2015 produced one of the best rookie crops seen in the Octagon in years, and this stellar group even has a world champion in its ranks. So without further ado, let’s kick off the highly unofficial 2015 awards season today with the top newcomers of the year.
10 – Ben Nguyen
Everyone saw the viral video in which Ben Nguyen knocked out the fully tattooed opponent who tried to intimidate him the day before at weigh-ins, but there were still those who doubted Australia’s “Ben 10” when he stepped into the Octagon for the first time in 2015. But after a knockout over Alptekin Ozkilic and a submission of Ryan Benoit – both in the first round – Nguyen enters 2016 not as an underdog, but as a legit flyweight prospect.
9 – Alex Oliveira
Alex Oliveira got the call from the UFC on short notice in March to face off with unbeaten and highly-touted lightweight prospect Gilbert Burns, and most expected “Cowboy” to go quietly into the night and then show off what he could do the next time out. Instead, he nearly defeated Burns before a late third-round comeback by “Durinho.” As for those next times out, Oliveira only ran off three wins, submitting KJ Noons, decisioning Joe Merritt and knocking out Piotr Hallmann. And he does it all with a joy that’s infectious.
8 – Stevie Ray
Soft-spoken Scottish lightweight Stevie Ray has been talking loudly in the Octagon since his debut in April, but after thrilling his European fans with wins in Poland (Marcin Bandel), Ireland (Mickael Lebout) and his native Scotland (Leonardo Mafra), Stateside fans will be hoping to see “Braveheart” start taking on the 155-pound elite on U.S. shores in 2016.
7 – Magomed Mustafaev
Speaking of those uninterested in lighting up social media with incendiary statements while calling out future opponents, Dagestan’s Magomed Mustafaev saves the excitement for his time in the Octagon, and he’s produced plenty of it in 2015, with two stoppages of Piotr Hallmann and Joe Proctor setting the stage for some more fun matchups in the coming year.
6 – Kamaru Usman
When TUF 21 winner Kamaru Usman made it two for two in the Octagon last Saturday with a win over fellow welterweight prospect Leon Edwards, a couple things were made abundantly clear: “The Nigerian Nightmare” is going to provide some sleepless nights for his 170-pound peers in the future, and that we haven’t even seen the best of this 28-year-old yet. And that’s the scary part.
5 – Makwan Amirkhani
Makwan Amirkhani came into the UFC with plenty of confidence, and when you do that, you have to be able to back up those words or get blown out of the picture very quickly. Well, “Mr. Finland” hasn’t just gone two for two this year in the Octagon, but with an eight-second knockout of Andy Ogle and a submission of Masio Fullen that took less than two minutes, he’s become one of the most talked about fighters in the sport today. And he’s not shy about talking about himself either, giving him that rare mix of fighting talent and charisma that makes stars.
4 – Joe Duffy
Poor Joe Duffy. All he’s heard since being signed to the UFC is that he’s the last fighter to beat Conor McGregor. You almost expect to see that as part of his name on his passport. But the talented Irishman has the talent and the determination to make is abundantly clear that he’s not the answer to a trivia question, but a legitimate lightweight prospect and soon to be contender. Duffy’s Octagon debut against Jake Lindsey could not have gone better, as he halted his foe in less than two minutes, and he added a Performance of the Night submission of Ivan Jorge that has fight fans eagerly awaiting the New Year and his UFC 195 clash with Dustin Poirier.
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3 – Sage Northcutt
If you don’t know who Sage Northcutt is by now, you’ve probably stumbled across the wrong website. The youngest fighter currently on the UFC roster, the 19-year-old has captured the imagination of fans wondering where he came from and how good he could be in the coming years. “Super” Sage has impressed in the Octagon thus far with finishes of Francisco Trevino and Cody Pfister, and outside the cage, he is clearly one of the most marketable young fighters to come down the line in a long time. That’s a formula for big things in 2016 and beyond for the Texas A&M freshman.
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2 – Tom Breese
The fact that the only person keeping Birmingham welterweight Tom Breese from the top spot here is a current world champion shows the upside for the unbeaten 24-year-old. Fighting out of the Tristar Gym in Montreal, the unbeaten Breese is just two fights into his UFC career, but he’s looked frighteningly good thus far in his knockouts of Luiz Dutra and Cathal Pendred, both which ended in a single round. Japan’s Keita Nakamura should be a stern test for Breese when they face off in London in February.
1 – Holly Holm
It almost seems unfair to put Holly Holm in the pool with a bunch of rising stars, considering that the new UFC women’s bantamweight champion is a former world titlist in three weight classes in boxing, but hey, rules are rules. “The Preacher’s Daughter” did step into the Octagon for the first time in 2015, and after keeping her perfect MMA record intact with wins over Raquel Pennington and Marion Reneau, Holm shocked the world with a second-round knockout of Ronda Rousey that added a new championship belt to her collection and secured her spot as the highly unofficial 2015 Newcomer of the Year.
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Honorable Mention – Darren Till, Jimmie Rivera, Taylor Lapilus, Nicolas Dalby, Maryna Moroz
Note - This list only includes fighters who made their UFC debut in 2015 and who had at least two bouts in the calendar year.