Thomas Gerbasi, UFC - In 2009, 76 mixed martial artists stepped into the Octagon for their proper UFC debuts, and while these first-timers have ranged from WEC champions and international superstars to Ultimate Fighter alumni and young prospects, what they all have in common is the desire to strike gold in the big show.
By Thomas Gerbasi
In 2009, 76 mixed martial artists stepped into the Octagon for their proper UFC debuts, and while these first-timers have ranged from WEC champions and international superstars to Ultimate Fighter alumni and young prospects, what they all have in common is the desire to strike gold in the big show.
Some have made an immediate impact here; others have been forced to regroup. One thing’s for sure though – you’re going to be hearing a lot from the ten (okay, 13) newcomers on the list below in the years to come.
10 (tie) Kimbo Slice
Yes, he lost his first fight in The Ultimate Fighter house to Roy Nelson and his lone UFC win over Houston Alexander was far from pretty, but there’s no denying the impact the big man from Florida, Kimbo Slice, had on the UFC in 2009. Bringing in record ratings both on TUF and in the TUF finale, Kimbo captivated the MMA world this year, and it will be interesting to see how his game develops in 2010. Watch video
10 (tie) Todd Duffee
We only saw Todd Duffee for seven seconds in 2009, but after his record setting knockout of Tim Hague at UFC 102 in August, we certainly wanted to see more. Injuries kept him out of a UFC 107 bout with Paul Buentello that would have been a stiff test, but with his size, power, athleticism, and quality training partners in his new home base of Las Vegas, Duffee brings even more light to a heavyweight division that is now among the most exciting in the game. Watch video
10 (tie) Yoshihiro Akiyama
All right, let’s not mince words here - when you wear a scarf in the Vegas heat and have been dubbed ‘Sexyama’ by your legion of fans, you’d better know how to fight. Luckily for us, Akiyama delivered in his UFC debut against Alan Belcher at UFC 100, and not just by getting the close split decision win. What was memorable was the way he did it, by standing and trading with a talented young striker who had a big size advantage on him. It was a gutsy strategy made even more impressive by the fact that by the end of the night, he was fighting with a left orbital fracture that swelled his eye nearly shut. Watch video
9 – John Hathaway
I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of John Hathaway and Tom Egan as they sat on the dais at a press conference before their UFC 93 fight in January. Surrounding them were UFC superstars Dan Henderson, Rich Franklin, Mark Coleman, and Mauricio Rua, and you could tell that they were in awe being around fighters they grew up watching. But then two days later, the bell rang at the O2 Dublin, and in front of a hostile crowd cheering for Irish favorite Egan, Hathaway showed the poise of a veteran in stopping his foe late in the first round. Less than five months later, Hathaway had UFC victory number two as he decisioned Rick Story, and he finished off the year with a win over vet Paul Taylor. 3-0 in the UFC (13-0 overall) and he’s only 22. Watch video
8 – Paulo Thiago
No one knew who Paulo Thiago was before his UFC 95 bout with highly-ranked contender Josh Koscheck, but that changed 3:29 into their bout when the Special Ops police officer from Brasilia starched ‘Kos’ before a shocked London crowd. Thiago proved his mettle in a hard-fought decision loss to Jon Fitch at UFC 100, and closed out 2009 with a quality three round victory over Jacob Volkmann. In February, Koscheck gets his change for revenge, but you get the feeling that Thiago is going to be more than ready for a repeat performance. Watch video
7 – John Howard
You have to like anyone whose nickname “Doomsday” refers to the DC comics villain who killed Superman, but cool moniker aside, Howard fights in an aggressive style that immediately put him on the UFC map in January. On that night in Las Vegas, Howard entered the Octagon with little fanfare against veteran Chris Wilson, but the Boston product was no fall guy, as he pounded out an entertaining three round split decision win, showing heart, power, and determination in the process. His next two wins – over Tamdan McCrory and Dennis Hallman – followed the same nip and tuck pattern, but in the end, the Boston prospect found a way to win, making him a dangerous foe for anyone at 170 pounds. Watch video
