MMA's Top Breakout Stars of 2018

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterDecember 14, 2018

MMA's Top Breakout Stars of 2018

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    Israel Adesanya
    Israel AdesanyaJulio Cortez/Associated Press

    Everyone wants to get in on the ground floor. That has any number of real-world applications, from business to politics to sports. Oh, certainly sports. Fans love nothing more than to stand astride their bar stool and proclaim to the world that they had an athlete pegged for the big time since he was in short pants.

    So it pains me to inform those fans that it's too late for these 10 athletes. The ship has sailed, guys. See, there it is, far out on the horizon, where the smoke billows. Bon voyage, bandwagon ship! Sorry to mix the metaphors, but bon voyage!

    The good news is, maybe a second ship is accepting passengers. Maybe you can't get in on the ground floor, but the getting's still reasonably good for these 10 MMA fighters. They are the sport's breakout stars of 2018.

    MMA is not like football, basketball or what have you, where the zip-fronted detectives root out top prospects at the high school level and below. It's not even like boxing, where great fighters are assessed, seasoned and groomed using a steady, yearslong process of can-crushing and record-padding.

    MMA fighters make their way up from local shows to regional to stream to TV to the largest circle of promotions, topped of course by the UFC.

    Prospects are identified, but the only way to tell the real thing for sure is to throw them right out of the nest and into a well-lit cage. As a result, it's arguably more important in MMA to recognize new stars and identify them for what they are: the new blood transfusions for an unforgiving sport in constant need of them.

    These 10 men and women passed the test in 2018. They each went from relative unknown to very much known in the span of one year, or even, in rare cases, one fight. Their stars are established.

    The list includes fighters from inside and outside the UFC. It does not include fighters who made splashes at the lower levels, who became hot prospects or made big leaps up the ladder. In fact, they need not be prospects at all, but instead might be veterans who got over the hump. These are fighters who well and truly etched their names for all to see on MMA's global landscape.

Honorable Mentions

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    Anthony Smith (right)
    Anthony Smith (right)Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Listed in no particular order:

    • Anthony Smith

    • Alexander Volkanovski

    • Ilima-Lei Macfarlane

    • Petr Yan

    • Thiago Santos

10. Sean O'Malley

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    Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Who better to kick this off with than "Sugar" Sean O'Malley?

    Training out of the well-regarded MMA Lab in Arizona, O'Malley is the cornrowed and afroed bantamweight with the slick tongue and even slicker kickboxing. 

    He sure does like to preen—go ahead, check out his social media channels—but don't let the veneer fool you.

    In his lone win of 2018, a Fight of the Night decision over Andre Soukhamthath at UFC 222, O'Malley used powerful, aggressive and dynamic standup to punish the veteran for extended periods.

    Toward the end, however, O'Malley sustained an obvious foot injury that was later revealed to be an aggravation of a previous fracture.

    Unable to put weight on the foot, the fight suddenly seemed in jeopardy. But O'Malley's toughness and a crucial tactical error from Soukhamthath allowed him to gut his way to the final horn.

    The iconic moment came after the fight, when O'Malley received the decision and conducted his post-fight interview while laying on the mat. In obvious pain, O'Malley still had the presence of mind to shout out his favorite "medicine."

    That's right. He's a cannabis man, and there's no two ways about it. He touts it so frequently, fervently and openly that it is part of his public persona, like Stone Cold Steve Austin and beer. 

    You may like that, you may not, but there's no denying he's a savvy digital native with the gregariousness to attract attention and the talent to keep it.

    "I love everything about this sport," he said while lying on that mat.

    It loves you too, Sean.

9. AJ McKee

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    It is possible that AJ McKee is flying lowest under the radar among those on this list. If that be the case, here's a highlight reel to catch you up.

    At 23 years old, McKee should still be green in the sport, not putting featherweights on red alert. But here he is at 12-0 and 2-0 in 2018, including a 69-second, highlight-reel ruination of John Macapa back in September. (It was supposed to be a much sparklier name in former featherweight champ Pat Curran, but Curran pulled out with injury.)

    Part of the secret formula is Body Shop Fitness, McKee's home training base, where his father, UFC veteran Antonio, is head coach. It's one of the hottest camps in the sport.

    McKee has a full arsenal of skills and legitimate knockout power in his fists and feet. As it happens, he faces Daniel Crawford at Bellator 212 on Friday to make it three-for-three on the year.

    If he gets past Crawford, which he's heavily favored to do, how much farther away can a featherweight title shot be?

