15 Fighters Who Have Yet to Reach Their Potential

Dwight Wakabayashi@WakafightermmaCorrespondent IIMarch 20, 2012

15 Fighters Who Have Yet to Reach Their Potential

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    No one likes an underachiever. Elite level athletes and mixed martial artists are driven not by how good they are, but by how good they can possible be. They are constantly pushing forward, always evolving and trying to get a leg up on the guy in the gym over there.

    When you are competing against the best in the world, you know you are good enough, so what makes a Jon Jones or Jake Ellenberger gut and sweat it out on the mats day after day after day? Potential.

    The potential of the next big league or promotion and what it brings. The potential of the next big contract and payday and what it can do for your life. The potential to some day be the king of the mountain as the very best in your weight class. The potential to be a legend in your craft.

    All the fighters on this list are damn good already but show the signs to be so much more in the future and one day possibly occupy the top of the mountain. There are so many young talents in the sport that there is no way to get them all. Here is a start.

15. John Dodson

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    Age: 27

    Record: 12-5

    The recent Ultimate Fighter Bisping-Miller winner is like the Tazmanian devil when he gets inside the cage and can only get better with more technical training and experience. His raw explosiveness jumps out of the screen when he fights, and he also seems to know when and how to channel that abundance of energy.

    It is hard to know how high Dodson can take his talents, but he lives in New Mexico and trains at Jackson MMA. Need I say more?

14. Stefan Struve

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    Age: 24

    Record: 23-5

    Stefan Struve is the only heavyweight on this list and does that say something about the future of the heavyweight division? Regardless, the Dutch fighter was a very tough choice to make because he has already lost opportunities to fulfill his potential. Every time it feels like he is primed for a step up in his career he seems to hit a stumble.

    Age was the deciding factor here as Struve is only 24 years old and has a wealth of fighting experience already. One can't help but think that with the sheer size of his frame and the time to fill it out with power and skills that Struve will one day soar to heights in the division.

13. Michael McDonald

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    Age: 21

    Record: 14-1

    With the addition and push of the lighter weight classes to the spotlight in MMA, fans are getting treated to a whole new wave of prospects. Enter bantamweight Michael McDonald.

    In his first three fights under the bright lights of the UFC, McDonald has one Fight of The Night bonus and one Knockout of the Night bonus.  He will be making a big jump into the deep end of the division when he faces Miquel Torres at UFC 145 in April. There is no question that the sky is limit for McDonald, and the outcome of his next fight will indicate how fast he will get there.

12. Nate Diaz

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    Age: 26

    Record: 15-7

    Nate Diaz makes this list on his potential to be relevant in two weight classes throughout the rest of his career. The younger of the fighting duo has already failed in his first attempt at welterweight, but he has admitted that his heart wasn't totally in it the first time.

    Diaz has established himself as a lightweight contender for years to come, and his natural frame allows him to push that up if he wishes. He has shown vast improvement in all aspects of his game; every time he comes out and seems to learn the good things from his big brother while disregarding the rest.

11. Joseph Benavidez

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    Age: 27

    Record: 16-2

    Joseph Benavidez has already reached his full potential at bantamweight and only Dominick Cruz stopped him from being the king of the hill. The introduction of the flyweight division to the world has injected a new life into the Team Alpha Male veteran.

    It may have been tough for him to keep his mind on the training and improvement knowing that he may not get another shot at the current bantamweight title holder any time soon. He has switched his focus to the flyweight tournament and showed new purpose with a knockout of Yasuhiro Urishitani in his semifinal match.

10. Diego Brandao

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    Age: 24

    Record: 14-7

    Diego Brandao is like John Dodson and many other TUF Alumni on this list. The show seems to be the best breeding ground for potential stars, and Brandao fits the bill to a tee.

    The youngster's unbelievable submission of Dennis Bermudez in the TUF 14 Finale burst him into the consciousness of MMA fans. Brandao is lightning fast and fearless in his cage approach and will get a chance to show his evolving game against Darren Elkins at UFC 146 in May.

9. Douglas Lima

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    Age: 24

    Record: 21-4

    Douglas Lima is one of two fighters on this list that is outside of the UFC right now. The Bellator welterweight contender has made his mark thus far with slick submissions and a crushing right hand bomb.

    He has climbed up the ranks very fast in the last year of his career, and he is set to fight Ben Askren for the Bellator welterweight title. With impressive wins over Ryan Ford, Terry Martin and Ben Saunders, it is clear that Lima has the goods for the big show and can only get better from here.

