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Women’s MMA 2017 Top 50: #10 – #1

And here we are. The 10 fighters that complete the women’s MMA top 50 for 2017. Not a single loss between them in 2017, amassing a combined record of 25-0 for the year. The high achieving class of 2017.

If you need to catch up on the rankings thus far you can find places #50 – #31 here, and spots #30 – #11 here. The criteria for ranking is simple. Only the fighters’ 2017 records, level of opposition, and performances are taken into consideration. Fighters must have won at least one professional fight in 2017 and have a .500 record or better to make the list.

Based on where each fighter last fought, the 50 fighters were split across 12 promotions. The UFC accounted for 28 of the fighters, six were from Invicta FC, and five from RIZIN FF. The rest were spread across the globe, from Bellator to Battlefield Fighting Championships, from ONE Championship to Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki (KSW), and a bunch of places in between.

10) Julia Budd (11-2)
2017 Record: 2-0
Previous Rankings: #30 in 2015, Unranked in 2016
Most notable 2017 win: Marloes Coenen (Bellator 174)

In a world where Cris Cyborg does not exist, or at least one where the Brazilian grew up to become anything but an MMA fighter, Julia Budd would be the number one featherweight in the world right now. Given that Cyborg is under contract with the UFC, that makes Budd about the most credible champion Bellator could realistically have wearing their belt.

In 2017 Bellator fans finally got the title bout between Budd and former Strikeforce champion Marloes Coenen that the promotion had been building to since signing the pair in 2014. There is no question that with 30 fights behind her Coenen was no longer in her prime, but the Dutch veteran remained one of the best fighters in the shallow division, and Budd’s biggest test since being submitted by Ronda Rousey in 2011.

The fighters entered the cage considered equals. Four and a half rounds later, Budd was Bellator’s inaugural women’s featherweight champion, and Coenen was walking away from the sport. Budd was at her physically overwhelming best that night at the Winstar World Casino in Thackerville. Strikes led to takedowns, takedowns led to claustrophobic top control and ground and pound. That was the repeated story of the fight until the bout was stopped in the fourth frame.

The Canadian powerhouse returned to the Bellator cage in December to defend her title against Australian slugger Arlene Blencowe. The two fought previously in 2016 with Budd winning by majority decision. This time the fight was even closer. The champion retained her title via split decision, but some, including Bellator announcer Jimmy Smith, scored the fight the other way. Budd’s first defence was not pretty, nor was it entertaining, and to some it wasn’t even effective, but it solidified the 34-year-old’s position as Bellator champion and the number two featherweight in the world.

9) Amanda Nunes (15-4)
2017 Record: 1-0
Previous Rankings: #4 in 2015, #1 in 2016
Most notable 2017 win: Valentina Shevchenko (UFC 215)

The first time Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko met inside the cage, there was no UFC championship on the line. The fight wasn’t even five rounds. The two opened the main card at UFC 196 on March 5, 2016. The night Nate Diaz handed Conor McGregor his first loss in the UFC.

By the time the two met again, Nunes had effectively ended the UFC careers of Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey, breaking the face of one, and obliterating the desire of the other. The Brazilian now held UFC gold and that meant the rematch with Shevchenko would be five rounds. That stipulation in the minds of many fans meant the challenger would cruise through 25 minutes and become the new UFC women’s bantamweight champion.

The first bout has been simplified and rewritten so many times that what people tell you happened barely resembles the reality anymore. It was in fact a largely tentative affair in rounds one and three. Nunes certainly won the second round, in dominant 10-8 fashion too. Then, early in the third, Shevchenko cracked Nunes with a knee while stuffing a takedown, then rocked her with an elbow. The Brazilian was wobbled for the remainder of the round, unable to do more than hang in there until the fight went to the judges.

It was presumed that Nunes’ gas tank had emptied quickly in that third round. That two more rounds could only ever have produced one winner. Forgotten were the fight-altering strikes Shevchenko landed early in that third frame.

