Looking back at the UFC’s start, you had the first generation of legends. Don Frye, Dan Severn, Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie, Oleg Taktarov, and even the occasional mention of Tank Abbott. The following generation showed hardened warriors in Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Pat Miletich, Pedro Rizzo, Matt Hughes, and Jens Pulver. From there came a multifaceted expansion of MMA to all corners of the world with its growing popularity. And with it, stars of the sport had a huge learning curve that proved you had to be skilled in many forms of martial arts. You have today's champions of the sport, warriors that are constantly training and learning to become even better than they currently are. You have Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, BJ Penn, Kenny Florian, Mauricio Rua, and Rich Franklin. So what is next? Here is a look at the top three fighters in each division that you should keep a close eye on in the next couple of years—the future of our sport.
The southpaw Dunham, currently fighting under Extreme Couture out of Vegas, has quickly become one of the most-watched prospects in recent time. He is 4-0 in the UFC with huge wins over then-undefeated Efrain Escudero, as well as his most recent victory over Tyson Griffin. Dunham started his professional MMA career back in 2007, during which he fought an impressive five times. He had his UFC debut in February of 2009 with an impressive first-round knockout of Per Eklund. Dunham is scheduled to have yet another career marker fight with former lightweight champion Sean Sherk in September.
Pearson first grabbed American fans in the ninth installment of The Ultimate Fighter series, going to the finals with his teammate from the show, Andre Winner. Fighting out of England’s Team Rough House alongside fellow Brits Dan Hardy and Paul Daley, Pearson holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and a brown belt in Judo. His stand up is a very nice mix of accuracy and power. In his first official UFC fight post-TUF, the Brit took on Aaron Riley, pounding him out until the ref stopped the fight due to cuts. He followed that fight with another victory over Denis Siver in what was an exciting show of striking, garnering both fighters with Fight of the Night honors.
Australian born Sotiropoulos is arguably the dark horse of the lightweight division. Hailing from the sixth installment of The Ultimate Fighter, Sotiropoulos lost in the semifinals on the show after an incidental eye poke, but impressed White and Co. to come back and fight in the Finale. After winning via stoppage four times in a row, the UFC decided to see how well he would stack up against the growing upper tier of the lightweight division. Standing in his way were former title challenger and two-time Fight of the Night vet Joe Stevenson and Kurt Pellegrino, who was riding a four fight win streak. Sotiropoulos went on to grind Stevenson down to a decision in what ended up being a well-deserved Fight of the Night, then handed Kurt Pellegrino a loss for a potential contender match.
The “freshest” blood on the list, Patrick has only had a single fight in the UFC to date. Fighting in smaller promotions across Canada and for the now-defunct IFL, Patrick came into the UFC riding a 10 fight win streak. His sole loss was against UFC vet Drew McFedries. On top of all his victories, he has never been to a decision and finished eight by way of submission. His UFC debut was against highly-touted Ricardo Funch, who had just lost his debut fight in a grueling three-round decision. Patrick went on to carry his streak to 11, and added yet one more submission to his record. He is scheduled to face TUF 9 winner James Wilks at UFC 120 in October.
Two-time National Champion and four-time All American Johny Hendricks is one of a few highly decorated Division I collegiate wrestlers to make his way into the UFC. Undefeated in eight professional fights, Hendricks was picked up by Zuffa and the UFC during the acquisition of WEC. His first UFC fight was against TUF winner Amir Sadollah, and even though Sadollah had only a single professional fight, Hendricks was the underdog. It took Hendricks all of 29 seconds to put the doubters a bay, getting the ref to call the fight via TKO. Hendricks then moved on to yet another undefeated fighter in Ricardo Funch, winning that by unanimous decision. His last fight was another hard fought decision victory over fellow Canadian TJ Grant. He is scheduled to fight a very dangerous Charlie Brenneman this coming weekend.
Hathaway made a quiet entrance into the UFC like a few others on this list, but what sets him apart is the situation in which he made his name known. After three wins on the undercard with little recognition, Matchmaker Joe Silva set him up against the enigmatic Diego Sanchez, making his way back to the welterweight division after a title fight against BJ Penn. Most recognized this as an easy win for Sanchez to get back into the division where he once was so dominant. Hathaway obviously didn’t get the memo, and dragged Sanchez through three painful rounds to win a unanimous decision. Hathaway looked phenomenal against very good competition, and is now scheduled to face another hardened veteran in Mike Pyle at UFC 120 in October.
In one of the most colorful ways to get signed with the UFC, Harris used a radio broadcast to hype himself up, in third person, to President Dana White. After divulging his real identity, Harris was signed for a four-fight deal. Harris made the most of his opportunity and has since had three victories in the UFC, all by KO or TKO, and all within a span of seven months. His latest victory was over newcomer Dave Branch, whom he slammed to the mat for a KO win late in the third round. Harris stepped in for an injured Jorge Rivera to face UFC vet Alessio Sakara, who is also riding a nice win-streak.
Yet another acquisition from the WEC, Munoz made his UFC debut fighting out of the light heavyweight division. After losing his UFC debut against Matt Hamill, Munoz dropped to the middleweight division and crushed his first three opponents, including Kendall Grove in Abu Dhabi. Munoz is another Division I wrestler who has made his way to the UFC and is currently a purple belt in BJJ. His last fight was this past weekend's war with Yushin Okami. A loss to Okami shouldn’t bring his peg down too far seeing how Okami was widely considered the No. 2 middleweight under Anderson Silva for a long time.
