Ranking the top 25 MMA fighters under age 25 — Which two prospects earned all of the first-place votes?


Some fighters burst onto the scene, establishing themselves with out-of-nowhere achievements and confidence beyond their years. Others build slowly and steadily from a young age. ESPN’s third annual ranking of the top 25 MMA fighters under the age of 25 features prospects who could define the sport’s future as well as some who are making the-future-is-now statements.

The No. 1-ranked fighter on last year’s list was Australian light heavyweight Jimmy Crute, who faces Jamahal Hill on Saturday’s Rob FontJose Aldo UFC undercard. But Crute turned 25 in March and is no longer eligible for these rankings. Just four of last year’s top 10 return, along with seven others who were ranked in the top 25 in 2020. Much has changed.

Edmen Shahbazyan, who was ranked second last year, is riding a three-fight losing streak, so while he still appears in this top 25, he has fallen a few notches. That made room for Song Yadong, last year’s No. 3, to rise to the top, right above a fighter who barely made last year’s top 20 (Ilia Topuria) and one who did not appear in the 2020 rankings at all (Casey O’Neill).

ESPN’s nine-person panel — Kel Dansby, Andrew Davis, Tim Fiorvanti, Jake Lebowitz, Carlos Contreras Legaspi, Phil Murphy, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim — selected fighters based on both achievement and potential.

Okamoto and Wagenheim provide breakdowns of the fighters.

1. Song Yadong (18-5-1, 1 NC)

UFC men’s bantamweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Dec. 2, 2022)

Ranked No. 3 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2020

This year’s No. 1 fighter under the age of 25 has been on this list before — and depending on when next year’s rankings are published, he could be on it again. China’s Yadong turned 24 the day this was published and already holds a sparkling 7-1-1 record in the UFC, not to mention a No. 14 rank in his division. Training out of Team Alpha Male, Yadong has shown knockout power, grappling, cardio, composure — you name it. He’s the full package and could be in for a big year in 2022.

2. Ilia Topuria (11-0)

UFC men’s featherweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Jan. 21, 2022)

Ranked No. 17 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2020

Topuria was the only fighter other than Yadong to receive a first-place vote this year. It’s not hard to see why, as the German-born fighter based in Spain has skills that have jumped off the screen so far in his UFC career. He fought only once in 2021, but he made quick work of a very dangerous opponent in Ryan Hall. Topuria seems to have an extra dose of killer instinct, as he’s a phenomenal finisher both on the feet and on the ground. He has a monster matchup coming up in February, against another undefeated fighter in Movsar Evloev.

3. Casey O’Neill (8-0)

UFC women’s flyweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Oct. 7, 2022)

Was not on this list in 2020

Scotland native O’Neill has been fighting professionally only since 2019, but her talent is obvious. She enjoyed a breakout this year, compiling a 3-0 record in the UFC. Most of her early experience came in Australia, where she currently lives and trains, but she’s wasted no time in endearing herself to a broader audience in 2021. She already has three stoppages in the UFC, as well as a fight-night bonus from her most recent bout against Antonina Shevchenko.

4. Ian Garry (8-0)

UFC welterweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Nov. 17, 2022)

Was not on this list in 2020

It’s foolhardy to dub anyone the “next Conor McGregor,” as McGregor is such a rarity in mixed martial arts, but if anyone can live up to much of what that label suggests, it’s Garry. Like McGregor, Garry is a hard-hitting prospect out of Ireland and a former champion of the Cage Warriors promotion in the U.K. He’s confident and knows how to express that confidence on the mic. McGregor himself has taken notice of Garry, and gave him some social media love after a successful UFC debut earlier this year.

5. Usman Nurmagomedov (14-0)

Bellator lightweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on April 17, 2023)

Ranked No. 18 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2020)

A cousin of retired UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, Usman has a lot to live up to in his name — and so far, he’s done so inside the cage. Bellator scooped up this Russian lightweight prospect in 2021, and he’s already off to a 3-0 start with the promotion. Nurmagomedov hails from his famous cousin’s camp, but his fighting style is well-rounded and he’s more of a menace on the feet than Khabib was ever considered. He has the look of a future champion.

