The biggest threat to each UFC champion
Earlier this year, we ranked the current UFC champions from most to least beatable. But there's one thing we didn't address: the who. Whether it's a former champion, a top contender, or a rising prospect, who has the best chance of knocking off their division's champion and starting a reign of their own?
To follow up on that piece, let's take a look at the toughest test for each titleholder within their own division.
Brandon Moreno, flyweight
Biggest threat: Alexandre Pantoja
It'd be easy to point to former champion Deiveson Figueiredo as the man with the best chance of dethroning Moreno - they've shared the Octagon four times, with Moreno winning twice, Figueiredo winning once, and another bout ending in a draw. But Pantoja, the No. 2-ranked contender who'll challenge Moreno for the flyweight belt at UFC 290 on July 8, actually has beaten Moreno twice. He submitted Moreno in an exhibition bout on "The Ultimate Fighter" in 2016 and then bested him again in an official UFC fight in 2018. Pantoja, a Brazil native who trains at American Top Team, has supremely good grappling and one-punch knockout power. Until Moreno proves otherwise, Pantoja is the biggest threat to the Mexican champ's title run.
Aljamain Sterling, bantamweight
Biggest threat: Umar Nurmagomedov
This wasn't on anyone's bingo card two years ago, but Sterling is on his way to becoming the winningest champion in UFC bantamweight history. Sean O'Malley's coach, Tim Welch, recently said Sterling is the most dangerous bantamweight ever. While that's a bold statement, Welch isn't wrong in the sense that Sterling's awkward style is hard to get past. But if anyone can do so, it's Umar Nurmagomedov, the undefeated Dagestani and cousin of UFC legend Khabib. Nurmagomedov is sensational at controlling opponents on the ground, and he proved in his last fight against Raoni Barcelos that he can crush guys on the feet, too. Merab Dvalishvili would also be worth considering, but we excluded him from the debate since Sterling and Dvalishvili are teammates and will never fight each other.
Alexander Volkanovski, featherweight
Biggest threat: Yair Rodriguez
Volkanovski is ranked highly on the UFC's pound-for-pound list for a reason: He continues to take out challenger after challenger at 145 pounds, and he does it with an ease that's rare among champions. A year ago, Max Holloway was clearly his biggest threat. But Volkanovski drubbing him in their trilogy bout last summer changes things. Now, Rodriguez, the interim champ who faces Volkanovski in the UFC 290 main event, ought to be seen as his biggest test. Rodriguez, unlike Holloway, is known for being able to finish fights at any moment - and that's key. The Mexico native has scored several impressive knockouts throughout his UFC career, but he showed by tapping Josh Emmett with a triangle choke in his last bout that his submission game is becoming increasingly dangerous.
Islam Makhachev, lightweight
Biggest threat: Beneil Dariush
The right answer might honestly be Volkanovski. He took Makhachev the distance in their February superfight, testing the borderline unstoppable lightweight champion like no one else had in recent years. But because Volkanovski isn't a mainstay at lightweight and is competing at featherweight next, he's not an option. Instead, we're going with Dariush as the most dangerous opponent for Khabib Nurmagomedov's successor. Dariush is a highly skilled jiu-jitsu practitioner who, stylistically, would be able to hang with Makhachev on the ground much better than the likes of Dustin Poirier or Justin Gaethje.
Leon Edwards, welterweight
Biggest threat: Khamzat Chimaev
Chimaev's days at welterweight may be over, but just when you think he's going to fight Paulo Costa, he's angling for a matchup with Kamaru Usman. So, until he officially commits to a move to middleweight, he's a welterweight. As such, he is, without a doubt, the toughest opponent out there for Edwards. Chimaev is dangerous in all areas, but especially on the ground where he mauls and easily submits his opponents. He may even be the betting favorite if he were to face Edwards. Shavkat Rakhmonov deserves some recognition here, but the answer is Chimaev all day.
