The 15 Most Improved Fighters in the UFC

Dustin FilloyFeatured ColumnistMarch 26, 2013

The 15 Most Improved Fighters in the UFC

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    Some elite fighters, like Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre, already possess the necessary ingredients to break UFC records and secure their spots in the company's Hall of Fame.

    Others, however, need to evolve at a much more significant speed, continuously trying to seek out that recipe for success that guys like Silva, Jones and St-Pierre have each needed a lifetime to find.

    Here are the 15 most improved fighters in the UFC today.

15. Chris Camozzi

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    Experiencing only checkered success in the early stages of his UFC career, Chris Camozzi has since found his rhythm, winning four straight bouts, including a submission of Dustin Jacoby and a TKO of Nick Catone.

    Roughly five months after roughing up Luiz Cane at UFC 153, Camozzi, a middleweight, gutted out a split decision win over fellow TUF Season 11 cast member Nick Ring at UFC 158 to solidify his status as a viable contender at 185.

14. Jamie Varner

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    A former WEC champ, Jamie Varner appeared done with the sport of MMA after dropping a unanimous decision to journeyman Dakota Cochrane at TitanFC 20 in September 2011.

    But a change of heart, and several wins later has put Varner in a spot where's he's once again facing the world's best lightweights on a regular basis.

    Since losing to Cochrane, Varner has won four of five fights, including two of three in the UFC.

    Varner amazingly TKO'd the heavily favored Edson Barboza at UFC 146 in what deemed "The Upset of the Year" in 2012.

    Varner then grabbed "Fight of the Night" honors in a thrilling loss to Joe Lauzon before earning a split decision win over Melvin Guillard in his latest outing.

13. Robbie Lawler

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    It's funny how one notable win could spring a fighter back into relevance—sentiments Robbie Lawler could attest to after losing five of eight bouts in Strikeforce and then returning to the UFC with a bang.

    Seemingly one-dimensional and on the verge of retirement, Lawler, who's competed at middleweight the bulk of his 12-year career, made an immediate mark on the UFC's 170-pound division when he TKO'd perennial contender Josh Koscheck with a vicious barrage of punches at UFC 157.

    Lawler grew tired of his grappling deficiencies costing him fights, so he shored up his shortcoming by relocating from Iowa to the American Top Team MMA Academy in Coconut Creek, Fla.

    With the guidance of ATT coaches Ricardo Liborio and Conan Silveira, Lawler, who just celebrated his 31st birthday, plans to soon have the clout that he had in the UFC after winning four of his first five bouts.

12. Dan Hardy

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    Evidently, the UFC's brass never stopped believing in the abilities of Muay Thai savant Dan Hardy.

    UFC president Dana White didn't so much as threaten to give Hardy his walking papers in the midst of his four-fight losing skid that included setbacks to Georges St-Pierre and Carlos Condit.

    In response to White's show of good faith, Hardy won his next two fights in impressive fashion. Hardy first KO'd Duane Ludwig to garner "Knockout of the Night" honors at UFC 146. He then beat up on Amir Sadollah at UFC on Fuel TV 5 to prove that the win over Ludwig was no fluke.

    Although he was removed from the UFC on Fox 7 card because of a heart condition, Hardy once again owns the respect and admiration from fans and pundits that he desperately yearned for in 2010 and 2011.

11. Darren Elkins

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    It took Darren Elkins just two fights at 155 in the UFC to realize that he belonged at featherweight.

    Elkins made the descent to 145 after getting quickly armbarred and essentially embarrassed by submission virtuoso Charles Oliveira at UFC Live 2.

    The choice has paid major dividends for the 28-year-old Elkins, a winner of his last five fights, including a TKO win over Antonio Carvalho at UFC 158.

    His good fortune got even better when the UFC announced that Elkins would replace Clay Guida as the opponent of former title challenger Chad Mendes at UFC on Fox 7.

