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MMA Pound-for-Pound Rankings: Top 10 Fighters in 2022

After 12 months of shocking upsets, all-out brawls and everything in between, here's a short list of the sport's best entering the new year.

As 2022 winds down, Sports Illustrated is looking back at the themes and teams, storylines and throughlines that shaped the year.

The competition for best fighter in the world was fierce in 2022.

Alex Pereira won three fights this year, including a TKO victory against Israel Adesanya that crowned him the new UFC middleweight champion. Islam Makhachev continued his reign of dominance, wiping out Bobby Green before barely breaking a sweat while taking the lightweight strap from Charles Oliveira. Aljamain Sterling had the best year of his pro career.

The top 10 is subjective, but there is a formula to the madness. It is built around a fighter’s contributions over the course of the year, with wins playing a major factor, as well as the caliber of opponent, stage and stake of the bout.

Let's get to the rankings: 

10. Michael Chandler, UFC

2022 record: 1-1 (Defeated Tony Ferguson by KO in May at UFC 274; Lost to Dustin Poirier in November at UFC 281)

No longer is anyone questioning whether Michael Chandler belongs in the UFC.

Formerly the heart and soul of Bellator, Chandler now adds a jolt of electricity every time he steps into the Octagon. That was certainly the case in 2022. Chandler had two bouts, both of which were must-see, and the first produced one of the greatest knockouts in the history of the sport.

Chandler’s front-face kick to Tony Ferguson felt like it ushered in a new era for the UFC. That kick ended a competitive bout, one where Ferguson appeared to briefly regain some of the qualities that made him iconic in the cage. Then Chandler etched his name in the history book with his signature knockout.

The second fight for Chandler was equally as breathtaking. Chandler and Dustin Poirier captivated fans at Madison Square Garden with bloody violence. It was nonstop action, and it was textbook Chandler, who was extremely explosive in the first round, slightly less so in the second, then vulnerable in the third. Poirier forced a submission, ending Chandler’s shot at an undefeated year, but it still marked a phenomenal 2021 for the former face of Bellator–and newest UFC heartbeat.

9. Xiong Jingnan, ONE

2022 record: 2-0 (Defeated Ayaka Miura by unanimous decision in January at ONE Championship: Heavy Hitters; Defeated Angela Lee by unanimous decision in September at ONE on Prime Video 2)

Xiong Jingnan made a statement in 2022, most notably in her trilogy bout against Angela Lee.

Jingnan was undefeated this year in the Circle. She also defeated Ayaka Miura by unanimous decision in January. Both of those victories were successful title defenses of ONE’s women’s strawweight title, and the win against Lee was a fight of the year candidate.

Following the fight, Lee criticized the decision from the judges. ONE CEO Chatri Sityodtong also expressed his opinion that he did not agree with the judges. Yet none of that detracts from Jingnan’s brilliance. She has held the belt since 2018, and withstood two difficult challenges over the past year.

8. Johnny Eblen, Bellator

2022 record: 2-0 (Defeated John Salter by unanimous decision in March at Bellator 276; Defeated Gegard Mousasi by unanimous decision in June at Bellator 282)

Johnny Eblen did not just defeat Gegard Mousasi when he won the middleweight title in June.

Eblen absolutely demolished Mousasi. Watching the fight, it was easy to picture Eblen as the one who was champion for 604 days, and not Mousasi.

That performance was a one-sided affair for 24-and-a-half minutes, a shocking result against a fighter of Mousasi’s caliber. Eblen also defeated John Salter earlier in the year. With a combination of wrestling and striking, he continues to prove that his undefeated record–he has won all of his 11 bouts–is no fluke.

7. Sergei Pavlovich, UFC

2022 record: 3-0 (Defeated Shamil Abdurakhimov by TKO in March at UFC Fight Night; Defeated Derrick Lewis by TKO in July at UFC 277; Defeated Tai Tuivasa by KO in December at UFC Fight Night)

Sergei Pavlovich steamrolled his way into heavyweight relevancy in 2022. He did not, however, bully his way into the upper echelon of the division. In pragmatic fashion, Pavlovich made adjustments in 2022 that altered his trajectory.

The most noticeable change in Pavlovich’s arsenal was his fast offense. His three fights this year, collectively, lasted for a total of five minutes and 52 seconds. His longest endeavor was the fight in March against Shamil Abdurakhimov, which extended into the final minute of the first round. That was an eternity in comparison to the manner in which he shellacked Derrick Lewis and Tai Tuivasa, neither of which lasted for more than a minute. While it looked like the fight was stopped too soon against Lewis in July, that is partly due to Pavlovichv’s attack. And the victory earlier this month against Tuivasa felt like a changing of the guard in the heavyweight division.

6. Israel Adesanya, UFC

2022 record: 2-1 (Defeated Robert Whittaker by unanimous decision in February at UFC 271; Defeated Jared Cannonier by unanimous in July at at UFC 276; Lost to Alex Pereira by TKO in November at UFC 281)

Israel Adesanya suffered his first loss as a middleweight in November, following a streak of 23 consecutive victories. Two of those 23 wins came in 2022, as Adesanya successfully defended his middleweight title for the fourth and fifth time against, respectively, Robert Whittaker and Jared Cannonier. He appeared to have mastered the division, until Alex Pereira reappeared in his life.

This year will be remembered as the year Adesanya lost his title, and for good reason. But he also carried his record-setting pace into 2022. Adesanya defended his title three times, and he was an outstanding champion.

