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On the Rise: Fighters to Watch in 2021

Here Are A Few Fighters To Keep Your Eye On In 2021

Over the last several years, we’ve kicked off our fight week coverage with On the Rise, a series that spotlights three athletes set to compete that week who are either making their way into the Octagon for the first time, working their way up the divisional ranks, or on the brink of title contention and deserve a little more recognition.

The Rising Stars Of 2021
The Rising Stars Of 2021
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Five current UFC champions appeared in the series early in their UFC tenures — Zhang Weili (UFC 227), Deiveson Figueiredo (UFC Lincoln 2018), Petr Yan (UFC Singapore 2018), Alexander Volkanovski (UFC Auckland 2017), and Israel Adesanya (UFC 221) — along with various current contenders, divisional staples, and budding prospects.

While there have certainly been some misses along the way, On the Rise has been a constant source of information for the next waves of names to watch in the UFC, and as we wrap up 2020 and look ahead to next year, we thought it made sense to produce a year-end list of emerging stars with the potential to become breakout names in 2021.

Here’s a closer look at those competitors.

This is the 2021 Preview Edition of On the Rise.

Order UFC 257: Poirier vs McGregor 2

Amanda Ribas

 MARCH 14: (L-R) Amanda Ribas of Brazil punches Randa Markos of Canada in their strawweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event on March 14, 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC)
MARCH 14: (L-R) Amanda Ribas of Brazil punches Randa Markos of Canada in their strawweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event on March 14, 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC)

Following a rookie year where she earned two wins in a little under four months, Ribas extended her record in the UFC to 4-0 and her overall winning streak to five with a pair of impressive wins during her sophomore season.

In March, the shimmering beacon of positive energy outworked divisional stalwart Randa Markos in Brasilia, earning scores of 30-26, 30-25, and 30-25 against the former Ultimate Fighter semifinalist. Four months later, she ventured up to flyweight and submitted Paige VanZant in just over two minutes, once again showcasing her dominant ground skills while maintaining her hot streak.

Though Ribas was initially slated to wrap up her 2020 campaign with a bout at UFC 256, the winds of change pushed her next appearance into new year and brought not one, but two opponent switches. As it stands now, the surging 27-year-old is slated to face fellow Brazilian Marina Rodriguez at UFC 257 in January.

CHAMP CHECK-INS: Petr Yan | Zhang Weili | Deivesion Figueiredo | Valentina Shevchenko | Amanda Nunes | Kamaru Usman | Israel Adesanya | Jan BlachowiczStipe Miocic

Currently residing at No. 9 in the strawweight rankings, one spot behind Rodriguez, Ribas is a black belt in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and prepares for her fights alongside the all-star cast of coaches and fighters at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida. While everyone is understandably high on Mackenzie Dern’s potential, especially coming off her gritty victory over Virna Jandiroba at UFC 256, don’t forget that it was Ribas that handed Dern her lone loss to date and that the bubbly Brazilian has already shown herself to be a complete fighter inside the Octagon.

Through her first four UFC appearances, she has yet to encounter any real danger and appears poised to make a push towards the Top 5 in 2021, provided she can get by Rodriguez in January.

Bryce Mitchell

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - OCTOBER 31: (R-L) Bryce Mitchell punches Andre Fili in a featherweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event

“Thug Nasty” is unbeaten inside the Octagon, having kicked off his UFC run with a victory over Tyler Diamond in the “bronze medal match” at the TUF 27 Finale before adding wins over Bobby Moffett and Matt Sayles during his first full year on the roster.

Hitting just the second “twister” submission in UFC history on Sayles at the end of 2019 had everybody checking for Mitchell heading into this year, and the 26-year-old Arkansas native and camouflage enthusiast did not disappoint. At UFC 249, he thoroughly out-grappled respected black belt and UFC veteran Charles Rosa and followed it up with a hard-fought unanimous decision win over Andre Fili on Halloween.

