25 MMA Fighters to Watch in 2013

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterSeptember 27, 2012

25 MMA Fighters to Watch in 2013

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    There are lots of reasons why a fighter is worth watching over the coming year. Maybe they're a compelling prospect or a recent signee to a major promotion. Maybe they're ready to make the leap from undercard to main card, or main card to main event. Maybe they're at a critical, sink-or-swim juncture in their careers. Maybe they're returning to the spotlight after a long absence away.

    This list attempts to combine all the reasons why a fighter might be watch-worthy and distill it all down into one master watch list for the coming year. As MMA calendars begin to fill up for 2013, these are 25 names any fan should commit to memory.

25. Shawn Bunch

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    Promotion: Bellator
    Record: 0-0
    Division: TBD

    With the summer Olympics going down in 2012, plenty of attention went to athletes who could transition from the medal stand to the cage. Shawn Bunch is the first to sign on the dotted line.

    Honorable mention goes to Steve Mocco, a 2008 Olympian who has announced his intention to compete in MMA. He currently trains with American Top Team and has signed with Resurrection Fighting Alliance

24. Ryan Jimmo

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 17-1
    Division: Light heavyweight

    Close observers were lukewarm on Ryan Jimmo when he first entered the UFC. Seven record-tying seconds later, he was red hot.

    People are eager to see what he'll do in a return engagement. As the video attests, pop-and-lock fans worldwide are surely hoping for another W.

23. Jordan Mein

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    Promotion: Strikeforce
    Record: 25-8
    Division: Welterweight

    Jordan Mein has beaten the likes of Josh Burkman, Joe Riggs and Evangelista Santos, among others. Not bad for a 22-year-old.

    It's all thanks to his blistering standup, maybe the best in all of Strikeforce. I especially enjoy those stiff combos. 

    Mein had a setback against Tyron Woodley, but he got back on the horse against Tyler Stinson. In a way, the Woodley loss might have been good for him, in that it kept him partially concealed from the hype radar.

22. Tyson Nam

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    Promotion: Bellator-ish
    Record: 12-4
    Division: Bantamweight

    You may know him better as that guy who knocked out Eduardo Dantas.

    Tyson Nam was considered warm target practice for Bellator's bantamweight champ when the two hooked up for a charity fight in Brazil for the Shooto promotion. So people thought it was kind of weird when the target fought back.  

    Nam is apparently now considering various contract offers. Here's hoping Bellator does the right thing by Nam and they get all this contract stuff resolved.

    UPDATE: As of Sept. 26, Nam was cleared to join the World Series of Fighting promotion.

21. Gunnar Nelson

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 9-0-1
    Division: Welterweight

    For years, Gunnar Nelson has been camping out on prospect watch lists. So much so that he's almost become over-hyped in hardcore circles before even breaking into the UFC. 

    But this Saturday at UFC on Fuel 5, Nelson finally makes his Octagon debut and fights DeMarques Johnson. He's still undefeated, still a world champion grappler, still a BJJ black belt under Renzo Gracie and still very young at just 24 years old.  

20. Ellis Coleman

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    Promotion: N/A
    Record: 0-0
    Division: Probably bantamweight

    I don't know what Gabby Douglas is talking about. The only flying squirrel in my mind from the 2012 Olympics was wrestler Ellis Coleman.

    Coleman lost in the first round of the games, but he was a YouTube sensation long before thanks to this craziness. Will he make the leap? Who knows? He's only 21. But it's clear he's an unusual talent. And he's been seen rolling with current/former Bellator champs Ben Askren and Joe Warren, so it's not like he's unaware of the most logical pro career path in front of him.

19. Eric Kelly

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    Promotion: ONE Fighting Championship
    Record: 8-0
    Division: Featherweight

    The fast-rising Filipino has lead weights on the ends of his arms and legs. Less than a month ago, he clubbed Jens Pulver into submission; sure, Pulver gassed and is diminished these days, but still easily the biggest win of Kelly's career.

