Most Improved UFC Fighters of 2013

Dan Hiergesell@DHiergesellFeatured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2014

Most Improved UFC Fighters of 2013

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    Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

    Honing one's skills is part of the game.

    To reap the benefits of unparalleled athleticism and natural ability, fighters must adapt and evolve to overcome adversity.

    This means that sharpening one's striking, wrestling, grappling, game-planning and overall effectiveness will do wonders.

    Here are a group of athletes who have done just that en route to becoming the most improved UFC fighters of 2013.

Francisco Rivera

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    Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

    Francisco Rivera has evolved as a fighter since dropping down to bantamweight a few years back.

    But after he tested positive for banned substances against Roland Delorme in 2012, it seemed as if the 32-year-old would never pull it together.

    On the contrary, Rivera's 2013 resume has been gold-plated with second-round finishes over Edwin Figueroa and veteran George Roop.

    It looks like he's finally found a home for his barbaric striking and may be onto something good in 2014.

Jeremy Stephens

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    Since making a move down from lightweight in May, former contender Jeremy Stephens has rejuvenated a previously promising career.

    The change in divisional scenery has helped him immensely. He's been able to utilize his natural strength to not only record six takedowns against Estevan Payan but secure a vicious first-round knockout of highly touted Brazilian Rony Jason.

    One more win at featherweight, and "Lil Heathen" could find himself in the Top 10.

Francis Carmont

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    A product of Canada's Tristar gym, athletic monster Francis Carmont has finally made some noise in the middleweight crop heap.

    Now while the 6'3" Frenchman was undefeated in four UFC bouts before 2013, he just wasn't getting the big fights.

    However, he finally got his chance this past year, beating divisional threats Lorenz Larkin and Costa Philippou via decision. It was just the spark the 32-year-old needed.

    He's now ranked No. 8 in the division.

Tyron Woodley

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    Tyron Woodley has always displayed talent, but he never completely put it together.

    That was until "The Chosen One" made his UFC debut back in February, fired off two scintillating knockouts over Jay Hieron and Josh Koscheck in three Octagon appearances.

    Woodley's unprecedented success has transformed him from former Strikeforce champion to future UFC title threat. He faces Carlos Condit at UFC 171 next.

Khabib Nurmagomedov

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    With unwavering takedowns and persistent hands, lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

    Currently undefeated with a record of 21-0, the 25-year-old devoured the division's best mid-tier talents in succession last year.

    Those victories over Thiago Tavares, Abel Trujillo and Pat Healy have set him up for a major breakthrough in 2014. He's ranked No. 7 in the division with a chance to rise even higher in his next fight.

Dennis Bermudez

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    Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

    While Dennis Bermudez possessed superior athleticism prior to 2013, he never looked better than he did over the past 11 months.

    From landing 120 total strikes against Matt Grice in one of the best fights of the year to punishing Steven Siler with six takedowns and relentless submission attempts, "The Menace" has evolved with the best of them.

    He'll enter 2014 as one of the most promising contenders in the featherweight division.

Glover Teixeira

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    Glover Teixeira's 2012 finishes over Kyle Kingsbury and Fabio Maldonado were impressive wins, but they were never going to get him the title respect that a lot of people thought he deserved.

    So you can imagine how important his 2013 wins opposite Ryan Bader, James Te Huna and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson were.

    They gave fans the confidence to trust Chuck Liddell's protege as a top light heavyweight contender who is capable of beating guys outside of Brazilian borders. He is expected to face champion Jon Jones early in 2014.

TJ Grant

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    Equipped with elite grappling skills and a knack for winning fights on the mat, TJ Grant was never pegged a knockout artist.

    But after his lightweight evolution came fill circle in 2013, the Canadian secured finishes over Gray Maynard and Matt Wiman with his hands.

    His success earned him a title shot opposite newly crowned champ Anthony Pettis, but injuries to the 29-year-old have derailed those plans for now.

Ronaldo Souza

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    Always considered one of the best submission practitioners on the planet, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza was never shorted praise.

    But after three first-round finishes in 2013, including a thunderous tanking of former top middleweight contender Yushin Okami, people are starting to realize that all that praise can eventually lead to a world title.

    If only the UFC would give him a chance to challenge the winner of Chris Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort sometime in the fall.

Travis Browne

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    After suffering a demoralizing defeat at the hands of Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva in 2012, Travis Browne produced one of the best years that any heavyweight could have asked for.

    Minus a shot at Cain Velasquez, the Hawaiian's divisional career has grown beyond all expectations. Chalk that up to blistering knockouts of Alistair Overeem, Josh Barnett and Gabriel Gonzaga.

    Browne's success can be credited to his evolution in the clinch, his ability to keep a fight standing and his budding striking skills. 

Alexander Gustafsson

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    Although Alexander Gustafsson only stepped foot inside the Octagon once in 2013, it was a doozy.

    Toe-to-toe, "The Mauler" pestered pound-for-pound great and light heavyweight king Jon Jones for five straight rounds. His efforts earned him unparalleled respect as the next best thing in MMA.

    The towering Swede was able to stay afloat against Jones because he defended the champ's takedowns like they were walks in the park, which is something Gustafsson always had to improve on.

Chad Mendes

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    In an effort to make his case for a rematch with featherweight phenom Jose Aldo sometime this year, Chad "Money" Mendes murdered the competition in 2013.

    He rattled off three impressive victories, looked more dominant than ever on his feet and became the first man ever to knock out Clay Guida.

    It looks like new Team Alpha Male head coach Duane "Bang" Ludwig has given Mendes the ingredients he needs to claim top-dog status by the end of 2014.

Robbie Lawler

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    Journeyman-turned-UFC-championship hopeful, veteran Robbie Lawler came full circle in 2013.

    Not only did he score three valuable wins over Rory MacDonald, Josh Koscheck and Bobby Voelker amidst a promotional return, but he earned a chance to fight Johny Hendricks for the welterweight title after Georges St-Pierre stepped away.

    It was quite a year for one of the UFC's most aggressive finishers.

Matt Brown

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Matt Brown's rise from the ashes is leaps and bounds greater than any mythical phoenix out there.

    He has bolstered the aggression and sheer will from overcoming a storied past of drug use to bully every welterweight who met him in the cage. In 2013, he added two more flashy finishes over Jordan Mein and Mike Pyle to his growing resume en route to finally earning a spot in the division's Top 10.

    If only he had stayed healthy enough to fight Carlos Condit back in December on Fox, "The Immortal" could be fighting for a vacant title at UFC 171.

Vitor Belfort

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    Say what you will about the testosterone usage and his track record of only competing in Brazil, but Vitor Belfort produced a perfect reign in 2013.

    As a result of firing deadly head kicks to Dan Henderson, Michael Bisping and Luke Rockhold, "The Phenom" has finally earned another chance to recapture UFC gold.

    Unfortunately, he won't be able to avenge his polarizing front-kick knockout defeat at the hands of Anderson Silva back in 2011. This time, current middleweight king Chris Weidman stands in his way.

    In any case, last year proved that even the best fighters of all time can improve. Belfort's newly instituted kick game is a testament to that.

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