UFC Fighters to Watch in 2014

Riley Kontek@@BigRIlesMMAFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2014

UFC Fighters to Watch in 2014

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    The year 2013 was great to the prospects of the UFC. Many either made their debuts or continued building upon their legacy as they attempted to fulfill their dreams of becoming world champion.

    Some prospects were built up as the next big thing, and some flew under the radar. Either way, they're guaranteed to be staples of the UFC and make a big impact.

    Here are some fighters to watch this year. They will be around the title picture or serve as dark horses to make a title run in 2014. 

Conor McGregor

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 14-2 (2-0)

    Conor McGregor is the highest-profile prospect in the UFC due to his numerous call-outs, brash personality and fun fighting style. They've gotten him attention from a wide range of fans and media.

    He is a great striker who showed he could handle himself on the ground after blowing his knee out early in a fight with Max Holloway. That was almost as impressive as his UFC debut, when he knocked out the respected Marcus Brimage.

    His unorthodox striking makes him hard to game-plan for if you plan on standing up with him. He is expected to headline an event in Ireland this year after he recovers from his knee injury.

Brandon Thatch

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    Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 11-1 (2-0)

    Brandon Thatch took the UFC by storm in 2013, winning two quick fights and ascending the 170-pound ladder.

    He came in and showed his aggressive, powerful stand-up. He kneed and punched Justin Edwards into oblivion before taking the wind out of Paulo Thiago's sails with a knee to the solar plexus.

    His striking is awesome, but we have yet to see his ground game in the UFC. If he keeps knocking dudes out the way he is, he could be on the fast track to the welterweight Top 15.

Travis Browne

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    Record: 16-1-1 (7-1-1)

    Travis Browne has been in the UFC since late 2010, but he became a heavyweight to watch because of his performances last year.

    Coming into 2013, he had beaten guys like Stefan Struve and James McSweeney, but he did not have a marquee win that could consider him a contender.

    By the end of the year, he had destroyed Gabriel Gonzaga, Alistair Overeem and Josh Barnett via knockout to launch himself into title talks. In fact, he could be a win away from challenging the champion.

    2014 will be a big year for Browne if he keeps up these performances.

Khabib Nurmagomedov

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

    Record: 21-0 (5-0)

    Khabib Nurmagomedov has been in the UFC for about two years now, and he's swiftly become a star of the lightweight division at just 25 years old. 

    His sambo has made him a dangerous man, although he is well-rounded. In the UFC, he has beaten contenders such as Pat Healy, Gleison Tibau and Abel Trujillo.

    He has rarely been in trouble in any of his fights and has mostly dominated in his time in the Octagon. In the crowded lightweight division, he could climb into title contention with one more big win.

Josh Sampo and Alp Ozkilic

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Sampo's Record: 11-2 (1-0)

    Ozkilic's Record: 9-1 (1-0)

    I include Josh Sampo and Alp Ozkilic together because they have similar skill sets in the same division and are teammates. Both men made their UFC debuts on short notice at the end of 2013 and looked impressive doing so.

    Sampo choked out Ryan Benoit at the The Ultimate Fighter 18 Finaleusing superior grappling and a suffocating top game to gain his back and slap on a rear-naked choke. In a light flyweight division, he could be just a win or two away from a title shot.

    The same goes for Ozkilic, who debuted at UFC on Fox 9 opposite Darren Uyenoyama. Though many thought he would be at a grappling disadvantage (I was not one of them), Ozkilic dominated the stand-up and held Uyenoyama on the mat for a one-sided win.

    Both of these guys have made flyweight a deeper division and could have a big 2014. Ozkilic is already scheduled to fight again in less than two weeks, when he takes on newcomer Louis Smolka, while Sampo will take on Zach Makovsky at UFC 170.

Cat Zingano

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 8-0 (1-0)

    Things went from great to worse for Cat Zingano in 2013. But 2014 can only go up for the eventual women's title challenger.

    After being signed by the UFC, she got a big chance when she fought Miesha Tate early in the year. After a back-and-forth contest, she knocked Tate out with a great combination of knees and punches to not only earn a coaching position on TUF but a title shot at Ronda Rousey.

    Then, everything went wrong.

    Zingano injured her knee before taping the reality show, which not only bumped from her coaching spot but from the next title shot. Who got it? The woman she had just beaten, Tate.

    Still recovering and getting back into the gym finally, Zingano is a top contender until she's ready to take a fight. However, she'll at least have to wait until after UFC 170 in February, when Rousey will take on Sara McMann.

Dustin Poirier

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    Record: 15-3 (7-2)

    Dustin Poirier has been and always will be the dark horse of the featherweight division—that is, until he breaks into title contention, which he is close to doing.

    He is incredibly talented, and he ended 2013 better than he started it. After taking a late-notice bout with contender Cub Swanson and losing honorably, Poirier came back to beat Erik Koch handily before knocking out an overweight, psychotic Diego Brandao.

    With the win over Brandao, Poirier showed how impressive he can be. He is a Top 10 featherweight who's looking toward a title run in 2014. He can get a shot if he continues to win impressively.