6. Miranda Maverick (9-3)

UFC women’s flyweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on July 1, 2022)

Ranked No. 13 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2020

Maverick is only 2-1 in the UFC and currently isn’t ranked inside the top 15 in her weight class, but some see the Missouri native who fights out of Norfolk, Virginia, as a dark horse in the division. Physically, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Her wrestling ability stands out at 125 pounds and her only loss in the Octagon, a split decision against Maycee Barber (see below) in July, was razor close, so much so that our panel ranked Maverick above Barber. Maverick is still flying a little under the radar for now, but there’s a good chance that won’t be the case within the next year.

7. Maycee Barber (9-2)

UFC women’s flyweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on May 18, 2023)

Ranked No. 6 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2020

Barber is still only 23, but it’s safe to say she’s already learned how to overcome adversity in her young career. “The Future” spent nearly all of last year recovering from a knee injury, and promptly suffered her second loss as a professional upon her return against Alexa Grasso. But Barber, who fights out of Milwaukee, got back into the win column for the first time in nearly two years against another top prospect, Maverick, in July, and the ceiling remains incredibly high.

8. Edmen Shahbazyan (11-3)

UFC middleweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Nov. 20, 2022)

Ranked No. 2 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2020

It’s been a difficult year for Glendale, California’s Shahbazyan. He came in at No. 2 on the list a year ago but is currently on a three-fight skid in the UFC. He’s still ranked this high, however, because the talent is still there and his level of competition has been extremely high. His three losses are to Derek Brunson, Jack Hermansson and Nassourdine Imavov. That’s a gantlet of opposition, especially for a 24-year-old still developing his game. This coming year, though, is a big one for Shahbazyan.

9. Jeff Molina (10-2)

UFC men’s flyweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on July 17, 2022)

Was not on this list in 2020

At 24 years old, Molina is making his debut on this ESPN list — and frankly, perhaps that was an oversight by our panel in past years. Molina is still earning experience, and a step up in competition is likely coming, but he’s looked every bit the part of a budding title prospect so far in the UFC. He earned his way into the promotion through Dana White’s Contender Series in 2020, and is off to a 2-0 start. He packs power for this division and comes from a strong camp in Glory MMA in Kansas City.

10. Cory McKenna (6-1)

UFC strawweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on July 7, 2024)

Ranked No. 19 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2020)

McKenna, of Wales, competed in her first amateur fight at age 15. She went 6-0 as an amateur before turning pro in 2018. She made her UFC debut at age 21. Talk about gaining experience at a young age. Fighting out of Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, she has dealt with injury in 2021 and did not make an Octagon appearance, but if she picks up where she left off in 2022, McKenna has breakout potential.

11. Christian Lee (15-4)

One Championship lightweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on June 21, 2023)

Ranked No. 15 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2019

Lee lost his One Championship lightweight title to Rae Yoon Ok in September, but earlier in the year he knocked out Timofey Nastyukhin, who is best known for welcoming former UFC champ Eddie Alvarez to the promotion a couple of years back with a stunning KO. The Singapore-based Lee, brother of One atomweight champ Angela Lee, had a high-profile win of his own in 2019, when he won his belt with a TKO of Shinya Aoki.

12. Sabina Mazo (9-3)

UFC women’s flyweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on March 25, 2022)

Ranked No. 9 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2020

Mazo has had a difficult 2021, dropping a decision to Alexis Davis in February and then being submitted by Mariya Agapova — No. 15 on this list — in October. But Mazo, who is from Colombia, has established herself as a threat, especially in stand-up fighting. Now she has to get back to what she does best.

13. Nick Maximov (7-0)

UFC middleweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on Dec. 23, 2022)

Was not on this list in 2020

A product of Nick Diaz Academy in Stockton, California, Maximov made a successful UFC debut in September, earning a unanimous decision over Cody Brundage. Next up, he puts his undefeated record on the line against Punahele Soriano in February.

14. Kay Hansen (7-4)

UFC strawweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on Aug. 14, 2024)

Ranked No. 14 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2020

Hansen has not competed since November 2020, when she lost a decision to No. 10-ranked Cory McKenna. Since then, the Fullerton, California, fighter has been sidelined while dealing with an eating disorder. But now Hansen is ready to return, and she does so on Jan. 22 in a bout against Jasmine Jasudavicius.

15. Mariya Agapova (10-2)

UFC women’s flyweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on April 7, 2022)

Was not on this list in 2020

Agapova began her career with bouts in Russia, China and her native Kazakhstan. After losing a fight on Dana White’s Contender Series, she won twice in Invicta FC before joining the UFC last year. She is 2-1 inside the Octagon, most recently defeating No. 12-ranked Sabina Mazo by submission in October.

