter, and is approaching the end of his prime. When those gifts start to disappear, he’s not going to have much top level success.

Francisco Rivera
Who? Yet another power puncher, he seemed to be turning a corner from action fighter to contender just before getting into the Lineker brawl.
How’s he fight? He’s a bantamweight slugger who hits hard. He… has a nice leg kick? What do you people want from me? Leave me alone!
Fight booked? Yes, short notice bout against Brad Pickett in London on Feb 27th.
Can he beat the champ? No. Hits hard but has a tendency to get sucked into fights which are not to his benefit.

Frankie Saenz
Who? Somewhat old wrestler who turned out to be way better than expected. Age makes it hard to think of as a “prospect” as such. Beat the chronically underrated Sirwan Kakai in a razor-close fight, and had a similarly razor-close loss to Urijah Faber.
How’s he fight? Punches into clinches into strikes into wrestling. Constantly attacking the interstitial spaces.
Fight booked? No.
Can he beat the champ? No. Likely doesn’t have the time to get as good as he needs to get, if that makes sense.

Tier 4.2 New blood with wins

Some of the younger fighters who are on the upswing at the moment, but have yet to prove themselves in the way that Almeida or Sterling have. The “can he beat the champ” part is removed, because there just isn’t the data for making those kind of assertions available given their careers thus far.

Jimmie Rivera
Who? One of those rare chaps who inverted the traditional paradigm of “finishes on the regionals / decisions in the big show” by coming to the UFC off a slew of decisions, and then cranking up the violence. Knocked out Marcus Brimage, decisioned Pedro Munhoz.
How’s he fight? Mid-range aggressive striking, with taut combination work and excellent takedown defense. 
Fight booked? Yes, Iuri Alcantara on the upcoming Bader-Johnson card on the 30th.

Cody Garbrandt
Who? One of Team Alpha Male’s brightest prospects (although whether he or any of the other upper-level fighters stay there is debatable), he added to Marcus Brimage’s recurring nightmares of blonde, lanky debutants with silly tattoos when he knocked him out.
How’s he fight? If you guessed “power boxing” then you win a prize. In all fairness, his combination work and comfort in the pocket is better than most. Good wrestling is largely used in reverse. Somewhat underwhelmed in his last fight, but he’s young so more than excusable.
Fight booked? Yes, against John Lineker

Rob Font
Who? A short-notice fill-in against divisional stalwart George Roop, he blew Roop’s doors off. Coming off an 11 month layoff, he beat Joey Gomez by second round TKO.
How’s he fight? He’s a hitter. A slugger. He lays down leather; he throws hands… with bad intentions. In all seriousness, Font’s game has broadened out in recent fights, and he’s shown more variety in both grappling and kicking. Add to this his simian reach / Cheater Arms, and you have someone who potentially may become something like 135’s Tony Ferguson.
Fight booked? No.

Erik Perez
Who? El Goyito was part of the UFC’s ill-fated promotional push into Latin America as spearheaded by Cain Velasquez. A couple of upset losses to Caraway and Mizugaki combined with a long lay-off did some damage, but he beat Taylor Lapilus in a comeback fight.
How’s he fight? Well-rounded. Sturdy kickboxing, good wrestling and pace. Has had some problems “tuning” his game to fight different opponents.
Fight booked? No

Michinori Tanaka
Who? One of the top prospects to come out of Japan, he lost a close and thrilling decision to Kyung Ho Kang, then rebounded with a close decision win over Joe Soto.
How’s he fight? Used to be just a grappler, but is now using the in-out striking style of his (former?) Krazy Bee teammate Kyoji Horiguchi. Still a great grappler, but has shown limits to his strength and cardio compared to other fighters.
Fight booked? No

5.1 Teetering on the brink of relevance

Even when you’re on the downslope, you’re still a valuable resource to the UFC. An aging fighter can be used to bolster a weaker card, or can be used as a simultaneous tough test and getting-over fight for an up-and-comer. Sometimes these guys turn a corner and go on heartening runs.

Johnny Eduardo – Bantamweight power puncher #3456. Quite old and doesn’t fight very often. Primary achievement was a Mortal Kombat Fatality KO over Eddie Wineland. 
Iuri Alcantara – Aging glass cannon. Not exactly fragile so maybe more of a Pyrex cannon. Physically enormous and a dangerous power grappling / striking threat for approximately three minutes. Fighting Jimmie Rivera on the Bader-Johnson card. 
Takeya Mizugaki – Gritty, hardworking gatekeeper. Boxing and double-underhook clinch work. Cries a lot. 
Eddie Wineland – Bantamweight power puncher #3457. Ex-WEC champ. Hasn’t looked the same since losing to Renan Barao, and got his jaw badly broken by Johnny Eduardo. 
Brad Pickett – Thrilling go-everywhere action fighter, happy in scrambles, wrestling battles or punchfests. Likely coming to the end of his Zuffa career. Fighting Francisco Rivera at UFC London in February.

5.2 New blood with losses

One of the advantages of being relatively new to the fight game is that you can take a loss without it mattering that much. It can bounce then back a bit, sure, but it can also be a learning experience, and it gets forgotten relatively quickly if they continue on the forward march. To get in this list you need at least one relatively significant UFC win, so while Joey Gomez is talented, for example, I didn’t include him.

Anthony Birchak – Violent in the clinch and standup. Unfortunately came up against a more evolved version of himself in Thomas Almeida.
Taylor Lapilus – Solid, workmanlike and well-rounded kickboxer with a weirdly un-bantamweight lack of pop in his hands. Outwrestled by Erik Perez
Pedro Munhoz – Fantastic grappler who hasn’t quite developed a complete striking game or integrated wrestling, but appears to be on his way, similar to Gilbert Burns at lightweight. Outstruck by Jimmie Rivera.

Tough sells

These guys are either incredibly difficult to put away, not fun to watch, or have been plain unlucky, but remain very threatening for all that. As such, they tend to get booked in odd ways- in situations where they’re near-guaranteed to lose, or against fighters where they don’t gain much from a win. They can escape from this position (Saenz, Mizugaki and Caraway debatably have) but it typically requires them winning an upset or two.

Mitch Gagnon – physically powerful, medium-to-close range fighter with excellent grappling and guillotine. BE’s consensus most underrated fighter. Hasn’t fought for ages. 
Joe Soto – Decent boxing, great grappling, one of the best 0-3 fighters in the UFC. May be one of those guys like Jorge Santiago who just never really gets to show what he’s got on the biggest stage due to a combination of tough matchmaking and a wack chin.
Rani Yahya – BJJ whiz who has steadily gotten better in somewhat grindy and unappealing ways.
Masanori Kanehara – see Rani Yahya above.
Manny Gamburyan – Another grinder, and something of a dirty fighter, but squat, strong and durable. Old.

Other notes:

  • Kyung Ho Kang was another good prospect who had to go into the army in South Korea.
  • Alex Caceres is now fighting at featherweight (he’s fighting Masio Fullen at UFC on FOX this weekend).
  • Whatsisface finished Maximo Blanco at featherweight, but may well fight at his “natural” weight class of bantamweight.
  • Chris Holdsworth is another TAM prospect, but has been battling concussion symptoms for a long time.
  • I apologize for ugly powerpoint graphics and illegibly small names. I blame Kid Nate.
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Phil Mackenzie
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