The first quarter of the UFC’s 2018 campaign featured four championship fights, two wins for Jeremy Stephens and various impressive individual performances.
But if you’re looking for one thread woven throughout eight events that have already transpired this year, it’s the emergence of a host of exciting, emerging fighters scattered across every division. From Brian Ortega and Mackenzie Dern to “Bam Bam” Tuivasa and Mirsad Bektic, the first three months of the year showcased the wealth of talent currently climbing the ranks in the UFC.
Even though the fight cards for May and June are still under construction, here’s an advance look at some of the outstanding emerging talent to keep your eyes on once Q2 gets underway.
This is The 10: Fighters to Watch Edition.
"I've dreamt about this moment. Talking to you Joe Rogan, at the Garden, in front of all these Boston fans." @CalvinKattar after his win at #UFC220 pic.twitter.com/1YfcG2IT9f
— UFC (@ufc) January 22, 2018
The 29-year-old featherweight picked up his second UFC victory and 10th straight win overall at UFC 220, finishing Shane Burgos in the third round of their entertaining, back-and-forth, Fight of the Night-winning tussle at TD Garden.
Not one to waste time on the sidelines or take the slow road towards the top of the 145-pound ranks, Kattar returns to action at UFC 223 against Renato Moicano in a bout that will elevate the winner to the fringes of title consideration in the deep and competitive division.
Champion Max Holloway and his new challenger Ortega might be at the forefront of the youth movement in the featherweight division, but fighters like Bektic and Kattar aren’t far behind and the New Englander can close the distance even more with an electric showing in Las Vegas in early April.
Big day of #strengthandconditioning 2mi run, #sprints #ladders #heavyupperbody day then @outlawmuaythai for two hrs. A three hr lunch and recovery session then #usawrestling practice this eve. #ufcfightnight129 here I come in the best shape of my life. pic.twitter.com/HgFIMNnaYU
— Andrea Lee (@AndreaKGBLee) March 8, 2018
Lee’s arrival on the biggest stage in the sport has been a topic of excited conversation for a couple years now, as the 29-year-old Texan screams star potential and has shown the talent in the cage to back it up. There was a brief moment where she was slated to face Kalindra Faria at UFC 216 last October, but now “KGB” is set to debut in Santiago, Chile opposite Veronica Macedo.
The flyweight upstart has rattled off four consecutive victories and earned wins in eight of 10 appearances to date, with her two setbacks coming in litmus test tilts against savvy, experienced veterans Roxanne Modafferi and Sarah D’Alelio. Though she is comfortable firing off strikes, Lee’s greatest success has come on the ground, where she’s collected four of her eight wins, including a submission victory over TUF 26 alum Rachel Ostovich.
There is a lot of hype surrounding Lee, with hardcore fans projecting her to challenge for the flyweight title in the not too distant future. While that may be rushing things a little, the potential is there for her to develop into a perennial contender who could very well one day fight for or even win UFC gold. Entering into a division that is still sorting itself out creates a great opportunity for Lee to quickly establish herself as a factor and if she shines in her promotional debut, don’t be surprised if she gets an accelerated push in the second half of 2018.
A post shared by Zabit Magomedsharipov (@zabit_magomedsharipov) on Feb 22, 2018 at 1:02pm PST
Through his first two UFC appearances, the man everyone simply refers to as Zabit has been as good as advertised and that’s saying something because his teammates and coaches have always spoken very highly of the 27-year-old featherweight prospect.
After submitting Mike Santiago in the second round of his promotional debut, Magomedsharipov forced talented newcomer Sheymon Moraes to do the same in the third round as an encore, pushing his record to 14-1 in the process and extending his winning streak to double digits. Next up is a UFC 223 showdown with Kyle “Crash” Bochniak, a feisty and tough-to-finish grinder coming off a good win over Brandon Davis at UFC 220.
Like Kattar, Magomedsharipov is closing in on the Top 10 and if he keeps posting finishes and garnering more momentum, it’s going to hard to deny the skilled upstart a marquee opportunity and keep him out of “future champion” conversations.
A post shared by Israel Adesanya (@stylebender) on Feb 28, 2018 at 5:44pm PST
I would say if anyone wants to see how to make an impressive in their promotional debut and set themselves up for an express ticket to stardom, just watch how Adesanya handled business in his promotional debut at UFC 221, but that would make it seem like anyone could do what “The Last Style Bender” did and that’s just not true.
The kickboxing standout felt Rob Wilkinson out in the opening round before putting him away with a patient, measured barrage along the cage in the second and then he made sure to emblazon his name in everyone’s memory by delivering a well-crafted, built-for-Twitter post-fight promo that left everyone talking about him on Sunday morning and many other days since then.
Next up, Adesanya draws Marvin Vettori, another promising up-and-coming talent in the middleweight division. He’s declared it will be another dominant victory and another chance to get on board the bandwagon, and given how impressive he looked in his initial foray into the UFC cage, I would be remiss if I didn’t let you know you should circle April 14 on your calendar and keep your eyes peeled for his sophomore appearance.
