37 Fighters Poised to Replace the UFC's Current Top-Tier Talent

Craig Amos@@CAABRMMAFeatured ColumnistAugust 8, 2013

37 Fighters Poised to Replace the UFC's Current Top-Tier Talent

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    No one stays on top forever. This truism fits anywhere, but there are few places it fits better than the sport of mixed martial arts, where physical strength and durability play such a critical role, and constant evolution is a necessity.

    Eventually, all fighters drop off—some abruptly, some slowly. But they are always replaced by new competitors.

    Here we will take a look at the next wave of UFC fighters that will soon begin to replace the older, outgoing names that currently form the promotion's crop of top-tier competitors.

    We are not necessarily looking at fighters who are likely to win a UFC title, but rather fighters who will soon emerge as contenders in their division and earn an impressive ranking.

    List inclusions must either be young in age or MMA experience, or both, and cannot currently figure into a division's top tier at this point. So no Rory MacDonald, Phil Davis, Michael McDonald, etc.

    Basically, we are looking at fighters signed to the UFC who are about to enter their prime.

    Some inclusions fit this mold only just barely, but where there was a gray area, it simply came down to the author's discretion.

Heavyweight

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    The UFC's heavyweight division features a whole lot of top-tier fighters on the wrong side of 30. Some could be said to be in their prime, but it won't be long before there is some turnover near the top, as guys like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Frank Mir, Fabricio Werdum, Roy Nelson and Josh Barnett may fall out of contention fairly soon.

    The following is a list of three UFC heavyweights that could soon take over for some of those guys, establishing themselves as new members of the heavyweight top tier.

     

    Travis Browne

    If not for the slip that cost him a victory against Antonio Silva, Browne's position in the heavyweight top tier may already be solidified. As it stands now, he's right on the fringe.

    With heavy hands and an overall game that is becoming more and more dangerous, Browne is poised to make the jump to contender status. A win over Alistair Overeem at UFC Fight Night 26 would go a long way to speeding up the process.

     

    Nikita Krylov

    Some facts about Krylov: He just signed with the UFC. He is Ukranian. His first fight will be this August 31 at UFC 164. He is 14-0 with 14 first-round stoppages. His nickname is "The Al Capone."

    If your interest didn't pique at 14-0 with 14 finishes, I'm sure "The Al Capone" did it.

     

    Stipe Miocic

    Miocic came to the UFC as a well-regarded prospect, but he faltered against Stefan Struve and generally failed to convince fans that he was indeed the next big thing. It's too early to say that Miocic will become a superstar, but his recent victory over Roy Nelson suggests he will at least make it to the division's upper echelon.

    Miocic is a powerful striker and good wrestler, but he has struggled to avoid damage in the past. If he is able to turn in more performances like that against Nelson at UFC 161, where he favored technique over heedless knockout hunting, he could factor into the heavyweight title picture for the next five years, at least. 

Light Heavyweight

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    The light heavyweight division features some terrific young talent, like Jon Jones, Alexander Gustafsson and Phil Davis. But many of its top fighters are aging and in decline—Mauricio Rua is no longer the fighter he once was, Dan Henderson is 42, "Little Nog" is 37 and Lyoto Machida has just three wins over his last seven fights.

    There could be some turnover coming at 205. Unfortunately, the UFC doesn't have a lot of incoming stars there. The following two have the potential to supplant outgoing contenders, but both are young only in terms of experience, not age.

     

    Robert Drysdale

    Drysdale is 32, but he's still just a pup when it comes to the MMA game. It's somewhat concerning that his game is so jiu-jitsu heavy since the pinnacle of the division is littered with tough wrestlers. But Drysdale still has a legitimate chance to make an impact.

    His promotional debut was recently foiled when an injury forced him off the UFC 163 card, but he'll hopefully be back soon and return ready to show off his world-class ground game.

     

    Jimi Manuwa

    Manuwa is a strike-first fighter who has a ton of power, both standing and on the mat. I don't believe he has the upside, nor the time, to dethrone the likes of Jon Jones, but he has as good a chance as anyone else to climb into the division's top tier.

    The Brit is 2-0 thus far in the UFC and should soon receive the opportunity to fight a top-10 opponent.

