The debate for pound-for-pound king can typically feel like the hierarchy of a royal family. There's the one wearing the crown, and then there's everyone else.
Jon Jones' prime run at 205 pounds certainly felt that way. As did Khabib Nurmagomedov's recent unbeaten streak at lightweight before abruptly announcing his retirement (despite UFC president Dana White refusing to accept this fact).
Entering 2021, however, the winds of change are upon us. Jones, who is set to move up to heavyweight later this year, seems to be barely hanging on to his crown following a series of close decision wins which could have gone either way. Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya has also benefitted from Nurmagomedov's departure as he sets to move up in weight and challenge for the light heavyweight title with a legitimate argument for best in the sport.
So, too, does welterweight king Kamaru Usman, who turned in possibly his best performance to date last Saturday in stopping former teammate and red-hot challenger Gilbert Burns for his 17th consecutive win.
Usman (18-1), who stands at No. 3 on CBS Sports' rankings, wouldn't be out of place at No. 1 on any other top-10 list in the world. A longtime dominant grappler, it's Usman's recent evolution as a striker that has helped him only raise his level of dominance at age 33.
Not only has Usman never lost inside the Octagon, he has barely been challenged save for a thrilling five-round war against Colby Covington in 2019 which ended via TKO. But the Covington fight, at the time, felt like a bit of an aberration considering the negative reputation Usman started to receive as a somewhat boring fighter who either couldn't finish fights or chose not to take the risk in doing so.
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Entering UFC 258, Usman had gone the distance in nine of his previous 11 fights. Yet it was the Burns fight which showcased a distinct change in Usman's approach and went a long way in helping him secure just his fourth finish in 13 UFC fights.
The effect new coach Trevor Wittman had on Usman in just their second camp together was obvious. After Usman showed flashes of new wrinkles when he switched stances and focused on punching to the body in a decision win over Jorge Masvidal last July, UFC 258 marked a full step forward into a new level of striking confidence.
After Usman bit down on his mouthguard to survive an early barrage of punches from Burns, he reset himself and began to break his former training partner down with stiff jabs that looked more like a weapon than a rangefinder. The punches perfectly set up the improved right hand, which followed as Usman never needed to rely on his dominant wrestling in breaking down such a dangerous foe with strikes.
It took Usman a long time to gain a title shot back in 2019 after nine straight victories to open his UFC career, and it took him even longer to gain the level of respect that his fighting pedigree deserved. The good news for the "Nigerian Nightmare" is that it's here as he has proven since becoming champion to be one of the mentally strongest fighters in the game today and in the conversation as possibly the best.
How might Usman officially secure that spot? Continue doing what he has done unceasingly since joining the UFC: just win, and do so dominantly.
For CBS Sports' updated divisional rankings,.
Men's pound-for-pound rankings
| 1. Jon Jones||Heavyweight||26-1 (1 NC)||--|
|It wouldn't be incorrect to consider the former light heavyweight champion as MMA's G.O.A.T. That doesn't mean his current hold on the P4P throne isn't a tenuous one. The competition has slowly caught up to Jones, which makes his move up to heavyweight at 33 years old an interesting one. Expect "Bones" to face the winner of Stipe Miocic-Francis Ngannou II for the title. |
|2. Israel Adesnaya||Middleweight champion||20-0||--|
|The native of Nigeria will look to become a two-division champion on March 6 when he challenges light heavyweight titleholder Jan Blachowicz. Adesanya has set the stage for a monster 2021, and appears poised for global superstardom.|
|3. Kamaru Usman||Welterweight champion||18-1||--|
|It's time to put some legitimate respect on this man's name. A dominant title defense over Gilbert Burns showcased Usman's constantly evolving striking. His streak of 13 consecutive UFC wins is second best in company history, so it's not hyperbole to make a case that he's the best fighter in the world right now. |
