20 Young MMA Fighters Destined for UFC Greatness

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJuly 25, 2011

20 Young MMA Fighters Destined for UFC Greatness

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    In some ways, MMA is like a lot of other sports. Across the board, the younger guys, the phenoms, the tantalizing prospects, tend to capture the imagination.

    Here are 20 young fighters I believe could hit it big on the biggest stage (that would be the UFC). I didn't limit this list to current UFC fighters, given that the UFC can pretty much sign whomever they want. I did, however, define young as 25 or under, with apologies to Junior dos Santos and Jake Ellenberger, among others.

    Finally, "greatness" is a bit of a slippery term. I don't want to imply that I think every one of these fighters will be superfly hall of fame champion some day. So maybe what I really mean to rank is those on the path to goodness, if not greatness.

20. Ronny Markes

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    Weight class: Light heavyweight
    Record:  11-1
    Age: 23

    The Shooto light heavyweight champ got the call of a lifetime recently when the UFC tapped him to replace the injured Stephan Bonnar at UFC on Versus 5, where he will take on Karlos Vemola.

    It's a deafening knock of opportunity for Markes, but perhaps it's Vemola who should be nervy. Markes has taken all but two of his victories by stoppage, and all but four in the first round.

19. Paul Sass

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    Weight class: Lightweight

    The master of the Sassangle hooked another victim in his UFC debut last October. It marked his eighth submission win by triangle choke and garnered Submission of the Night honors.

    A foot injury has slowed him down, but he'll return this October in Washington, D.C.

18. Charles Oliveira

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    Weight class: Lightweight
    Record: 14-1-1
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    The bloom is off the Oliveira rose these days, following a loss to Jim Miller and an illegal knee strike that turned a win over Nik Lentz into a no-contest ruling.

    And it doesn't get any easier. The Brazilian will face lightweight contender Donald Cerrone on Aug. 14.

17. Bryan "The Beast" Baker

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    Weight class: Middleweight
    Record: 15-2
    Age: 25

    A knockout artist with a taste for the classics, Baker defeated Joe Riggs and Jeremy Horn in his last two Bellator fights.

16. Edson Barboza

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    Weight class: Lightweight
    Record: 8-0
    Age: 25

    This Muay Thai wrecking machine recently downed Anthony Njoukani, an impressive and promising fighter in his own right.

    We’ll see what he can do as a follow-up against Ross Pearson this August in Rio.

15. Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier

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    Weight class:  Featherweight

    The Diamond defeated Josh Grispi on New Year’s Day in the Octagon debut for both fighters. Poirier made it two for two in the UFC after defeating Jason Young last month.

T-14. Jeremy Stephens

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    Weight class: Lightweight
    Record: 20-6
    Age: 25

    The hard-hitting Lil' Heathen has been in the fight game quite a while for a 25-year-old. A decision win over Danny Downes in June was his fourth in five and showed he was more than a knockout machine.


T-14. Erik Koch

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    Weight class: Featherweight
    Record: 12-1
    Age: 22

    Koch may be one of the sport's fastest-rising featherweights. He is currently on a three-fight win streak and won his UFC debut by first-round knockout. He faces Ultimate Fighter winner Jonathan Brookins this September in New Orleans.

13. Vyacheslav Vasilevsky

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    Weight class: Light heavyweight
    Record:  15-1
    Age: 23

    Don’t ask me how to pronounce his name. I’m just telling you to remember it.

    M-1 Global's current light heavyweight champion is one of the most exciting prospects on the European scene.

12. Pat Curran

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    Weight class: Lightweight, featherweight
    Record: 15-4
    Age: 23

    Curran is the best lightweight in Bellator not named Eddie Alvarez, and is currently competing, and competing well, in the promotion’s featherweight tournament.

    Certainly not a stretch to think he could fight—and succeed—in the UFC someday.

