10 Fighters Who Took the UFC by Storm During 2017

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterDecember 22, 2017

10 Fighters Who Took the UFC by Storm During 2017

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    By now we've all heard the takes about how 2017 was a down year for the UFC.

    With all of its biggest draws either easing into semiretirement, suspended for one reason or another or out chasing big-money boxing matches, the world's largest MMA promoter had to make do with what it had on hand.

    The results—with a few notable exceptions—were largely forgettable. As the year comes to a close, combat sports fans are more likely to remember 2017 for Conor McGregor's wild boxing match with Floyd Mayweather Jr. than anything that happened inside the Octagon.

    Not that it was all bad.

    Some people made the best of it. In fact, some of the UFC's top up-and-coming talent had themselves great years.

    Here's a look at which fighters took the Octagon by storm during 2017 and what might be ahead for them in 2018.

Francis Ngannou

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    Francis Ngannou took the UFC by storm this year in ways almost no other heavyweight ever has.

    Though he only fought twice, he found himself with a Reebok sponsorship and an increasing presence in UFC marketing effortsa big step for an athlete who was living on the streets only a few short years ago. 

    In his two showings in the Octagon, Ngannou ended world champions like the average fan ends a bag of chips—quickly and shamelessly.

    January 28 saw The Predator wipe out Andrei Arlovski in about a minute-and-a-half at UFC Fight Night. With a big audience watching on Fox, it was the start of his 2017 push. 

    He then closed out the year with a Knockout of the Year candidate against Alistair Overeem. A one-punch uppercut from his heels left Overeem stiff on the canvas, while his consciousness was in another dimension altogether.

    There was arguably no one who took the UFC more by storm in 2017, and definitely no heavyweight who did.

    — Matthew Ryder

Rose Namajunas

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    The fighter affectionately known as Thug Rose had herself a 2017, didn't she?

    After a rear-naked choke victory over Michelle Waterson at April's UFC on Fox 24 made her the consensus No. 1 contender for the strawweight title, Rose Namajunas wasn't going to be denied.

    The 25-year-old Wisconsin native came in as the underdog against dominant champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217 in November, but she stunned Jedrzejczyk with a flurry of second-round punches that led to a world-rumbling TKO stoppage.

    With the Thug Rose Era underway at 115 pounds, the biggest questions moving forward all involve who will challenge her.

    Is an immediate rematch with Jedrzejczyk on the horizon? Could Jessica Andrade be next? Or even Karolina Kowalkiewicz, who handed Namajunas her last defeat in July 2016 at UFC 201?

    Now that Jedrzejczyk has been dethroned, the strawweight division has never been more wide-open. One thing we know for sure: The division could do a lot worse than having the charismatic and intense Namajunas at the wheel.

    — Chad Dundas

Robert Whittaker

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    Robert Whittaker got to work quickly in 2017, stopping Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza on the UFC's April Fox show before turning around in a hurry for a chance at Yoel Romero and an interim middleweight championship at UFC 213 in July.

    With a win there, he was suddenly the organization's newest stara handsome face with skills to back up the inevitable push that was coming his way. He'd already had exposure through GQ Australia and was named the undisputed middleweight champion once Georges St-Pierre vacated it in early December.

    Going into 2018, the man who has finally accepted the nickname Bobby Knuckles is lined up to face Luke Rockhold for the strap at UFC 221 on Feb. 10.

    Whoever comes out of that fight will be well-positioned to be a face of the UFC for the foreseeable future, and with Whittaker having never lost at the weight, you'd have to like his chances.

    — Matthew Ryder

Darren Till

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    With the impending retirement of Michael Bisping and the maybe permanent vanishing act of Conor McGregor, there's no doubt the UFC is hungry for a new star to serve as the face of its quest to conquer Europe.

    Company brass must be thankful, then, for Liverpool native Darren Till, who capped a remarkable 2017 with his complete destruction of the enduring and affable Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone.

    Till was the perfect example of how a sporting star can be made in one unexpected night. He gave Cerrone zero chance of turning their Oct. 21 UFC Fight Night bout into something resembling an even contest, and his post-fight promo (and heated interaction with human Affliction T-shirt Mike Perry) was everything the organization wants in an emerging star: brash, confident and capable of charisma on television.

    If 2017 was a bright spot for Till, 2018 will be even brighter for both the Liverpudlian and the UFC.

    — Jeremy Botter

Volkan Oezdemir

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    Everything went perfectly for Volkan Oezdemir this year. Well, almost everything.