8. Dan Hooker

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    Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    What a year for New Zealand fighters.

    Dan Hooker has been on the UFC roster and fan radars for quite a while. In mid-2017, Hooker went back up to lightweight and launched his career into the next layer of the atmosphere, which I suppose is the stratosphere.

    But the mesosphere isn't safe, either. Two fights to date in 2018, two first-round knockouts. The first in April over venerated veteran Jim Miller, the second on Gilbert Burns in July.

    He had aggression, skill and power, but it lies in more than his return to lightweight. Hooker trains at City Kickboxing in Auckland alongside one or two other notables. More on that momentarily.

    This weekend, Hooker has easily the biggest fight of his career in the co-main event of UFC on Fox 31, where he'll face Brazilian super striker Edson Barboza.

    The 28-year-old hasn't lost since the return to 155 pounds. Saturday's scrap is the odds-on favorite for Fight of the Night.

    If Hooker can capture the 10th knockout of his career, or create the fireworks many expect him and Barboza to make, he'll roll into 2019 with an avalanche of momentum.

7. Zabit Magomedsharipov

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    Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

    The UFC put it on a tee. Zabit Magomedsharipov drove it to the flagstick.

    Bet you'd never see an MMA-golf analogy, huh? That's totally fine. We are all enlivened by new experiences.

    He spoke, the UFC listened. That's better.

    The Dagestani's first two UFC fights ended in submission. Both notched performance bonuses. Both were buried on UFC Fight Pass. That was 2017.

    This year, two more fights, two more wins. The first was a Fight of the Night decision over the frisky Kyle Bochniak, then a kneebar submission of Brandon Davis. Both of those fights aired on pay-per-view.

    Unlike other North Caucasus fighters, Magomedsharipov is a dynamic striker who puts on exciting performances. He is must-see TV, he is here to stay at featherweight, and he's been suggested as an opponent for some pretty big names. He'll be back on the main card soon enough.

6. Tatiana Suarez

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    Tatiana Suarez (left)
    Tatiana Suarez (left)Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Tatiana Suarez is one of the best wrestlers in women's MMA. She has plenty of dangerous skills in her armamentarium, and she put them on full display this year in two impressive, high-profile finishes.

    First came a first-round chokeout of top prospect Alexa Grasso in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night 129. Four months later, in the featured prelim bout of UFC 228, she dominated former strawweight champ Carla Esparza from horn to horn, finally finishing her with ground-and-pound elbows late in the contest. Taken together, both wins placed her firmly in contention for the strawweight title.

    There's more to Suarez's story, however. A 2012 Olympic hopeful, doctors detected cancer while examining a neck injury. She went on to beat cancer, but not before her Olympic dream faded away. 

    Now, the 27-year-old Suarez is cancer-free and putting her skills to good use. Don't be in any way surprised to see her in a title match in 2019.

5. Renato Moicano

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    Renato Moicano chokes out Cub Swanson.
    Renato Moicano chokes out Cub Swanson.Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

    Entering the year, Renato Moicano's only pro loss came to Brian Ortega, who fought for the featherweight title earlier this month.

    So Moicano wasn't exactly sneaking up on anyone. And yet, his name didn't exactly ring out in the Twitterverse.

    That changed on August 4. 

    Moicano was favored to defeat the revered but aging Cub Swanson that night—but not like he did.

    Moicano dropped Swanson with a straight punch and followed him to the ground. That's usually a dangerous proposition against the jiu-jitsu black belt in Swanson, but Moicano was a duck in water.

    Swanson struggled to his feet, but Moicano threw him back. Some deft manuevering and a few moments later Moicano had the rear-naked choke submission less than a minute before the end of the first round.

    It was his second win of the year, and it established him as a serious predator in the division. He's advanced so far that he was the understudy for Ortega's scrap with champ Max Holloway. A February scrap with Jose Aldo will be biggest fight of Moicano's career.

4. Kayla Harrison

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    Kayla Harrison at the 2016 Olympics.
    Kayla Harrison at the 2016 Olympics.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/Associated Press

    The first thing we need to do is pump the brakes on those Kayla Harrison-Ronda Rousey comparisons.

    This court will stipulate that, yes, both women earned Olympic judo medals. And indeed, they both transitioned to MMA afterward. It is even true, I readily grant, that both women have blonde hair.

    But there's more at work here. A lot more. Rousey earned a bronze medal at the Olympics. That's great. Harrison earned two golds. That's greater.

    For essentially her entire MMA career, Rousey's famous armbar was the go-to finishing move. Not so for Harrison, who won both of her first two pro fights this year, each under the banner of the fledgling Professional Fighters League.

