The UFC’s ranking system has been used for a number of years now to decide which fighters are in contention for a UFC title, and which fighters are sliding down the ladder after a loss.
The UFC rankings are undoubtedly an important tool, but for the fans, they’re not as much of a big deal when it comes to deciding fighter popularity.
In fact, some of the biggest-drawing UFC fights in recent memory have largely ignored the UFC’s rankings and have instead been put together purely because they’re the clashes that fans want to see.
So while it’s great for a fighter to become highly ranked in the UFC, it may not mean that they become popular – and on the other hand, some hugely popular fighters are not ranked highly at all.
With this in mind, here are five of the most popular unranked fighters in the UFC today.
#5. Sean O’Malley – UFC bantamweight
Given the hype around him right now, it’s quite surprising that rising bantamweight star Sean O’Malley remains nowhere to be seen when it comes to the UFC rankings.
Despite this status, it’s undeniable that ‘The Sugar Show’ is almost certainly more popular with the fans than ranked fighters such as Cody Stamann, Merab Dvalishvili and Jimmie Rivera.
It’s also undeniable that O’Malley has some serious talent inside the octagon. ‘Sugar' is 6-1 in the UFC thus far, and has finished opponents like Eddie Wineland, Thomas Almeida and Kris Moutinho with brutal strikes.
However, it’s also fair to say that he hasn’t really been tested by an elite fighter in his UFC career to date. He did fight Marlon Vera, who is currently ranked at No.14, in 2020, but lost via TKO following a leg injury.
So will O’Malley look to beat an opponent who could elevate him into the UFC rankings in the near future? According to the man himself, it’s actually unlikely.
A recent interview with O'Malley saw him admit that as he gets paid the same amount regardless of his opponent, he’d rather avoid facing a ranked opponent until he’s on a contract with higher returns.
This may be seen as a smart plan, but it’ll also probably ensure that O’Malley remains one of the most popular unranked fighters in the UFC for at least a while yet.
#4. Nick Diaz – UFC welterweight
Nick Diaz is not just one of the most popular fighters in the UFC right now, it’s arguable that the Stockton native is one of the most popular fighters in UFC history, period.
Diaz’s UFC record isn’t actually all that impressive. Across two stints with the promotion, he’s gone 7-6-1, although it must be noted that he’s also fought some of the greatest fighters of all time – names like Georges St-Pierre and BJ Penn.
But despite an abrasive, devil-may-care personality, UFC fans simply adore Diaz. His name never seems too far from the news, and whenever he’s linked with a fight in the octagon, the entire internet seems to light up with excitement.
Despite preparing for a fight with former UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler at UFC 266, Diaz remains unranked by the promotion right now.
It’s quite obvious why this is the case. It’s all down to Diaz’s lengthy stretches of inactivity. The Californian has not fought in the UFC since his No Contest with Anderson Silva, which took place in February 2015.
And prior to that, he’d fought just three times since returning to the UFC in 2011, defeating Penn but losing to Carlos Condit and St-Pierre.
It’s honestly likely that Diaz doesn’t care in the slightest that he’s unranked by the UFC. It clearly hasn’t affected his popularity, and the fact that his fight with Silva drew over 600k pay-per-view buys, and his fight with GSP drew over a million, proves that.
And given that the UFC has made his fight with Lawler a five-round clash, it seems the UFC doesn’t mind that this popular star is unranked, either.
#3. Tai Tuivasa – UFC heavyweight
In a lot of respects, it’s a bit of a stretch to label Tai Tuivasa a UFC heavyweight contender right now. The Australian, despite being in the UFC since 2017 and headlining a show against former UFC champ Junior Dos Santos, is still more of a prospect.
However, despite the fact that his record is largely middling, with losses to fighters such as Sergey Spivak and Blagoy Ivanov, ‘Bam Bam’ has become one of the most popular young fighters in the UFC today.
It’s easy to understand why. Tuivasa is a highly exciting fighter inside the octagon, fighting with a reckless striking style that often sees him get hurt just as much as he’s able to hurt his opponents.
And outside of the octagon, ‘Bam Bam’ is a fountain of charisma to the point that everything he does is inherently watchable. He walks out to eclectic music, often singing along to old-school power ballads like Everything I Do (I Do It For You) and My Heart Will Go On.
And he celebrates his victories in the most outrageous way possible – by drinking a beer from a shoe, usually one belonging to a fan.
It’s possible that Tuivasa will find himself ranked by the UFC in the near future. There are a number of aging veterans still ranked in the top 15, and ‘Bam Bam’ is currently on a three-fight winning streak and seems to be improving rapidly.
However, for now this young Australian remains one of the UFC’s more popular unranked fighters.
#2. Khamzat Chimaev – UFC welterweight
When Khamzat Chimaev signed with the UFC in mid-2020 as a late replacement for Dusko Todorovic, few fans raised their eyebrows.
But after the Chechnya native destroyed John Phillips, and then beat up Rhys McKee to pick up his second UFC victory just 10 days later, the hype began to grow.
Chimaev promised that he’d “smash” any fighter that the UFC put in front of him. Enamored by his mix of powerful wrestling and explosive grappling, the fans quickly began to compare the newcomer to the great Khabib Nurmagomedov.
When Chimaev then knocked out veteran Gerald Meerschaert in just 17 seconds, making him 3-0 in the UFC after just two months, it seemed like he’d rocket up the rankings in either the welterweight or the middleweight division.
However, while Chimaev remains one of the UFC’s more popular fighters, he still hasn’t broken into the UFC’s rankings.
There’s an obvious reason for this, of course: inactivity. It’s almost been a year now since Chimaev knocked out Meerschaert. And while he was scheduled in a fight with Leon Edwards that, with a win, would’ve launched him up the rankings, a serious case of COVID-19 has kept him out of the octagon.
Chimaev is now scheduled to face off against welterweight contender Li Jingliang at UFC 267 in October. And given that ‘The Leech’ is currently ranked at No.12, it’s likely that with a win, the the Russian-born Swede will move onto the ladder, perhaps even into the top 10.
For now at least, Khamzat Chimaev might be gaining huge popularity, but he remains unranked by the UFC.
#1. Nate Diaz – UFC welterweight
Unlike his brother Nick, Nate Diaz has at least broken his long stretches of inactivity in recent years. After staying away from the UFC for the best part of three years following his 2016 loss to Conor McGregor, he returned in 2019 to defeat Anthony Pettis in a welterweight bout.
But since then, Diaz has lost his next two visits to the octagon, falling to Jorge Masvidal and Leon Edwards. Those losses have ensured that the fighter from Stockton, California, remains outside of the UFC 170-pound rankings.
Like his brother, though, the fact that Diaz is unranked by the UFC has not affected his popularity at all. In fact, he remains one of the UFC’s top-drawing fighters when it comes to pay-per-view numbers, and whenever he’s booked on an event, interest levels increase.
The UFC’s treatment of him is a massive indicator of that, too. His most recent bout with Leon Edwards was made into a five-round clash, becoming the first fight to be scheduled as such without being for a UFC title or serving as the headliner for an event.
It seems that no matter how many fights Diaz loses, nor how long he sits on the shelf for until the UFC are willing to agree to his demands, his popularity with the fans will never wane.
In that sense, Nate Diaz has become one of the few fighters in UFC history to essentially transcend the promotion’s ranking system.