|4. Deiveson Figueiredo||Flyweight champion||20-1-1||--|
|Despite being fresh off of an all-action draw against Brandon Moreno, the reigning 125-pound champion capped off a breakout 2020 by winning Fighter of the Year honors. This force of nature also injected much-needed life into the flyweight division as Figueiredo became the face it needed following the exits of Demetrious Johnson and Henry Cejudo.|
|5. Dustin Poirier||Lightweight||27-6 (1 NC)||--|
|Although UFC president Dana White wasn't willing to crown Poirier as the new lightweight king following his TKO of Conor McGregor in their January rematch, there simply isn't a better lightweight in the world not named Khabib Nurmagomedov. Should "The Eagle" commit to retirement talk, Poirier deserves a title shot next. |
|6. Stipe Miocic||Heavyweight champion||20-3||--|
|At 38, Miocic is set to enter arguably the most dangerous challenge to his pair of heavyweight title reigns when he rematches the hard-hitting Francis Ngannou at UFC 260. While Miocic proved in a pair of title wins over Daniel Cormier that age hasn't slowed down his resolve, the much-improved Ngannou is a scary matchup for anyone. |
|7. Alexander Volkanovski||Featherweight champion||22-1||--|
|A second win over former champion Max Holloway brought with it a bit of controversy over the disputed split decision. However you scored it, Volkanovski is expected to have his hands full next time out with a re-energized Brian Ortega at UFC 260. |
|8. Max Holloway||Featherweight||22-6||--|
|A shutout win over tough contender Calvin Kattar in January might just be the most dynamic performance of the future Hall of Famer's career. Holloway set countless records for attempts and strikes landed over the five rounds. He also likely secured a shot at the winner of Volkanovski-Ortega. |
|9. Justin Gaethje||Lightweight||22-3||--|
|Gaethje appeared close to chopping down the left leg of Nurmagomedov until the departing lightweight champion mounted and submitted him. But with the title expected to become vacant, there's no reason "The Highlight" can't work himself back to another title shot over the next year. |
|10. Petr Yan||Bantamweight champion||15-1||--|
|A showdown with Aljamain Sterling awaits Yan on March 6 following an injury delay. The 27-year-old enjoyed a breakout moment in 2020 by stopping Jose Aldo to win the vacant title at 135 pounds. The scary news is he's only getting better with each bout.|
Dropped out: None
Just missed: Charles Oliveira, Jan Blachowicz, Robert Whittaker, Brian Ortega, Aljamain Sterling, Francis Ngannou
Women's pound-for-pound rankings
|1. Amanda Nunes||Bantamweight/Featherweight champion||20-4||--|
A dominant featherweight title defense over Felicia Spencer in June has only widened the gap between Nunes and everyone else. Nunes will fight at 145 pounds once more when she defends her title on March 6 against Meghan Anderson.
|2. Valentina Shevchenko||Flyweight champion||20-3||--|
|Fresh off of MCL surgery, Shevchenko displayed her well-rounded attack in a wide decision win over a game Jennifer Maia at UFC 255. Although her preference is a trilogy at 135 pounds against Nunes, future title defenses at flyweight against Jessica Andrade and Lauren Murphy offer a decent amount of intrigue considering the division's lack of depth. |
|3. Weili Zhang||Strawweight champion||21-1||--|
|An extended break to close 2020 was deserved after Zhang, China's first UFC champion, co-authored the greatest fight in women's MMA history by edging Joanna Jedrzejczyk. With little question surrounding her skills, toughness and cardio, Zhang is expected to return against former champions Rose Namajunas or Carla Esparza.|
|4. Rose Namajunas||Strawweight||9-4||--|
|"Thug Rose" vehemently denied a rumor shared publicly by UFC president Dana White that the former champion was uninterested in a title bout against Zhang. It's a fight which could take place in early 2021 and would be among the best fights -- regardless of gender or weight -- that the UFC could make. |
|5. Joanna Jedrzejczyk||Strawweight||16-4||--|
|The former champion proved she's still got a ton left in the tank by pushing Zhang to the limit in a split-decision loss. Jedrzejczyk's return, however, remains uncertain as the 33-year-old said a 2021 appearance would only come once fans are allowed to pack arenas once again. |
Dropped out: None
Just missed: Jessica Andrade, Germaine de Randamie, Holly Holm, Aspen Ladd, Yan Xiaonan