There is a lot to like about Mitchell, who appeared in this space ahead of his bout with Moffett, going forward. He’s already crept his way into the Top 15 in the loaded featherweight ranks, he’s already one of the best grapplers in the division, and his toughness and grit have never been in question. As he continues to improve his striking and gain more seasoning inside the Octagon, Mitchell has the potential to develop into a countryfied version of Demian Maia — a nightmare to deal with on the ground who only needs to get ahold of you once in order to put you on the deck and work you over.

The featherweight division is more flush with talent now than it has ever been in the past, which means there are nothing but dangerous fights against skilled foes in Mitchell’s future, but given how good he’s looked thus far and the growth he’s exhibited over his first two years in the UFC, it’s difficult not to envision the gifted Ultimate Fighter alum becoming a Top 10 fixture in the not too distant future.

Calvin Kattar

MAY 09: (R-L) Calvin Kattar punches Jeremy Stephens in their featherweight fight during the UFC 249 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on May 09, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
MAY 09: (R-L) Calvin Kattar punches Jeremy Stephens in their featherweight fight during the UFC 249 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on May 09, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Speaking of the loaded featherweight division…

Methuen, Massachusetts’ Kattar used 2020 to cement his standing as one of the absolute best fighters in the 145-pound weight class, rebounding from his frustrating year-end loss to Zabit Magomedsharipov last November in Moscow with a hellacious knockout win over Jeremy Stephens at UFC 249 and a technical, polished, professional decision victory over Dan Ige two months later on Fight Island.

It took Kattar a little longer to reach the Octagon, but he’s made up for that by facing a non-stop diet of dangerous foes since matriculating to the UFC in the summer of 2017, including Andre Fili, Shane Burgos, Renato Moicano, and former title challenger Ricardo Lamas.

There is zero flash to Kattar’s game, and I say that with the utmost respect, as the New England Cartel member prefers to handle his business inside the cage and allow his work to speak for itself. In 2020, it spoke volumes.

The Underrated Moments Of 2020

Kattar has exceptional boxing and has started mixing in short, punishing elbows as of late, including the one that he unleashed on Stephens in May. His conditioning is exceptional and though he can be a slow starter at times, once the 32-year-old finds his range and rhythm, it’s a steady diet of clean, crisp strikes that have a way of wearing out opponents and creating opportunities for the Top 10 staple to turn up the pressure and intensity.

After a breakthrough 2020 campaign, Kattar will kick off his 2021 schedule with his biggest fight to date — a main event assignment opposite former featherweight champ Max Holloway to close out the first UFC fight card of the year.

Ciryl Gane

DECEMBER 12: (R-L) Ciryl Gane of France elbows Junior Dos Santos of Brazil in their heavyweight bout during the UFC 256 event at UFC APEX on December 12, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
DECEMBER 12: (R-L) Ciryl Gane of France elbows Junior Dos Santos of Brazil in their heavyweight bout during the UFC 256 event at UFC APEX on December 12, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

“If I win against Junior, the people will know that I’m ready for the big names. So now we’re going to see and I’m going to do my best against this big man.”

That’s what Gane said to me prior to his UFC 256 clash with Junior Dos Santos, where he stopped the former heavyweight champion with a sharp jab and powerful elbow along the fence midway through the second round.

In the span of 18 months, the 30-year-old Frenchman has gone from making his UFC debut to finishing a former titleholder, posting a 4-0 record with three finishes, justifying his advanced billing as a future heavyweight contender.

As the broadcast team of Jon Anik, Joe Rogan, and Daniel Cormier noted during his win over Dos Santos, Gane looks different and moves differently than most UFC heavyweights, bouncing on the balls of his feet, floating around the outside until he’s ready to attack, and displaying a fluidity and athleticism that feels contradictory to the fact that he’s six-foot-five and a shade under 250 pounds.

The scary part — and a big part of why Gane has appeared in this space twice before and again now — is that he’s done all this in seven fights and a little more than three years as a professional mixed martial artist. As good as he has been thus far — and he’s been pretty, pretty, pretty good — it’s exciting to think about what the future holds of “Bon Gamin” as he continues to hone his skills and work on his craft.

Gane is already a Top 5 fighter in the UFC heavyweight division and his ceiling has yet to be determined, which should be worrisome to everyone else in the weight class and thrilling for fight fans around the globe.

