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FIGHTERS ON THE RISE - MARCH 20 EDITION

See Which Athletes Head Into UFC Fight Night: Brunson Vs Holland With Momentum:

Like last weekend, this Saturday’s fight card is another one of those indie darlings as opposed to a Hollywood blockbuster; a show littered with respected names and emerging talents that could develop into dark horses in their respective divisions in the next year and maybe even contenders after that, depending on how things shake out, and the kind of event we could look back on in a couple years as being flush with fighters that went on to do big things inside the Octagon.

Cards like this pop up sporadically throughout the year and while they don’t seem major in the present, a little distance ends up revealing how truly great they were. Here’s an example:

Remember the event where Nathan Diaz beat Michael Johnson and cut a promo about Conor McGregor, giving life to the eventual two-fight rivalry that dominated the next year? Here are some of the athletes that competed on the prelims that night in Orlando: Charles Oliveira, Valentina Shevchenko, Kamaru Usman, Leon Edwards, Vicente Luque, and Francis Ngannou.

Watch UFC Fight Night: Brunson Vs Holland On ESPN+

That’s two champions, one gigantic human being set to challenge for heavyweight gold for the second time later this month, and three legitimate contenders, and all of them, save for Oliveira, were in the early stages of their UFC careers and relatively unknown.

Could any of the talents set to hit the Octagon on Saturday night follow a similar trajectory over the next couple years? Absolutely, and here’s a closer look at three athletes with the best chance to travel down that road.

This is the March 20 edition of Fighters on the Rise.

Brad Riddell of New Zealand poses for a post fight portrait backstage during UFC 253 inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on September 27, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC

Fight fans may not be as familiar with Brad Riddell as they are with his teammates at Auckland’s City Kickboxing, but if you listen to the way Dan Hooker and Israel Adesanya and head coach Eugene Bareman talk about “Quake,” you understand that he’s highly respected and a serious talent in his own right.

The 29-year-old has quietly earned victories in all three of his UFC appearances thus far to push his overall winning streak to six and his record to 9-1 as he readies to welcome Gregor Gillespie back to the Octagon this weekend.

View Riddell's Athlete Profile

His debut effort — a dominant victory over Jamie Mullarkey at UFC 243 — earned Fight of the Night honors, but was overshadowed by the exploits of his teammates in the final two bouts of the evening, as Hooker outworked Al Iaquinta and Adesanya became the undisputed middleweight champion by knocking out Robert Whittaker, and his tandem victories in 2020 were the kind of strong performances that move you forward in the division.

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Saturday’s pairing with Gillespie has the potential to be Riddell’s breakout moment, as Gillespie remains stationed in the Top 15 at lightweight and had a ton of momentum before suffering the first loss of his career in his last appearance, which came at UFC 244 in November 2019. A four-time All-American and former National Champion wrestler, Gillespie was on the fast track to title contention before running into Kevin Lee, and handing him a second consecutive defeat would certainly elevate Riddell’s profile in the talent-rich 155-pound weight class.

This is one of those contests where win or lose, people are going to come away with an increased respect and appreciation for what Riddell brings to the table, and if things go his way, he could become the next member of the City Kickboxing team with a number next to his name.

Cheyanne Buys reacts her strawweight bout against Hilarie Rose during Dana White's Contender Series Season 4 at UFC APEX on August 18, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/DWCS LLC/Zuffa LLC)
Cheyanne Buys reacts her strawweight bout against Hilarie Rose during Dana White's Contender Series Season 4 at UFC APEX on August 18, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/DWCS LLC/Zuffa LLC)

One of the most intriguing graduates from Season Four of the Contender Series, Cheyanne Buys makes her first official walk to the Octagon this weekend in a clash with former Invicta FC competitor Montserrat Conejo, who tagged in on short notice for Kay Hansen in this strawweight engagement.

The 25-year-old Buys began making a name for herself during a lengthy amateur career that saw her fight a host of familiar names, including current UFC flyweight Gillian Robertson and fellow Contender Series competitor Vanessa Demopoulos before turning pro. After suffering a loss in her second appearance, Buys has rattled off four straight victories, culminating in her 15-minute defeat of Hilarie Rose last summer to land a UFC contract.

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Another Fortis MMA product to graduate to the Octagon via the Contender Series, Buys trains alongside her husband, UFC flyweight JP Buys, who also debuts this weekend, and a host of talented fighters under the direction of Sayif Saud, which ensures she’s getting elite coaching and quality rounds as she prepares for a debut that suddenly looks a little different.

After initially being paired with Hansen, Buys will now face Conejo, who rebounded from her first professional loss with a first-round submission win over Janaisa Morandin last summer to push her record to 9-1 overall.

View Buys' Athlete Profile

This is a tremendous opportunity for Buys to begin making a name for herself in the competitive 115-pound weight class. Her aggressive style is bound to make her an instant fan favorite and as she continues to sharpen her tools and gain further experience, she has the potential to become a factor in the strawweight division in the future.

Leonardo Santos of Brazil reacts after his decision victory over Roman Bogatov in their lightweight fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Leonardo Santos of Brazil reacts after his decision victory over Roman Bogatov in their lightweight fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Z

If you’ve ever played pick-up hoops, you’ve surely encountered the older gentleman rocking the New Balance Dad Mode 7s and grey track socks that looks like he has no business getting on the court, but he really wants in on the next run, so you let him play and then he just starts schooling fools because it turns out he played D-I ball back in the day, had a cup of coffee overseas, and can still knock down wide open threes and make every pass there is even while looking like the most unimposing guy in the gym.

Leonardo Santos is the MMA version of that guy.

The 41-year-old Brazilian is as mild-mannered and unassuming as they come — a tall, lanky fellow who doesn’t say all that much and fights sporadically but is undefeated inside the Octagon.

Santos, who won the welterweight competition on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, battled Norman Parke to a draw in his first fight post-TUF, and has since collected six straight victories. Included in that last of vanquished foes is Anthony Rocco Martin, Kevin Lee, and Stevie Ray, whom he knocked out on the first round two summers back following a two-and-a-half-year hiatus.

This weekend, Santos makes his quickest turnaround in quite some time, looking to build on his UFC 251 victory last summer in a clash with highly regarded prospect Grant Dawson, who has gone 4-0 since graduating to the UFC roster with a victory on the first season of the Contender Series. The Glory MMA product has been teasing a move up to the 155-pound ranks since missing weight two fights ago and competing at a catchweight over the summer, and now he gets the chance to halt one of the more surprising unbeaten runs in the division in his lightweight debut.

View Santos' Athlete Profile

While Dawson profiles as a potential contender down the line, this is the kind of fight where Santos has thrived in the past — entering as an underdog and expected to be a steppingstone for the younger foe, only to dash those plans, usually in impressive fashion.

His unbeaten streak has always been one of my favorite low-key stories in this sport, and if he spoils Dawson’s official move up to lightweight by adding another victory to his current run of success, Santos just might start earning some Top 15 consideration.