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Ariel Helwani's MMA thoughts: MMA Rank surprises; what to do at heavyweight

Cris Cyborg, right, is off to a blazing start in 2020, defeating Julia Budd for the Bellator flyweight title in her promotional debut this past Saturday. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Lists are always fun. But dare I say, sports lists are even more fun.

From now until the end of time, people will debate all things sports. I like to call these "barber shop debates." You know, the kind of subjective, fun conversations you have while getting your hair cut.

The list we're publishing Wednesday through Friday falls under that category. We're ranking the top 30 fighters who we expect to have the greatest impact in 2020.

For the record, I think the list is great. But, as you know, no sports list can be presented without debate. So, I'd like to debate this list. And in particular, who was left off.

The most glaring omission for me was Cory Sandhagen. Sandhagen is 12-1 and has won seven fights in a row. He is also just 27 years old.

I feel confident in saying that by this time next year he will either be booked to fight for the bantamweight title or on the verge of fighting for the bantamweight title. I don't know if the timing will work out for him to already be a champion because the current champion, Henry Cejudo, isn't slated to return to action until the fall, but I think Sandhagen is ready right now. I'm supremely impressed by him, and I think he will be a force at 135 for a while.

He should have been on this list.

Cris Cyborg's name was also conspicuous by its absence. She has already started the year very strong by defeating Julia Budd to become the first female to win the Strikeforce, Invicta, UFC and Bellator title. Bellator is going to push her big-time this year, and her first title defense -- perhaps against former UFC title contender turned Bellator fighter Cat Zingano -- will feel like a big deal if booked in the right location. I mean, did you hear the pop for her when she won the belt this past Saturday night at the Forum? Despite the loss to Amanda Nunes in 2020, Cyborg is still a force in this sport.

She should have been on this list.

Those were the main two. But how about Jared Cannonier, who might be one win away from a title shot, or former champion Tyron Woodley, who could derail the Leon Edwards hype train in March? Kayla Harrison should have another great year, but who is she fighting? And I'm intrigued by the new Aaron Pico, who looked great Saturday night and now trains out of Jackson Wink, but I think it's too early to know how good he'll really be.

OK, now I'm nitpicking. Take a look for yourself and see if you agree.

Give the champ time to heal

As you may know, another fairly big debate going on in the sport right now is the state of the heavyweight division, and, in particular, the state of the heavyweight title.

Here's what we know for sure:

1. Stipe Miocic is the champion.

2. Miocic is still recovering from eye surgery.

3. The UFC wants to book Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier 3 as soon as possible.

4. Cormier, who was ready to fight in December, is losing patience waiting for Miocic because he is ready to retire.

5. There's a new crop of contenders breathing down Miocic's neck, too.

I think that covers it.

Here's the thing: Miocic-Cormier 2 happened in August. That was a little over five months ago. Let's not pretend he's been out for a year, because he hasn't. There have been plenty of champions who have been out longer than he has.

Second, eye surgery is a really serious thing. Miocic would be foolish if he rushed back in there. He has earned the right to recover.

Now, that being said, I have always believed in two rules when it comes to champions: If you don't fight within a year, or at the very least have a fight booked within a year, you should be stripped and dropped from the rankings. A year has always felt fair enough.

So, with that in mind, Miocic still has about seven months left, in my opinion.

The problem is, Miocic doesn't do a lot of media, so everyone kind of feels in the dark. And when he does, bless him, he doesn't really open up. If he did open up, I think more people would be a lot more sympathetic toward him.

The other issue is, when he does talk, he never outright says Cormier is next. I think this is an issue. I believe this frustrates Cormier and the fans. But more importantly, not identifying Cormier as being next makes no sense for Miocic.

You see, a trilogy fight against Cormier is by far the biggest fight Miocic can get right now from a stature standpoint and a monetary standpoint. I understand he may be annoyed he had to wait a year to get a rematch (though I maintain that was the UFC's doing, not Cormier's, because the UFC tried to book Cormier vs. Brock Lesnar first) and is annoyed because he feels like Cormier intentionally poked him in the eye, but the facts are there are no bigger fights out there for him.

So, what he -- or his management -- should be saying right now is something like this:

My health and safety is more important than any title. To be at my best, I need to have both eyes functioning. Right now, that is not the case. I am hopeful and confident that will be the case soon. When that time comes, I look forward to retiring Daniel Cormier once and for all. Thank you.

I mean, is that so hard? Who wouldn't be OK with that?

But let's chill on the stripping talk for now. The champ deserves a little more time.

Real talk

When Maycee Barber told me Monday that if the roles were reversed, she would have attacked Roxanne Modafferi's leg, I knew she would get heat for it. After all, that's not a very nice thing to say. But hey, you gotta respect her honesty. She is who she is, and for a 21-year-old to be that unapologetic in this day and age is actually pretty impressive. I love that MMA fighters, more often than not, say what they truly feel. Most athletes are afraid to do that because of the backlash that is sure to come. That's one of the many reasons why I love covering this sport and these fighters. I don't need to agree with everything they say, but I want to know what they are saying is the truth. I respect Maycee for telling us the truth, as jarring as it may seem.