Perhaps Shevchenko began to believe that narrative herself. Perhaps it was the reason she failed to make the necessary adjustments in the rematch to win the belt. The rematch was more tentative than the first meeting, as Shevchenko seemingly waited for Nunes to tire. That only played into the hands of the defending champion who was methodical in her own approach. Nunes scraped past Shevchenko to win via split decision (48-47, 47-48, 48-47). The fight could not have been any closer.

It might only have been one win in 2017 for “the Lioness”, and not an especially convincing one either, but Shevchenko was an unavoidable hurdle that Nunes had to clear. Not only that, with her impressive wins over Holly Holm and Julianna Pena, “the Bullet” was the clear number two in the division. Now Nunes holds two wins over her most challenging foe of the past few years and can move on to bigger and better things. Meanwhile Shevchenko has dropped to flyweight in search of a UFC title most expect her to win.

ROAD FC

8) Seo Hee Ham (19-8)
2017 Record: 2-0
Previous Rankings: Unranked in 2015 and 2016
Most notable 2017 win: Mina Kurobe (Road FC 39)

Prior to signing with the UFC in 2014, Korean standout Seo Hee Ham was on the cusp of atomweight greatness. Ham had won six straight and held the DEEP Jewels championship. Only two defeats to Ayaka Hamasaki — who was emerging as one of the pound for pound best in the world — blighted Ham’s record post-2010. That was a fight many hoped and expected would come to fruition either in Japan or under Invicta FC’s promotional banner at some point.

Then the UFC came calling in search of an opponent for Joanne Calderwood at The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale, and is so often the case it was an opportunity that is impossible to turn down. Fighting as a significantly undersized strawweight Ham struggled to stamp her authority inside the Octagon, but was so competitive that her 1-3 promotional record does not tell anything close to the full story. At the very least Ham should have been given the decision against Danielle Taylor in Melbourne. Sadly two of the judges disagreed.

So began less of a rebuilding process, and more of a shoehorning right back into the upper echelons of the neglected atomweight division. With former foe Hamasaki moving back up to strawweight following a successful run as Invicta FC’s 105 pound champion, that left Mina Kurobe as the most mouthwatering opponent.

Kurobe boasted a 10-2 record and had won five-straight by the time she faced Ham. That run had included a win over Naho Sugiyama who had defeated Kurobe in 2015. More importantly than that, in securing that win Kurobe now held the DEEP Jewels championship that Ham had never lost. The winner would be the top active atomweight in the world.

The two met in June at Road FC 39 with the Korean promotion’s newly created atomweight title also sweetening the 105 pound pie. Back at her natural weight class Ham was at her sensational best, stopping Kurobe in the third round to win championship gold in her home nation.

With Kurobe and Ham settling things in the East, Jinh Yu Frey was pushing to become the top atomweight in the West. Frey had defeated former Invicta FC champion Herica Tiburcio to earn a shot at Ayaka Hamasaki’s title in 2016. The 32-year-old looked to be giving Hamasaki a tough time of things before the bout was stopped due to a cut in the second round. With Hamasaki moving up to strawweight, and Frey defeating Ashley Cummins, there was no doubt that Frey was one of the top atomweights in the world and a suitable opponent for Ham’s first Road FC title defence.

The two met in December. For the best part of one five-minute round Ham and Frey circled and traded strikes and counter-strikes. Then, with 30 seconds left in the round, Ham timed the perfect counter, her left hand nailing Frey on the button and dropping her to the mat. A couple more punches on the ground ended the bout.

If Seo Hee Ham returned to atomweight with the intention of ruling the 105 pound division in 2017 she came close to achieving her goal. A win over RIZIN grand prix winner Kanna Asakura in 2018 would be the perfect way to seal the deal.