11. John Hathaway

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    Weight class: Welterweight
    Record: 15-1
    Age: 24

    He lost a little steam after a loss to Mike Pyle and a dicey decision win over Kris McCray. But the highly regarded prospect will have a great chance to get back on track against Pascal Krauss at UFC 138.

10. Guram Gugenishvili

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    Weight class: Heavyweight
    Record:  11-0
    Age:  25

    M-1 Global's reigning heavyweight champ has only been taken out of the first round twice. At 6'5" and 249, he is large. He’s also mean. And it’s also just a matter of time, in my opinion, before he makes his way to the UFC.

9. Jung Chan-Sung “The Korean Zombie”

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    Weight class: Featherweight

    The friendliest zombie in the world (outside the cage, anyway) employed four different submissions (including the cringe-inducing twister) to garner 11 victories in his young MMA career.

8. Michael McDonald

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    Weight class: Bantamweight
    Record: 13-1
    Age:  20

    On short notice, McDonald pulled out a split decision over Chris Cariaso at UFC 130.

    It will be verrry interesting to see who the UFC throws next at the biggest phenom in the short history of the promotion’s 135-pound division.

7. Renan Barao

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    Weight class: Bantamweight
    Record: 26-1-1
    Age: 24

    Perhaps one of the more unsung fighters in this category.

    Barao won his UFC debut by unanimous decision in May. This Jose Aldo training partner was supposedly set to fight Demetrious Johnson at UFC 130, but it fell through after Mighty Mouse moved up to replace Brad Pickett in the main event. It's an area of the fight card Barao could see himself if he stays on his present course. He'll get his biggest chance yet when he faces Pickett at UFC 138.

6. Demetrious Johnson

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    Weight class:  Bantamweight

    Mighty Mouse beat big-name bantamweights back to back (say that five times fast) to begin his UFC career. As a result, he found the fast track to stardom and will have the fight of his life when he faces bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz for the strap at UFC on Versus 6 in the nation's capital this fall.

5. Gegard Mousasi

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    Weight class:  Light heavyweight
    Record:  31-3-2
    Age: 25

    The 2012 Olympic boxing hopeful is eligible for this list for seven more days (as of publication date). Opinions may differ on Mousasi (particularly regarding his fight with Keith Jardine), but this Fedor Emelianenko training partner seems headed for huge things.

4. Rory MacDonald

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    Weight class: Welterweight
    Record: 11-1
    Age: 21

    This Canadian welterweight is already dominating dojos despite being barely old enough to buy a round of Molsons.

    Everybody’s favorite phenom will have a chance to advance his UFC record to 3-1 when he tangles with Mike Pyle this August.

3. Dominick Cruz

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    Weight class: Bantamweight
    Record: 18-1
    Age:  25

    Eligible for this list for another six weeks, the UFC's bantamweight belt-holder is not yet known in the same way as are many of his champion-level contemporaries--including his vanquished UFC 132 opponent, Urijah Faber. But that may be about to change.

    With a fight against fellow young buck Johnson in the works, followed by the inevitable rubber match with Faber and perhaps a superfight with Jose Aldo, Cruz could be on the verge of a memorable run of greatness.

2. Jose Aldo

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    Weight class: Featherweight
    Record: 19-1
    Age: 24

    It’s probably easy to argue that Aldo isn’t on the verge of greatness, because he’s already there. On the surface, that’s hard to refute, given that he’s the UFC's reigning featherweight champ.

    Rather than run the fool’s errand of denying his success, I’ll say instead that he may be on the verge of a higher level of greatness. Namely, that he could be the greatest featherweight in MMA history. That’s a pretty good verge, if you ask me.

    His fight with Kenny Florian at UFC 136 will be an excellent barometer on that front.

1. Jon Jones

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    Weight class: Light heavyweight
    Record: 13-1
    Age:  24

    I don’t imagine much explanation is needed here.

    Quite simply, he’s on the verge of an all-time greatness few have seen before.