Speaking of brutal honesty, how about this one from Tyron Woodley on Monday's show:

"I blew through a lot of f---ing money, man," said Woodley, who is currently in Phuket, Thailand, training for his March 21 fight versus Leon Edwards. "A lot. A lot of money. And I was jewelry and VIP and all these experiences, all these things that came with the championship life. You really, when you come from where I come from, you never imagine making that type of money, you never imagine being in that type of position. You work hard for it -- and I didn't get there by accident because I was busting my ass -- but nobody taught me finance. Everybody taught me 1 plus 1 is 2. That's math. That ain't finance. That ain't wealth, that ain't investing, that ain't saving, that ain't tax. That's basically: You made money and, f---ing, you spend it. Because when I was growing up, we spent it when it came in. My mom's check was already cut up. It was done before she even got it. She had to pick which utility bills was not gonna be on that, that month. And it was something that I didn't recognize, as a kid, that it wasn't normal. I thought everybody had to do that.

"So, when you started making money? I bought, like, seven cars and, f---ing, two houses, and all these trips, and nobody ever lifted a f---ing hand when we was at a restaurant, 10-15 people went to dinner. And I was going to VIP clubs and all this s---, like, every other week, and I just imagined making that amount of money for a very long time and they very quickly said, 'Poof! Damn! You gonna tell me, March 3rd, that this is different? It's not the same?' And it's just a lesson learned."

I bet a lot of athletes could relate to what Woodley said. Good news for Woodley is he isn't retired. You often hear this sort of talk from athletes long after their playing days are over, but Woodley has a massive fight coming up in less than two months. If he wins that one, he could very well be next in line for a title shot. He's lucky he recognized this before it's too late.

I love the idea of him going back to the basics in Thailand, by the way. Stripping away all the noise and distractions that come while preparing for a fight in the United States is very smart. Remember when he had an album coming out the Monday after his Kamaru Usman fight? That seemed like a lot to handle and an avoidable distraction. I get trying to link the two schedule-wise, but I don't think it was wise in retrospect. I'm curious how this supremely focused Tyron Woodley looks on March 21. I'm not ready to count him out.

Bucking the trend

I don't know why this happens so often, but it seems like every time a free agent leaves the UFC they stumble in their debuts elsewhere. So, it was refreshing to see both Cyborg and Sergio Pettis look so good in their respective Bellator debuts last weekend. I think both are going to have big years.

Hear and there

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Chiesa calls out Covington

After defeating Rafael Dos Anjos, Michael Chiesa keeps his post-fight interview short and calls out Colby Covington. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

If Francis Ngannou beats Jairzinho Rozenstruik in March, he should wait for a title shot. If Rozenstruik wins, he should fight Curtis Blaydes next. Remember, Ngannou is already 2-0 versus Blaydes. ... I don't understand how Michael Chiesa ever made 155. He looks great at 170. ... I don't think Colby Covington versus Chiesa happens next, but I don't hate the idea and like that Chiesa called his shot. ... Thanks to my buddy Shaun Al-Shatti, I have come to realize that this weekend is the last without a UFC event until April. Kind of wild, especially because Super Bowl weekend used to always be a marquee weekend for the UFC. ... The greatest Super Bowl weekend moment has to be Anderson Silva's front kick against Vitor Belfort at UFC 126, right? So many to choose from. ... Can we get Arnold Allen vs. Sodiq Yusuff next? ... Darrion Caldwell vs. AJ McKee is going to be, as the kids say, lit.

One last thought

I am still having a hard time comprehending the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the seven other passengers on that helicopter. I can't stop thinking about it.

It seems like everyone has at least a small connection to him, and it's worth noting he had three connections to MMA: He produced the ESPN+ show Detail, and Cormier hosts the MMA version; he's also a part owner of BodyArmor, one of the UFC's sponsors.

But, dare I say, his great contribution to our sport came in 2017, when he was asked by then-UFC fighter Leslie Smith about the benefits of a players' association at a UFC fighters retreat in Las Vegas:

"When you guys have this unity, when you guys are operating together on the same page together, it does nothing but simply fortify the sport and make the sport better," Bryant said. "Not just for the present, but also for the future generations that are coming, so it's extremely important."

This, in a nutshell, is one of the many reasons why Bryant's shocking death is so tragic. While he seemed destined for amazing things after retirement in all facets of life, his commitment to help guide the next generation of athletes to even greater things was apparent and admirable. Doing this meant a lot to him. Clearly. That answer was consistent with who he was after hanging up his sneakers for good. Not every superstar thinks that way, and that's a small part why he was so special and beloved.