Most Underrated Fighters from 2012

Craig AmosFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2012

Most Underrated Fighters from 2012

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    As the calendar year draws to a close, we take a look back at the most underrated mixed martial artists of 2012.

    The fighters populating the following list have been included because they either garnered achievements in 2012 that went largely unnoticed, or because their long-time successes continued to draw little fanfare this year.

    For further note on the criteria, I attempted to focus on the general perceptions held by fans and media rather than rigidly adhering to a top-10 ranking. That is to say, some fighters that get love in rankings may still show up here. 

    The following 15 fighters are 2012's most underrated.

Johnny Bedford

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    In 2011, Johnny Bedford came out of The Ultimate Fighter as just another TUF washout. He did blast the highly touted Louis Gaudinot in the show's finale, but that didn't really do a whole lot for his reputation.

    In 2012, however, Bedford exhibited why they call him "Brutal" when he annihilated Marcos Vinicius in utterly vicious fashion.

    Bedford's 19-9 record will make fans pause before giving him his due credit, but his recent performances are becoming hard to ignore.

    Perhaps he'll never be the UFC bantamweight champ, but Bedford is a guy that looks to have improved in leaps and bounds since The Ultimate Fighter, and one that 135ers probably aren't all that eager to fight right now.

    He still has a way to go before making a true impact in the division, but if Bedford's 2012 performance is any indication, it's high time people realize he's not the same guy he was on the reality show.

Alan Belcher

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    Belcher is a guy that seems to get lost in the shuffle at 185 pounds. Perhaps that's a lingering effect of the bouts of inconsistency he battled during his early UFC days, or perhaps it's simply because the top of the division's ladder is just so crowded these days.

    Whatever the reason, Belcher is not a guy just hanging around. He's a legitimate contender.

    With only one fight thus far in 2012, Belcher was able to show off just how far his game has come. Long-lauded for his Muay Thai game, "The Talent" displayed some fantastic grappling en route to a TKO win over the feared submission specialist Rousimar Palhares.

    The Mississippi native will have the chance to gain a little more notice this Saturday, December 29, when he takes on long-time middleweight contender Yushin Okami.

    The fight may very well be Belcher's coming-out party and move him nearer the top of the middleweight class.

Michael Chandler

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    An undefeated rising star in the Bellator ranks, few people consider Michael Chandler a star in spite of 2011 victories over Patricky Freire and Eddie Alvarez and a 2012 knockout over Akihiro Gono.

    Clearly, 2011 was his biggest year to date, but here we are at the end of 2012 and Chandler remains an unheralded name. True, he does get some love from top-10 Lightweight lists around the web, but his reputation as a mixed martial artist remains vastly under-appreciated in MMA circles. 

    Perhaps that will change in '13, though even if he continues to build on his pristine 10-0 record next year, he will likely remain out of focus at 155. That is a product of fighting in Bellator in a sport dominated by the UFC, no doubt.

    All the guy can do is keep winning, and if his previous performances are any indicator, he'll keep on doing his part moving forward. Whether recognition follows remains to be seen.

Pat Curran

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    He only had one fight this year, but his knockout of Joe Warren is more or less the culmination of Curran's methodical rise.

    Since dropping to featherweight in 2011, Curran has amassed a 4-0 record and captured Bellator's 145-pound championship. That's quite an accomplishment, but the UFC-centric MMA universe tends to overlook accolades garnered outside the biggest promotion in the world.

    People are beginning to take notice though, as Curran now stands as one of Bellator's brightest stars. And he's still just 25. 

    Curran looks poised to vault into super stardom before long, and his 2012 performance gives every indication that he'll enjoy a successful trip.

T.J. Grant

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    Though he may never be a champion, Grant has become a very tough guy. He is one that is ignored far too often.

    Grant hooked up with the UFC back in 2009, but didn't truly put it together until he dropped from welterweight to lightweight in 2011.

    Since then, he's compiled three straight wins, including a pair of decisions in 2012. 

    Grant's most impressive win to date is his September victory over Evan Dunham, a performance that won him a Fight of the Night bonus, as well as a handful of new fans.

    Still, Grant often gets overlooked at 155 because there are so many talented fighters there. It seems he'll have to continue building his streak in 2013 before he starts getting the credit he deserves.

Johny Hendricks

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    Hendricks, a 29-year-old wrestler with a granite left hand, began garnering notice in 2011 and continued his strong showing this year, but it seems like he'll have to get a win next year before he's officially labeled a title contender.

    He is on this list because the UFC passed him over to hand Nick Diaz a welterweight title shot. While fans have come to appreciate his ridiculous power and overall skill, clearly his employers continue to fall short when handing Hendricks his due credit.

    Of course, politics are at play, the UFC surmising that it can make a few more bucks with Diaz vs. Georges St-Pierre than Hendricks vs. St-Pierre, but the whole situation is representative of Hendricks getting less—credit, opportunity, what-have-you—than he should.

Andrey Koreshkov

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    Few fighters had a bigger 2012 than Koreshkov, though you wouldn't know it from the complete absence of attention the Russian receives.

    The Bellator standout amassed a perfect 5-0 record in 2012 but garnered almost no fanfare for his efforts. That he outclassed both Lyman Good and Marius Zaromskis on the feet similarly tends to get glossed over.

    Perhaps it will take a 2013 victory over current Bellator welterweight champion Ben Askren before Koreshkov does gain a little recognition. That is a result that is definitely not out of the question given how impressive he's been lately.

    And as good as he already is, it's worth noting that "Spartan" is still just 22. He looks every bit the part of a top welterweight prospect, even if few consider him so.

Ricardo Lamas

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    Lamas continued his featherweight rise in 2012 by scoring a dominant decision win over Hatsu Hioki. The victory came on the heels of a pair of 2011 stoppages over Cub Swanson and Matt Grice.