A post shared by Antonio "Cara De Sapato" Jr. (@caradesapatojr) on Feb 6, 2018 at 6:21am PST
It might seem a little odd to some that Carlos Junior is included in this list because he’s already nine fights deep into his UFC tenure, but “Cara de Sapato” turns 27 later this month, boasts an outstanding grappling pedigree and is on a four-fight winning streak with the chance to run it to five against Tim Boestch in April.
Middleweight is wide open right now and if he’s able to turn back “The Barbarian” next month, it will be difficult to deny the former Ultimate Fighter: Brazil tournament winner a place in the Top 15.
Sometimes the next intriguing, emerging talent comes out of nowhere, but other times, they’ve been quietly doing their thing right under your nose and all that was missing was someone reminding you to give them a closer look.
A post shared by Brett Johns (@brettjohnsmma) on Mar 3, 2018 at 1:04pm PST
When you’ve got a 15-0 record and you finished your last fight in 30 seconds – with a calf slicer! – you’ve got my attention and a place on this list.
Johns has been one to watch in the bantamweight division since he graduated to the UFC from the regional ranks and posted a pair of decision wins in his first two trips into the Octagon. But after tactically taking down and tapping out Joe Soto in half-a-minute last time out, the 26-year-old Welshman graduated to “Guy I’ve got to make sure other people are paying attention to going forward” status.
“The Pikey” gets his chance to jump into the mix in the 135-pound weight division with a marquee showdown against Aljamain Sterling in Atlantic City. If he can topple the Serra-Longo Fight Team member down on the shore, Johns could find himself in the Top 10 and mentioned alongside the top contenders in the division before the year is out.
Man! I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of you! @AspenLaddMMA with that ground-and-pound from Hell! pic.twitter.com/qFbpFXbdjX
— Marion Reneau (@BelizeanBruiser) October 21, 2017
Ladd’s debut win over Lina Lansberg encapsulated why I’m so high on her potential going forward. Competing overseas in her first UFC appearance, the 23-year-old came out after an uneven first round and played to her strengths, dragging the Swedish veteran to the canvas and mauling her from top position to force the stoppage.
Already boasting victories over Sijara Eubanks, Kelly McGill-Velasco and Amanda Cooper, Ladd has faced solid competition on her way to the UFC and takes another step up in April when she squares off with veteran Leslie Smith.
It’s the kind of showdown with a savvy, experienced fighter that every young, emerging talent has to win at some point in order to advance to the next level and Ladd is looking to get it out of the way in her seventh professional bout and second UFC appearance. That should tell you all you need to know about the promising Californian.
A post shared by k babyk roberson (@k_babyk_roberson) on Jan 12, 2018 at 11:07am PST
While there has been lots of talk about Sean O’Malley’s breakout performance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series last summer, Roberson might have earned the most impressive finish of the series when he iced Ryan Spann with a series of rapid-fire elbows just 15 seconds into the first round.
As a follow-up, the 27-year-old kickboxer submitted Darren Stewart in the first round of his UFC debut. Now Roberson is poised to venture to Rio de Janeiro to take on Cezar Ferreira at UFC 224 on May 12.
Like I said earlier, middleweight is in a state of flux and there is a huge opportunity for newcomers like Roberson, Carlos Junior and others to make their mark and move up the rankings.
A post shared by Tatiana Suarez Padilla (@tatianasuarezufc) on Jan 6, 2018 at 2:28pm PST
Injuries kept Suarez on the sidelines for 491 days following her Ultimate Fighter victory over Amada Cooper, but the talented 27-year-old roared back in impressive fashion, handing Viviane Pereira the first loss of her career back in November.
An accomplished wrestler with serious strength, Suarez has a different skill set than many of the top talents in the strawweight division and that talent on the canvas could help expedite her climb up the rankings.
Her next assignment is a pairing with fellow prospect Alexa Grasso, who arrived from Invicta FC with a ton of hype, but has struggled to build upon it through her first three UFC appearances. If Suarez goes out and runs through Grasso the way she has Cooper and Pereira, she’ll be looking at a Top 15 opponent next time out.
A post shared by Gregor gillespie (@gregorthegift) on Feb 12, 2018 at 11:18am PST
He might be more interested in telling you about his abilities with a rod and reel on freshwater lakes and rivers, but I’m here to tell you that Gillespie is already one of the top lightweight talents in the UFC today, even if he doesn’t currently occupy a place in the Top 15.
A perfect 11-0 overall, four of those victories have come inside the Octagon with the last three all coming by way of stoppage. He was a four-time All-American wrestler at Edinboro University, winning a national championship in 2007 and has proven himself equally capable of lighting guys up on the feet as he is at taking them down and beating them on the canvas.
Coming up this spring, Gillespie will step in with veteran Vinc “From Hell” Pichel to see whose four-fight winning streak will be extended to five. Should he become the second man to defeat the Ultimate Fighter Season 15 alum, it will be hard not to give Gillespie a place in the rankings and a marquee assignment in the second half of the year.