The Top MMA Fighters to Watch in 2019

Nathan McCarter@McCarterNFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2019

The Top MMA Fighters to Watch in 2019

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    It's not just a new year for the UFC, but a new era. The leader in MMA left behind broadcaster Fox at the end of 2018 and sets its sights on a new partnership with ESPN.

    As it joins a new network with more sports fans ready to check out the product, the UFC also has a bevy of fighters chomping at the bit to make 2019 their year.

    The UFC set the stage for 2019 throughout the back-half of the year with new signings and teases like Daniel Cormier vs. Brock Lesnar. The year closed with Jon Jones reassuming the light heavyweight throne and Amanda Nunes' shocking the world with a swift KO over Cris "Cyborg" Justino.

    With the calendar flipping over, there are even more fighters to watch. But who?

    It's easy to name Ben Askren. The former Bellator and ONE FC champion has mauled his way through two organizations, and after years of talk, he finally arrives in the UFC after a surprise trade involving Demetrious Johnson, as noted by MMAFighting.com's Dave Doyle. But Askren is not the only new face.

    Debuting fighters are not the only ones to be watched, either. What about those on the brink of getting their shot at gold? Or past champions?

    2019 looks to be a promising year for the UFC, and fans will have to break out their notepad to keep track of all the talent ready to make their mark.

    Let's take a look at some of the fighters you need to keep track of when the UFC begins its yearly schedule.

Cain Velasquez

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    Former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez has not been seen inside the of the Octagon since the summer of 2016. That will change on February 17 at UFC on ESPN 1.

    Velasquez squares off against feared heavy-hitter Francis Ngannou.

    It will be curious to see how Velasquez looks since his time away. Has the sport passed him by, or will he come back rejuvenated? If it is the former, he will be a sad tale of what could have been. If it is the latter, Velasquez could re-establish himself as the greatest heavyweight we have seen.

    That is why it is so important to watch his return. The old Cain Velasquez would dismantle a one-dimensional fighter like Ngannou. It is a stylistic matchup that favors him going away.

    An active, healthy Velasquez is one of the most dangerous beings on the planet. It makes his 2019 return intriguing and highly anticipated.

Dominick Reyes

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    Dominick Reyes was already one of the top prospects to watch, but Jon Jones' return to the light heavyweight division makes Reyes' presence all the more interesting.

    Jones has been so dominant that he needs fresh faces. There is none fresher or more enticing than Reyes.

    Reyes burst on to the scene in 2017 with a viral KO on the regional circuit. He made good on the knockout by stealing the show in his UFC debut at UFC Fight Night 112 just a few weeks later. He now sits at a perfect 10-0 with a primetime matchup opposite Volkan Oezdemir at UFC Fight Night 147.

    Win or lose, Reyes is a key piece in the future of the division. But a win puts him in title contention. He can capitalize on a golden opportunity. Reyes has KO power and is still developing as an all-around fighter. His long frame—although not quite as long as Jones—makes him an interesting opponent for the dominant king.

    2017 was the year that got him noticed. 2019 may be the year that gets him paid.

Ariane Lipski

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    Ariane Lipski is so new to the UFC that her photoshoot in a fight kit still isn't available. One of the UFC's most recent signings is a dandy, and those who have yet to witness "The Violence Queen" will be blown away by her talent. She is set to arrive in the UFC shortly.

    After a rocky 2-3 start to her pro career, Lipski has won her last nine fights. And she has looked impressive in those outings, with five TKO/KOs and two submissions to her credit during the win streak. Her UFC debut, on January 19, is no cupcake as she battles Joanne Calderwood.

    Calderwood's stand-up abilities will push Lipski while helping showcase the UFC's latest addition.

    Lipski is a much-watch not only due to her skills and style, but also because an impressive showing against Calderwood will immediately thrust her into title talk at 125 pounds.

    While it is difficult to project anyone giving Valentina Shevchenko many problems at this weight, Lipski possesses the rare qualities that could make for a fun championship bout.

    Want to get excited about new blood coming this year? Get excited about Lipski.

