THE FIGHTERS TO WATCH IN UFC’S TEN WEIGHT DIVISIONS
Every year that goes by, there’s a new crop of talent that appears on the scene who seem destined to do great things in the following year. But as we wrap up 2015, who are the fighters to watch in 2016? When 2010 ended with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua scheduled to defend his light heavyweight title against former champion Rashad Evans in March, who could’ve guessed that three months later, it was rather Evans’s teammate, rookie Jon Jones, who was destined to face Rua instead, and rather defeat Rua with relative ease to go on to become the greatest champion ever in the light heavyweight division?
On New Year’s Eve of 2012, a prospect fought in a London-based MMA organization called Cage Warriors Fighting Championship (CWFC), and won their lightweight championship to become a two-division champion (he was already their featherweight champion). However, instead of fighting for CWFC, he was signed to the UFC in 2013 and has since become the hottest sensation of the mixed martial arts world. Conor McGregor now finds himself in a similar situation: the undisputed featherweight champion of the world deciding whether or not he wants to become the undisputed lightweight champion as well. But who are the next Conor McGregors?
We are now concluding 2015, and fighters are already being foreshadowed as the “next big thing” in the UFC. Let’s take a look at all ten of UFC’s weight classes, and decide who are the fighters to watch in 2016.
WOMEN’S 115 LBS: KAROLINA KOWALKIEWICZ (8-0)
When you’re already being compared to the champion of your division after your UFC debut, then you’ve successfully opened eyes. Much like Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Karolina Kowalkiewicz is a Polish Muay Thai striker who made her mixed martial arts debut in May of 2012, and has gone undefeated since then. Kowalkiewicz’s most impressive win prior to her UFC debut was against Japanese prospect Mizuki Inoue (8-1 at the time), but Kowalkiewicz really made her mark upon defeating Randa Markos in her UFC debut, nearing into the top ten just one fight in.
The division’s infancy is certainly in Kowalkiewicz’s favor. A couple more wins against other top ten competitors like Rose Namajunas or Tecia Torres might see Kowalkiewicz face her fellow countrywoman Jędrzejczyk or Claudia Gadelha for the title in 2016.
WOMEN’S 135 LBS: VALENTINA SHEVCHENKO (12-1)
Much like Karolina Kowalkiewicz, Valentina Shevchenko made her UFC debut at UFC on FOX 17 on December 19th, and scored an upset win over an established name in the division’s top ten. In the case of Shevchenko, it was over former Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Champion Sarah Kaufman. What was even more impressive is that Shevchenko took the fight on a little over one week’s notice after Germaine de Randamie was forced out of the bout.
Though the division is backed up with a potential Holm-Rousey booking for July not making room for more than two title fights, 2016 could serve as an opportunity for Shevchenko to score more victories over top ten competitors, like former title contender Sara McMann.
125 LBS: LOUIS SMOLKA (10-1)
Louis Smolka played the villain in a storybook plot which saw him and Irishman Paddy Holohan main event the October 24th Dublin card after it was ravaged with injuries that took Dustin Poirier-Joseph Duffy and Stipe Miocic-Ben Rothwell off the card. A thrilling back-and-forth saw Smolka submit the Irishman in the second round with a rear naked choke, improving his record to 10-1, with his only loss coming by way of split decision to former title contender, Chris Cariaso.
A bout against Ian McCall, who himself is in the top ten despite a record of 2-3-1 since his UFC debut, would be a good test for the 24-year-old Smolka.
135 LBS: THOMAS ALMEIDA (20-0)
Thomas Almeida’s biggest mainstream appeal might appear to be his 20-0 undefeated record, which is the third-longest in mixed martial arts right now (with Luis Rafael Laurentino being 31-0, and Kairat Akhmetov 23-0), but rather, what sets Almeida apart from these other undefeated fighters is his level of competition. Wins over names like Anthony Birchak, Brad Pickett, and Yves Jabouin make Almeida an undefeated fighter in a league of his own. What’s more is that Almeida finished all three by KO/TKO in relatively short time. This success has landed Almeida in the top ten without even beating a top ten opponent.
Similar to the women’s bantamweight division, the men’s bantamweight division seems backed up for 2016. The winner of T.J. Dillashaw-Dominick Cruz is basically all-but-confirmed to fight Urijah Faber in mid-2016, leaving an opportunity for maybe one more title fight in late-2016, which could be taken by the returning Raphael Assuncao, or flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson if he’s successful against Henry Cejudo, or potentially the bantamweight champion might move up to fight McGregor at 145 in late-2016 (especially if it’s Urijah Faber, who just coached The Ultimate Fighter against McGregor).
This diminishes hope for an uprising talent like Almeida to get a title shot in 2016, but fights against Bryan Caraway or the loser of Dillashaw-Cruz would be excellent opportunities for Almeida to increase his profile en route to a 2017 title shot.
145 LBS: YAIR RODRÍGUEZ (6-1)
Despite being nowhere near the top ten, Yair Rodríguez has become a recognizable name in the UFC in large part due to Joe Rogan and his enthusiasm for Rodríguez’s fighting style. A flashy striker with spinning attacks and trip takedowns, Rodríguez is a coveted prospect for the UFC: a young, entertaining talent who could be pivotal in helping to break into the Mexican market, which the UFC has begun doing over the last two years.
A fallen Cain Velasquez has stifled UFC’s hope to have a big flagship Mexican champion to headline shows every time they take a trip south-of-the-border, but Rodríguez could be to the UFC now what Conor McGregor was in 2013—a prospect who could eventually become a title contender, and if all the stars line up, a title match down the road in Mexico could make Rodríguez the next Velasquez: the promotion’s biggest Mexican star.
In the interim, opponents for Rodríguez need to be recognizable names to increase Rodríguez’s profile, but also winnable. At featherweight, Diego Sanchez fits the bill perfectly.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the “big five” divisions, and not all of them will be prospects. Some of the biggest stars in the sport will be the fighters to watch in 2016—one of whom has already been a champion. Another fighter to watch hasn’t even fought yet (… in mixed martial arts). But another is a flashy striker about to fight the #2-ranked fighter in his division, and is possibly one more fight away from a title shot. Keep it locked on MMA Manifesto for Part 2 of “UFC in 2016: Fighters to Watch”!