Middleweight

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    Aside from Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold, there isn't much talent at middleweight that is less than 30. While many guys—like Michael Bisping, Vitor Belfort and Anderson Silva—continue to operate at a high level, some contenders may begin to drop out over the next year or two.

    Luckily, there is a handful of guys, some young and some just approaching a later prime, ready to step in and replace them.

     

    Francis Carmont

    The critics have cooled on Carmont since his last two wins have been of the controversial variety, but that is more keeping him on the precipice of contendership rather than eliminating him from it.

    At 5-0 in the UFC, the Frenchman could soon replace one of the division's top guys. He'll need to prove he can win more convincingly, but don't count him out just yet.

     

    Cezar Ferreira

    A winner of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, Ferreira has looked the part of a future contender since joining the UFC. 

    At 28, and with some solid performances under his belt, it shouldn't be long before the UFC tosses him into the fire and allows him to prove that he belongs in the middleweight's upper tier. 

     

    Uriah Hall

    He received rave reviews for his time on The Ultimate Fighter, but fell hard in his official UFC debut. That doesn't mean it's the end for Hall though. Indeed, he has a good chance to climb into the top five at middleweight someday.

    The Jamaican is a dangerous striker who built a nice little highlight reel on TUF. If he is able to shore up the holes in his game, like wrestling defense, he could be a real terror.

     

    Lorenz Larkin

    Larkin lost a controversial decision to Francis Carmont in his UFC debut, but he could still do some damage at 185. The former Strikeforce contender is an athletic power-puncher with good takedown defense and a willingness to jump into harm's way to deliver a blow.

     

    Ronny Markes

    Markes is often left out of the conversation when we talk future contenders, but he deserves recognition as such. He hasn't floored fans by producing highlight reel finishes or partaking in heart-racing wars, but when if comes to pure effectiveness, he's looked the part of a future star.

    Markes is a well-rounded fighter and has recently leaned heavily on his wrestling to grind out victories. Using takedowns and ground control in combination with dirty boxing and ground-and-pound, the Brazilian has quietly put together a 3-0 UFC record.

    It shouldn't be long before he is given the opportunity to break into the division's upper crust.

     

    Antonio Braga Neto

    Neto is 25 and one of the most dangerous submission grapplers competing in the UFC's middleweight division. He's had just one UFC fight thus far, but it took him less than two minutes to finish his opponent.

    The Brazilian will need to continue his development and round out his game, but he certainly has the potential to one day—one day soon—be a factor atop the middleweight ladder.

     

    Brad Tavares

    Tavares is another youngster quietly climbing the middleweight ranks, positioning himself to move into the fray sooner rather than later.

    He is a tough wrestler with heavy hands and has shown the ability to wear opponents down. A win this August 28 at UFC Fight Night 27 will mark another (quiet) step toward making an impact.

Welterweight

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    It seems like there is always a lot of talent in the UFC's 170-pound weight class. There is currently, and while some of that talent is aging, much of it should remain intact for at least a few years to come.

    Still, there are a number of up-and-comers knocking on the door, looking to jump into the fray. 

     

    Kelvin Gastelum

    He entered The Ultimate Fighter with minimal expectations in tow but proved doubters wrong, taking middleweight tournament honors.

    Now the youngster takes his career to 170, where continued success may very well await. 

     

    Jordan Mein

    Mein crashed the UFC party, knocking out Dan Miller in the first round of his first fight with the promotion. He stumbled while trying to built on that momentum against Matt Browne, but let's not forget, Mein is still just 23.

    A bright future awaits the young Canuck. He, along with fellow Canadian Rory MacDonald, represents a considerable portion of the division's future.

     

    Sergio Moraes

    Moraes failed to take home The Ultimate Fighter title, but the show is just the beginning for him, not the end.

    Since losing in the TUF finale to Cezar Ferreira (at middleweight), Moraes has gone 2-0 with two submissions. He appears ready to at least take a stab at jumping up in competition. Hopefully he'll soon receive the opportunity.

     

    Gunnar Nelson

    The submission specialist from Iceland has transitioned nicely to the UFC, gaining two victories in two goes. His latest win over Jorge Santiago was somewhat underwhelming, but at 25, the best of Nelson is still over the horizon.

    He'll have to round out his game by improving his standup if he hopes to contender for a title, but it's almost a certainty that he rises high enough to make the division's upper tier.