Ben Askren

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    It has taken years to get to this point, but we finally get to see Ben Askren inside the Octagon.

    The landscape of the welterweight division is just one reason why Askren's arrival is so interesting. If you look at the title picture, it is dominated by wrestlers, like Tyron Woodley, Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington. Askren is better than each of them in that category.

    UFC 235 will be Askren's debut. He takes on former UFC champion Robbie Lawler.

    Given Askren's credentials, a win should make him a top contender. But with the title picture muddied with a logjam, he may not get that title shot. Especially if his teammate, Woodley, is still the champion.

    Regardless, Askren is here and ready to prove that his dominance in Bellator and ONE FC was no fluke. His chance to back up all his trash talk is finally here.

    One of the deepest divisions in the sport has gotten even more interesting now that Askren steps inside the eight-sided cage.

Greg Hardy

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    Greg Hardy's checkered past is well documented. It has made him a polarizing figure before he, officially, makes his UFC debut.

    Even still, it would be completely inaccurate to suggest he is not one of the fighters to keep tabs on as we begin the new year.

    Hardy has taken his MMA career seriously. He trains out of American Top Team and has put his athleticism and power to use with three sub-1-minute knockouts. He starts his UFC journey against Allen Crowder at UFC Fight Night 143.

    The heavyweight talent pool is more plush than ever, but Hardy's name recognition and athletic gifts should make him an instant player in the division. Will he earn a title shot in 2019? It's doubtful, but by year's end, we could be looking at him as a serious contender.

    It's that kind of upside that makes him a must-watch fighter.

    Like him or hate him, if you are interested in the sport, you will have to recognize his presence. This is not a CM Punk situation. Hardy is a proven elite athlete and now has three decisive victories to his credit. Can he keep it rolling in the UFC and be a bankable star for the company? The UFC sure hopes so.

Kron Gracie

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    The son of the legendary Rickson Gracie is yet another new face set to make his debut early in 2019. Kron Gracie meets Alex Caceres at UFC on ESPN 1 on February 17.

    It should go without saying, but Gracie is an exceptional grappler. He is already 4-0 in his MMA career with notable wins over Hideo Tokoro and Tatsuya Kawajiri.

    Caceres is a great first opponent to see where Gracie's ceiling is truly at. Fans have been burned a few times with returning or new Gracie fighters. Kron is perhaps the most promising to date, but waiting to see how he performs under the brightest of lights before buying his stock is the right move.

    Carrying the name Gracie, let alone being Rickson's son, instantly makes Kron one to watch. There will always be intrigue with that last name in this sport. Fans want to believe.

    If Gracie can dominate a veteran like Caceres inside the Octagon, he will instantly be a key figure in a stacked featherweight division. And there are no shortage of incredible matchups awaiting him at 145 pounds. He could be one of the best additions we see all year.

Tatiana Suarez

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    Tatiana Suarez closed out her 2018 by mowing down former champion Carla Esparza. Her dominant ground game and physical strength has made everyone take note of her championship ability. In 2019, she could become the face of the division.

    Rose Namajunas has been a bright spot since dethroning Joanna Jedrzejczyk, but as she has stood atop the division, new foes have risen. Suarez may be the class of those contenders.

    She won't get the first title shot. Jessica Andrade will get that chance at UFC 237, as first reported by ESPN.com's Brett Okamoto. But regardless of it is Namajunas or Andrade coming out of Brazil with the title around their waist, Suarez matches up with them favorably.

    She is the evolution of the strawweight division that has always been the deepest female division in the sport.

    It used to be Megumi Fujii reigning supreme with her grappling, but Fujii would not be able to handle the sheer power of Suarez in today's game. Then it was Jessica Aguilar and Carla Esparza who both have found mixed success in the UFC. This new dawn arrived quickly, and a true athlete like Suarez seems poised to take the mantle.

    Suarez is on the precipice of greatness. That should not go unnoticed.

Israel Adesanya

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    One of 2018's standout fighters continues to be one to watch. Israel Adesanya is a 15-0 marvel, and he will look to keep it going at UFC 234 in February against Anderson Silva.

    If he does, a title shot almost surely awaits.