7) Ketlen Vieira (9-0)
2017 Record: 2-0
Previous Rankings: Unranked in 2015 and 2016
Most notable 2017 win: Sara McMann (UFC 215)

2017 was the year that Brazilian bantamweight Ketlen Vieira went from diamond-in-the-rough prospect to defacto contender at 135 pounds. One career-altering win in a division that has quickly run out of threatening challengers can do a lot for a young career.

With only a split decision win over Kelly Faszholz on her UFC record at the start of 2017, Vieira stepped into the cage against Ashlee Evans-Smith as the underdog in April. The Brazilian looked anything but the underdog once the two fighters began to exchange. Over three rounds Vieira outclassed Evans-Smith to earn herself a step up in competition later in the year.

If Evans-Smith had been a reasonable opponent with some momentum behind her, Sara McMann was all of that, only put through an amplifier first. The Olympic silver medallist was on the best UFC run of her four-year tenure. Three straight wins against Jessica Eye, Alexis Davis and Gina Mazany had moved McMann right into the title picture. A win over Vieira would have made it hard to deny McMann the second shot at UFC gold she desired. This time the imposing 26-year-old Brazilian was a bigger underdog.

Vieira defeated McMann, and became only the second fighter to submit the Olympian in the process. The other was reigning UFC champion Amanda Nunes. The win catapulted Vieira into the conversation regarding future challengers at 135 pounds. Defeating McMann bypassed about 12 months of progress that would have been made against lesser opposition.

Next up for the Brazilian is a March bout against returning former title challenger Cat Zingano at UFC 222. The contest is expected to feature in a prominent position on the card, and with good reason. The winner may well find themselves facing Amanda Nunes for the UFC title later in the year. Given Vieira’s recent performances it will be hard to back against her securing the win she needs to fight for UFC gold.

6) Livia Renata Souza (11-1)
2017 Record: 2-0
Previous Rankings: #23 in 2015, #38 in 2016
Most notable 2017 win: Ayaka Hamasaki (Invicta FC 22)

Not many fighters on this list defeated anyone in the women’s pound for pound top 10 in 2017. Brazilian strawweight Livia Renata Souza did, and it only took her one minute and 41 seconds to do so. Had referee Mike England not been typically off pace in stopping the bout, it would have been a couple of seconds quicker too.

In March Souza met reigning Invicta FC atomweight champion Ayaka Hamasaki at strawweight. The Japanese champion had only lost once in 15 career bouts, and that was to world class Brazilian Claudia Gadelha. The 35-year-old’s resume was more than impressive.

Seo Hee Ham, MIZUKI, Yuka Tsuji, Naho Sugiyama and Mei Yamaguchi, among others, made the list of fighters Hamasaki had defeated in Japan where she held the DEEP Jewels title. Stateside Hamasaki had defeated Herica Tiburcio to win the Invicta title, and defended it twice against Amber Brown and Jinh Yu Frey.

All the accolades mattered little once the cage door closed. Souza put Hamasaki away, and she did so quickly. The Brazilian has always had that in her locker, just ask Aline Sattelmayer, Camila Lima and DeAnna Bennett who were all dispatched early in the first round when they met Souza. It was a marquee win that perhaps did not get the attention it deserved.

Souza went on to face another top atomstraw in Janaisa Morandin at Invicta FC 25 in August. Morandin had flittered back and forth between the two weight classes through her undefeated career, but found “Livinha” a little too much to handle in her Invicta debut. Souza emerged victorious after three thrilling rounds.

At only 26-years-old Souza has been a top ten strawweight both in terms of ranking and abillity for the best part of three years, since bursting onto the US scene in 2015 by defeating Katja Kankaanpaa for the Invicta FC title. Now we will get to see her ply her trade against top talent more regularly, with a winnable UFC debut upcoming against former world number one Jessica Aguilar in February. It is the platform the Brazilian’s talent has warranted for some time.