    Not only did the 28-year-old native of Switzerland go 3-0 in the UFC light heavyweight division and secure himself a matchup with 205-pound champion Daniel Cormier at UFC 220 on January 20, but he also gave himself a pretty sweet nickname.

    "No Time."

    Get it? Because Oezdemir has no time to waste before becoming champion. Or he'll take the title in no time at all. Something like that.

    Indeed, Oezdemir could have tied a bow on a stellar 2017 if not for an arrest in Florida in November on aggravated battery charges.

    With that legal case still ongoing, it's unclear if the charges might affect Oezdemir's status as light heavyweight No. 1 contender.

    — Chad Dundas

Paulo Costa

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    When Paulo Costa made his UFC debut in March, the MMA world took notice. Not because he was a noted super prospect, but because he had the stature of a goda good-looking young buck with a physique anyone would envy.

    Then he finished his first fight, against Garreth McLellan, in just 77 seconds. Costa followed it up with two more TKO performances, including a stoppage of Johny Hendricks at UFC 217.

    Costa's 3-0 showing in 2017 moved him directly into the hunt at middleweight. He entered as an 8-0 prospect few knew and finished 11-0 and in the UFC's official rankings.

    Costa could not have planned a better year. When the UFC needed a new Brazilian star, he appeared in one of the most marketable packages the company could have hoped for.

    — Nathan McCarter

Cynthia Calvillo

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    Cynthia Calvillo began 2017 as a 2-0 prospect fighting on the independent MMA circuit. She is ending it as a potential star in the making in the UFC's strawweight division.

    That's the status she earned by winning three fights in the Octagon in just over four months. Calvillo defeated Amanda Cooper in her Octagon debut at UFC 209 in March and then made a quick turnaround by taking out Pearl Gonzales at UFC 210 in April.

    After a wee bit of rest and recuperation, she returned in July to take out Joanne Calderwood at Fight Night 113. Not too shabby for the California native, who celebrated her 30th birthday during that stretch.

    Where does Calvillo go from here? Probably not directly to contender status at 115 pounds, but she's positioned herself well headed into 2018. Wherever she's going, if she can keep up her pace, she's going there fast.

    — Chad Dundas

Santiago Ponzinibbio

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    Argentinian Santiago Ponzinibbio is pretty much everything the UFC salivates over in an international star. He has tattoos. He's a good-looking dude. And, oh my goodness, he is as violent as hell.

    Ponzinibbio kicked off the year by beating Nordine Taleb at UFC Fight Night 105 in February, but his next boutan utter shellacking in the first round against stoic Icelander Gunnar Nelsonis what made us all sit up and take notice.

    The win set up a Fox network television fight against living bro cartoon Mike Perry, and Ponzinibbio again delivered a stellar performance in battering Perry over the course of three rounds.

    The win likely pushed Ponzinibbio into title contention or at least to the periphery of it, and it made him a face to watch in the new year.

    — Jeremy Botter

Brian Ortega

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    Brian Ortega has been steadily building his reputation as a featherweight contender since arriving in the UFC in 2014.

    During 2017, however, the undefeated Gracie jiu-jitsu specialist broke out, nabbing submission victories over then-Top 10 foe Renato Moicano as well as perennial title threat Cub Swanson.

    Ortega may well possess the best offensive jiu-jitsu skills in the entire UFC (with apologies to Demian Maia) and so far has finished each of his six fights in the Octagon by submission or knockout (one was overturned).

    As the calendar turns to 2018, Ortega has established himself as one of the top 145-pounders vying for Max Holloway's title.

    With an evolving striking game and the cardio and heart to pull off four consecutive third-round finishes during his short UFC run, Ortega has duly served notice he's one to watch.

    Will the civic-minded California native one day wind up the champ? Tune in during 2018.

    — Chad Dundas

James Vick

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    James Vick has been slugging it out in the UFC lightweight division since 2013, but he started turning heads in 2017.

    For starters, there's his sheer size. At a lanky 6'3" and with a whopping 76-inch reach, he's a giant for the 155-pound weight class. Vick knows how to use his length too, crafting stoppages in four of his last five Octagon wins.

    The last three of those all came this year, as Vick beat Abel Trujillo, Marco Polo Reyes and Joseph Duffy, making it his busiest calendar turn since participating in Season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter during 2012.

    In any other division, Vick would likely already be heralded as a future star, but in the competitive shark tank that is lightweight, he's still fighting just to get his name in lights.

    If he can keep it up, that should happen for him in 2018.

    — Chad Dundas