    Originally set to fight for the strap Oct. 6 at ONE FC 6, contract issues with another promotion will keep him out of ONE FC action until December at the earliest. 

18. Chris Cariaso

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 14-3
    Division: Flyweight

    The triumvirate of Demetrious Johnson, Joseph Benavidez and Ian McCall absorb most of the spotlight when it comes to the 125ers. But if he stays on this roll, Chris Cariaso could change that. He's just 1-0 as a flyweight, but he's won three in a row and eight of his last 10. Comfortable on the feet or on the ground, Cariaso hits hard enough—and fights hard enough—to give anyone fits. 

17. Khabib Nurmagomedov

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 18-0
    Division: Lightweight

    After finishing Kamal Shalorus and decisioning Gleison Tibau in his first two UFC engagements, Nurmagomedov has captured MMA's attention. I say, give him Clay Guida next. That's right. Muckin' around time is over.

16. Francisco Rivera

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 9-2
    Division: Bantamweight

    Francisco Rivera may be hitting his stride. Now undefeated in his last four bouts, "Cisco" put on a striking clinic at UFC 149 against the more ballyhooed Roland Delorme. He might be the hardest hitter in the bantamweight division.   

15. T.J. Grant

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 19-5
    Division: Lightweight

    Since dropping to lightweight, T.J. Grant has rattled off wins over Shane Roller, Carlo Prater and, just last weekend at UFC 152, Evan Dunham. That last one came extra bloody, and it earned Fight of the Night honors.

    Grant has looked very good at 155 pounds and seems to be getting better. He has slick submissions, he'll exchange till the closing bell and he's got a ton of heart. As far as I'm concerned, he's the top sleeper in a very deep division. If I'm someone like a Mark Bocek or a Joe Lauzon or a Gray Maynard, I'm screening my calls to avoid getting matched up with this guy.

14. Vinny Magalhaes

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 10-5 (1)
    Division: Light heavyweight

    Vinny Maglhaes has always been intriguing for his world-class jiu-jitsu. But he became a lot more so in the past couple of years. All he did after Dana White showed him the door was win the M-1 Global light heavyweight title, which he vacated for another shot in the UFC, which he capitalized on with a win last weekend over Igor Pokrajac, in which he showcased some peerless jiu-jitsu in flipping Pokrajac and locking on an armbar. It should have been Submission of the Night.

    I think he could be ready to join the main card sooner rather than later. 

13. Hacran Dias

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 21-1-1
    Division: Featherweight

    He tried out for The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, but he was so good that they just passed him through and gave him a contract.

    The Nova Uniao member hasn't lost in more than three years, and in June, he won his UFC debut over the well-respected Yuri Alcantara. Dias gets you to the ground and can submit you there in a heartbeat, or just ground-and-pound the starch out of you.

    Featherweight is a pretty lean division right now. If "Barnabe" can win a couple, he could be on a fast track to the top level. 

12. Attila Vegh

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    Promotion: Bellator
    Record: 28-4 (2)
    Division: Light heavyweight

    I like Travis Wiuff as much as the next person, but he's not Randy Couture over there. Still, when Attila Vegh ended him in 25 seconds to win the Bellator Light Heavyweight Tournament, it was a watershed moment for Vegh.

    Let's see what he can do against some elite competition. If he can take the belt from Christian M'Pumbu, that would be nine in a row. 

11. Wagner Prado

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 8-0 (1)
    Division: Light heavyweight

    After an accidental eye poke from Phil Davis prematurely ended Prado's UFC debut, the undefeated bruiser lumbered around the cage like an enraged gorilla who had lost his bananas. The rematch between these two will hopefully be a lot more enlightening vis-a-vis Prado's Octagon viability.

10. Andrew Craig

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 8-0
    Division: Middleweight

    He might be the best established UFC fighter no one has ever heard of. After a war of attrition with Kyle Noke, Craig was getting beat up by Rafael Natal. That is, until he landed a perfect Hail Mary head kick that shut out the lights. 

    Craig has shown serious resilience in both his UFC wins. Did that flow more from luck, or from skill? That's what makes him so intriguing. 

