The most common discussions regarding MMA fighters almost always revolves around the top fighters in each weight class.
This makes sense given that almost every main event in any fight card includes two of the top-level fighters, but for those who are looking to get a glimpse at the future, sometimes it helps to look a little further down the card.
Often times it is the undercard fighters who are the ones to watch, as many of the future stars in the sport are making names for themselves by entertaining fans with their sometimes erratic, but nevertheless entertaining styles.
These young fighters have not yet perfected their craft, however they have done enough to impress even some of the harshest critics. They are the best up-and-coming fighters in the UFC.
Defeated Alex Soto at UFC 139
20 years old
The first two performances of Michael McDonald’s career in the UFC were solid, but it was his crushing victory over Alex Soto at UFC 139 that really got things buzzing for the 20-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt.
McDonald annihilated Soto in less than a minute, violently knocking him out against the cage before the referee pulled him away to tend to Soto’s limp body. The facial destruction earned him “knockout of the night” honors for the first time in his career.
Defeated Jonathan Brookins at UFC Fight Night: Shields & Ellenberger
23 years old
Featherweight fighter Erik Koch is doing his best to put the state of Iowa back on the map when it comes to mixed martial arts. With former stars like Matt Hughes and Tim Sylvia having trained there in the past, Koch leads the new generation of potential stars from the Midwest state.
At 13-1 in his MMA career, Koch’s only professional loss came at the hands of current UFC featherweight No. 1 contender Chad Mendes, who has not yet been defeated in his career himself.
Koch has since run off four straight victories, including two in the UFC and one over former The Ultimate Fighter winner Jonathan Brookins at UFC Fight Night: Shields vs. Ellenberger.
Defeated Dennis Siver at UFC 137
28 years old
It might be surprising to see a 28-year old on this list, but Donald Cerrone certainly makes the case for being a top up-and-comer with his amazing run in 2011.
“The Cowboy” has already accomplished an almost record-breaking 4-0 record and is looking like he may make it to 5-0 with a victory over Nate Diaz at UFC 141 on Dec. 30.
Cerrone’s overall skill-set is very impressive with his combination of Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu. If he makes it past Nate Diaz, look for him to be on the fast-track to the lightweight title picture in 2012.
Defeated Mike Pyle at UFC 133
22 years old
Coming off of back-to-back victories over the likes of Nate Diaz and Mike Pyle, Rory MacDonald might be the most obvious up-and-comer in the sport right now.
He has completely crushed just about everyone he has faced since becoming a professional, with his lone loss coming against former/current/something-or-other welterweight No. 1 contender Carlos Condit.
Even in that fight against Condit, one could argue that MacDonald was on his way to winning a decision if he could have only survived seven more seconds in the third round and made it to the final bell before being TKO’d.
MacDonald has been fighting professionally since the age of 16 and is well on his way to becoming a future champion if he stays on the right track.
Defeated Tom Lawlor at UFC 139
27 years old
UFC 139 saw one of the most entertaining fights in history featuring Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, but it may have been an undercard bout between Tom Lawlor and Chris Weidman that gave us a glimpse into the future of the sport.
Weidman thoroughly dominated the much more experienced Lawlor, taking him down seemingly at ease in the first round. From there, Weidman made use of his purple belt in Jiu-jitsu under Matt Serra by submitting the former The Ultimate Fighter contestant with a rarely seen D’Arce choke.
With the victory, Weidman pushed his record to 7-0 overall and as a former two-time All-American wrestler, he may be one of the few fighters who possesses the kind of skills it would take to give Anderson Silva something to think about in the future.
Defeated Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC Fight Night: Nogueira vs. Davis
27 years old
Just about everyone who is a fan of the UFC should already know who Phil Davis is, but for those who don’t, please make it your goal to pay attention to him in 2012 because you may be looking at the best wrestler at 205 pounds in all of MMA, and a potential future UFC champion.
Phil Davis has already earned impressive victories over the likes of Brian Stann, Alexander Gustafsson, Tim Boetsch and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira; but many believe that the former four-time Division-I NCAA All-American and one-time National Champion wrestler has not yet realized his full potential.
Davis was set to fight Lyoto Machida at UFC 140, but was forced out of the fight with a knee injury. A timetable has not yet been set for his return to the Octagon.
Lost to Cheick Kongo at UFC 137
33 years old
There are a number of reasons that I truly debated putting Travis Browne on this list. He’s undefeated, he has has a knockout victory over Stefan Struve, he fights out of the Team Jackson camp...
But in the end, I decided to go with the fighter who I truly believe has a significantly higher ceiling. He might be 33 years old, he might be coming off of an uninspiring loss to a fighter that Travis Browne fought to a draw against and his biggest claim to fame might be defeating Kimbo Slice; but Matt Mitrione is the best up-and-coming heavyweight in all of MMA.
Mitrione brings the kind of size, speed, athleticism and confidence that a fighter absolutely needs to be a top-level star in mixed martial arts.
Now that he has tasted defeat, expect the former NFL player to step his game up in a big way. This guy is an absolute animal when he wants to be.