    Though his most recent win finally forced people to start paying attention to Lamas, many seem to have chalked the upset up to Hioki being overrated rather than Lamas just being that good.

    While I wouldn't defend Hioki's plummeting reputation at this point, I would assert that Lamas is quickly becoming one of the best competitors in a division that is becoming one of the UFC's most exciting and talented.

    Lamas' next challenge is set for January 26, 2013, when he'll take on the dynamic up-and-coming Erik Koch.

    Note that either Eddie Wineland, who is tearing it up since dropping from featherweight to bantamweight, or the surging Cub Swanson would also work here. I went with Lamas because he's the least known fighter of the trio and generally receives less recognition than his counterparts.

Jordan Mein

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    When you think welterweight prospects, you tend to think names like Rory MacDonald, Erick Silva and Gunnar Nelson. Much less frequently will Mein's name come to mind, and that's beginning to seem a little foolish.

    With 34 career fights already in his back pocket as a 23-year-old, Mein's only stumble in 2012 was a split decision loss to Tyron Woodley. Otherwise he went 2-0, notching victories over Tyler Stinson and Forrest Petz.

    Whether or not Mein has the same ceiling as MacDonald, Silva or Nelson is up for debate, but there is no question the young Canadian is a much-overlooked prospect and a very underrated athlete.

    He hasn't broken into the mainstream yet, but it shouldn't be long now. Keep an eye out for him in 2013.

Constantinos Philippou

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    After losing in his 2011 UFC debut, Philippou has spent the better part of the past two years growing as a fighter and garnering the results indicative of that growth.

    Philippou's ascension has been a methodical one, with more substance than flash. While this development bodes well for the future of the 33-year-old, it has caused some to overlook just what a danger he is.

    The biggest test of Philippou's career will come on Saturday, December 29, when he takes on the surging Tim Boetsch. A win would cap off a terrific year and vault Philippou into title contention, albeit, not at the front of the line.

    An argument could be made that Philippou is still too untested to declare underrated, and such a claim is not without merit. But given how good The Ultimate Fighter reject has looked as of late, anticipating future accomplishments seems more a matter of when, not if.

Mike Pyle

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    Pyle entered 2012 as a journeyman who most believed had seen his best days pass him by. Though he compiled a decent 4-3 UFC record between 2009 and 2011, Pyle looked destined to hang out in the middle of the welterweight pack until Father Time no longer allowed him to compete.

    Boy has this past year challenged that perception.

    In 2012, Pyle went 3-0, scoring a trio of first-round knockouts. Most impressively, Pyle was able to stop Josh Neer at UFC on FX 3, certainly no menial achievement.

    It seems that Pyle is proving to be a late bloomer, but the 37-year-old won't stay out of the spotlight for long if he extends his run into 2013. Regardless of whether or not that proves to be the case, Pyle showed that he has a lot more left in the tank than what people thought 12 months ago.

Chael Sonnen

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    Earlier this month I cataloged the 15 most overrated fighters from 2012, and included Sonnen's name. I posited the argument that Sonnen could be considered both overrated and underrated, and since I labeled him overrated, it's only fair to tell other side of the story here.

    Sonnen gets a lot of attention for what he says outside the Octagon, a trait that tends to get people excited about his fights and buy in to his self-created hype. But then when he goes out and gets walloped by Anderson Silva, many fans are left wondering why they believed in him.

    In that way, Sonnen is overrated.

    But in the midst of feeling like they've been swindled by Sonnen's self-hype, fans often forget that he is indeed a top fighter in the UFC. They forget that he is more than a guy that can talk his way into a title fight—he can also win his way there, as exemplified by his runs culminating in 2010 and 2012 middleweight championship bouts.

    In that way, Sonnen is underrated. And that's why his name is here.

Ronaldo Souza

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    "Jacare" is a guy people used to talk about more than they do nowadays, but he's really only beginning to come into his own.

    It would be misleading to claim that he's entirely ignored by the MMA community, but his 2011 loss to Luke Rockhold has caused many to discount his chances as a legitimate top middleweight. That's a mistake. 

    With his otherworldly grappling ability and developing striking repertoire, "Jacare" hit his stride in 2012, to little fanfare, scoring a pair of stoppage wins over Bristol Marunde and Derek Brunson. 

    His next test will come opposite UFC and TUF veteran Ed Herman on January 12.

Stefan Struve

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    Struve just can't seem to get the respect that should naturally follow going 6-1 over seven fights with six stoppages.

    The Dutch submission artist frequently populates the back half of top-10 heavyweight lists, but many within the MMA community seem to believe that it's only a matter of time before it all falls apart. 

    Strange, seeing as Struve is just 24.

    Youth, momentum and constant improvement simply haven't been enough to convince a good many people of Struve's bright future, but it's hard to explain how a guy that gets so little credit performed so well in 2012.

    Perhaps most importantly, Struve took out Stipe Miocic this year, a fighter who fit the mold of what had previously been his kryptonite—a big puncher that could get inside and blast away. If he truly has figured out how to deal with such opponents, the sky is the limit for "Skyscraper."

Daniel Straus

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    Since June of 2009, Straus has gone 17-1. In 2012, he went 4-0. Yet, not everyone has heard of him and still fewer consider the Bellator fighter much of a player at 145.

    Straus lacks any real big names on his hit-list, though he did take out Marlon Sandro in May. The win stands as his most valuable to date but was really just a drop in the bucket of a fantastic year. 

    It's difficult to figure how Straus would factor into the UFC's stacked featherweight scrum, but the fact that few are even asking the question is a little ridiculous. 

    Perhaps it will take another solid year for the powerful wrestler to gain notice, but it remains a shame that his incredible 2012 has been largely ignored in MMA circles.