Six months are in the books for 2018, so it’s time to celebrate the best of the best in the Octagon with the highly unofficial half-year awards. Enough set-up, let’s get to the lists for the top newcomers, biggest upsets and best submissions.
1 – Israel Adesanya (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
The timing is perfect for this, with Israel Adesanya headlining his first UFC card next Friday in Las Vegas against Brad Tavares. To get ready for that intriguing middleweight matchup, check out the New Zealander’s first two Octagon bouts, a Performance of the Night stoppage of Rob Wilkinson in February and a hard-fought decision win over Marvin Vettori in April. Style, swagger, and a sizeable upside make the unbeaten “Last Stylebender” one to watch.
2 - Alexander Hernandez (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
I usually like to keep these half-year lists restricted to fighters with more than one fight during the previous six months, but considering that Alexander Hernandez went from the regional scene to the lightweight top 15 in the space of that one fight, I can make an exception, especially given his stunning 42-second knockout of Beneil Dariush in March. Next up for the Texan? Canadian standout Olivier Aubin-Mercier in July.
3 - Mackenzie Dern (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Jiu-Jitsu phenom Mackenzie Dern has received plenty of heat for missing weight for her May bout against Amanda Cooper, but there’s no question that the unbeaten strawweight has the talent and the charisma to be a star in this game in the coming years. Now it’s up to her to keep grinding, stay away from reading her news clips, and continue to build on her first two UFC wins over Ashley Yoder and Cooper.
4 - Julio Arce (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
The Tiger Schulmann Fight Team has been producing more and more UFC fighters over the past few years, but if Julio Arce stays on the road he’s been on, he may emerge as the best of the bunch. Currently on a seven-fight winning streak, New York’s Arce followed up a 2017 win on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series with a pair of Octagon victories over Dan Ige and Daniel Teymur, and while featherweight is a shark tank, Arce has shown that he has the ability to swim with any of them.
5 - Petr Yan (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Petr Yan’s win over Teruto Ishihara last weekend in Singapore wasn’t going to land him in the bantamweight top 15, but his talent and upside have me breaking my “more than one fight” rule to put him on this list. Continually marching forward, this Russian tank has a granite chin and a dynamic arsenal of tools on fight night that should have him cracking the rankings sooner rather than later.
1 – Alexander Hernandez-Beneil Dariush (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Hindsight is always 20/20 when looking at a fighter who scores a big win in his or her UFC debut. So at the time Alexander Hernandez was called on short notice to replace Bobby Green against lightweight contender Beneil Dariush in March, it was expected to be one of those situations where the newcomer shows up, makes weight and gives a good effort, but that his best effort will come in UFC fight number two. Not on this night, as Hernandez scored a 42-second knockout win that deposited him right in the top 15. Now that’s a debut, and the biggest upset of 2018 thus far.
2 – Chris Gruetzemacher-Joe Lauzon (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Over the last couple years, lightweight veteran Joe Lauzon has had some tough outings, but in 2016-2017, his 1-3 slate saw him lose close decisions to Jim Miller and Stevie Ray, with the only one-sided loss coming against Clay Guida. So odds were good that Lauzon was going to get back on track against Chris Gruetzemacher, who was coming off back-to-back submission losses that likely would have him desperate for a win. And against Lauzon, a desperate fighter can get caught and finished in a hurry. But that’s not how it played out in April, as Gruetzemacher delivered a career-best effort in stopping Lauzon in two rounds.
3 – Sergio Pettis-Joseph Benavidez (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Despite Sergio Pettis’ talent and upside at 125 pounds, most believed it was still too much too soon for him against longtime number one contender Joseph Benavidez. But with sharp striking, solid takedown defense and a veteran’s poise, it was the flyweight formerly known as “The Phenom” who scored the split decision win over Benavidez and put himself squarely in the title picture.
4 – Brian Kelleher-Renan Barao (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Yes, former bantamweight champion and pound-for-pound list member Renan Barao has had a rough go of it since losing his title to TJ Dillashaw in 2014, but when he faced New York prospect Brian Kelleher, he was still seen as having enough gas in the tank to beat “Boom” and get back to the business of title chasing. Kelleher had other ideas, scoring a near shutout three round decision to earn the biggest victory of his career.
5 – Cody Stamann-Bryan Caraway (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Perennial bantamweight contender Bryan Caraway entered his March bout against Cody Stamann off a nearly two-year layoff, but prior to that layoff, he had scored back-to-back wins over Eddie Wineland and Aljamain Sterling, keeping him as a favorite for the UFC 222 bout. But Michigan’s Stamann refused to get taken in by such talk, and on fight night, he won his third consecutive UFC bout via split decision over Caraway, announcing his arrival to the top ten at 135 pounds.
1 – Paul Craig-Magomed Ankalaev (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Scotland’s Paul Craig was moments away from retirement as Magomed Ankalaev put him on the canvas, seemingly about to secure his first UFC win at Craig’s expense. But in the miracle comeback of all miracle comebacks, Craig threw up a triangle choke and forced Ankalaev to tap out. The time of the victory, which earned Craig a Performance of the Night bonus and a new UFC contract? 4:59 of round three.
2 – Aleksei Oleinik-Junior Albini (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
A prime example of the adage that life begins at 40, Aleksei Oleinik continues to impress at 41. So if you’re wondering if he was going to slow down, just go back to May, when he picked up yet another submission to remember, finishing Junior Albini with the Ezekiel choke that is rare to everyone but “The Boa Constrictor,” who has used it to finish 11 – yes, 11 – opponents.
3 – Claudio Puelles-Felipe Silva (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Highly touted Claudio Puelles was upset in the TUF LATAM 3 finals in 2016, and nearly two years later, he was on his way to another crushing defeat against Brazilian banger Felipe Silva in May before pulling off a miracle kneebar that ended the bout at 2:23 of the third round. And while it may not have been cutting it as close as Craig’s finish of Ankalaev, there was no shortage of drama in this one for the 22-year-old from Peru.
4 – Adam Wieczorek-Arjan Bhullar (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
I’m no jiu-jitsu player, but just from watching fights for over 20 years, I’m of the opinion that the omoplata is one of the most complex submissions to pull off, and the numbers may back that up, as Adam Wieczorek’s finish of Arjan Bhullar in April was only the second in UFC history. And like the best subs, this one creeps up on an opponent, and by the time it’s locked on, it’s too late. A thing of beauty.
5 – Ilir Latifi-Ovince Saint Preux (WATCH ON UFC FIGHT PASS)
Like knockouts, submissions come in all varieties, and while we can celebrate clean technique and slick maneuvering, there is always a place for raw power, and that’s what Ilir Latifi showed when he locked in the standing guillotine that ended Ovince Saint Preux’s night in February. Sledgehammer indeed.