Israel Adesanya, middleweight
Biggest threat: Robert Whittaker
If you scroll down the middleweight rankings, there aren't many names that stand out as threats to Adesanya. Rival Alex Pereira is a light heavyweight now, and Chimaev, for our intents and purposes, is still a welterweight. The answer is definitely not Dricus Du Plessis. Nor is it Sean Strickland. Rising prospects Ikram Aliskerov and Abus Magomedov could be in the conversation in the foreseeable future, but they haven't proven themselves yet. So, that leaves us with one reliable option: Whittaker, the former champion who's twice lost to Adesanya. Whittaker was competitive with Adesanya in their 2022 rematch and has consistently beaten everyone else in the division. It's not a fun answer, but Whittaker's the guy.
Jamahal Hill, light heavyweight
Biggest threat: Jiri Prochazka
Hill, whom we ranked as the most beatable UFC champion, might actually be a bit underrated all things considered. He became champ under less-than-ideal circumstances; he only got a title shot because Prochazka relinquished the belt and another vacant title bout ended in a draw. And then the guy he dominated to win the title, Glover Teixeira, retired straight afterward. To be clear, Hill is very talented. That said, there are a handful of fighters at 205 pounds who could end his reign. Pereira, who makes his 205-pound debut against Jan Blachowicz in July, is a fun answer. Magomed Ankalaev could potentially work Hill with his wrestling. But in the end, we're going with Prochazka. Until he loses, he's the real champ. Hill-Prochazka would likely be a striking battle, and Prochazka's unique and crafty stand-up carries him to victory more often than not.
Jon Jones, heavyweight
Biggest threat: Sergei Pavlovich
This one is easy. Pavlovich is on a roll, winning six fights in a row and, most recently, making a statement by knocking out Curtis Blaydes in the first round. He hasn't had to face much adversity against a grappler of Jones' caliber yet, so Jones could very possibly do to Pavlovich what he did to Ciryl Gane a few months ago. However, out of Stipe Miocic, Gane, Blaydes, and the other heavyweight contenders, no one is more poised than Pavlovich - a truck of a man who has finishing power in both fists - to end Jones' reign just as it's getting started.
Zhang Weili, strawweight
Biggest threat: Yan Xiaonan
The first answer that comes to mind is Rose Namajunas. It has to be her, right? She's beaten Zhang twice. She knocked her out to win the 115-pound title in 2021 and then won their much more competitive rematch by split decision. However, the Namajunas we saw go on to lose a slog of a fight against Carla Esparza was just ... uninspiring. So, we're going with someone else. Yan Xiaonan has looked great lately. If the Yan who finished Jessica Andrade last month keeps showing up, she could give her fellow countrywoman in Zhang real problems. Yan is physical, has knockout power, and has solid fundamentals on the feet. She's the biggest threat to Zhang's strawweight title at the moment.
Alexa Grasso, women's flyweight
Biggest threat: Valentina Shevchenko
It's very enticing to go with Erin Blanchfield here. Her grappling could completely stifle Grasso's offense, whereas it seems a fight between Grasso and Shevchenko will always be competitive. Plus, Blanchfield is 24 years old and rapidly improving. But we can't ignore all that Shevchenko has accomplished as the greatest women's flyweight in UFC history, and the fact that she was up two rounds to one going into the ill-fated fourth stanza against Grasso. If Grasso beats Shevchenko again, then we move on. But until then, the former longtime champion is the biggest threat to the 125-pound belt.
Amanda Nunes, women's bantamweight and featherweight
Biggest threat: Irene Aldana
Realistically, we shouldn't clump Nunes' two divisions together - but we're going to, because women's featherweight barely exists. Who's even in that division? As far as the biggest threat for Nunes goes, it's only a marginally easier question to answer at bantamweight. That division is the furthest thing from stacked. Most of the contenders have either already lost to Nunes or have fought and beaten one another. No one is a huge threat to Nunes, but the biggest is probably her next opponent, Aldana. The Mexican has looked good in the last two years, scoring back-to-back finishes of Yana Santos and Macy Chiasson. Perhaps she's turned a corner and will give Nunes a run for her money.
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