Cory Sandhagen

OCTOBER 11: (L-R) Cory Sandhagen kicks Marlon Moraes of Brazil in their bantamweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on October 11, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
OCTOBER 11: (L-R) Cory Sandhagen kicks Marlon Moraes of Brazil in their bantamweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on October 11, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

If you ever needed confirmation that Sandhagen was absolutely built for a life spent competing inside the Octagon and at the highest levels in the talent-rich bantamweight division, an examination of his 2020 campaign will tell you everything you need to know.

After pushing his UFC record to 5-0 with a trio of victories in 2019, the Elevation Fight Team member was initially tabbed to welcome Frankie Edgar to the 135-pound weight class in January before “The Answer” jumped in to replace Brian Ortega on the 2019 finale in Busan, South Korea, scuttling that potential showcase fight.

Then, Sandhagen was paired off with fellow contender Aljamain Sterling in a potential title eliminator on Fight Island at UFC 250 in June, and the bout lasted less than 90 seconds. Sterling almost immediately took the 28-year-old’s back and methodically worked to sink in and secure the fight-ending choke.

Four months later, Sandhagen was paired off with former title challenger Marlon Moraes, and the Coloradan looked outstanding, earning a second-round stoppage victory over the talented Brazilian after putting him on the deck with a beautiful spinning wheel kick early in the middle frame.

Getting quickly stopped by Sterling had the potential to be a demoralizing, detrimental result, but Sandhagen responded the way true championship-caliber talents do — he picked himself up, dusted himself off, and delivered an impressive performance of his own the next time out, cementing himself as one of the top contenders in the bantamweight ranks.

Though he has nothing on tap as of this writing, the talented Sandhagen should face another Top 5 opponent in the opening half of 2021 and could very well find himself fighting for championship gold by the end of the year if things break his way.

Jiri Prochazka

 JULY 12: (L) Jiri Prochazka of the Czech Republic battles Volkan Oezdemir of Switzerland in their light heavyweight fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
JULY 12: (L) Jiri Prochazka of the Czech Republic battles Volkan Oezdemir of Switzerland in their light heavyweight fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Prochazka made his promotional debut in July at UFC 251 and instantly established himself as a contender in the light heavyweight division in the process, securing a second-round stoppage win over former title challenger and Top 10 fixture Volkan Oezdemir.

The 28-year-old from the Czech Republic has now won 11 consecutive contests — 10 by way of stoppage — and instantly validated the hype that followed him into the Octagon for his clash with Oezdemir this past summer. With an awkward, unconventional style and obvious power in his hands, Prochazka is an absolute must-see attraction every time he competes.

Although he has a couple more established names ahead of him in the queue waiting for an opportunity to challenge current champ Jan Blachowicz, kicking off his 2021 campaign with a dominant effort against another contender would certainly solidify Prochazka’s place in the divisional hierarchy and give him a clear path to challenging for the light heavyweight title before the year is out.

Joaquin Buckley

OCTOBER 11: Joaquin Buckley celebrates his KO victory over Impa Kasanganay in their middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on October 11, 2020 in Abu Dhabi. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
OCTOBER 11: Joaquin Buckley celebrates his KO victory over Impa Kasanganay in their middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on October 11, 2020 in Abu Dhabi. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Buckley became a viral sensation in October when he landed a jumping, spinning back kick on Impa Kasanganay that looked straight out of your favorite fighting game or martial arts movie. Having the athleticism and confidence to throw the kick was impressive enough, but landing it clean and Kasanganay’s reaction made it one of the must-see moments of 2020 inside the Octagon.

And then “New Mansa” delivered another blistering finish as an encore, wiping out Jordan Wright with a smooth, powerful set of tandem hooks just 18 seconds in the second round of their clash at UFC 255.

It wasn’t all positive results for Buckley inside the Octagon in 2020, though his third-round stoppage loss in his promotional debut continues to look better and better with each passing day.