9. Mike Swick

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 15-4
    Division: Welterweight

    Following an approximate 17-year absence from the sport, during which time he underwent a Bible-esque litany of plagues and afflictions, Mike Swick returned as sharp as ever in pounding out DeMarques Johnson in August. His Dec. 8 fight with fellow brawler Matt Brown is going to be extremely interesting. If he's all the way back after such a long layoff, shouldn't he be expedited to the top of the heap?

8. Dennis Bermudez

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 9-3
    Division: Featherweight

    He has been a monster at 145. Sometimes he seems to make it a little more interesting than it needs to be, but he's got that classic heavy-handed wrestler base that has served so many so well before him.

    I'd love to see him tangle with Hacran Dias, who was a little lower on this list.

7. Alexander Sarnavskiy

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    Promotion: Bellator
    Record: 20-0
    Division: Lightweight

    One of the hottest prospects in the world just signed with Bellator, and he'll compete in their upcoming tournament. He has a great combination of physical tools (especially that reach) and skills. I'll let this highlight reel do the rest of the talking.

6. Erick Silva

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 15-2 (1)
    Division: Welterweight

    He hasn't been out of the first round in two years, and that includes three UFC fights (including the one he lost for illegal blows). So far, no one has been able to stand up to him. His October fight with Jon Fitch will be telling. Even if Fitch road-grades him, he'll still be an interesting player in the year to come.

5. Muhammed Lawal

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    Promotion: Bellator
    Record: 8-1 (1)
    Division: Light heavyweight

    The recent Bellator and TNA signee is rarin' to go after he returns from suspension, which happens at the end of the year. But thanks to his steroid suspension, the 31-year-old just lost a year of his prime. He is also now recovering from knee surgery and a nasty staph infection (not to mention a Zuffa banishment).

    He's expected to make his Bellator debut in January, and their light heavyweight division seems conquerable. How will he look? All I know is, the MMA world is a little more interesting when King Mo is in it.

4. Maiquel Falcao

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    Promotion: Bellator
    Record: 31-4 (1)
    Division: Middleweight

    Hard to believe he was, for a moment, considered to be in decline. Since losing a year ago, Falcao has only beaten top Russian prospect Vyacheslav Vasilevsky and banger Andreas Spang to capture Bellator's Season 6 Middleweight Tournament.

    Yeah, the guy has a screw loose. But when you're winning, it just means you're colorful!

    The tourney run set up a fight with Alexander Shlemenko for the promotion's vacant middleweight belt. No date set yet for the scrap.

3. Mamed Khalidov

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    Promotion: KSW
    Record: 25-4-2
    Division: Middleweight/Light heavyweight

    When is he coming to the UFC already? I'm boring myself by always putting him at the top of these lists. But until they cut the shenanigans and sign him, he's going to stay here.

    Why? Take a look as his dispatching of Rodney Wallace in his most recent fight. The guy is a beast. No other way to put it.

2. Eddie Alvarez

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    Promotion: Bellator
    Record: 23-3
    Division: Lightweight

    The winner of the Oct. 12 lightweight bout between Eddie Alvarez and Patricky Freire should get a big shot in the arm from a career perspective. This is especially interesting because it's the last fight on Alvarez's current Bellator contract.

    Could Alvarez by UFC-bound? The coming year will certainly be interesting.

1. Alistair Overeem

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    Promotion: UFC
    Record: 36-11 (1)
    Division: Heavyweight

    The hype isn't dead. It's only sleeping.

    Is there anyone for whom a return to the cage is more highly anticipated? I don't think so. Not Georges St-Pierre (not until the superfight anyway). Not Nick Diaz (though that's getting closer).

    Fans are singularly fascinated by The 'Reem, who seems to do everything in his power to be a walking cartoon character. How long will he wait to get a title shot with Junior dos Santos? Who will the UFC put in front of his path? Will he be diminished (literally) in the wake of his nine-month suspension?

    Nobody knows. But is it entirely possible that this man is the baddest man on the planet right now? Yes. It's possible.