16. Fares Ziam (12-3)

UFC lightweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on March 21, 2022)

Was not on this list in 2020

The Frenchman has won two in a row since dropping his UFC debut in 2019. The son of a pro boxer, Ziam had a bout canceled in November because one of his opponent’s coaches tested positive for COVID-19. Now Ziam is waiting on a call so he can build upon his momentum.

17. Chase Hooper (10-2-1)

UFC men’s featherweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on Sept. 13, 2024)

Ranked No. 20 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2020

At age 22, Hooper already has four UFC fights under his belt. Fighting out of Enumclaw, Washington, Hooper joined the promotion at 20, making him the youngest UFC signee. He has a long future ahead, if he can get past his recent adversity — losses in two of his last three appearances.

T-18. Rong Zhu (18-4)

UFC lightweight

Age: 21 (turns 25 on March 7, 2025)

Was not on this list in 2020

Zhu lost his UFC debut in April, dropping a decision to Rodrigo Vargas to snap a 10-fight winning streak. But the Tibet-born Chinese fighter got back on track in September with a ground-and-pound TKO of Brandon Jenkins. Next up is a February matchup with Ignacio Bahamondes, who is his neighbor on this list (see next entry).

T-18. Ignacio Bahamondes (12-4)

UFC lightweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Aug. 27, 2022)

Was not on this list in 2020

Yes, Bahamondes has a date with Zhu coming up after the two followed similar paths over the past year. Bahamondes, of Chile, fights out of Chicago. He lost his UFC debut in April — same as Zhu — and bounced back with a pretty wheel-kick KO of Roosevelt Roberts in August. That’s the kind of highlight-reel moment that can be an attention grabber for a young fighter.

20. Erin Blanchfield (7-1)

UFC women’s flyweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on May 4, 2024)

Was not on this list in 2020

Blanchfield owns an Invicta FC win over Kay Hansen, who is No. 14 on this list, and won her UFC debut against Sarah Alpar in September. Now comes a bigger test — with a moving target. Blanchfield, a New Jersey native who fights out of Renzo Gracie Academy in New York, was scheduled to face No. 7-ranked Maycee Barber on Dec. 11, but Barber withdrew from the bout and was replaced by sixth-ranked Miranda Maverick.

21. Muhammad Mokaev (5-0)

UFC men’s bantamweight

Age: 21 (turns 25 on July 30, 2025)

Was not on this list in 2020

The England-based native of Dagestan recently signed with the UFC, becoming the youngest fighter on the roster. He won more than 20 amateur fights before turning pro last year. Mokaev has not yet booked an Octagon debut, but when he does step inside the cage, it will be highly anticipated.

22. Khasan Magomedsharipov (6-0)

Bellator men’s featherweight

Age: 21 (turns 25 on Oct. 6, 2025)

Was not on this list in 2020

You recognize the last name, right? The brother of Zabit Magomedsharipov, who is No. 6 in the ESPN men’s featherweight rankings, Khasan won his Bellator debut in July, beating Jonathan Quiroz by ground-and-pound TKO. The Dagestani has had finishes in all but one of his victories.

23. Jay Jay Wilson (8-0)

Bellator lightweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Aug. 2, 2022)

Was not on this list in 2020

The New Zealander put on an eye-opening performance in April, finishing Pedro Carvalho, who was coming off a title challenge. Since then, Wilson has had two fights canceled, including a scheduled meeting with Alfie Davis at this Friday’s Bellator 272. That was to be Wilson’s lightweight debut, as he had missed the featherweight limit on multiple occasions.

24. TJ Laramie (12-4)

UFC men’s featherweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Oct. 15, 2022)

Was not on this list in 2020

Laramie lost his UFC debut in 2020 and since then has twice had to pull out of fights, most recently at last month’s UFC 268. The Canadian has lost momentum after winning seven of eight fights over a three-year span. For Laramie, 2022 will be a proving ground.

25. Brady Hiestand (5-2)

UFC men’s bantamweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on April 30, 2024)

Was not on this list in 2020

Hiestand lost a split decision to Ricky Turcios in the finale of Season 29 of The Ultimate Fighter — after tearing his ACL in training during his first week on the show (and not telling anyone, for fear of being dropped). Hiestand, who fights out of Spokane Valley, Washington, is early in his recovery, but it will be interesting to see what he can do once healed.

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