MMA World Power Index: Which countries lead the way in 2024?

MMA

The growth of MMA in the past couple of decades has been astronomical. Fighters from every major continent have won championships across the UFC, PFL and Bellator, and the three promotions already have cards scheduled outside the United States in 2024, including Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Northern Ireland.

That global growth in the sport begs a question: Which countries have the best talent in MMA?

Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim, Brett Okamoto and Eddie Maisonet analyzed the current landscape of MMA to rank which countries have the strongest rosters — and which might be on the rise. The criteria in voting were based on four factors — current champions, ranked fighters across all divisions in Bellator/PFL/ UFC, prospect pipeline (fighters who are rising contenders and future stars) and the total number of fighters currently represented in top promotions in MMA.


1. USA

Jon Jones is the UFC heavyweight champion and the consensus choice as the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, and he’s from New Mexico after an upstate New York upbringing. But Jones alone does not give the United States the top spot. There are several other reasons — not the least of which are the numbers themselves. Of the 20 fighters in the ESPN men’s and women’s pound-for-pound top 10s, six of them are from the U.S.: Jones, Sean O’Malley, Erin Blanchfield, Tatiana Suarez, Raquel Pennington and Kayla Harrison. That’s the most of any country. The UFC has 11 champions, three of whom are Americans: Jones, O’Malley and Pennington — also more than any other country. Historically, an even greater percentage of champs have been from the U.S., and the sport’s upper echelon is still filled with elite competitors from the nation’s collegiate wrestling programs.

While MMA is a global sport, it is U.S.-centric, as evidenced by both major fight promotions, the UFC and PFL, being headquartered in this country. — Wagenheim


2. Brazil

Frankly, there is no mixed martial arts or UFC without the influence of Brazil.

Rorion Gracie, the son of Brazilian jiu-jitsu forefather Helio Gracie, was one of the co-founders of the UFC in 1993. Brazilian fighters, beginning with UFC 1 winner Royce Gracie (Rorion’s brother), have made an indelible impact on the sport. MMA is every bit a Brazilian sport as it is anything else, though the UFC has spurred its growth to new international heights.

Right now, the UFC has two champions born in Brazil: light heavyweight Alex Pereira and flyweight Alexandre Pantoja. Aside from those two, a long list of title challengers includes former lightweight champion Charles Oliveira, former flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo, the chiseled middleweight Paulo Costa and lightweight motormouth Renato Moicano.

This might not be the greatest era for Brazilian MMA, but some prospects are on the rise. Among those are heavyweight Jailton Almeida and women’s flyweight knockout artist Natalia Silva, who could be challenging for titles sometime in the next 18 months. — Raimondi


3. Russia

Russia will always be high in the global hierarchy of MMA because combat sports (grappling, in particular) are heavily ingrained in its culture. Sambo, a Russian form of amateur wrestling/hand-to-hand combat, is a highly effective base for professional MMA, and historically, Russia is very well represented in Olympic wrestling. The Russian approach to the sport is also effective. It’s not always flashy, like the sweet, fluid science of boxing or the artful movement of Muay Thai, but its rough, hard-nosed, high-paced qualities can dominate an MMA contest. The first name that comes to mind of this style is retired, undefeated UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. However, heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko paved the way for Russian MMA in the modern day.

What occasionally stands in the way of Russian dominance is simply opportunity, as language barriers, grappling-heavy styles and travel expenses can deter major promotions from signing them — but the talent is unequivocally there. — Okamoto


4. Australia

One might argue that Australian MMA is on a bit of a downturn, after its last remaining champion, Alexander Volkanovski, lost the UFC men’s featherweight title a week ago. But let’s not forget that Volkanovski remains among the pound-for-pound top 10, and in the fight immediately before Volkanovski’s loss at UFC 298, his countryman Robert Whittaker reinserted himself in the middleweight title picture, which he once owned. One prospect to watch is 27-year-old welterweight Jack Della Mnuaddalena, who will put a 16-fight winning streak on the line March 9 against onetime title challenger Gilbert Burns. Heavyweight Justin Tafa, 30, is unbeaten in his past four bouts; along with a no contest, his three wins all came by first-round knockout.

And if we’re factoring in not just championships but also entertainment value, Australia has produced some of the most fun heavyweights to watch — Tai Tuivasa (shooey, anyone?) and, before him, Mark Hunt. Clearly, sports fans Down Under enjoy the fights in big numbers, as Melbourne was the site of the two biggest crowds in UFC history: 56,214 for UFC 193 (Ronda Rousey vs. Holly Holm) in 2015 and 57,127 for UFC 243 (Israel Adesanya vs. Whittaker) in 2019. — Wagenheim


5. Mexico

Boxing is still one of Mexico’s national pastimes, and until the past three years, MMA had been largely an afterthought in the country. That’s not because Mexican fans don’t like the sport or don’t like fights — just the opposite. Mexico loves boxing and lucha libre (the country’s version of pro wrestling) — it just hasn’t been exposed to MMA fully yet. Over the past several years, that has largely changed because flyweight Brandon Moreno became the first Mexican-born UFC champion.

MMA is beginning to thrive in Mexico, with several quality regional promotions and standouts in the UFC and beyond. Early in 2023, there were three Mexican-born UFC Bellator/PFL/UFC champions: Moreno, UFC women’s strawweight Alexa Grasso and Yair Rodriguez, who held the interim featherweight title. Grasso remains the champion at 125 pounds, while Moreno and Rodriguez will look to get back on track Saturday at UFC Mexico City.

