10 UFC Championship Dark Horses for 2014

Dan Hiergesell@DHiergesellFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2014

10 UFC Championship Dark Horses for 2014

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

    Getting a UFC championship these days is as tough as keeping it.

    But with divisional mainstays and promotional legends Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre both out of action for the foreseeable future, new doors are starting to open.

    Now is the time for unheralded dark horses to grab a hold of the spotlight and maneuver to the top of the pile.

    Here are 10 names who could come out of nowhere and capture UFC gold in 2014.

John Lineker

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    The UFC flyweight division is constantly in search of new top contenders.  As arguably the most shallow weight class in MMA, new names rarely surface.

    But through all the highlight-reel performances put forth by champion Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson and top contenders Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson, John Lineker has risen to the occasion.

    The 24-year-old Brazilian has racked off three straight finishes, proving that he possesses some of the heaviest hands in the division.

    The only problem is that he can't make weight.  Lineker has missed the 125-pound mark in three of his five UFC appearances.

Hector Lombard

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    The power is finally starting to show—and at an extensive rate.

    As one of the more naturally gifted welterweights in the world, Hector Lombard has finally been able to tap into his concrete striking.

    The fact that his judo background will help him stay afloat when he encounters elite wrestlers in the future is simply a bonus.

    If Lombard can keep swinging and landing, he'll punch his way to a title shot by 2015.

Dustin Poirier

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    With Chad Mendes and Cub Swanson winning by the handful, Dustin Poirier is often overlooked as a true title threat to champion Jose Aldo.

    Now, while "The Diamond" has to win at least two more fights in 2014 to challenge for featherweight supremacy, his evolution as a fighter has drastically increased at the bright age of 24.

    Gifted with precise striking, swarming ground-and-pound and unpredictable grappling, Poirer is on his way to the top.

Gegard Mousasi

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    Always unmentioned when discussions turn to top middleweight producers, Gegard Mousasi stands to have the most unprecedented year of any UFC fighter.

    Scheduled to battle divisional newcomer and former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida in mid-February, the Iranian is one impressive win away from immediate title consideration.

    Not for nothing, but 34 professional victories, including finishes over Mark Hunt, Ronaldo Souza and Renato Sobral have led "The Armenian Assassin" to this point in his career.

Tyron Woodley

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    Tyron Woodley has busted onto the scene like a wrecking ball shot through a glass window.

    After recording a 2-1 divisional record in 2013, including polarizing first-round knockouts of veterans Jay Hieron and Josh Koscheck, "The Chosen One" has thrown a wrench into the welterweight title scene.

    Now on a path to battle Carlos Condit at UFC 171, Woodley will finally get his chance to prove he's capable of destroying the best fighters in the world.

Khabib Nurmagomedov

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    The man with the hardest name to spell in MMA has finally reached the pinnacle of the UFC lightweight division.

    On the heels of absolutely bullying the best mid-tier talent the promotion has to offer, Khabib Nurmagomedov will attempt to upset top dog Gilbert Melendez at UFC 170.

    A victory will extend the Russian's record to 22-0, which would most likely get the 25-year-old powerhouse a title shot when Anthony Pettis returns from injury.

Ronaldo Souza

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    Blessed with raw power, elite submission skills and an in-cage bravado comparable to only the best in the world, Brazilian Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza is destined for greatness.

    The only problems are that Souza currently trains with fellow middleweight standouts Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida as well as the UFC not giving him high-profile fights, considering his next Octagon showing will come against a fairly unknown Francis Carmont.

    If the path to the title is training partner-free and matchmaker Joe Silva is feeling generous, then one of the best grapplers in the world will get a title shot in 2014.

Travis Browne

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    The cat is out of the bag.  Travis Browne is a legitimate heavyweight contender.

    There's just something about a 6'7" striker who possesses the dexterity to land front kicks while standing, yet still have a strong enough base to have never been taken down in the UFC.

    Combine that with a rubber chin and foam stomach and Browne translates into the perfect candidate to dethrone high-motor champion Cain Velasquez later this year.

    The only obstacle standing in his way is Brazilian submission specialist Fabricio Werdum (assuming he doesn't sit out), who has been on an Octagon tear of his own.

Phil Davis

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    After the dust settles between Jon Jones, Glover Teixeira and Alexander Gustafsson, Phil Davis will be there to sweep it up.

    Arguably the most underrated contender in all of the UFC, "Mr. Wonderful" has looked like "Mr. Perfect" since his promotional debut back in 2010.

    The only hiccup was a five-round title eliminator loss to Rashad Evans by unanimous decision.  Besides that, Davis has been a wrestling machine hellbent on punishing proven light heavyweight standouts.

Chael Sonnen

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    I know I'm going to catch some flack for this, but hey, crazier things have happened.

    We all know the UFC has a soft spot for Chael Sonnen title fights, especially when it comes to the middleweight division.

    And with Anderson Silva finally out of the picture, the best trash-talker in the world could potentially verbally jab his way back into contention.

    Of course, this is assuming he destroys Wanderlei Silva later this year and officially reembarks on his middleweight pilgrimage.

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