6 – Johny Hendricks
A two-time Division I National wrestling champion for Oklahoma State, Hendricks started the year off in the WEC with a win over solid prospect Alex Serdyukov, but he really started turning heads in his UFC debut in August when he halted Amir Sadollah in just 29 seconds, and by the time of his three round shutout of Ricardo Funch at UFC 107, it was evident that Hendricks is on the verge of a step to the next level of competition in 2010. Watch video
5 – Ross Pearson
Sure, his TUF 9 winning performance over Team UK buddy Andre Winner isn’t going to make it to the list for Fight of The Year, but the Sunderland native’s three wins on the show over AJ Wenn, Richie Whitson, and Jason Dent showed that he is always going to fight while moving in one direction – forward. That means more often than not, we’re going to see a battle, and at just 25 years of age “The Real Deal” is still getting better. Want more evidence? Look at the clinic Pearson put on in beating respected veteran Aaron Riley in November. Watch video
4 – Stefan Struve
After getting blasted out in 54 seconds by Junior Dos Santos in his Octagon debut in February, the odds of Stefan Struve showing up on this list were pretty much non-existent. But then came submission wins over Denis Stojnic (after surviving a nasty cut on his forehead) and Chase Gormley, and a gritty year-ending decision victory over Paul Buentello, and all of a sudden the 21-year old “Skyscraper” is here, and deservedly so. Sure, he’s raw and still growing into his 6 foot 11 frame, but in a couple years, I expect that the Netherlands native is going to be competing for a world title. Watch video
3 – Aaron Simpson
After years and years on the mat, every wrestler loves to throw hands once he gets into the world of MMA, and former Arizona State standout Aaron Simpson is no exception. But where Simpson separates himself from his wrestling peers is that he has legitimate knockout power in both hands, making him a serious threat to every opponent because, simply put, he can beat you anywhere the fight goes. After an 18 second KO win in his WEC debut last year, Simpson came over to the UFC in 2009 and put together TKO wins over Tim McKenzie and Ed Herman. If he can make it three in a row against Tom Lawlor in January, the 35-year old will move even further up the ranks. Watch video
2 – Roy Nelson
Roy Nelson may not look the part, but then again, neither did Royce Gracie when he made his debut at the first UFC back in 1993. What the two have in common though is that they can fight, and while we knew that about the veteran Nelson way before his stint on The Ultimate Fighter, by the time he knocked out Brendan Schaub at the December finale, the mainstream fanbase knew who “Big Country” was as well. In 2010, the TUF10 winner will get his chance to compete against the best big men in the world, and it will be hard to count him out against any of the elite. Watch video
1 - Paul Daley
Nottingham’s Paul Daley only had one UFC fight in 2009, but it was a doozy, as he halted highly-ranked welterweight contender Martin Kampmann in just two minutes and 31 seconds. And he took the fight on short notice. Next on his list is talented jiu-jitsu ace Dustin Hazelett in the co-main event of UFC 108, and regardless of what happens in that bout, “Semtex” is here at the top of the newcomers list because he brings fight ending power, confidence, and excitement to a division that now has a series of intriguing matchups on tap for what may be the most interesting 170-pound year in a long time. Watch video
Honorable Mention – Carlos Condit, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Brian Stann, Mark Munoz, Evan Dunham, TJ Grant, Nick Osipczak, Nick Catone, Matt Veach, Mike Pierce, Rick Story, Brian Foster, Jesse Lennox, Nik Lentz, DaMarques Johnson, Alexander Gustafsson, Andre Winner, James Wilks
Note – to be included on the list, the fighter must have made his UFC debut in 2009. I tried to stay away from fighters with just one UFC fight during the year, but the ones included (Daley, Akiyama, Duffee, and Kimbo) have merited a spot after just one bout.