6 UFC Breakout Stars from the First Half of 2020

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistAugust 4, 2020

6 UFC Breakout Stars from the First Half of 2020

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    It's already been quite a year for the UFC.

    A pandemic that's trashed schedules around the globe kept the mixed martial arts powerhouse on the sidelines for a couple months before giving rise to a "Fight Island" phenomenon that allowed Dana White to get the company back into mainstream sports consciousness.

    The promotion was among the first significant organizations to concoct a new normal amid the crisis, and it's managed to produce 13 crowd-free shows on ESPN since returning in early May, including pay-per-view cards in Florida, Nevada and the United Arab Emirates.

    Those broadcasts and the eight more that preceded the shutdown have provided opportunities for a new batch of athletes to begin climbing the ladder toward superstar acclaim already achieved by the likes of Conor McGregor, Jorge Masvidal, Amanda Nunes, Jon Jones and Nate Diaz.

    Toward that end, B/R put together a list of six fighters who've had the biggest breakouts thus far in 2020.

    For clarity's sake, these are not established athletes who've leveled up to PPV headliners this year (Masvidal) nor those who'd already been contenders and took the next step to championship status (Justin Gaethje).

    Rather, they're fighters who'd barely registered as a blip on the UFC radar, if at all, as the year began and have since elevated thanks to memorable performances across a tumultuous stretch.

    We've put them together in alphabetical order, along with another handful of honorable mentions.

    Click through the see how our collection matches up with yours and let us know what you think.

Honorable Mentions

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    Though they may be a shade below the others in terms of accomplishments, these fighters have also boosted their profiles significantly since the arrival of 2020:

    Magomed Ankalaev (13-1, 4-1 in UFC): The Russian striker made a controversial 2020 debut when a jumpy referee prompted a 38-second stoppage of Ion Cutelaba in February. Those two will meet again at UFC 252 on August 15, when Ankalaev aims to build on a run of six finishes in his last seven victories.

    Maycee Barber (8-1, 3-1 in UFC): Nicknamed "The Future" and still just 22, Barber had five KOs and two submissions before injuring her knee in a decision loss to 42-fight vet Roxanne Modafferi in January. Nevertheless, her goal remains becoming the youngest UFC champ in history, which Jon Jones did at 23. 

    Tanner Boser (19-6-1, 3-1 in UFC): A burly Canadian with a big punch and a bigger personality, Boser has spent barely 10 minutes in the cage while racking up a pair of summertime KOs. He's also good with call-outs and making post-fight pleas for performance bonuses, as he did after a blowout of Philipe Lins in June.

    Angela Hill (12-8, 5-8 in UFC): Yes, she's 35 and has been around a while. But "Overkill" has notched two wins in 2020 and barely missed a third while dropping an iffy split decision. She's also put her outgoing personality to good use by becoming a fixture at the broadcast desk on ESPN's pre- and post-fight shows.

    Chase Hooper (9-1-1, 1-1 in UFC): "The Dream" turned 20 in September and was primed for a big 2020 after a quick stoppage of Daniel Teymur in December, but the rise was stalled by a unanimous decision loss to Alex Caceres at UFC 250. Still, Hooper has the tools and the time to still make an impact at featherweight.

    Edmen Shahbazyan (11-1, 3-1 in UFC): If you watched the most recent Fight Night show on ESPN, you know all about the 22-year-old and his mentoring from Ronda Rousey. He laid a big competitive egg in his main event debut, but he was ranked ninth at middleweight for a reason and will get many chances to rebound.

Khamzat Chimaev

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    Pro Record: 8-0  UFC Record: 2-0

    Ranking: None

    Why He's Rising: If you're not yet familiar with Khamzat Chimaev, don't worry.

    You will be. And probably pretty soon.

    The chatty Chechen began his UFC career with a second-round choke-out of middleweight veteran John Phillips at Fight Island on July 15, then returned just 10 days later to pummel Rhys McGee into a first-round pulp at welterweight—establishing a record for the quickest turnaround between victories.

    And if you think he demurely picked up his paychecks and went home, think again.

    Chimaev, 26, began promising perpetual dominance from the instant his hand was raised in Abu Dhabi and has since upped the ante with Twitter call-outs mentioning the likes of Diaz, Masvidal and McGregor.

    "I'm getting bored," he wrote in a tweet directed to Dana White. "I can smash all these guys. ... I'm just confident. I understand if they don't want to fight me."

    Regardless of who's next, the boss likes what he sees.

    "I love guys with that mentality. I love how talented this guy is," White told ESPN (via MMAJunkie). "We threw the hottest prospect out of the UK at him and that kid is a badass. That kid is a legit great fighter. (Chimaev) made it look like he didn’t belong there."

Mounir Lazzez

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    Pro Record: 10-1  UFC Record: 1-0

    Ranking: None

    Why He's Rising: He's got a cool nickname and a great backstory.

    And whaddya know? Mounir Lazzez can fight a little bit, too.

    The Tunisian-born "Sniper" got his UFC shot after a friend of his met Dana White in a restaurant and showed him a video of highlights. White ultimately put him in touch with executive Sean Shelby, who booked Lazzez for a July 15 debut against Abdul Razak Alhassan.

    The underdog newbie was wobbled by a barrage of strikes early in the three-rounder at welterweight but rallied to gain control with a varied offense of his own. Body punches, elbows and high kicks were complemented by a 4-for-4 performance on takedown tries and yielded a unanimous decision by scores of 30-27, 30-27 and 29-28.