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5) Felice Herrig (14-6)
2017 Record: 3-0
Previous Rankings: Unranked in 2015 and 2016
Most notable 2017 win: Alexa Grasso (UFC Fight Night: Bermudez vs. Zombie)

If anyone told you at the start of 2017 that strawweight veteran Felice Herrig would open up a four-fight winning streak in the UFC’s 115 pound division it would have been hard to believe them. Herrig had forever been the marketable journeywoman. A star for smaller regional promotions, but ultimately coming up short against higher levels of competition. 2017 changed that.

Herrig was a sizeable underdog against former Invicta FC standout Alexa Grasso back in February. From a promotional standpoint it felt like a fight Herrig was never supposed to win. In fact, bar Schwan Humes who writes for Combat Press, MMA Ratings and Severe MMA, nobody was really talking about how Herrig could get the win. After three rounds of action we were all wrong. Herrig had beaten the highly touted prospect by unanimous decision.

Against Justine Kish in June, Herrig was still considered the underdog, albeit less so than against Grasso. Kish carried an undefeated record into the bout and held wins over Randa Markos, Nina Ansaroff and Ashley Yoder. This time Herrig’s performance was even more impressive, dominating Kish throughout to win by a landslide on the judge’s scorecards.

The “Lil Bulldog” rounded off the perfect year with a third win in December. Cortney Casey had proven to be another solid measuring stick in the strawweight division. Losses to Claudia Gadelha, Joanne Calderwood and Seo Hee Ham were intermingled with wins against Cristina Stanciu, Randa Markos and Jessica Aguilar. Herrig made Casey look anything but dangerous inside the Octagon, edging a close, cautious fight to end the year at #7 in the unified rankings.

4) Tecia Torres (10-1)
2017 Record: 3-0
Previous Rankings: #14 in 2015, Unranked in 2016
Most notable 2017 win: Michelle Waterson (UFC 218)

The Ultimate Fighter 20 alumni has quietly gone about compiling a quality career resume. Since appearing on the show in 2014, Torres has won six of her seven UFC contests yet has remained on the outskirts of the title picture. Perhaps it is that every single one of her career wins prior to 2017 came by way of judge’s decision. On top of that, a razor thin loss to Rose Namajunas in 2016 didn’t help either.

In search of a title shot, or at the very least a title eliminator, Torres packed three wins into 2017, and dealt with that decision problem by securing the first finish of her professional career. Bec Rawlings was first up in February, offering little resistance against the quicker and more mobile “Tiny Tornado”.

Then came Juliana Lima at The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale. The Brazilian had served as the perfect measuring stick during her UFC tenure. Her only defeats were against Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Carla Esparza, both by decision. Meanwhile Nina Ansaroff, Ericka Almeida and JJ Aldrich had found Lima impossible to get past.

Torres passed the test comfortably, not only beating “Ju Thai” but submitting her in the second round. It was the first time Torres had finished an opponent inside the distance in her career. It was also the first time Lima had ever been put away before a fight went to the cards.

By the time Torres faced Michelle Waterson in December, the UFC hype behind Waterson had been cooled by a one-sided defeat to Rose Namajunas. Still, “the Karate Hottie” remained a well regarded, versatile, talent who had particularly impressed in submitting Paige VanZant in 2016. Torres rounded out her year with another solid win, proving to be the better fighter throughout the contest.

The win improved Torres’ record to 10-1 and had many debating the merits of a title bout with new strawweight champion Rose Namajunas. Torres defeated Namajunas in 2013 under Invicta FC’s promotional banner, before Namajunas picked up that UFC win over Torres in 2016. That might be what the UFC eventually go back to, if Torres can get past Jessica Andrade in February.

3) Kanna Asakura (11-2)
2017 Record: 6-0
Previous Rankings: Unranked in 2015 and 2016
Most notable 2017 win: Rena Kubota

After a year-ending defeat to Alyssa Garcia in 2016, in a bout that Kanna Asakura was probably never supposed to lose, it was difficult to predict the stellar 12 months that Asakura was about to produce.

