The Ultimate Fighter
Cody Garbrandt celebrates after defeating Dominick Cruz at UFC 207 to become bantamweight champ" align="center" />
It wouldn’t be fair to say mixed martial arts was an “old man’s sport,” but for a long time, athletes in MMA either started late or hit their prime a lot later than they did in other sports. That has changed, and it would be fair to say that we are seeing the greatest collection of young talent to hit the sport and start hitting their prime years at the same time. Want proof? Read on for 13 of the top fighters in the UFC that are just 25 and under.
In order from youngest to oldest…
23 YEARS OLD
The least experienced fighter on this list when it comes to UFC bouts, Alexa Grasso made quite an impression in her Octagon debut in November when she outpointed Heather Jo Clark. It was the ninth win without a loss for the Guadalajara native, who first made her name in the Invicta FC promotion, where she went 4-0 before getting the call to the UFC. In February, it will be another veteran test for her, as she takes on Felice Herrig in Houston.
24 YEARS OLD
Yair Rodriguez’ most recent fight was also his most important one, and when he took a little over five minutes to defeatBJ Penn this past Sunday at Fight Night Phoenix" align="right" /> Hall of Famer BJ Penn, it was clear that “El Pantera” has the talent and determination to close in on a title shot by the end of the year, if not sooner. Before the stunning finish of Penn, the Ultimate Fighter Latin America winner had already proven to be one of the top up and comers in the sport, with his kicking attack a hard one for anyone to decipher. And if anything, Rodriguez is only going to get better.
Approaching his third year anniversary in the Octagon, Michigan native Kevin Lee has been quietly building an impressive resume in the big show, going 7-2 in the always tough lightweight division. Of those two losses, the only real hiccup was a first round defeat against Leonardo Santos in December 2015, but since then, “The Motown Phenom” has defeated Efrain Escudero, Jake Matthews and Magomed Mustafaev, looking progressively more impressive with each showing.
Perhaps the best fighter in the world with a 6-3 pro record, Rose Namajunas is a prime example of someone who has learned her craft on the job. That means her record may not be as glossy as other fighters, but she’s fought no easy marks and she’s become one of the top strawweights in the UFC in the process. Want to see what she can do? Look at her wins over Paige VanZant and Angela Hill. Yeah, “Thug” Rose is the real deal.
Two UFC fights, two post-fight bonuses, a near-upset of the top lightweight contender and a Knockout of the Year candidate. That’s called making an impression, and Lando Vannata has done just that. Last July, he took a fight with Tony Ferguson on short notice and nearly stopped him in the first round. Five months later, he added a clip to his highlight reel with his head kick knockout of John Makdessi. Plus, he’s added the phrase “Groovy Lando” to the MMA lexicon. Not bad.
25 YEARS OLD
Max Holloway was a 20-year-old kid with four pro fights when he made his UFC debut in 2012. He lost that fight to Dustin Poirier at UFC 143, but now he’s 17-3 and the interim UFC featherweight champion. Another fighter who seemingly learned his trade on the job, Holloway has not been sidetracked by being in the public eye. Instead, the married father kept his eye on the prize, and in December, he got it by stopping Anthony Pettis.
From the “came out of nowhere” department, Vicente Luque was a decent prospect who performed well on TUF 21, but after his loss to Michael Graves on the season finale card, his upside was still a question mark. Well, that question mark is gone after the Brazilian won four in a row in the Octagon, finishing each victory over Hayder Hassan, Alvaro Herrera, Hector Urbina and Belal Muhammad.
The weight issues of Kelvin Gastelum have been well-documented, and unfortunately, they overshadow what has been an impressive 8-2 run for the TUF 17 winner, who has proven to be a threat at 170 and 185 pounds. Now back at middleweight, where he beat Tim Kennedy in December, Gastelum will next travel to Fortaleza in March to square off with Brazilian icon Vitor Belfort.
For the first two years of her UFC career, Jessica Andrade was a good fighter and a legitimate bantamweight contender. In 2016, “Bate Estaca” moved to the 115-pound strawweight division and after stopping Jessica Penne and submitting Joanne Calderwood, she’s a serious threat to champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. What a difference 20 pounds can make.
Despite his May 2016 loss to Cody Garbrandt, Thomas Almeida remains one of the top rising stars in the bantamweight division, one who will always show up to throw down and give the fans a show as he looks to finish his opponents. In November, he returned with a Performance of the Night stoppage of Albert Morales, proving that his blade was not dulled by the lone loss of his career six months earlier.
Speaking of Mr. Garbrandt, no list of the best 25 and under fighters in the UFC would be complete without the young man now holding the UFC bantamweight title. Unbeaten in 11 fights, “No Love” delivered the performance of his life when it mattered most, as he defeated the greatest bantamweight in UFC history, Dominick Cruz, at UFC 207, setting up a coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter that will culminate in a fight against his fellow coach - and former teammate - TJ Dillashaw.
Already a cult favorite among fight fans for the three knockout wins over Juan Puig, Sam Sicilia and Thiago Tavares that started his UFC career, Dooho Choi may have lost bout number four to Cub Swanson in December, but his performance in that Fight of the Year candidate likely garnered “The Korean Superboy” even more followers.
Mirsad Bektic was a hot prospect even before he arrived in the UFC in 2014, but injuries slowed his momentum down once he began showing his skills in the Octagon. In October of last year, a healthy Bektic improved to 11-0 as a pro (4-0 in the UFC) with a first round submission of Russell Doane, and now he’ll face the toughest test of his career in March when he faces veteran contender Darren Elkins.