5 Rising UFC Stars Whose Potential Is Being Wasted
When you're as big as the UFC, it's tough to ensure all of your proverbial plants are getting the water they need. The promotion has a lot going on as it churns out events on almost every weekend of the year, so selling individual athletes often ends up at the bottom of the to-do list.
While the prevailing narrative has long been that Zuffa and the UFC saved mixed martial arts from extinction, some of their greatest successes happened by near coincidence, and many of their biggest stars made it on their own.
Conor McGregor was undeniable, and the UFC was more or less along for the ride in packaging him to the masses.
Ronda Rousey became a name in Strikeforce at a time when women weren't allowed to compete in the UFC. Her star power was also undeniable.
Brock Lesnar was a WWE star long before Dana White put him in the Octagon.
A large swath of the population still hasn't heard of Jon Jones, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre, years after they were at the top of their chosen sport.
Here's a look at five rising stars who have the potential to be huge, so long as the UFC does right by them in ways it hasn't always done with others.
The only champion featured here, Rose Namajunas is still waiting for a push from the UFC. Whereas Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz developed cult followings for their brashness, Namajunas went in the other direction with great success.
She's open about her traumatic past and childhood. She speaks confidently about using martial arts to overcome that past. She approaches her career as a chance to be a beacon of light for others still in the dark. Instead of trash talk and sass on fight week, you can find her stoically clutching a big gold belt that does her talking for her.
Beyond her personality, her look and fighting style is unique as well. She has a unique charisma, and as she continues to grow further into her championship mettle, it's likely to blossom even more.
When an athlete is so open outside of their sport while performing at such a high level within it, it's the promotional equivalent of having a rocket strapped to their back in terms of exposure and interest.
It also doesn't hurt that she's long been in a relationship with former UFC fighter Pat Barry, whose efforts to promote Namajunas and investment in her success are almost worthy of a reality show.
With some help from the UFC, Namajunas could be a next-level star.
Kamaru Usman is coming off of another sterling demolition of a well-respected opponent. He pounded Demian Maia into a slurry at UFC Fight Night 129 before grinding that slurry into a fine powder.
With two allegedly broken hands.
However, the UFC seems reticent to promote the Nigerian Nightmare in a way that's worthy of his remarkable skill set. One of the most feared welterweights alive should be pushed to the moon, but instead, he's fighting in the middle-of-the-night FS1 cards.
Some of it may have to do with his style, which is not the sexiest. If you don't like athleticism and extreme wrestling prowess, watching Usman mug your favorite fighter may not be your idea of a good time. Seeing him maul a helpless queue of contenders may not be the UFC's idea of a good time, either.
But if the promotion worked with him, there's no telling where he could go.
Among the top 15 in the welterweight division today, no one would be an obvious favorite against him other than the champion, Tyron Woodley. And considering Usman utilizes a similar style but is in the middle of his prime while the champion exits his, that fight may be more even than expected.
If the UFC waits to push Usman much longer, that train will have left the station, and it'll be carrying a whole pile of lost cash on it.
Zabit Magomedsharipov is the top featherweight prospect in the UFC. No one else is even close.
He's a staggering 6'1" and can make 145 pounds with ease. He hasn't lost an MMA bout in more than five years and has never lost in the weight class. In his three UFC fights, he's chalked up two stoppages and a decision win, earning performance bonuses in all three.
When Magomedsharipov fights, you know you're watching something special. It's as though his place as a UFC champion is somehow preordained, much as it was with Jon Jones back in the day.
Ideally, the UFC should look to get Magomedsharipov on the main card of a big event. The promotion seemed to be working on that for UFC 227, but Yair Rodriguez's alleged refusal of a meeting with him put the plan on ice, according to Milan Ordonez of Bloody Elbow.
Magomedsharipov's skills are already transcendent enough that the UFC doesn't need to hide him away on European cards or in its Russian debut this year. People will take note when he fights.
The UFC's priority needs to be getting Magomedsharipov in front of as many eyes as possible. A spot on a big pay-per-view card is a good start. Then, barring injury, the UFC should place him on a Fox event by the end of 2018.
If the promotion does that, Magomedsharipov's prowess will do the rest.
Mackenzie Dern's story is unique in MMA.
Dern, the daughter of jiu-jitsu legend Wellington "Megaton" Dias, is a multitime world champion both in the gi and no-gi divisions at the age of 25. She was competing with adults when she was in junior high school and had a jiu-jitsu black belt before she could legally get into a nightclub.
While the UFC has a strong desire to name almost any female fighting prospect "the next Ronda Rousey," Dern may be closest in terms of credentials.
Beyond her background, Dern has both the look and the style to be marketable to audiences. She's bubbly outside the cage but fearless and vicious inside of it, barging forward with hostility and looking to whale on her foes until she can notch a submission or she runs out of time trying.
Dern has had trouble hitting the strawweight limit (115 pounds) in her MMA career—she recently missed by seven pounds before her UFC 224 win over Amanda Cooper—so she may be looking at a move to flyweight (125 pounds) before long.
Regardless of where Dern's career takes her, the UFC has to get it right. She needs to be on any TV show or magazine cover the promotion can secure, doing interviews and making appearances. Video games and movies would help, too.
Of all the athletes UFC's parent company Endeavor should want to use its entertainment industry connections for, Dern may be the best one.
Sean O'Malley is fantastic because he's different.
He isn't another cookie-cutter athlete who looks like he just popped out of a Reebok-branded cardboard box, ready to fight whoever the UFC gives him and be happy for the opportunity.
He's showing up to media day in tie-dye and sunglasses, advocating for marijuana in pro sports and promoting his own personal strain. He's shouting out legends like Nate Diaz and espousing the benefits of veganism. He's interesting, which says a lot in the modern UFC.
O'Malley, who touts a 10-0 career record, also has an enjoyable style of combat. His flashy, action-oriented approach has already helped him secure a Fight of the Night bonus in only his second UFC bout.
He's the type of guy fans can get invested in, and the UFC should follow suit.
The promotion arguably missed the boat with the Diaz brothers, who became megastars almost in spite of how the UFC promoted and booked them. O'Malley is cut from the same cloth, and the UFC should learn from past mistakes by trying to get "Sugar" Sean out there for people to see.
There's evidence the UFC is already headed down that path. It introduced a wild T-shirt design featuring O'Malley and released it on April 20, which is about as bold as the promotion gets when it comes to pushing a fighter.
The UFC now needs to build on that, because it has something special in the Montana-born brawler.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewjryder