10 Young Fighters Who Have the Chance to Make the Biggest Impact in the UFC

Dan HiergesellFeatured ColumnistMay 10, 2013

10 Young Fighters Who Have the Chance to Make the Biggest Impact in the UFC

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    Possessing formidable youth is always key in sustaining long-term success.  For internationally potent sports entities like mixed martial arts, it often defines the line between thriving and failing.

    In the UFC's case, as it is for most combat organizations scattered around the world, successfully evolving young fighters will help mold future endeavors, whether it be for financial reasons or for the sake of competitive potency.

    Keeping this notion close to heart is important when planning for the next five or 10 years and which names in the sport are going to garnish title belts.

    By understanding which baby boomers are going to reach their pinnacle in time to impact the organization for years to follow, the UFC is able to sit back, take a deep breath and know that its product will never dissolve with time.

    Here are 10 young fighters who have a magnificent opportunity to impact, transform and transcend their respective divisions.

Honorable Mentions

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    Michael Chiesa

    Capable of submitting any lightweight, Chiesa possesses serious divisional potential moving forward.  The only problem is that once an opponent is strong enough to defend Chiesa's suffocating grappling, his average striking skills rear their ugly mug.


    Khabib Nurmagomedov

    Currently undefeated at 19-0 (3-0 in the UFC), 24-year-old Nurmagomedov packs a lot of punch in a lightweight division that has recently lost three key contenders (Frankie Edgar, Anthony Pettis and Clay Guida).  As long as he can maintain the wrestling prowess that has led to two finishes in three Octagon appearances, "The Eagle" will ascend the 155-pound ladder quickly.

Dennis Bermudez

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    Some people tend to forget how good Dennis Bermudez is because he's buried within an evolving featherweight division.

    But even though doubters continue to question his potential as a power wrestler fighting in a striker-first division, the 26-year-old has proved his critics wrong with three straight UFC victories, including a recent bout opposite Matt Grice that could capture Fight of the Year honors.

    In any case, Bermudez serves as a formidable threat against any top featherweight going forward.  He's hard-nosed, knows how to take an opponent down when he wants to, doesn't wilt under pressure and can adapt to any in-cage environment.

Kelvin Gastelum

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    At the bright age of 21, Kelvin Gastelum has fought his way from obscurity during his time on The Ultimate Fighter to a TUF winner looking to use his athleticism and heart to gain divisional momentum.

    He has professed his desire to move down to welterweight to make up for a lack of natural power and size, but Gastelum should be able to work his way to Octagon success no matter where he competes.

    With improved striking, the young talent could transform into one of the most promising athletes in the sport.

Myles Jury

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    Like a ninja tip-toeing through tall grass, Myles Jury has worked his way just outside of the lightweight division's Top 10.

    Since his stint on The Ultimate Fighter, the 24-year-old has compile three straight victories inside the Octagon by controlling the pace, implementing deadly transitions and maintaining an advantageous range while striking.

    He is unassuming compared to other flashy fighters in the division, but Jury is as well-rounded as they come and sports dangerous potential moving forward.

Erik Koch

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    Despite a disappointing performance against a ferocious Ricardo Lamas at UFC on Fox 6, 24-year-old Erik Koch is still one of the UFC's new breed of complete athletes.

    As a professional fighter, Koch has demonstrated the ability to excel in every facet of the fight game.  From awesome taekwondo to knockout power, he's been able to dissect 13 opponents with ease.

    Assuming "New Breed" can regain momentum in the featherweight division, he should be back in title contention no later than this time next year.

Erik Perez

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    Erik Perez not only possesses an intriguing future in the UFC bantamweight division due to his arsenal of striking and ground-and-pound, but he is also marketable as one of the promotion's lone Mexican-born athletes.

    So far, Perez has impressed UFC brass by ending each of his three fights in the first round, which is rarely seen in the sport today, but it's going to be his ability to attack top contenders that will shed light on his overall potential.

    If the 23-year-old hones his skills as an explosive striker and maintains his dominance in top position, he should have no trouble testing the likes of Urijah Faber, Michael McDonald, Scott Jorgensen, Brad Pickett and Mike Easton by the end of 2013.

Conor McGregor

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    Conor McGregor impressed everyone during his promotional debut last month on Fuel TV, when he finished the always tough Marcus Brimage in just 67 seconds.

    It was McGregor's 12th career finish by knockout and a short but sweet sample of what he can do as a featherweight in the UFC.

    What makes him ever more valuable to the future of the division is his loyalty to his country of Ireland.  The UFC will be able to expand its efforts on the international level by backing McGregor as a top prospect—sort of like Michael Bisping's connection with the U.K. and what he brings to the table as a financial and social bridge.

Gunnar Nelson

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    A ton of hype surrounded Iceland's Gunnar Nelson when he made his UFC debut in September.  Considering what he's accomplished through two Octagon appearances, the hype was warranted.

    The bottom line is that Nelson is already one of the best grapplers in the welterweight division, next to Georges St-Pierre and Demian Maia.  That's surprising considering his global inexperience and youth (he's only 24), but Nelson has gotten it done nonetheless.

    Undefeated at 11-0-1, "Gunni" has even more hype surrounding his future than he did when he first entered the UFC nearly one year ago.  If he can bolster his striking beyond his sensational counterpunching, Nelson should pose a danger to every welterweight situated outside of the Top 10.

Michael McDonald

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    Former No. 1 bantamweight contender Michael McDonald is proof that big things do come in small packages.

    As a power-punching "small guy," McDonald has made a living out of pursuing opponents with heavy-handed leather and punishing them until his hand is raised in victory.

    While McDonald struggled to touch Renan Barao enough to capture UFC gold when they met in February, "Mayday" will learn from the loss.  Once the 22-year-old realizes he doesn't need to knock out guys to win, he'll become an unstoppable force in the UFC.

Anthony Pettis

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    Sure, Anthony Pettis has already impacted the UFC's lightweight and featherweight divisions, but his potential won't necessarily culminate with a title shot opposite pound-for-pound king Jose Aldo.

    Instead, Pettis' potential carries a more epic arc.  As one of the youngest top contenders in the UFC with a potent stand-up game, the 26-year-old has the chance to become one of the best to ever grace the Octagon.

    Whether he defeats Aldo and captures the featherweight championship or loses and returns to 155 to meet Benson Henderson for the second time, Pettis is destined to become one of the biggest stars in MMA.

Rory MacDonald

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    At the age of 23, Rory MacDonald has already drawn comparisons to his Canadian predecessor and UFC welterweight champion, Georges St-Pierre.

    Most fighters strive for that kind of respect throughout their careers; MacDonald has earned it in just six Octagon appearances.  His blazing rise to the top of the welterweight ladder can be attributed to his elite takedowns, intelligent striking and fortified defense.

    Once MacDonald obliterates whomever he needs to in order to gain a title shot, he'll either have to wait for GSP to vacant the division or be a prime example of how a student can become the teacher.

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