10. Cub Swanson

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    Once mainly known for absorbing a brutal Jose Aldo knockout in the WEC, 29-year-old Cub Swanson has amazingly done just about enough in the UFC to get a rematch with the Brazilian featherweight kingpin.

    Since getting choked out by Ricardo Lamas at UFC on Fox 1, Swanson has seemingly progressed in every facet of his game, reeling off four straight victories, including three by way of knockout.

    Swanson notched the most important win of his career in his last outing by besting the world-ranked Dustin Poirier at UFC on Fuel TV 7.

    Ferocious striking chops and solid wrestling and jiu-jitsu, coupled with his newfound mental clarity, make Swanson one of the few men at 145 who could pose a threat to Aldo.

9. Demian Maia

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    Each weight class presents its own challenges, but akin to Elkins and Lawler, Demian Maia wisely dropped a division to find a more logical home in the UFC.

    Getting outmuscled by the larger Chris Weidman at UFC on Fox 2 represented the final straw for Maia at middleweight.

    A former Abu Dhabi Combat Club World Submission Wrestling champ, Maia has looked nearly unbeatable since cutting the excess fat.

    In his last three fights, Maia dominated Dong Hyun Kim, Rick Story and Jon Fitch, reviving his career and establishing himself as a threat to snatch St-Pierre's strap.

8. Ricardo Lamas

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    Ever since impressing in his debut at UFC Live 4, Ricardo Lamas has looked like a bona fide world-beater.

    Lamas, who lost by way of knockout twice in his six-fight stint in the WEC, has won his first four fights in the UFC, all in enthralling fashion.

    Following exciting wins over Matt Grice (TKO) and Swanson (arm-triangle choke), Lamas scored back-to-back victories over world-ranked opponents.

    Lamas first nipped Hatsu Hioki at UFC on FX 4 before pummeling the surging Erik Koch for a TKO win at UFC on Fox 6.

    An aggressive wrestler and a gifted boxer, Lamas could garner a title shot with a win over another world-ranked foe in "The Korean Zombie" Chan-Sung Jung at UFC 162.

7. Eddie Wineland

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    The momentum of four straight wins in the WEC didn't spill over into the UFC for 28-year-old Texan Eddie Wineland.

    Wineland lost back-to-back fights to Team Alpha Male training partners Urijah Faber and Joseph Benavidez at UFC 128 and UFC Live 5, respectively, to begin his tenure with the promotion.

    But the resilient Wineland bounced back and more, knocking out bantamweight staple Scott Jorgensen at UFC on FX 3 and then stamping a split-decision win over the up-and-coming Brad Pickett at UFC 155.

    His recent run of good fortune has led Wineland to the most important fight of his career. At UFC 161, the gritty Texan will lock horns with Renan Barao with the interim belt on the line.

6. Matt Brown

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    Although Matt Brown made his UFC debut back in 2008, it took the 32-year-old Ohio native nearly four years to start realizing his potential.

    Brown, a welterweight with a 76-inch reach, has won four consecutive times since deciding to optimize his many gifts.

    After losing via guillotine to Seth Baczynski at UFC 139, "The Immortal" prevailed in four straight contests, scoring finishes in three of those outings.

    Extremely rangy, tough and intelligent, Brown could catapult his stock even more with a victory over budding prospect Jordan Mein at UFC on Fox 7.

5. T.J. Grant

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    With his back against the wall at UFC Live 6, T.J. Grant preserved his spot in the UFC's stable of lightweights with a third-round armbar of the now-retired Shane Roller.

    The victory sparked a transformation in Grant, who's since tallied three consecutive wins over seasoned veterans Carlo Prater, Evan Dunham and Matt Wiman.

    Grant's win over Wiman gave him a shot in the arm in his quest for a title shot. Grant used ferocious elbows and punches to render Wiman, a winner of five of six fights in the UFC heading into the contest, temporarily unconscious.

    From near exile to the doorstep of a title shot, Grant has proven in the last 17 months that it's never too late to turn things around.