The 26-year-old made his UFC debut in August, stepping into the cage with Kevin Holland on five days’ notice, just eight days after earning a second-round stoppage win over Jackie Gosh under the LFA banner. While he landed on the wrong side of the highlight reel that evening, Holland has continued blazing a trail towards the top of the middleweight division, so it’s difficult to hold a short-notice setback where he lasted longer than three of the other four men to share the Octagon with the streaking middleweight contender against him.

The middleweight division has been undergoing a major renovation for the last couple years, with established names being replaced by emerging talents up and down the weight class, and Buckley is very much a part of that assemblage of fresh names working towards the Top 15.

 Those twin impressive finishes feel like a much more accurate representation of what Buckley brings to the cage than his effort against Holland (which was still pretty solid), and it will be interesting to see what he’s able to do in his sophomore campaign in 2021.

Marvin Vettori

DECEMBER 05: (R-L) Marvin Vettori of Italy punches Jack Hermansson of Sweden in a middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 05, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
DECEMBER 05: (R-L) Marvin Vettori of Italy punches Jack Hermansson of Sweden in a middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 05, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Speaking of emerging middleweights…

The 27-year-old Vettori made the absolute most of his first main event opportunity, stepping in on short notice to face Jack Hermansson in early December and picking up the biggest win of his career. Over the course of 25 minutes, Vettori out-grappled and out-struck “The Joker,” pushing his winning streak to four and establishing himself as a resident of the Top 10 in the process.

A fiery and fierce competitor, Vettori has always professed his belief that he’s one of the best middleweights in the world and his effort against Hermansson showed that to be true. He’s made considerable strides over his five-plus years on the UFC roster and the improvements exhibited during his 2020 campaign are indicative of a fighter entering their athletic prime and finally learning how to best deploy their considerable skills inside the cage.

One of the things that makes Vettori particularly interesting to watch heading into next year is that he’s already shared the Octagon with reigning middleweight titleholder Israel Adesanya, battling “The Last Stylebender” to a split decision in the spring of 2018. While most saw the contest in favor of the current champ, Vettori pushed Adesanya that night in Phoenix, Arizona and has been champing at the bit to run it back with the charismatic, unbeaten City Kickboxing representative ever since.

If he maintains his current form through another couple of fights, a championship assignment could be in the offing.

Sodiq Yusuff

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JANUARY 18: Sodiq Yusuff of Nigeria punches Andre Fili in their featherweight fight during the UFC 246 event at T-Mobile Arena on January 18, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JANUARY 18: Sodiq Yusuff of Nigeria punches Andre Fili in their featherweight fight during the UFC 246 event at T-Mobile Arena on January 18, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Another member of the ultra-talented next wave working their way up the featherweight ranks, Yusuff was limited to just a single appearance in 2020, but he made it count, collecting a unanimous decision win over Andre Fili at UFC 246 in January, 10 months prior to Mitchell replicating the result on Halloween, not that it’s a competition… even though it kind of is.

He was slayed to compete for a second time in early October against Edson Barboza but was forced out of the contest for undisclosed reasons. The Brazilian veteran remained on the card, collecting a decision win over Makwan Amirkhani, and remains an intriguing potential dance partner for the 27-year-old from “The DMV” by way of Lagos, Nigeria in the future.

Now sporting an 11-1 mark overall, “Super Sodiq” has been one of the most impressive graduates of the Contender Series thus far, posting four wins in as many starts while continually showcasing the smooth, technical striking that led him to victory over Mike “Beast Boy” Davis back in Season Two.

Yusuff is currently sitting at No. 10 in the rankings, and 2021 will most likely be geared towards moving a little further up the hierarchy while continuing to gain valuable experience inside the Octagon against other ultra-talented members of the 145-pound weight division.

Given that both are featured here and neither currently has a fight on tap, how about a “striker vs. Grappler” clash between Yusuff and Mitchell to determine which emerging featherweight takes another step forward to begin the year?

Count me among the many that absolutely #WouldWatch that fight on a chilly Saturday night in January, February, or March.