    Not to mention an additional $50,000 for sharing in the night's top fight, after which Lazzez, 32, brandished his call-out chops by labeling veteran 170-pounder Mike Perry an "idiot."

    "The guy has an incredibly bright future," ex-middleweight champion Michael Bisping said on the ESPN broadcast. "Perhaps a star was born tonight. He has tremendously well-rounded skills."

Sean O'Malley

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    Pro Record: 12-0  UFC Record: 5-0 (2-0 in 2020)

    Ranking: 14th at bantamweight

    Why He's Rising: There are violent fighters who can talk. There are smooth talkers who can fight.

    But when you blend highlight-reel punches with magnetic microphone presence, you're onto something.

    And, ladies and gentlemen, Sean O'Malley is something.

    The gangly bantamweight made waves a few years back after a memorable performance on Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series show, but his ascension was stalled by two drug-test suspensions.

    He returned to the fold in March, however, and is already a talking point in MMA circles again.

    O'Malley took out Jose Alberto Quinonez with a head kick and punches in just a shade more than two minutes at UFC 248, and he trumped that performance three months later against Eddie Wineland with what Joe Rogan immediately deemed "the greatest walkaway KO we've ever seen."

    "It's time to buy stock in Suga Sean O'Malley," Rogan said on the ESPN broadcast.

    O'Malley, 25, used a subtle feint to lower Wineland's left-hand guard, unleashed a smashing right that sent his foe tumbling and simply turned and walked away as Herb Dean came in to tend to the beaten fighter.

    Wineland, a veteran of 38 fights, had promised to drag O'Malley into the sort of mayhem he'd not seen in a five-year career. Instead it was over in 1:54.

    "He shows time and time again he is among the 15 best bantamweights in the world," Daniel Cormier said. "And he's only getting better."

Jiri Prochazka

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    Pro Record: 27-3-1  UFC Record: 1-0

    Ranking: 7th at light heavyweight

    Why He's Rising: If you can leave Michael Bisping smitten, you've done good work.

    And if you manage to do it inside of six minutes, even better.

    That's what emergent light heavyweight Jiri Prochazka pulled off in his debut with the promotion at UFC 251, where he shucked, jived and chatted his way though one round before getting to violent business and laying out Volkan Oezdemir with a crushing right hand after just 49 seconds of the second.

    Oezdemir, incidentally, was a former title challenger and still, at the time, a seventh-ranked contender.

    But he was reduced to competitive mush and in need of a referee intervention after Prochazka's kick to the head sent him wobbling backward and a subsequent left jab/overhand right finished the job.

    "The star is bright for this young man," Bisping said on ESPN.

    "He is going to go a long way. He couldn't have trotted out much better than that. That was absolutely sensational. Nobody has done that to Volkan Oezdemir."

    Prochazka, 27, had been a champion for Japanese promotion Rizin FF and put off an original offer to join the UFC in order to be a more complete fighter when he arrived.

    Mission accomplished.

    "He's a very unusual man to watch, Bisping said. "If you get one chance to make a first impression with this large an audience, that's the way to do it."

Amanda Ribas

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    Pro Record: 10-1  UFC Record: 4-0 (2-0 in 2020)

    Ranking: 12th at strawweight

    Why She's Rising: If a bubbly personality was all it took, Amanda Ribas would already have a title.

    But that's OK, because the 26-year-old Brazilian can fight, too.

    In fact, Ribas was one of the darlings of the recent Fight Island experience in Abu Dhabi, thanks both to an impressive first-round erasure of the formerly hyped Paige VanZant and the infectious smile and giddy dance moves she displayed nearly every time she was within range of a camera.

    "I'm very happy," she said after dispatching VanZant with an armbar at UFC 251. "The energy was amazing, and I came out with a victory. I had my dad and brother in the Octagon with me and started to cry. There were a lot of emotions in my heart. I was happy I could show my jiu-jitsu."

    Ribas said she plans to return to strawweight after the VanZant victory and hoped out loud for a match with either seventh-ranked Carla Esparza or No. 9 Marina Rodriguez. Ribas is ranked three spots behind Rodriguez at No. 12 after beating Randa Markos by decision in March and following it with the VanZant submission.

    "It doesn't matter who you are. What matters is what you do with your life," Ribas said. "I was training in a small city and no one thought I could beat the girl training in the big gym. But I have a big heart. I gave all my energy to come here and do my best."

Jack Shore

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    Pro Record: 13-0  UFC Record: 2-0 (1-0 in 2020)

    Ranking: None

    Why He's Rising: Some guys seem as though they were born to fight.

    Jack Shore is one of them.

    The former Cage Warriors bantamweight king debuted in the UFC with a third-round choke-out of Nohelin Hernandez in September, and he then strutted his stuff on Fight Island with an equally impressive submission win over Aaron Phillips in two rounds.

    And if you suggest Shore could be the next to make the jump from Cage Warriors gold to UFC gold—as McGregor and Bisping, among others, have done—you'll not be hard-pressed to find support. 

    Still just 25, Shore racked up six submissions and four striking stoppages in 11 fights before arriving to the big leagues, so the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace will be a tough out for anyone he faces.

    "He is without a doubt one of the hottest prospects that we've ever had coming out of Europe," said former UFC title challenger Dan Hardy, who doubled as an ESPN analyst from Fight Island. "Though he's a very young man, the way that he fights you would think he's had 40, 50 fights under his belt. He's got a great team of guys around him."