    The main event of that UFC 234 event? Kelvin Gastelum vs. Robert Whittaker. Adesanya vs. either man is tantalizing.

    Adesanya's stand-up game is out of this world, and his brash style is an easy sell to fans. Especially when he backs it up like he did against Derek Brunson. He is must-watch in every fight, but now his fights are coming with great importance. His fights have major implications on the title picture.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing to watch in an Adesanya fight is seeing how he avoids being put in bad positions.

    He is not an incredibly well-rounded fighter. He has obvious flaws. They just have not been exploited yet. When that is the case, we watch with bated breath to see how a fighter will avoid those positions.

    It just makes things more fascinating.

    "The Last Stylebender" has already thrilled us, and we can expect a lot more to come. Starting with Silva is merely an appetizer.

Marlon Moraes

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    In less than a month, Marlon Moraes will meet Raphael Assuncao at UFC Fight Night 144 in a bantamweight title eliminator.

    Moraes was thrown to the wolves in his UFC debut after coming in from the WSOF. It was Assuncao who rudely welcomed him, but it was still a close fight. Now with UFC experience under his belt, Moraes is hoping to right that wrong. Assuncao is hoping to finally get his title shot. It's an amazing fight.

    But that's not the lone reason to keep an eye on Moraes.

    Moraes is simply one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the game today. And one of the most underappreciated.

    If Assuncao wins, Moraes will still have more great fights remaining in the division. If he wins, a title fight with T.J. Dillashaw could well be Fight of the Year material. The two match up well against one another, and the speed and movement they operate under is unparalleled.

    There is virtually no bad fight Moraes can be in this year. Moraes against anyone in the top 10 is must-see. Getting to watch him perform is a true treat.

Holly Holm

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    Holly Holm is the former bantamweight champion. Remember when she headkicked Ronda Rousey into oblivion? It seems like so long ago.

    But yet, Holm remains one of the top fighters in the bantamweight and featherweight divisions, and we seemingly never talk about her. That should change in 2019.

    Holm is already booked for a fight. March's UFC 235 event will see Holm battle Aspen Ladd, per MMAJunkie.com's John Morgan.

    Ladd is the young buck looking to make her name off a combat sports legend, but Holm doesn't appear to be done just yet. Her UFC 225 performance against Megan Anderson was exceptional.

    Ladd is no easy out. What she lacks in athleticism, she makes up for in technique. She has a good ground game to give Holm fits if the fight ends up there.

    This one fight makes Holm a fighter to watch. The fallout will be immense for her career. And after Amanda Nunes' quick KO over Cris "Cyborg" Justino, a win will make that fight monumental. Holm has a lot riding on this early-2019 battle.

    While it's stuck on an undercard to a strong event, make sure to tune in, because Ladd vs. Holm is one of the most important fights in the year's first quarter.

Conor McGregor

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    Conor McGregor was always going to make this list. I know some will bemoan that it should be Khabib Nurmagomedov or Tony Ferguson if we're talking about lightweights, but who's still the A-side in any fight in the UFC? McGregor.

    After his loss to Nurmagomedov, the interest in what comes next for McGregor is even larger.

    You cannot escape the fact that he is the central figure to watch in 2019. Simply because we have no clue as to what is coming next.

    Does the UFC give him an immediate rematch? It would not be the sporting thing to do, but it is undoubtedly the biggest fight the company can make. If not, would he consider going back to 145 to challenge Max Holloway for the title he never lost against a man he has already beaten? If he stays at lightweight, who is his next fight if not Khabib?

    And what if he doesn't return at all? While unlikely, it's possible.

    McGregor's first move in 2019 is without question the most anticipated because it's the most important. It will help shape the remainder of the year for the division.

    Al Iaquinta. Ferguson. Jose Aldo. Justin Gaethje. The list goes on of possible names to put opposite McGregor, and not a single one would be a bad choice.

    Every tweet, every Instagram post will be monitored for clues. And when McGregor finally steps back in the cage, more questions will arise to how he will look coming back from the loss.

    Everything surrounding the former two-division champion is compelling. We await his move.