Following each event, Breakthroughs focuses the spotlight on the unheralded athletes who delivered impressive performances over the weekend, introducing you to some emerging talents to keep tabs on in the future and the unsung stars of the last event in the process.
Here are the under the radar fighters who stepped forward on Saturday night in the UFC’s first event of 2013 down in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Gonzaga went through a long stretch where he fell in love with his striking. These things tend to happen when you sleep Mirko Cro Cop with the same headkick he used to send countless opponents to the cemetery — and earn a UFC title shot in the process.
The Brazilian heavyweight dropped five of his next eight, and hung up his gloves for a year following successive losses to Junior dos Santos and Brendan Schaub. Saturday night, “Napao” made it back-to-back submission wins in the UFC by forcing Ben Rothwell to tap to an arm-in guillotine choke just over a minute into the second round.
While he’s still a ways off from challenging for the title, the division has never been deeper, and Gonzaga’s return to his grappling roots makes him a dangerous addition.
Last month it was Rustam Khabilov announcing his presence with a series of suplexes on Vinc Pichel in his UFC debut. Saturday night in Sao Paulo, it was his teammate and lightweight Nurmagomedov who put on a show inside the Octagon.
After scoring a pair of solid, but unspectacular wins in his first two UFC appearances, “The Eagle” announced his presence as a serious dark horse in the 155-pound division with a thunderous first-round thrashing of Thiago Tavares.
Now 19-0 in his career, Nurmagomedov lobbied for a fight with Nate Diaz afterwards, echoing sentiments he shared with UFC.com’s Duane Finley prior to stepping in with Tavares. Coming off an impressive performance like the one he delivered Saturday night, the talented 24-year-old just might get his wish.
Frankie Edgar and Clay Guida may be the high-profile names relocating to the featherweight division, but fellow former lightweight Nik Lentz already has a pair of wins in his new weight class.
“The Carny” used his patented brand of suffocating grappling to neutralize Diego Nunes for the majority of their 15-minute affair. After posting a 5-2 record in the 155-pound ranks, Lentz has quickly made himself a contender in the featherweight division. Nunes has been a tough out in both the WEC and UFC, and Lentz nearly shut the Brazilian down completely.
A pairing with Dennis Siver or the winner of the upcoming Cub Swanson/Dustin Poirier fight would make sense for Lentz right about now. He’s looked very good since dropping down, and a step up in competition is in order.
Here’s some MMA math for you to keep in mind:
Barboza + Brazil + January = Awesome
For the second straight year, the Muay Thai maestro picked apart an opponent in his homeland, this time dropping fellow Brazilian Lucas Martins with a straight right hand down the pipe before finishing him with a flurry of unanswered punches on the ground. Last year, you’ll remember, Barboza sent Terry Etim crashing to the mat in a catatonic state after connecting with a beautiful spinning wheel kick.
His loss to Jamie Varner last May set Barboza a little in the always competitive lightweight division, but he remains a dangerous threat, especially for opponents brave enough to stand with him. Now that he’s training with Frankie Edgar and his New Jersey-based crew, expect Barboza to round of the rest of his game and become even more dangerous.
It’s hard to get noticed fighting on Facebook, but if you were keen enough (or obsessed enough in my case) to tune in to the first fight of the night, you had to be impressed with Trinaldo.
The massive lightweight known as “Massaranduba” suplexed C.J. Keith early in the second, dropping him on his head, and landing in side control. From there, the Brazilian moved into mount, locked up a head-and-arm choke, and squeezed a tap from the defeated Keith shortly thereafter.
Trinaldo is now 2-1 in the UFC, and is a solid test in the middle of the deepest division in the organization. He’s sure to show up on future UFC cards in Brazil, and could be a tough out for some up-and-comers in the 155-pound ranks in the future.