UFC fighters to watch in second half of 2014

We recap a finish-filled UFC Fight Night from Atlantic City where Donald Cerrone continued his rise up the ranks, plus we take an in-depth look at the life of legendary cutman Jacob "Stitch" Duran.

Now that we’re into the middle of July, it’s time to look at a collection of fighters under pressure to perform in the second half of 2014.

Conor McGregor

There may not be a fighter in the UFC with more riding on his next appearance than the 26-year-old Irish featherweight. After just two appearances on the big stage, “The Notorious” headlines Saturday’s return to Ireland against replacement opponent Diego Brandao, who subs in for Cole Miller.

McGregor has talked about being the best in the world and how it’s inevitable that he’ll one day rule the 145-pound ranks, but the time for talking is over. A win over Brandao likely sets up a marquee matchup with title implications, so the pressure is on the SBG Ireland product to back up his words and prove he’s one of the top featherweights in the sport, starting at home on Saturday.

Ian McCall

Speaking of fighters that have spent more time talking about how great they are than actually showcasing their skills…

McCall entered the UFC two years as the top-ranked competitor in the 125-pound weight class, riding a four-fight winning streak that closed with victories over Jussier Formiga, Dustin Ortiz and Darrell Montague. He’s 1-2-1 since then with his lone victory coming against Iliarde Santos.

With two of the top contenders in the division sidelined, “Uncle Creepy” has the opportunity to string together a couple good wins and potentially earn himself a third fight with reigning champion Demetrious Johnson. He faces a stern test against Brad Pickett this weekend and if McCall is ever going to start backing up his claims of being the best in the division, Saturday night in Dublin would be as good a time as any.

Michael Bisping

“The Count” has long been one of the top “B-Level” stars in the UFC -- a fighter that can headline television events and help bump up numbers on a pay-per-view without having ever gotten over that final hurdle and into a championship bout.

After losing to Tim Kennedy in Quebec City in April, Bisping is now scheduled to face Cung Le in August. At age 35 a loss could potentially knock him out of the Top 10 at middleweight for the first time in roughly five years -- and Le has the talent to beat Bisping too. The TUF 3 champ has other options after fighting, but as his career winds down, can you really see the proud Briton wanting to go out on a losing streak?

Brandon Thatch

While the first three fighters on this list have been “need to win or else” types, Thatch makes this lineup as a prospect with an opportunity to make an accelerated climb up the welterweight ladder if he’s able to keep winning. “Rukus” was won 10 consecutive fights by first-round stoppage. Read that again. Now understand that the last two came inside the Octagon, with his most recent win coming against one-time contender Paulo Thiago.

The 29-year-old Colorado native is as explosive and dangerous as they come and if he continues posting impressive finishes over increasingly talented competition, Thatch will find himself in the thick of the championship chase sooner rather than later.

Jose Aldo

Champions always have pressure on them, but Aldo upped the ante by taking public shots at Chad Mendes, the man he was supposed to face at UFC 176 before an injury postponed their featherweight title rematch.

The Brazilian titleholder accused Mendes of using performance-enhancing drugs and called him some colourful names that won’t be mentioned here, the latest in an ongoing back-and-forth between the top two competitors at 145 pounds. While the event they were supposed to headline has been scrapped, at some point Aldo will have to get in the cage and square off with the Team Alpha Male representative once again.

When you’re the guy that has to pull out of a fight with an injury, taking the high road and letting your opponent vent seems like the right tactic. Responding by saying he’s using PEDs feels like the opposite of that and now puts extra pressure on Aldo to heal up and resolve his issues with Mendes inside the Octagon in a timely fashion.

Alistair Overeem

Two and a half years into Overeem’s UFC career, the former Strikeforce heavyweight champion is 2-2 and missed an entire year thanks to a suspension for elevated levels of testosterone. After handily defeating Frank Mir back in February, “The Reem” returns in August against Ben Rothwell, a journeyman coming off his own testosterone-related suspension, in a fight that feels like it needs to be special if Overeem has any hope of recapturing some of the buzz that accompanied his arrival.

When he signed with the UFC, it was a forgone conclusion that at some point the massive Dutch kickboxer would challenge for championship gold. That’s not the case any more. Overeem needs a couple more quality wins before he’s in the running for a title shot and between getting older (he’s 34) and him fighting every six months, the window of opportunity appears to be closing.

Cat Zingano

You have to feel for Zingano.

After punching her ticket to a coaching position on TUF 18 and a shot at Ronda Rousey, the unbeaten contender blew out her knee and lost her opportunity. During the recovery process, she suffered torn ligaments in the other knee, pushing her return back even further. Then, at the start of the year, her husband, Mauricio, took his own life at age 37.

Zingano is finally set to return. She meets Amanda Nunes at UFC 178 in September and with Rousey short on potential challengers, a convincing performance against “The Lioness” could put “Alpha Cat” right back into the title shot she missed out on earlier.

Dominick Cruz

That same UFC 178 fight card will also mark the return of the former bantamweight champion, marking his first fight (fingers crossed) since Oct. 1, 2011. It will be just shy of three years to the day when he steps into the cage against Takeya Mizugaki.

As much as that kind of situation should mean zero expectations, the fact of the matter is that Cruz never lost his title and there will be a ton of attention on “The Dominator” to see if he can return to the form that made him the top bantamweight in the sport. If there is any fighter in the UFC that should be afforded every opportunity to just get in the cage without any scrutiny, it’s Cruz, given that he’s lost three years in his prime and his place atop the 135-pound weight class, but that’s just not how things work.

Holly Holm

“The Preacher’s Daughter” only recently signed with the UFC, but make no mistake about it: her first trip into the Octagon comes with an extra dose of pressure.

A multiple-time world boxing champion, Holm is a perfect 7-0 as a mixed martial artist and has already been tabbed a potential challenger and threat to Ronda Rousey. Chances are the UFC is going to book her favourably -- a safer matchup against an opponent that will stand with her so that one impressive performance can potentially be used to catapult her into a bout with the champion. But, she’s yet to face much real competition -- her opponents to date are a combined 30-31 -- and while she has a strong striking base and has looked good, the pressure will be on Holm to justify her advanced billing and pick up an impressive win in her debut.

Anthony Pettis

Though he won the title at UFC 164 last August in his hometown of Milwaukee, the lightweight champ has yet to defend the belt and won’t until Jan. 3, 2015 when he takes on fellow TUF 20 coach Gilbert Melendez. The pressure will still be on “Showtime” in the second half of 2014 nonetheless.

Pettis needs to stay healthy, plain and simple. He needs to make it through filming the show and training camp without suffering another injury. While the need to avoid injuries applies to all fighters, it’s imperative for the 27-year-old lightweight champion, who has fought just five times since the WEC merged with the UFC in January 2011.

There is no denying that he’s a phenomenal talent, but until he makes it back to the Octagon and fights more than once a year, it’s hard to get too excited about the exciting lightweight titleholder.