Aleksandar Rakic

AUGUST 29: (R-L) Aleksandar Rakic of Austria punches Anthony Smith in their light heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on August 29, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
AUGUST 29: (R-L) Aleksandar Rakic of Austria punches Anthony Smith in their light heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on August 29, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Rakic is one round on one scorecard away from being a perfect 6-0 inside the UFC Octagon. As it stands, the talented Austrian light heavyweight is still 5-1 and enters 2021 off the biggest win of his career, with designs on fighting for championship gold before the year is over.

The talented 28-year-old first started to gain momentum and recognition following his hectic first-round stoppage win over Devin Clark at UFC 231 at the end of 2018, then truly announced his presence with a blistering head kick knockout of Jimi Manuwa midway through the following year. A debatable split decision defeat against Volkan Oezdemir in Busan, South Korea on the final card of 2019 halted his 12-fight winning streak but didn’t diminish his standing in the division.

This summer, Rakic landed his first main event assignment and took advantage of the opportunity, grinding out a unanimous decision win over former title challenger Anthony Smith. Though far from a barnburner, it was a strong tactical effort from the promising European fighter who should find himself sharing the cage with another Top 5 opponent in the first quarter of 2021.

His win over Smith and overall track record in the Octagon has earned Rakic a spot in the upper tier of contenders in the light heavyweight division, and if he can secure another victory to begin next year, he will be within range of a title shot heading into the summer.

Yan Xiaonan

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 07: Yan Xiaonan of China prepares to fight Claudia Gadelha in a strawweight fight during the UFC Fight

Meet the most unheralded Top 5 talent on the UFC roster.

Yan pushed her record to 6-0 in the UFC and 13-1 with one no contest verdict overall with a pair of victories over former title challengers in 2020 to climb to No. 3 in the strawweight rankings.

In February, she ventured to Auckland and defeated Karolina Kowalkiewicz, dominating the Polish veteran over three rounds to secure a sweep of the scorecards. It was the kind of effort that should have prompted everyone to sit up and take notice of the streaking Chinese talent, but Kowalkiewicz’ extended losing streak and the presence of a Fight of the Year contender in the main event pulled some of the attention away from Yan’s performance in the wake of the show.

As a follow-up, the 31-year-old earned 29-28 scores across the board in a competitive battle against Brazilian Claudia Gadelha, giving her six straight decision victories since arriving in the UFC towards the tail end of 2017.

While some may want to point to the lack of finishes as the reason Yan has yet to really break through with a portion of the fight-loving population, I would like to remind everyone that earning six consecutive victories inside the Octagon is no easy task, especially while continually moving up the divisional ladder.

Yan is a bona fide contender in the 115-pound weight class and potentially only a win away from challenging for championship gold, so if you haven’t gotten on the bandwagon already, now would be a very good time to do so, because if she extends her winning streak to seven in the first half of 2021, the remaining seats will fill up quickly.

Kevin Holland

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 12: (R-L) Kevin Holland punches Jacare Souza of Brazil in their middleweight bout during the UFC 256

Holland has the most appearances in “On the Rise” history, having earned a place in this series ahead of his short-notice debut against Thiago Santos at UFC 227, ahead of his split decision win over Gerald Meerschaert in Philadelphia in March 2019, and prior to each of his last two forays into the Octagon, making it safe to say that if you were caught off guard by the Texas native’s 2020 ascension, you clearly weren’t paying attention to this space as much as you should have been.

Arguably the “Breakout Fighter of the Year,” Holland became just the fourth fighter in UFC history to win five fights in a 12-month span, though unlike Roger Huerta, Donald Cerrone, and Neil Magny, he needed only seven months to accomplish the feat, and he saved the best for last.

Earlier this month at UFC 256, the streaking middleweight stung Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza with a right hand from his back while the Brazilian veteran was working in his guard. Recognizing the opening, Holland continued to throw sharp rights as he created more space and worked to his knees, putting away the perennial contender without ever getting to his feet.

Now 8-2 in his UFC career, Holland used 2020 to establish himself as one of the most intriguing emerging contenders on the roster and should certainly be someone all fight fans are eager to track in the new year.

He likes to stay busy, so people probably won’t have to wait that long before they get a chance to see Holland compete again.