Asakura started the year with wins against Natsuki Shimomakise at DEEP Jewels 15 and Aleksandra Toncheva at RIZIN’s Yokohama event in April. The 20-year-old was back in the win column and only one third of the way through her fight volume for 2017.

After grappling with Mika Nagano — literally, in a grappling bout — at DEEP Jewels 16, Asakura faced experienced 25-fight veteran Saori Ishioka at DEEP Jewels 17 in a qualifier for RIZIN’s super atomweight grand prix later in the year. Asakura won, improving her professional record to 8-2 and gaining momentum ahead of RIZIN’s packed year-end two day event.

The Grand Prix boasted a number of exciting talents. Standout shootboxing legend Rena Kubota; Alyssa Garcia who had previously defeated Asakura; Brazilian dark horse Maria Oliveira; King of the Cage champion Andy Nguyen; and three-time wrestling world champion Miyuu Yamamoto.

In the opening round in October, days after her 20th birthday, Asakura defeated Poland’s Sylwia Juskiewicz by decision to set up a semi-final against Maria Oliveira in December. The young Brazilian had impressed in her quarter final, defeating Alyssa Garcia to secure her ninth straight win.

By the time Asakura met Oliveira in the ring on December 31, the level of progression shown by the Japanese fighter throughout the year was apparent. Asakura put in perhaps her most impressive career performance to date, submitting Oliveira in the second round to move into the grand prix finals later that night. There, she would meet a still-young shootboxing legend, Rena Kubota.

Kubota had won all six of her professional MMA contests since making the transition from shootboxing in 2015. That had included grand prix wins over Andy Nguyen and Irene Cabello to earn her spot opposing Asakura. The 26-year-old had not lost in a shootboxing or kickboxing bout since 2011, racking up 17 wins during that time.

In the final Asakura shattered Rena’s hopes of adding the RIZIN grand prix title to her four Shoot Boxing Girls S-Cup tournament wins. It took less than five minutes for Asakura to submit her opponent and complete an incredible year. At only 20-years-old Asakura had won six fights in the calendar year, and become a RIZIN grand prix winner in the process.

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2) Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino (19-1)
2017 Record: 2-0
Previous Rankings: #11 in 2015, #5 in 2016
Most notable 2017 win: Holly Holm (UFC 219)

There is not a single calendar year during Cris Cyborg’s career where she faced a level of competition as high as she did in 2017. The Brazilian wrecking machine ended the year as UFC women’s featherweight champion. Given that she began the year facing a potential violation of USADA’s anti-doping policy, that’s not bad going.

The USADA issue was resolved in February when Cyborg was granted a therapeutic use exemption for a prescribed medicine she had used to help her recover from an absurd weight cut at the back end of 2016. Cyborg’s suspension was lifted and she was able to return to the cage.

Cyborg had initially turned down the opportunity to fight for the inaugural UFC women’s featherweight title at UFC 208 as she would not have had enough time to cut the required weight. That meant that Germaine de Randamie had beaten Holly Holm for the tin-pot-title in February. Given Cyborg’s long reign over the 145 pound division it was the obvious fight to make to turn tin into gold and legitimise the championship. Sadly, de Randamie was having none of it.

At first the Dutch kickboxer cited a need for hand surgery. Later in the year her reasoning took a darker turn, insisting that she would not defend the UFC title against Cyborg because the Brazilian was a known cheat in the sport. Cyborg had previously been suspended for one year in 2012 following a positive test for stanozolol. The UFC stripped de Randamie of her title and Cyborg was matched up against Invicta FC champion Megan Anderson.

Sadly, Anderson — who had been on a tear inside the Invicta cage racking up four straight finishes — was forced to pull out of the bout for personal reasons. Her replacement was long-time top ten bantamweight and Invicta FC champion Tonya Evinger.

Evinger proved to be more competitive, and more awkward, than any Cyborg opponent since Marloes Coenen in 2013, but it was not enough. Cyborg was methodical, walking Evinger down, absorbing big overhand rights and retaliating with vicious strikes of her own. Early in the third round referee Mike Beltran stopped the fight. Cyborg finally held UFC gold.

