MMA is undoubtedly a sport of thrills and surprises. Aside from exciting knockouts and back-and-forth slugfests, perhaps the most interesting element of shock within the UFC can be reached when a formerly unappreciated fighter rises above all expectation, displaying levels of athleticism and expertise most spectators were not aware of.
Many times has the UFC witnessed several competitors rigorously push themselves to learn, train and ultimately adapt to match the physical and mental abilities of the top-tier adversaries of their weight class. It is truly a moment of wonder when fans see a fighter nobody thought would ever escape the lower ranks of a specific division suddenly giving performances that beckon intimidation, potential and undeniable determination.
This is a list of five fighters that were previously not taken particularly seriously but have now become valid if not top contenders in their division due to their work ethic, dedication and desire to improve their skills and degree of fitness.
These newly successful fighters have proven that if you've got that fighting spirit and vital love of the game, a prosperous career is just a solid streak of rigorous practice sessions away.
Many thought this Jiu-Jitsu fighter's chances for success were greatly diminished after he was overwhelmed by lightweight gatekeeper Clay Guida. However, judging by his last three impressive wins, Rafael Dos Anjos has developed the ability to nullify aggressive wrestling and striking alike.
His victories over Mark Bocek, George Sotiropoulos and Anthony Njokuani have shown great improvements in the facets of cardio, the clinch and even boxing. His powerful knockout of seasoned boxer Sotiropoulos was the first of the Australian's career, and he was able to light up both Njokuani and Bocek with rapid punches and his signature leg kicks.
Dos Anjos clearly viewed his loss to Guida as a signal that he needed to work on his takedown defense and conditioning. At UFC 154, we saw a fighter who had a hard time defending Guida's relentless style prevent Mark Bocek from taking him down just about every time he was pressed up against the cage.
This makes sense, because when he found himself in the same position with Muay Thai specialist Njokuani, Dos Anjos assumed control in the clinch, scoring points with takedowns and knees to the legs and body.
His lack of fatigue in the later rounds of his two most recent fights have shown that Dos Anjos took his failure to compete with the energy of Clay Guida to heart. Dos Anjos seems to have no problem with going the distance and defending attacks of all sorts, firing off lethal strikes and strenuously imposing his will in the clinch along the way.
Yes, we already knew this was one of the last guys anybody wanted to get into a brawl with. But did we ever think that Nate Diaz would actually become quite possibly the most talented boxer in the lightweight division?
Diaz's unbelievable dominance over Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller proved that he has become a master at capitalizing on openings, cutting his opponent off and using distance to his advantage.
The magnificent displays of striking that led to these three wins speak for themselves. Nate Diaz has gotten so good at throwing punches that he is now able to dish out a maximum amount of damage without taking little, if any, in return.
Diaz's strikes in these fights were accurate, aggressive and patient. Almost every punch either found its way home or came inches away from doing so.
Take a look at his fight with Gray Maynard in January of 2010. The Nate Diaz we know today would never have let Gray land so many overhand punches and close the distance so easily.
Aside from the Gray Maynard fight, Diaz's most recent losses have come from fighters wisely penetrating his range, not giving him a chance to fire off any strikes and wrestling their way to victory.
The way Diaz handled skilled grapplers Miller and Cerrone shows that he has learned to use his fists to ward off strategies of this nature, firing off punches in bunches without getting too close to his opponent in the process.
Johny Hendricks has gone through one of the most incredible striking transformations in MMA history. It's like what happened to Josh Koscheck, only Hendricks is a lot more powerful and accurate with his punches.
Hendricks is a wrestler who has knocked out two top contenders in his weight class. A lot has been said about Johny's power, but what makes his punching ability so out of the ordinary is the way he lands that left hand right on the button.
It now seems that Hendricks has modified his fighting style to intricately position that destructive left hand, choosing to lead with this punch instead of tie ups or double leg shots when he comes forward.
He fought so much differently before discovering his knockout power, and now it has become his primary source of offense. Remember his loss to Rick Story back in December of 2010? No one could have predicted that the guy initiating the front choke over and over again would be the first person to knock out Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann.
Hendricks has worked his knockout technique so much that he his hands have taken the place of wrestling as his reliable base. Johny Hendricks has finally found his niche in MMA and has become much more of a threat as a result.
It's like he just woke up one morning and realized his arms and legs were three feet longer than everyone else's.
Just like Nate Diaz, Stefan Struve has learned to use his range to fire off powerful punches and keep his distance at the same time. He has also figured out how to cunningly use his long arms and legs to apply submissions in various positions normal-sized fighters wouldn't be able to.
Struve is very young, so it's understandable that it took him a few fights for him to see what a heavy advantage his size lends him in the octagon. He looked like a clumsy, nervous oddity of a human being in his first four or five UFC matches. This isn't at all the case anymore.
Stefan Struve now accurately times and measures his punches and, almost similar to Jon Jones, uses the length of his arms to keep his opponents at a distance where only he can do damage. The new Struve moves in and out and often strikes at an unexpected rate, making him even more difficult to box with.
Perhaps the greatest improvement in Struve's game, however, has to be his grappling. He has developed such a strong submission style that his guard has become just as feared of a weapon as his hands, mostly because of his armbar of Lavar Johnson right before it seemed Struve was about to get pummeled against the cage.
Stipe Miocic, who was very comfortable sitting in the half guard of Shane Del Rosario, refused to go to the ground with Struve when he was on his back during their match last September.
Stefan Struve is now a legitimate force in the heavyweight division, and the only thing scarier than his size is how good he will be when he reaches the ripe old age of 26.
Love him or hate him, the man has put in all the work necessary to become an absolutely amazing athlete.
Michael Bisping now has top-notch cardio and striking, most likely thanks to how hard he trained to measure up to the physical capabilities of Brian Stann and Chael Sonnen. These two fights completely revolutionized Bisping's career.
Most thought Chael would decimate Bisping by smothering him with his incomparably aggressive wrestling. To the dismay of tons of fans all over the world, Michael utilized a resourceful, clinch-based game plan to neutralize Sonnen's takedowns and was able to keep up with the match's rigorous pace despite all the energy he used to jockey for position against the cage throughout the fight.
While Chael ultimately won, the fact that this was a close fight at all gained Bisping a hefty amount of respect nonetheless.
Even more impressive was the victory over Brian Stann. Stann was much more tired than Bisping towards the end of the fight and failed to match the speed of the Brit's punches in the majority of their exchanges. Bisping was careful not to brawl with Stann, choosing to move in and out with multiple combinations instead to avoid the power of his opponent.
Bisping showed that his grappling ability has only gotten better since the Sonnen fight, sealing the win by taking Brian to the ground multiple times.
Welcome to Michael Bisping, version 2.0. He is much stronger, faster and smarter than the cocky underachiever he used to be and is actually living up to all the hype that surrounded him when he burst onto the scene about seven years ago. What was once an embarrassment to MMA is now one of the most well-rounded fighters in the middleweight division.