5. Zhang Weili, UFC

2022 record: 2-0 (Defeated Joanna Jędrzejczyk by KO in June at UFC 275; Defeated Carla Esparza at submission in November at UFC 281)

Zhang Weili endured the worst year of her professional career in 2021. She responded with a career-defining run that saw her reclaim the women’s strawweight belt in 2022.

Maybe she just needed to be as far away as possible from Rose Namajunas, who defeated her in back-to-back bouts last year. But this year was entirely different. She started her year in the Octagon with a spinning back fist knockout of Joanna Jędrzejczyk, which put her back in contention for a title bout. Weili made the most of that opportunity at Madison Square Garden, forcing Carla Esparza to tap to crucifix rear-naked choke in the second round of their bout.

Whether she can finally overcome Namajunas is a question for another time. Weili overcame the lowest point of her career and re-emerged with two outstanding wins, redefining her legacy by starting a second reign as strawweight champion.

4. Aljamain Sterling, UFC

2022 record: 2-0 (Defeated Petr Yan by split decision in April at UFC 273; Defeated TJ Dillashaw by TKO in October at UFC 280)

If there was a more inspirational victory this year than Aljamain Sterling’s victory against Petr Yan, then I would love to see it. Sterling was ridiculed, embarrassed, and severely injured following his title win in 2020, which he won in miserable fashion–Yan drilled him in the head with a vicious knee, which caused him to be disqualified, losing the bantamweight title to Sterling in the process. Concussed and victorious only by DQ–Sterling was outclassed in that fight and on his way to losing by decision–removed every ounce of joy from the biggest win of his career. But that all changed in the rematch.

Aljamain Sterling (Red Gloves) fights Peter Yan (Blue Gloves) during UFC 273 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.

Sterling solved Yan to complete an incredible comeback in 2022. 

Sterling made 2022 his year by dominating Yan on the mat. Naturally, there was controversy, as the judges ruled this a split decision, but let the record show that Sterling brought Yan to the mat and kept him there in a manner that had never before experienced. Sterling finally solved the Yan obstacle—in turn, causing a number of new issues for Yan—and then wiped the mat with an injured T.J. Dillashaw in October. Unfortunately, unwilling to risk losing his title shot, Dillashaw did not inform officials about the extent of his injuries ahead of the fight. That led to a one-sided beatdown, with Sterling’s performance another undeniable reminder that he is one of the best in the world.

3. Alex Pereira, UFC

2022 record: 3-0 (Defeated Bruno Silva by unanimous decision in March at UFC Fight Night; Defeated Sean Strickland by KO in July at UFC 276; Defeated Israel Adesanya by TKO in November at UFC 281)

A lot can change in a year.

A year ago, Alex Pereira was only two fights into his return to MMA. He had fought once in 2015 and then twice in 2016, and he even had a boxing bout in 2017, but his focus never strayed too far from kickboxing. Highly decorated in the field, Pereira made as smooth a transition as humanly possible to mixed martial arts, winning all four of his UFC bouts—three of which took place this year. The first was a unanimous decision against Bruno Silva; the second a stunning knockout of Sean Strickland; and the third, and by far the most impressive, was a TKO win against Israel Adesanya.

Pereira already defeated Adesanya twice in kickboxing, but the Octagon is an altogether different forum. Yet he treated the new landscape as if he were back kickboxing in Glory, turning the sport on its axis by coming into the UFC, seeing what he was up against, and dominating. Veni, vidi, vici is an accurate way to describe Pereira’s run thus far in MMA.

2. Islam Makhachev, UFC

2022 record: 2-0 (Defeated Bobby Green by submission in February at UFC Fight Night; Defeated Charles Oliveira by submission in October at UFC 280)

Islam Makhachev enjoyed a year in 2022 that was very similar to 2021.

Makhachev won all three of his fights in 2021, and delivered two more unblemished bouts this year, including the most monumental win of his career when he defeated Charles Oliveira to become the UFC’s new lightweight champion. He also made quick work of Bobby Green in February, a widely expected result–and then occurred in dominant fashion. Makhachev has made a career out of surpassing expectations, and he did that again when he dominated Oliveira and forced him to tap in less than a round-and-a-half.

At some point, Makhachev will be forced to overcome adversity in the cage. Perhaps that will happen in his very next fight against Alexander Volkanovski. Yet, despite elite competition, that was not the case in 2022, where he reached new heights and blitzed through each challenge with ease.

1. Alexander Volkanovski, UFC

2022 record: 2-0 (Defeated Jung Chan-sung by TKO in April at UFC 273; Defeated Max Holloway by unanimous decision in July at UFC 276)

There was no one better in MMA on the planet than Alexander Volkanovski in 2022.

Volkanovski obliterated a perennial contender in the Korean Zombie in April. It was never a contest. The fight, mercifully, was stopped less than a minute into the fourth round, and Volkanovski made Zombie look like galaxies removed from his skill set.

Alexander Volkanovski connects in the second round against Chan Sung Jung, aka The Korean Zombie, Saturday, April 9, 2022 during UFC 273 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville.

Volkanovski continued his dominance with key victories against Chan-sung and Holloway. 

That exact same scenario played out again in Volkanovski’s victory against Max Holloway. Watching their bout in July, it was hard to believe that Holloway once was Volkanovski’s equal. After five rounds of dominance at UFC 276, that clearly was no longer the case.

The new year will present a new opportunity for Volkanovski. He is moving from featherweight to lightweight in pursuit of a second title, and he also plans to defend his featherweight belt. After what we witnessed in 2022, it is impossible to doubt Volkanovski. His combination of speed, power, and footwork is unmatched in MMA, and he proved in 2022 that he has no peer in the sport.