4. Chan-Sung Jung

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    His back-to-back setbacks in the WEC now feel like nothing but a fading memory for "The Korean Zombie" Chan-Sung Jung.

    That's because in three UFC tilts, Jung has done everything in his power to etch a new identity, one any potential 145-pound title challenger would envy.

    In the process of defeating Leonard Garcia, Mark Hominick and Poirier in his last three fights, The Korean Zombie took home a pair of "Submission of the Night" awards, and received "Knockout of the Night" and "Fight of the Night" honors.

    Jung also nabbed "Fight of the Year" honors from several media outlets for his thrilling submission win over Poirier at UFC on Fuel TV 3.

    Not yet recovered from his shoulder surgery, The Korean Zombie will square off with Lamas in a makeshift title eliminator at UFC 162.

3. Constantinos Philippou

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    Committing a minuscule mistake in his entry fight to The Ultimate Fighter Season 11 delayed the meteoric rise of Constantinos Philippou in the UFC by over two years.

    Philippou, a middleweight, punished and controlled Joseph Henle until the Serra-Longo Fight Team product got caught in an armbar and had to tap out.

    However, the UFC didn't forget Philippou, and when Nick Catone needed an opponent at UFC 128, White offered him a second chance.

    Philippou lost the bout to Catone, which he took on short notice at a catchweight of 195, but he has since rebounded with five straight victories.

    The 33-year-old southpaw scored his most beneficial career win in his latest showing by TKO'ing the world-ranked Tim Boetch at UFC 155.

    If Philippou can overcome his next hurdle, former Strikeforce champ Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, he could become something few envisioned him becoming: a genuine title contender.  

2. Alexander Gustafsson

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    Like many of the fighters on this list, Alexander Gustafsson needed to get humbled before he could find his groove in the UFC.

    Following his submission loss to Phil Davis at UFC 112, the 26-year-old Swede linked up with Davis and his team at Alliance MMA to repair his deficiencies.

    The move paid huge dividends for "The Mauler," especially in terms of wrestling and submission dexterity. Gustafsson has sponged off his new teammates and utilized his newfound knowledge to win his last six fights—including two by submission and two by knockout.

    Standing 6'5" and possessing a 76.5-inch reach, Gustafsson can pick up his second straight win over a world-ranked opponent and continue to move up the light heavyweight ladder if he can upend former Strikeforce champ Gegard Mousasi at UFC on Fuel TV 9.

1. Mark Hunt

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    In the depths of the worst losing streak of his career, Mark Hunt ironically got an opportunity from White and the UFC through a technicality.

    A former K-1 champ, Hunt lost every fight he took in a four-year span from July 2006 to September 2010. In that stretch, Hunt lost six straight scraps, incredibly losing five by submission and another by KO.

    But because of discrepancies in Zuffa's deal with Japan's Pride Fighting Championships organization, Hunt was offered the opportunity to snag a hefty paycheck without ever fighting in the UFC.

    However, instead of taking the easy road, Hunt called White and said that he wanted to fight, a wish matchmaker Joe Silva made a reality when he paired "The Super Samoan" with Sean McCorkle at UFC 119.

    In what was his last loss in the six-fight losing streak, Hunt got submitted in the first round against McCorkle.

    But looking like the Hunt from his early days in Pride, The Super Samoan followed his loss to McCorkle with four straight wins, including three by brutal form of knockout.

    For his efforts, Hunt pocketed "Knockout of the Night" bonuses for his wins over Chris Tuchscherer and Stefan Struve at UFC 127 and UFC on Fuel TV 8, respectively.

    Once considered a one-trick pony with serious motivation issues, Hunt has seemingly made adjustments to his vulnerable ground game.

    If he can outshine former champ Junior dos Santos at UFC 160, The Super Samoan will have truly come full circle as a martial artist, rising from the ashes and turning his career into a genuine Cinderella story.