10 Dark Horse Fighters That Could Contend for a Title in 2012
Diego Sanchez - Sherdog.com
As the UFC charges ahead with its jam-packed 2012 schedule, the need for consistent title challengers has never been more important.
While some things have gone according to plan, such as current No. 1 contenders Chael Sonnen and Rashad Evans earning cracks at current champions, others have not. Welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre stated repeatedly that he wanted to face Nick Diaz, but Carlos Condit had other plans.
That upset could very spawn a trend of surprising contenders for UFC gold in 2012. Let's take a look at the fighters who could play spoiler, and unexpectedly find themselves in position to challenge for the title.
Yasuhiro Urushitani (R) - Sherdog.com
No fighter may represent the term "dark horse" more than recent flyweight signing Yasuhiro Urushitani.
The Japanese fighter is the fourth addition to the inaugural 125-pound title tournament, and the former Shooto champ is largely being overlooked as a threat to the belt.
Urushitani won't have an easy road to claiming gold, as he takes on tournament favorite Joseph Benavidez on March 2 at UFC on FX 2, but the veteran is only two wins away from making himself a household name for MMA fans.
Michael McDonald - Scott McKinley/SM Photography
For 21-year-old Michael McDonald, the idea of being a UFC champion may seem a little far-fetched.
Or maybe it isn't. After all, the Californian has been competing professionally since he was in high school, amassing a record of 14-1 along the way.
McDonald has quickly adjusted to life in the Octagon, scoring three straight wins since coming over from the WEC. Next on his plate will be former WEC bantamweight kingpin Miguel Torres. A win over Torres and McDonald's name is bound to come up in title talk.
Erik Koch - Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner
Surprisingly, in a division searching for someone to push current champion Jose Aldo, featherweight Erik Koch is the forgotten man.
Despite sporting a record in which his only loss is to recent title challenger Chad Mendes, Koch's ascension up the 145-pound ladder has been derailed by injury.
Koch has twice been forced out of planned bouts with fellow rising contender Dustin Poirier, and his future in the division is a bit cloudy. However, a few wins in 2012, and he may find himself battling for the belt.
Yuri Alcantara - Sherdog.com
Brazilian Yuri Alcantara has quickly made a name for himself under the Zuffa banner, winning all three fights since joining the WEC in late 2010.
Now in the UFC, the featherweight has run his win streak to 13, finishing 10 of those fights.
The well-rounded fighter has managed to finish 23 of 27 wins, and his aggressive nature is sure to draw attention from the rest of the division, as well as UFC brass. Don't be shocked if Alcantara is mentioned in title talk at some point in the coming year.
Joe Lauzon - Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner
Lightweight Joe Lauzon is certainly not the first name that comes to mind when thinking about contenders in the stacked 155-pound division.
However, the Boston native has made a habit of winning fights that no one expects him to win. Whether it was knocking out former champion Jens Pulver to kick off his UFC career, or quickly submitting heavily-favored Melvin Guillard in his last outing, Lauzon can't be counted out of any fight.
Lauzon will look to take the next step up the ladder, as he locks horns with former WEC champ Anthony Pettis at UFC 144 on Feb. 25. Another win, and Lauzon will have cemented himself as a legitimate contender.
Nate Diaz - Rob Tatum/Bleacher Report
Nate Diaz may not garner the same amount of attention as older brother Nick, but the younger Diaz is quietly making a splash in his second term in the UFC's lightweight division.
In the past, Diaz struggled with consistency, which prompted a move to the welterweight division. After mixed results, he returned to his natural weight class. Wins over former Pride champion Takanori Gomi and WEC stalwart Donald Cerrone have put Diaz quickly in the mix.
Next on his plate will be consensus top-ten fighter Jim Miller on May 5, at UFC on Fox 3.
Evan Dunham - Sherdog.com
For many, when Evan Dunham lost two straight fights to Sean Sherk and Melvin Guillard, all mentions of Dunham's name in title talk were erased.
Now, after two wins, the Oregon-based fighter is making a case for himself yet again.
Dunham used his crisp boxing to dispatch of Shamar Bailey, before battering fellow wrestler Nik Lentz en route to a TKO win, in his most recent outing.
It appears that Dunham has regained his confidence in the cage, and a few more wins may earn the lightweight a shot at UFC gold before the end of the year.
Diego Sanchez - Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner
For Ultimate Fighter winner Diego Sanchez, it may come as a surprise that he's a heavy underdog entering his welterweight showdown with Jake Ellenberger at UFC on FUEL 1, on Feb. 15.
Sanchez, after all, is equally experienced and has previously challenged for the UFC championship (albeit in the lightweight division).
The Jackson's MMA fighter is looking to play spoiler against the hard-charging Ellenberger. And while a win for Ellenberger is likely to secure a title shot, Sanchez hopes that a victory of his own will put him one step closer to title consideration.
Alexander Gustafsson - Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner
With a 13-1 record, Swedish light heavyweight Alexander Gustafsson is quickly rising through the ranks of the 205-pound division.
Having finished all five of his UFC wins, the lengthy European is knocking on the door of the division's elite. His only loss came to fellow 205-pound contender Phil Davis, who out-wrestled the Swede, and eventually submitted him.
Since that loss, Gustafsson has scored two submissions and two TKOs, including wins over veteran wrestlers Matt Hamill and Vladimir Matyushenko.
He'll face another big test on April 14, as he takes on Brazilian Antônio Rogério Nogueira at UFC on FUEL TV 2.
Fabricio Werdum - Rob Tatum/Bleacher Report
When Brazilian Fabricio Werdum was famously knocked out at UFC 90 by current champion Junior Dos Santos, most thought it was the end of Werdum's chances at UFC gold.
After a successful stint in Strikeforce, Werdum now finds himself back in the title picture, after the promotion was purchased by Zuffa.
His dominant display over Ultimate Fighter winner Roy Nelson at UFC 143 could put him one win away from challenging for the belt. Werdum could have the chance to avenge either of his most recent losses, as he's fallen to both Dos Santos and current No.1 contender Alistair Overeem.