The Brazilian’s first defence of the title came in December against Holly Holm. Given that Holm had been the one to end Ronda Rousey’s reign of terror in 2015, it was an opportunity for the former boxing world champion to dethrone another of the sport’s most dominant stars.

Holm came closer than she should have, with judges Dave Hagen and Chris Lee inexplicably giving Holm the first two rounds and scoring the fight even going into the fifth. In truth Holm had been reduced to landing barely anything that she threw while eating effective counters from Cyborg at every turn. Any naive suggestion that the champion might run out of gas in the championship rounds was quashed as Cyborg put her foot on the accelerator as the fight went on.

2017 was an incredible year for a fighter whose relationship with the UFC has always been fragile, and at times toxic. Kept on the outside for so long, now Cyborg was not only fighting in the UFC on the grandest of stages, but she was a UFC champion. The 32-year-old had got there by beating two of her most talented opponents in years.

Still, it cannot be forgotten that both of Cyborg’s victories in 2017 came against fighters who were making the move up from 135 pounds. While Holm had already fought there against de Randamie earlier in the year before dropping back to bantamweight, Evinger had no such fight to test the featherweight waters.

None of this is Cyborg’s fault. In fact, she has often tried to support her division and call for the fighters within it to be given greater opportunities. It is however a reality that played a part in Cyborg sitting in the #2 rather than #1 spot on this list.

1) Rose Namajunas (7-3)
2017 Record: 2-0
Previous Rankings: #5 in 2015, #36 in 2016
Most notable 2017 win: Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UFC 217)

“THUG ROSE, THUG ROSE, THUG ROSE”. It was a simple, emotional line of commentary that blurted out of Daniel Cormier’s mouth during one of three title matches on the UFC 217 card. Two words repeated that were delivered in a way that said so much.

It told the viewing public that this was something big, something unexpected. It also told us, just as Joe Rogan’s call during Holly Holm’s destruction of Ronda Rousey in 2015 had, that Cormier, despite all his experience both in wrestling and mixed martial arts, despite everything he had seen in his career, was unable to keep his professional cool and was lost in the same emotion we all were. For a moment Cormier was simply a fan, watching in shock and amazement and awe.

On November 4 in the famous Madison Square Garden, Rose Namajunas defeated Joanna Jedrzejczyk to become UFC strawweight champion. It was the greatest night the UFC had in 2017. An emotional rollercoaster that saw three new champions crowned, and Georges St-Pierre cement his status as the greatest fighter of all time.

Title fights between St-Pierre and Michael Bisping, and T.J. Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt were largely considered to be pick’em contests. In stark contrast, only a very select few believed Namajunas could end Jedrzejczyk’s perfect run as strawweight champion. Even those were largely giving Namajunas the submission equivalent of a puncher’s chance, her ability to pull off aggressive flash submissions giving her a slim chance to win. So they said.

The bout only lasted three minutes. Namajunas proved Jedrzejczyk’s equal on the feet in the early going. Then, on that night at least, the challenger proved to be Jedrzejczyk’s superior. Namajunas landed with power and Jedrzejczyk went down. The failing champion was given not a moment to breathe.

Jedrzejczyk was battered relentlessly, victimised by the fighter she had attempted to bully leading up to the fight. Joanna “Champion” was no more, her hand tapping the mat as referee John McCarthy stopped the fight and ruled a TKO.

In 2015 Holly Holm defeated Ronda Rousey. It was a win that held many parallels with Namajunas’ over Jedrzejczyk. It was also the win that meant Holm, and not Jedrzejczyk, topped the 2015 version of this very list.

Given the magnitude of what Namajunas achieved that night in Madison Square Garden it would have been difficult to keep her away from the top spot. When you throw in a dominant, one-sided victory over Michelle Waterson as the entree, there could only be one winner.

THUG ROSE, THUG ROSE, THUG ROSE!

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