A former high school and collegiate wrestling standout, Aaron Simpson was introduced to MMA after becoming an assistant coach at his alma mater, Arizona State. Although he has a very strong wrestling background, Simpson uses it to work on his stand up without worry of going to the ground. This paid off dividends, as he looked at six ending by TKO or KO in seven victories. Picked up by the UFC after his debut in the WEC, Simpson was then riding only a four fight win streak. His UFC debut fight was against fellow WEC fighter Tim McKenzie, taking just under two minutes in the first round to claim a TKO victory. He went on to two more victories in Ed Herman and Tom Lawlor before given a chance against original bad boy Chris Leben. Leben stopped Simpson with just under a minute left in the second round to give Simpson his first career loss.
Ryan “Darth” Bader is, like Simpson, another Arizona State wrestling guru. Making his UFC debut on the eighth installment of the reality show, Bader went on to capture the title of the Ultimate Fighter, winning his fight with Vinny Magalhaes by TKO in the first round. Like his former teammate Simpson, Bader uses his wrestling base to smother opponents in top control and rain down vicious ground and pound. After winning his first three UFC fights, Bader was pitted against the Dean of Mean Keith Jardine. Taking the opportunity given to him, Bader landed a flying knee followed by a left to grab the KO win. His next opponent will be his toughest test to date, as he is scheduled to face Antonio Nogueira at UFC 119 in September.
Davis is another Division I wrestler with well-rounded capability to finish the fight wherever it goes. His debut UFC fight was against former WEC Light Heavyweight Champion Brain Stann. This was a huge jump up in competition, but Davis kept his cool and used his base wisely to wade through a unanimous decision victory. Matchmaker Joe Silva must have been impressed, giving Davis to undefeated prospect Alexander Gustafsson as his next test. Davis took it in stride and finished off with a beautifully executed anaconda choke for the victory. Davis graces the big stage again this coming weekend when he steps in for injured newcomer Stanislav Nedkov and faces Rodney Wallace.
Oh, and GO PENN STATE!!!
For those who lived in a cave this past weekend, Jones is a monster of a fighter. Jones has only lost once in his professional career, and ask anyone with common sense, and they will tell you he hasn’t lost yet. Jones made his debut fight in the UFC against the Brazilian IFL vet Andre Gusmao, winning via UD. After posting wins over Stephen Bonnar and Jake O’Brien, Jones introduced audiences to his surprisingly accurate striking techniques in a match with crowd favourite, Matt Hamill. Jones used his 6’4" frame with a ridiculous 84.5 reach to manhandle Hamill for a good part of the first round, and after knocking Hamill down, Jones made the mistake of throwing downward elbows to the face of his opponent. The elbows were deemed illegal and Jones lost via DQ. Jones came back by popular demand and has now destroyed his competition in Brendan Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko.
Todd Duffee is still widely unknown in the UFC. His gargantuan size and well-spoken post-fight interviews just add to the mystery. Duffee is the perfect example of dedication. After going 4-0 in smaller organizations, Duffee used what little money he had and bought a plane ticket to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He got a fight with the UFC and Pride FC vet Assuerio Silva, and dominated Silva until a devastating flurry of blows ended the fight just past the one minute mark in the second round. Duffee was then picked up by the UFC and after some switching around, finally had his debut against Tim Hague. It took six seconds, and the fight was over. Duffee wasn’t satisfied with breaking a record—he had proved nothing. A fight with Mike Russow would give him the opportunity, but late in the third round of what looked like a dominating UD win, Russow landed a surprise right and knocked Duffee cold. Duffee gets another chance when he faces Jon Madsen at UFC 121 in October.
Mitrione was given a chance by the UFC during the TUF 10 Finale after having a somewhat questionable attitude during the show. He was handed “The Darkness” Marcus Jones, a man of extraordinary size and power. Mitrione silenced all when Jones was knocked out cold just 10 seconds into round two. Beaming with joy, Mitrione then took on another TUF 10 castmate and YouTube legend Kimbo Slice. Again, showing everyone just how excited his was to be in the fight, Mitrione smiled his way into the second round eventually garnering a TKO just seconds before the bell. Mitrione is now scheduled to face Joey Beltran who is also undefeated in the UFC.
Another TUF 10 vet, Brendan Shuab was a heavy favourite to win the show, and he proved he was capable, making it all the way to the Finale. Standing against him was IFL Heavyweight Champ Roy Nelson, whose heavyset look had some scratching their heads. Nelson ended up winning the fight via a brutal KO, but Shuab was given a chance to come back for the UFC. Fighting out of Greg Jackson’s camp, Shuab came back to win both of his next fights in usual order of TKO. In his six victories, all have come by either TKO or KO, all in the first round, and all under 1:30. While his ground game is still questionable, there is little doubt that Shuab has the possibility of knocking anyone out. He is scheduled to face Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 121 in October.
With a season of The Ultimate Fighter twice a year, as well as the sports overall growth, the possibilities of new and highly-talented prospects getting into the UFC is growing exponentially. My original list was going to be the top five new prospects in each division, but that is a lot of writing!
The heavyweight division was a little tough, and I know there are probably better picks such as dos Junior Santos, Cain Velasquez, and Shane Carwin, but I chose not to use those three since they are already making one hell of an impact.
Undoubtedly, someone on this list could end up not making the cut, and there are a few I left out that could end up being the next big thing, so let me know what you think.
Thanks for reading!