     

    Tarec Saffiedine

    Some probably consider Saffiedine part of the welterweight's top tier already, but I'm including him since he still hasn't competed inside the Octagon.

    Saffiedine is well-rounded, implementing fine striking technique, adequate wrestling and a solid submission arsenal.

     

    Erick Silva

    The Jon Fitch loss quelled some of the excitement surrounding Silva, and even an impressive followup victory didn't bring it all back.

    But even with reduced hype, Silva is a future contender at 170, and the days when he begins to make a true impact are not very far off. He could potentially land a meaningful fight before the year is out and parlay that into a title run.

     

    Robert Whittaker

    I was concerned that Whittaker may get flushed out by a tough wrestler, but he handled Colton Smith nicely. Now the 22-year-old looks poised to move on to bigger and better things.

    His first major test will come later this month when he faces off with fellow TUF winner Court McGee.

     

    Tyron Woodley

    Woodley is 31, but he still hasn't peaked as a fighter. His inability to handle Jake Shields' smothering wrestling offense revealed some gaps in his game, but Woodley is a fine athlete and will be able to overcome that exposure.

    I expect him to end up as an upper-tier welterweight and I don't expect the transition to be a lengthy one. Whether he winds up a title player is another question, but he should at least settle in as a high-level gatekeeper soon enough.

Lightweight

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    The lightweight division is very deep, hosting a handful of good young competitors. Many of the division's top-tier guys could stick around for a bit, and if they do, they can expect to be joined by the following crew in the near future.

     

    Edson Barboza

    Can we give him a mulligan for the Jamie Varner loss yet? He's done everything possible to make that defeat look like a one-time stumble.

    In fact, Barboza's two outings since that loss have been convincing enough that the deadly striker appears ready to try his hand at a contender.

     

    Rafael dos Anjos

    Dos Anjos is a classic late-bloomer that looks ready to make an impact. He is a dynamic striker, carries vastly improved takedown defense and wields some pretty threatening submissions.

    He will have the opportunity to make good on his recent growth later this month when he takes on Donald Cerrone in the biggest fight of his career.

     

    Myles Jury

    Still only 24, Jury holds a 3-0 UFC mark. His inability to capture a TUF title was disappointing, but he maintains a perfect 12-0 career record and looks ready to enter the lightweight upper echelon. 

    He'll have to take on Mike Ricci before he is handed a top-10 opponent, but Jury has given fans no reason to doubt that he will succeed in this ambition. 

     

    Rustam Khabilov

    Just call him Mr. Suplex.

    The former Sambo world champion has transitioned to MMA nicely, looking pretty damn threatening to this point. Khabilov is now 2-0 as a member of the UFC and has finished both of his opponents before the first bell.

     

    Khabib Nurmagomedov 

    Another Sambo world champion from Russia, Nurmagomedov is dangerously close to being too high-profile to include on this list. But because of his youth and the lack of a top-10 opponent on his hit list, "The Eagle" remains eligible.

    Nurmagomedov will have his breakout opportunity this September when he faces off with Pat Healy in Toronto.

Featherweight

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    Perhaps no division in the UFC has a more exciting future than featherweight. Champion Jose Aldo is one of the best and most exciting fighters on the planet, and even if his body forces him to move to 155, a lot of depth will remain.

    More than that, featherweight is rife with up-and-comers looking to make a splash very soon. 

     

    Dennis Bermudez

    The TUF product has been in some close contests of late, but he just keeps winning. Now on a four-fight win streak, Bermudez is knocking on the door to the the top of the division.

    With tremendous wrestling, developing striking and a very hard head, Bermudez is one of several talented youngsters at 145 critical to the division's future. 

     

    Diego Brandao

    Brandao beat Bermudez to become a TUF champion but lost in his followup fight. Concerns over his ability to go hard for 15 minutes at a time persist, but they have dissipated somewhat after he put together a strong showing against Joey Gambino.

    And though the key to Brandao's future may be grounded in conditioning and mental focus, he remains a dangerous finisher capable of putting away even high-level opponents.

     

    Jimy Hettes

    His loss to Marcus Briamge raised a red flag—is Hettes too one-dimensional?

    It's a fair question, and one Hettes himself will have to consider. But if he is able to build up his striking and figure out how to be more successful with his wrestling, he'll be a future title challenger, let alone a member of the featherweight's top tier. 