    The first she did take with a first-round armbar, but the second was a third-round TKO. All the while, Harrison dazzled with a full array of ground skills that made observers wonder what in the world might stop her, short of something with an internal combustion engine.

    She's also, by all accounts, a warm and affable person. Not everyone is viewed that way. This obviously has squat all to do with fighting, but it's a nice perk when you're looking to bring fans into the tent.

    Harrison competes in the 155-pound lightweight division, which is unusually high for women's MMA.

    As it stands, the UFC is having difficulty populating a 145-pound division. Harrison has indicated an openness to competing at 145; we'll see what happens.

    When you have this kind of talent and charisma, it's amazing what doors can open.

3. Yair Rodriguez

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    I wrestled with this one.

    First, because it's easy to argue that Yair Rodriguez has already broken out. After wins over the likes of BJ Penn, Andre Fili and others, the dynamic striker was branded the new face of Mexican MMA well before the calendar turned to 2018.

    Second, Rodriguez only fought once in 2018.

    But oh. Oh man. What a fight it was. 

    Facing the skilled and otherworldy tough Korean Zombie (aka Chan Sung Jung), Rodriguez waged an incredible back-and-forth fight that I'm not even going to try to summarize. But the key highlight, the highlight I don't think it's the least bit unfair or myopic to say will be remembered for years and maybe decades to come, came with precisely one second left on the clock.

    As Zombie charged forward looking to land one last big shot, El Pantera ducked under Zombie's left hand and threw an elbow directly upward into the air. It connected perfectly on the side of Zombie's jaw; the Zombie was out before he hit the ground. Right after, Rodriguez himself collapsed to the ground in exhaustion.

    There has never been anything like it, and there probably never will be again. The video is above, in case you've never seen it or, like me, you never get tired of watching it again.

    The performance earned Rodriguez a bonus and Fight of the Night. It will also earn him plenty of nods for Knockout of the Year. It's rare that a single strike changes a career trajectory. This is one of those strikes. Rodriguez was well-known before that elbow. After, he was a star. 

2. Aaron Pico

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Close observers and serious fans have seen Aaron Pico coming for a long time. 

    He's here.

    Pico, widely regarded (including by me) as the biggest MMA prospect ever, parlayed an Olympic-level wrestling career into a run in pro MMA. That MMA debut came in summer 2017, when Pico was 20. It ended with a surprise 24-second submission loss.

    Pico and his team were understandably crestfallen but vowed to return stronger. Enter 2018. 

    In three wins this year, the featherweight showed resilience and something else—specifically, he's more than a wrestler. His hands are lethal.

    They positively hiss with danger, and each one slams home with seeing-eye accuracy. Shane Krutchen fell to a body shot in 37 seconds. Lee Morrison was leveled with punches in 70 seconds. Then, in September, Pico cruised in the biggest MMA fight of his career, dominating Leandro Higo before an almost merciful knockout in 3:19. 

    Among other places, Pico trains at Body Shop Fitness alongside McKee and others. Pico and McKee have said they won't fight each other. But one or both will need to fight for the title, probably sooner rather than later.

    Pico started the year at 1-1, with plenty of people uncertain about his career trajectory and dubious of the hype. At year's end, the train is back on the tracks, with Pico looking a lot like the most dangerous 22-year-old fighter on Earth.

1. Israel Adesanya

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    Israel Adesanya kicks Derek Brunson at UFC 230.
    Israel Adesanya kicks Derek Brunson at UFC 230.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    The rest of the list to this point was a challenge to put together. The top spot was not.

    I have a little rule: When you knock out somebody in the middle of Madison Square Garden, and it's also your first appearance on a UFC pay-per-view, you just had yourself a breakout performance.

    Israel Adesanya did more than knock out a respected veteran in Derek Brunson. He styled on him, as the young people like to say. Brunson was a college wrestler with just the kind of skill set ostensibly positioned to handle a flashy striker. All Adesanya did was pick him apart with laser-guided punches and kicks, more or less neutralizing every takedown attempt in the process.

    It was a culmination. A fast talker and a glitzy standup fighter put both skill sets to the test under the brightest lights and passed with flying colors. 

    The win moved Adesanya to 4-0 for 2018 in the UFC. Adesanya's overall UFC record: 4-0. If you go from a literal non-entity in the UFC to a title contender and one of the hottest names in the whole sport in the span of one year, well, you might just be a breakout star.


    Scott Harris covers MMA and other things for Bleacher Report.