There have been fighters born in Mexico in the UFC for around a decade, but Moreno, Grasso and Rodriguez represent the first wave of elite-level competitors south of the border. You can also throw former women’s bantamweight title challenger Irene Aldana on that list. And there are more coming.

On the Mexico City card alone, there are lightweights Daniel Zellhuber and Manuel “El Loco” Torres, bantamweights Cristian Quiñonez and Luis “Lazy Boy” Rodriguez, flyweights Jesus Aguilar and Édgar Cháirez and women’s strawweight Yazmin Jauregui. Incredibly, every single one of them is still in their 20s. And that doesn’t include Raul Rosas Jr., the 19-year-old prospect who was born in the United States but represents his parents’ homeland of Mexico, where he has spent a great deal of time.

Do not be shocked if Mexico is much higher on this list in 2025 and beyond. — Raimondi


6. England

One thing that is certainly in England’s favor right now is enthusiasm. The UFC has made four trips to London in the past two years. That’s more than initially expected, and it’s due to fan interest. The sport is growing in popularity in England, which is creating more opportunities for athletes and improving the quality of training. English fighters no longer have to come to the U.S. for world-class training. You’re seeing elite talent like UFC champions Leon Edwards and Tom Aspinall dominate their respective weight classes, all while keeping their training in the U.K.

Historically, a lack of wrestling pedigree has been somewhat of an Achilles heel for English fighters as they run into specific matchups, but that potential pitfall is becoming less of an issue with every passing year. — Okamoto


7. Georgia

Only two countries — the United States and Brazil, Nos. 1 and 2 on this list, respectively — have more than one UFC champion. What a feat it would be if the Republic of Georgia was to join them. And it might soon happen. Ilia Topuria finished half of that job a week ago, winning the men’s featherweight championship. And that same night at UFC 298, Merab Dvalishvili put on a shining performance to insert himself at the head of the line of bantamweight title contenders.

Topuria (who lives in Spain) and Dvalishvili (based in New York) are expatriates, but they nonetheless represent Georgia. They’re not alone among UFC fighters. Giga Chikadze is in ESPN’s top 10 at men’s featherweight, and middleweight Roman Dolidze is also Georgian.

Not bad for a nation with a population comparable to that of the state of Connecticut. — Wagenheim


8. Nigeria

There was a time not long ago when Nigeria would have been much higher on this list. Adesanya and Kamaru Usman, two Nigerian-born fighters, held the UFC middleweight and welterweight titles, respectively, beginning in 2019 and were both champions simultaneously. Not only that, but Usman and Adesanya were two of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world, period. Usman was considered MMA’s pound-for-pound king, holding a 15-fight winning streak, the second longest in UFC history.

Usman and Adesanya aren’t UFC titleholders anymore, but they put Nigeria on the map as far as MMA is concerned. And they remain contenders in their respective weight classes. Usman could be considered a contender in two, since he fought so well on short notice at middleweight in a majority decision loss against Khamzat Chimaev at UFC 294 in October.

Speaking of contenders, Nigeria has a few more. Sodiq Yusuff is on his way up in the featherweight division, and Kennedy Nzechukwu is formidable in the light heavyweight division. Hakeem Dawodu (born in Canada but of Nigerian ancestry) and Mohammed Usman, Kamaru’s brother, are also in the UFC and have a chance to continue raising the flag for their home country. — Raimondi


9. China

As is always the case with China, there is massive potential for athletic achievements based on the size of its population alone. As the UFC and other major promotions look to build the sport and their brands in China, the UFC’s decision to open a Performance Institute in Shanghai was unsurprising as the talent level will grow exponentially. Behind the scenes, the UFC has been working to build Chinese talent for years through various fighter exchange programs and coaching seminars.

Those efforts are starting to pay off with the success of strawweight champion Zhang Weili, who is No. 1 in ESPN’s pound-for-pound women’s rankings and will face fellow countrywoman Yan Xiaonan at UFC 300. Xiaonan has an impressive 8-2 record in the UFC and is currently ESPN’s No. 3 strawweight.

It’s still a work in progress. One still does not find many Chinese fighters competing regularly on elite shows around the world. But it’s a movement that will continue. Currently, one of the top younger Chinese fighters to watch in the U.S. is UFC bantamweight Song Yadong. — Okamoto


10. Jamaica

The island nation of just 2.7 million people might have the smallest population of any country on this list. Still, it boasts having a current Bellator champion and arguably one of the best featherweights in UFC history.

Jason Jackson’s rise to holding the Bellator welterweight title came after two close opportunities to sign with the UFC. Jackson went 1-1 while a contestant on “The Ultimate Fighter” and suffered an ankle injury during a match on Dana White’s Contender Series. Jackson eventually found his way to Bellator and is now riding a seven-fight winning streak after dethroning the previously undefeated Yaroslav Amosov for the 170-pound title.

Aljamain Sterling has had a long, successful run in the UFC, and few in the sport can match his résumé. Sterling holds the UFC bantamweight division records for most wins, most consecutive wins and most consecutive title defenses. After losing his belt to O’Malley at UFC 292, his next goal is to take aim at the featherweight division. He faces Calvin Kattar at UFC 300 in April.

Jackson and Sterling might be the biggest names to represent Jamaica, but don’t forget about “Rudeboy” Randy Brown, who is 12-5 in the UFC and holds a win over ESPN’s No. 3 welterweight Belal Muhammad. — Maisonet

Others receiving votes: France, New Zealand

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