8. Jon Jones

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    Age: 24

    Record: 15-1

    We all know that Jon Jones has already conquered his division in stunning fashion, but it his potential to battle the biggest that lands him on this list.

    I believe that Jones has the potential to be a two-division champion unlike any other the world has ever seen. Remember Brandon Vera's early career prediction that he would win the light heavyweight title then move up and challenge for the heavyweight title? That statement was meant for Jones, and he has many years left to do it.

7. Rory MacDonald

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    Age: 22

    Record: 12-1

    It is incredible to think of how good Rory MacDonald is at only 22 years old, and it's downright scary to think about just how good he could be.

    I live in the land of GSP and as good as people up here like to boast George is, they are boasting that "Ares" will be even better. He has dominated the likes of Mike Pyle and Nate Diaz already, and let's not forget he had a three-round war with the interim champion Carlos Condit.

    MacDonald is set to face Che Mills next month at UFC 145 in Atlanta, and it won't be long until we are talking about him for a title fight. As long as GSP does not hold the title. 

6. Renan Barao

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    Age: 25

    Record: 28-1

    Nova Unaio bantamweight Renan Barao is already among the best bantamweights in the world. His 29 fight undefeated streak is the current longest in the sport. The man has not been defeated in seven years, and his recent decision win over Scott Jorgensen solidified his place in the division

    The next fight will be a step up to the best of the best, and one can't help but think he will be right in the mix to get the winner of Cruz-Faber III. The Brazilian fighter is as well rounded as the come and is only going to get better with age.

5. Jake Ellenberger

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    Age: 26

    Record: 27-5

    Jake "The Juggernaut" Ellenberger has 27 wins in his career, and when you look closely at those wins, you see that he has so much more in him that we haven't even seen yet. The former United States Marine has an incredible 17 knockouts in his 27 wins and has relied mostly on punching power for victory.

    Ellenberger's game and star sky-rocketed in 2011, and I don't see much stopping him in the near future. He has power in his hands and his grappling, and he has now placed himself in perfect position to battle the sports elite, challenge for the title and reach his full potential.

4. Anthony Pettis

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    Age: 25

    Record: 15-2

    Anthony "Showtime" Pettis comes exactly as advertised. His awesome stand-up skills and innovative kicks are extremely entertaining and effective, but Pettis has so long to go to reach his full fighting potential.

    As time goes on and his wrestling and take down defense improves, there will be no stopping the former WEC lightweight champion. His head kick win over Joe Lauzon pushed for an immediate title shot, and he already has one win over the current UFC champ Benson Henderson.

    Just wait until Pettis evolves his game a bit more to handle the best wrestlers in the division as well.

3. Pat Curran

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    Age: 24

    Record: 17-4

    Chicago, Illinois featherweight Pat Curran is another fighter on this list who isn't in the UFC, but it shouldn't be long. Curran just won the Bellator featherweight tournament in devastating fashion over veteran Joe Warren.

    Curran's relentless display of effective strikes showed his young, budding game is already at the elite level of the sport. Time and tutelage from older brother Jeff and Team Curran will only elevate Pat's game and help him get to the UFC and fight to his full potential.

2. Alexander Gustafsson

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    Age: 25

    Record: 14-1

    Even though he is only 25 years old, many people in mixed martial arts have been tagging Alexander Gustaffson with the word potential for a long time now. 2011 saw him take a step up and man handle Matt Hamill and Vladimir Matyushenko to confirm many people's beliefs.

    Now, Gustaffson is set to really get it rolling by headlining a debut card in his home country of Sweden against a dangerous Thiago Silva. It's unsure how much a rusty Silva will test the big Swede, but there is no doubt that he is going to get much better as his career goes on. The potential for him is an exciting fight against Jon Jones in the not too distant future.

1. Edson Barbosa

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     Age: 26

    Record: 10-0

    Edson Barboza has the potential to be the lightweight Anderson Silva of mixed martial arts. He has an undefeated 10-0 record and held a title when he entered the UFC. In the first four fights of his UFC career, he has landed three Fight of the Night bonuses and an unprecedented spinning wheel kick Knockout of the Night.

    Barbosa has the frame, speed and range. He is born and bred to fight, and that puts him to the top of this list. He is a natural in every way, but he has also displayed a drive and willingness to improve and evolve in his training at The Armoury in Jupiter, Florida.

    Next up is Evan Dunham, and I see him beating Dunham easily on his way to a life changing 2012.

    Dwight Wakabayashi is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report MMA, MMA Editor at CKSN.ca and guest blogger for Sportsnet.ca

    Catch him on Facebook and Twitter at wakafightermma.