     

    Max Holloway

    Holloway is 3-2 in the UFC and is still, amazingly, just 21. He is a dangerous striker with a mean streak and seems to improve his wrestling and grappling every time out.

    If he can continue to develop as he is, he'll enter the division's top tier within a year or two and join the title picture shortly after that.

     

    Rony "Jason" Mariano Bezerra

    The Brazilian has posted a 3-0 UFC record since emerging victorious from The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil. He has demonstrated a solid all-around game but excels when he can get top position on the mat.

    For promotional reasons, Jason has yet to fight anywhere but Brazil since joining the UFC. But it's officially time to either bring him out for bigger and better things or bring a big name to his home country, because it is high time he was given a chance to establish himself as a top-10 featherweight.

     

    Erik Koch

    Injuries have slowed Koch, but he'll have the chance to pick up a signature win this August 31 when he takes on Dustin Poirier.

    Koch is still just 24. He is one of the most athletic featherweights currently competing and has become dangerous anywhere the action takes him.

    I see him as a potential future champion. He'll become a top-tier fighter in no time. 

     

    Conor McGregor

    You've no doubt heard the hype by now—Conor McGregor is a future UFC star.

    That label and the expectations that come with it are often given too freely, but in McGregor's case, the projection seems accurate. The Irishman is a terrific striker and is capable of keeping the distance well enough so that he doesn't give away any free takedowns.

    He still has some work to do before he becomes an impact player at 145, but the talent is there. Sooner or later (probably sooner), McGregor will join the top tier of featherweight talent and gain recognition as a title threat.  

Bantamweight

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    If Dominick Cruz and Renan Barao can get healthy, and Michael McDonald continues to develop, the bantamweight class is set for the next seven or eight years, even if guys like Urijah Faber and Brad Pickett fade away over that stretch.

    But there is so much more on the horizon for this division, it could very well become one of the UFC's strongest, especially if the following three fighters pan out.

     

    T.J. Dillashaw

    The latest stud to emerge from Team Alpha Male, Dillashaw has cut through the UFC bantamweight division since losing in the TUF finals to John Dodson.

    Dillashaw has always been a good wrestler and solid grappler, but his hands are now catching up, and that makes him a terror at 135. It won't be long until he's considered a top bantamweight.

     

    Dustin Kimura

    Born in 1989, Kimura displayed some awesome grappling ability in his debut victory with the UFC. He owns a 10-0 record overall and has recorded nine stoppages.

    He may not be as close to breaking out as most of the guys on this list, but he might be closer than you think. His upcoming match with Mitch Gagnon will tell us a lot about how quickly we can expect to see Kimura's rise.

     

    Erik Perez 

    Perez hasn't beat a UFC contender yet, but that's only because he hasn't fought one. He's done absolutely everything that can possibly be expected of a fighter since he hooked up with the promotion, going 3-0 with three first-round stoppages.

    And he is just 23.

    At UFC Fight Night 27, Perez will take a step up in competition to battle Takeya Mizugaki. If he wins that bout, a shot at a top-10 foe will surely follow.

Flyweight

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    The UFC flyweight class is still in its infantile stages and much of its top tier has several years of prime left. But the division remains shallow.

    The following three fighters could round out the top tier very soon, joining guys like Demetrious Johnson, John Moraga, Joseph Benavidez, Ian McCall and John Dodson near the top.

     

    Ali Bagautinov

    Bagautinov, the 2012 World Combat Sambo champion at 57 kg, recently signed on with the UFC. The Russian owns a 10-2 career mark and has won eight straight.

    Since he still hasn't fought in the Octagon, his road to the top tier may be longer than other flyweights, but the division remains sparsely populated, which means upward mobility can be achieved quickly. 

     

    Louis Gaudinot

    If Gaudinot is able to consistently perform like he did when he took on John Lineker, then it won't be too long before he's near the top of the weight class. It shouldn't be long before he receives the opportunity to take on a flyweight representing the division's upper tier.

     

    John Lineker

    Lineker, 23, is currently riding a three-fight win streak. The Brazilian possesses a lot of power, is a fantastic athlete and is improving every time he competes.

    To make it to the next level, he'll have to learn to pace himself for 15 minutes at a time and control his strikers a little better. If he can make the necessary adjustments, it won't be long before Lineker is up there alongside the division's best.