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The top of the UFC starscape is so windswept, there's nothing left to sweep. It's just wind.
Conor McGregor is a ghost, trapped in some celebrity netherworld. Jon Jones keeps tying his own shoelaces together—a crime apparently punishable by excommunication. Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey are professional wrestlers. Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Anthony Joshua still need many months of sprawl training. They say it's wacky at the top.
Focusing on the stars, though, neglects the forest for the trees. Person to person, this game has never played out at a higher level. From Stipe to DJ, there is excellence everywhere.
And yet, we all know that individual sports are a star's domain. You need more than excellence. The UFC's awareness level is uncertain, but there is a new crop of lights flickering in the dust clouds of their galaxy. These are the most exciting newcomers in the UFC right now.
We've defined "newcomer" as someone who has only been in the UFC for a year or less (give or a take a couple of months in some cases) and has three or fewer UFC fights under his or her belt. Expertise and records matter, but so does fighting style. Is it exciting? Dominant? And how are those mic skills? A star is a complex thing requiring many conditions and ingredients. They are ranked here based on all of these considerations.
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Listed in no particular order:
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Mackenzie Dern's UFC debut may not have been a best-case scenario. Dern (6-0, 1-0 UFC) didn't have much chance to showcase the jiu-jitsu that won her multiple world titles. Her takedown abilities were nonexistent, and her striking was at times literally thrown blindly, as she lowered her head before barging forward for another roll of the dice.
She flashed that deadly grappling toward the end and earned the split decision over unspectacular Ashley Yoder. But a lot of incredulous cackling ensued when Dern, an American from Arizona who spends a lot of time in Brazil, conducted her post-fight speech through a Portuguese-to-English translator. It's not that big a deal, but it's an instructive example of self-inflicted silliness.
"A win is a win" is a phrase often used by those looking to deflect a moral defeat, but it works well enough for Dern in this case. It's OK for a 25-year-old to have improvement areas after her first UFC contest. She still has a world-class fighting base and a world of charm and appeal. If she can get her complementary skills in tune, her ascent could still be rapid.
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Marlon Moraes (20-5-1, 2-1 UFC) lost some hype-train steam when he dropped his UFC debut in a close decision to Raphael Assuncao.
It was curious matchmaking, as Assuncao may be the best bantamweight in the world right now likely the most underrated fighter on the UFC roster. Before he went Octagon-side, Moraes was a reigning champion in World Series of Fighting, a promotion that was then seen as a kind of semi-competitor to the UFC. The UFC, it seems, chose to prove a point about its own dominance—at the expense of developing a new star on their team.
Moraes is doing his best to pick up the slack. A close decision win over John Dodson led to a first-round knee-strike knockout on Aljamain Sterling. Moraes and his slasher-film muay thai are a load for any bantamweight. If he can beat Jimmie Rivera in June, he could earn a rematch with Assuncao—or something better.
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You may not know Paulo Costa. You should remedy that.
The mahogany-carved middleweight (11-0, 3-0 UFC) has taken some observers by surprise by knocking out Garreth McLellan, Oluwale Bamgbose and Johny Hendricks in succession. None of those guys are cupcakes. It's not the performance you might expect from someone who lost in the second round of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil.
The Eraser has finishes in all of his pro contests, with only a first-round chokeout prevening an across-the-board knockout sweep. His bouts with Hendricks and Bamgbose are the only ones to leave the second round.
So, you see what this guy's about. He'll have stiffer tests in the future (an April bout with Uriah Hall was scuttled when Costa fell injured), but he has the power, athleticism and toughness to make all of them interesting. When you have this kind of crowd-pleasing style, and you look the part to boot, matchmakers are probably going to help you out a bit.
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Justin Gaethje (18-1, 1-1 UFC) couldn't quite pass the heat check last December against Eddie Alvarez. Gaethje went toe-to-toe with the former lightweight champ (or leg-to-leg, based on those low kicks that almost put Alvarez away), but ultimately Alvarez overwhelmed him, and Gaethje succumbed to a crushing knee strike in the third. The performance earned both men Fight of the Night bonuses.
Gaethje is an absolute berserker and a top-notch fighter. He's more than just a power brawler; he can't be taken down, his chin is made of granite (a dead-center knee from Alvarez hardly disproves that), and his striking attack is clever and diverse. And it all comes wrapped in a relentless pressure game that can break people in itself.
