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MMA Power Rankings: Is Israel Adesanya, Conor McGregor or Khabib Nurmagomedov No. 1?

Joe Rogan is high on Deiveson Figueiredo’s performance after a first-round finish of Alex Perez at UFC 255. (0:43)

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“The kid’s got ‘it.'”

— Dana White to reporters following Israel Adesanya’s win over Anderson Silva on Feb. 9, 2019

UFC president Dana White makes a living off his instincts about fighters, and he saw something different — something special — about Israel Adesanya after just his fifth UFC fight.

White saw the “it factor” in the Nigerian-born middleweight who fights out of New Zealand, and White’s instincts proved prophetic. Adesanya won the interim title and undisputed title in 2019 and followed up with two title defenses this year, including a dominating TKO of No. 1 contender Paulo Costa on Sept. 26. He has beaten every top challenger at middleweight and now is eyeing a shot at light heavyweight champ Jan Blachowicz.

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And he has done it with a flair befitting his “Last Stylebender” nickname. Whether he’s fighting, speaking, trolling on social media or dancing his way into the Octagon, Adesanya is a must-follow personality.

And for all of those reasons, Adesanya tops ESPN’s first MMA Power Rankings.

This list is different than our pound-for-pound rankings, which can be found here. That is based purely on the skills of the best fighters in the world. The Power Rankings take into account a fighter’s success, as well as momentum and star power.

While Adesanya’s star is soaring, it still has a way to go to reach Conor McGregor’s solar system. McGregor’s star power is unmatched in MMA, which is why he’s high on this list despite not beating an elite opponent in more than four years. If McGregor can build off his January win over Donald Cerrone by defeating a dangerous Dustin Poirier on Jan. 23, he’ll be contending for the top spot on this list in early 2021.

Despite announcing his retirement after beating Justin Gaethje on Oct. 24, and reiterating his desire not to compete recently, we’re including Khabib Nurmagomedov on this list. He’s still identified as the lightweight champ and White continues to believe Nurmagomedov will return. So as long as there’s a decent reason to believe he’ll fight again, Nurmagomedov will be high on this list.

The panel of voters is listed below.

No. 1: Israel Adesanya, UFC middleweight champ

Record: 20-0, 9-0 in the UFC; 15 stoppages

Momentum: He’s 2-0 in 2020, including a second-round TKO of Paulo Costa on Sept. 26. His next fight is expected to be for the light heavyweight belt against Jan Blachowicz.

Star power: He headlined UFC 243 in Melbourne, Australia, where a UFC-record crowd of more than 57,000 saw him dance his way into the Octagon, where he knocked out Robert Whittaker in the second round to claim the title.

He has nearly 4 million Instagram followers and he’s frequently able to get under the skin of Jon Jones, who’s widely considered MMA’s GOAT, despite the fact they’re not even in the same division — yet.

No. 2: Khabib Nurmagomedov, UFC lightweight champ

Record: 29-0, 13-0 in the UFC; 19 stoppages

Momentum: How can someone who’s retired have momentum? As long as he’s still listed as the lightweight champ, he qualifies for this list. And when you reach the level of stardom Nurmagomedov has attained, you need to fight only once a year to generate momentum, especially when that fight is a dominating performance over someone such as Justin Gaethje.

Star power: Nurmagomedov is a global superstar with nearly 26 million Instagram followers. There’s a reason his fights in Abu Dhabi start at a different hour than every other main event at that location. It’s to accommodate people wanting to see him fight live. Other “Fight Island” cards cater to Eastern Standard Time, which means they start very early in the morning in Abu Dhabi.

No. 3: Conor McGregor, UFC lightweight

Record: 22-4, 10-2 in the UFC; 20 wins by stoppage

Momentum: McGregor creates momentum just by tweeting. He wanted to fight three times this year, but he has to settle for just the 40-second win over Cerrone in January. He’ll try to stay busy in 2021, and that January bout vs. Poirier should be a fun way to kick off the year.

Star power: He’s No. 53 on the Forbes list of the richest celebrities in 2020. His Proper No. Twelve whiskey is a huge success. He has more than 37 million Instagram followers and his posts regarding Ireland’s lockdown during the pandemic drew responses from government leaders. He is by far the most popular athlete in UFC history. All this, and his last elite win was when he knocked out Eddie Alvarez in the second round on Nov. 12, 2016, to become the first UFC fighter to hold two belts simultaneously. “They think I’m toast, but I’m still the bread,” McGregor likes to say.

No. 4: Jon Jones, UFC heavyweight

Record: 26-1, 1 NC; 20-1, 1 NC in the UFC; 16 wins by stoppage

Momentum: Jones squeaked by Dominick Reyes in February with a unanimous-decision win and he hasn’t fought since. The former light heavyweight champ generated momentum by announcing he was moving up to heavyweight in August, and he could have a chance to add that title in his next fight. But there’s no timeline for his heavyweight debut.

Star power: He’s widely considered the greatest MMA fighter of all time, but some believe Nurmagomedov might be more deserving. Even though he hasn’t fought in nine months, Jones has never been far from the headlines. While he had another misstep with the law in March, he confiscated spray-paint cans from potential vandals in June, an incident caught on video. He has almost 5.5 million Instagram followers and is a frequent poster on social media.

See which fighters have the most impressive combination of success, momentum and star power.