From prospects to contenders, the following collection of fighters has started to make that move towards a world championship. But more importantly, each of the athletes below has that star quality that should keep them in the public eye for years to come.
Countdown to UFC 200
- Best of the best: Strikers | Entrances | Upsets | Moments | Events | KO's
- Figures that helped us get here: Hughes | Lesnar | Faber | Griffin | Tate | St-Pierre
- Behind the lens - over 15 years of greatest UFC photography
- Behind the lens - Photos that will knock you out
After flying under the radar for much of his UFC career, former Ultimate Fighter 13 winner Tony Ferguson couldn’t be ignored by fight fans anymore after three big 2015 wins over Gleison Tibau, Josh Thompson and Edson Barboza that earned “El Cucuy” four post-fight performance bonuses and propelled him further up the ladder in the perilously tough lightweight division.
Unbeaten as a professional, bantamweight Cody Garbrandt was impressive in his first three UFC wins over Marcus Brimage, Henry Briones and Augusto Mendes, but it was his first-round Performance of the Night knockout of then-unbeaten Thomas Almeida in May of 2016 that has fans and pundits calling for Garbrandt to get a future shot at the 135-pound crown.
Once one of the youngest fighters in the UFC, Hawaii’s Max “Blessed” Holloway learned on the job in mixed martial arts’ ultimate proving ground, and he passed every test with flying colors, eventually becoming an elite featherweight contender who won nine consecutive bouts from 2014 to 2016, defeating Cub Swanson, Jeremy Stephens and Ricardo Lamas in the process.
A dynamic battler who has rapidly risen up the strawweight ranks to become an elite 115-pound fighter and a serious title threat, Rose Namajunas bounced back from a loss in her UFC debut against Carla Esparza to win three consecutive bouts over Angela Hill, Paige VanZant and Tecia Torres, establishing her credentials and making her a feared competitor in a stacked weight class.
A Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt, California’s Brian Ortega obviously has a stellar ground game, one that has seen him submit Diego Brandao in the Octagon, but it was the featherweight prospect’s warrior’s heart that was on display in his victory over Thiago Tavares, and his knockout power when he finished Clay Guida in his biggest win to date at UFC 199.
A serious knee injury sidelined Julianna Pena after she won season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter and it almost threatened her career, but in 2015, “The Venezuelan Vixen” made a triumphant return to active duty in the Octagon, and victories over Milana Dudieva and Jessica Eye have this aggressive finisher looking for a bantamweight title shot sooner rather than later.
A staple of the featherweight division ever since his Octagon debut in 2011, Dustin Poirier had a successful run at 145 pounds, but in 2015, “The Diamond” decided to go back to the division where he started his career, and after Performance of the Night knockouts of Diego Ferreira and Yancy Medeiros, as well as victories over Joe Duffy and Bobby Green, he established himself as a legitimate title threat at 155 pounds.
In 2014, there was a bit of a buzz about the arrival of strawweight Paige VanZant to the UFC. Today, she’s a global star after an appearance on Dancing with the Stars, and a UFC headliner. In between, there have been media tours, photo shoots, national television exposure, a Reebok deal and, most importantly, three wins in a talent rich division, clear signs that the sky is the limit for PVZ.
New Zealand-born Aussie Robert Whittaker first arrived on the radar of UFC fans in 2012 when he won The Ultimate Fighter Smashes series, and while he had a solid run at 170 pounds, it’s as a middleweight that he has become a serious contender, as he’s scored four victories at 185 pounds, including wins over Clint Hester, Brad Tavares and Uriah Hall.