Gaethje is downgraded for now because of the knockout, but he's still on this list for a clear reason. His April 14 tangle with Dustin Poirier is absolute must-see TV, one of those contests where you hate to see a loser but love every second of the process.
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Zabit Magomedsharipov (14-1, 2-0 UFC) is the latest Dagestani prospect to take his opponents by storm.
In the span of one autumn, he submitted Mike Santiago and Sheymon Moraes back to back. Like another Dagestani, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Magomedsharipov (and seriously, these names read like they taped a bunch of tennis players together) just seems to force himself on people, and you're not entirely sure how it's happening outside of the simple fact that it is highly, highly dominant.
He's aggressive and unorthodox both on the feet and on the ground. He just overwhelms you with activity. Overlaid with technique as it is, it's just a hard thing to stand up to.
No offense to Kyle Bochniak, but their clash on April 7 looks like another win for this streaking featherweight.
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No name on this list has more hype behind it than that of Sean O'Malley.
The 23-year-old bantamweight (10-0, 3-0 UFC) took the velvet-glove route to his UFC debut. That's not to say his fights weren't difficult, but if you show out on Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series show, as O'Malley did, you're in a pretty good position.
Palling around with Snoop Dogg doesn't hurt, either, nor does that rakish 'fro or high-octane striking style.
O'Malley had two UFC wins under his belt, but both were affiliated with reality-show cards (Tuesday Night Contender Series and then a finale of The Ultimate Fighter). But he broke free of that gravitational pull in a big way when he bested Andre Soukhamthath at UFC 222. He pieced up the veteran with his rangy limbs, only to injure his foot at the end; Soukhamthath let him off the hook by pressing a ground attack when basically just forcing him to stand up might have ended the fight.
O'Malley did his victory speech lying down, and won over all his remaining detractors in the process.
"I can’t feel it right now," O’Malley said of his foot while flat on his back in the cage, per The MacLife. "I can’t even step on it. I think it was a question-mark kick—it really hurts. But nothing a little medicine can’t fix after the fight at my after-party."
Just Monday, O'Malley tweeted thanks to his doctors for what appeared to be a successful surgery. There is no timetable on his return yet, but it can't come fast enough for anyone involved.
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Here's a fun insider tip: If you win a UFC belt in your first official UFC fight, you've got a pretty good batting average working.
Nicco Montano (4-2, 1-0 UFC) worked her way through the bracket of The Ultimate Fighter 26 over the summer and fall of 2017. Even though none of this technically counts toward her pro record, it reads like something that could. First, she shocked longtime UFC veteran Lauren Murphy. Then she defeated Montana De La Rosa, who herself went on to enter and win in the UFC. Then she beat Barb Honchak, who was only the defending flyweight champ in Invicta FC.
She topped it off by handling Roxanne Modafferi in the actual official bout. That in crowned her the first women's flyweight champion in UFC history.
It's remarkable. It's a Loyola-Chicago-level run, the kind of thing where they morph from giant-killer to giant in the span of one contiguous string of success. At the end of it, there's no underdog in sight.
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A couple of fighters have made megaton-level impacts on the landscape in just the last couple of months. One of those fighters is middleweight Israel Adesanya (12-0, 1-0).
The 28-year-old Nigerian-born kickboxer was well known to combat sports hardcores long before he drew the UFC's eye. He's regarded as one of the most creative, devastating and flamboyant strikers in the world. You can see that in his MMA record. All 12 of his wins came by knockout. None have left the second round. He's the rare fighter who really makes it look effortless.
Rob Wilkinson is a solid wrestler but struggled to take down Adesanya or keep him there once successful. That takedown defense might have been more encouraging to his UFC prospects that the brutal combination striking that put Wilkinson down and out in the second.
Or maybe the most encouraging thing was the way he further stirred the pot after the win.
"No one’s really calling me out or saying anything yet," Adesanya said, per MMA Junkie. "I know these boys, they’re just treating me like the Dark Lord—he who shall not be named. They feel like if they say my name, they might get the power. Or maybe they’re scared. I don’t really care. All I know is I’m working. If you want to beat me, you better do it yesterday, because every f--king day, I’m getting better."
Until someone proves me otherwise, I'm going to assume this guy can't be stopped.