Before each event, The Watch List identifies the intriguing prospects on the fight card and fills you in on some of the fighters flying under the radar you might want to keep an eye on.
Here are the fighters who will step into the cage from outside the spotlight at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., this weekend at UFC on FOX 7: Henderson vs. Melendez.
Watch Saturday’s UFC on Sportsnet: Henderson vs. Melendez, starting with the televised undercard at 5 p.m. ET / 2 p.m. PT, followed by the four-fight main card at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT, all on Sportsnet ONE.
FIGHTERS TO WATCH
Fighter: Daniel Cormier Record: 11-0 Opponent: Frank Mir
I know Cormier doesn’t necessarily fit the traditional definition of a “prospect” or an “unknown” at this point, but this will still be the first time some segments of the UFC audience see the former Olympian compete. Additionally, it’s not too often you get to include a bona fide title contender in a piece like this, so I’m taking full advantage.
Here’s the thing: it’s not like Cormier has been around forever. His first pro fight was September 25, 2009. He’s gone from zero to contender in 11 fights, and there isn’t any “false promise” or “lack of elite experience” built into his current status either.
If he were 24 instead of 34, we’d be showering Cormier with the same kind of “can’t-miss prospect” accolades we used to describe Jon Jones as he was rapidly ascending through the ranks of the UFC light-heavyweight division. He still deserves that same kind of praise, and has the chance to make an instant impression by defeating two-time former UFC heavyweight champion Mir in his organization debut on Saturday.
Cormier is the real deal — Capital R, Capital D — and UFC fans who didn’t know about “DC” until this point better jump onboard the bandwagon now while there is still time. If he continues his dominant run of success against Mir this weekend, there may not be any more room for new passengers as of Sunday morning.
Fighter: Lorenz Larkin Record: 13-0 (1 NC) Opponent: Francis Carmont
The colourful and charismatic Riverside, Calif., native makes his UFC debut Saturday in what shapes up to be a battle of solid prospects when he takes on French-born, Tristar-trained Carmont.
Larkin had a good deal of success in Strikeforce, with the only blemish on his record being a loss to Muhammed (King Mo) Lawal that was flipped to a no contest when the former light-heavyweight champion tested positive for a banned substance.
He moved down to middleweight for his last bout and earned a unanimous decision win over Robbie Lawler, which is a solid indicator of the kind of upside Larkin possesses. The 26-year-old is a quick and creative striker who does a very good job of using his mobility to close the distance, but also to stay out of dangerous spots for the most part.
Larkin is four inches shorter than Carmont and gives up six inches in the reach department, but had a clear edge when it comes to quickness. If he can keep the Frenchman from turning this into a grind — either along the fence or on the ground — he has the tools to put on an exciting show in his inaugural UFC appearance.
Jury has been on the prospect radar for a while, and gained an introduction to UFC fans through two appearances on The Ultimate Fighter. After initially making it into the house on Season 13 — the same season where Nijem made the finals — a knee injury forced him from the cast. He returned in Season 15, and lost a split decision to finalist Al Iaquinta in the elimination round.
“The Fury” had a breakthrough performance at UFC 155 last December when he halted Michael Johnson’s three-fight winning streak, but has slipped back under the radar as the always competitive and constantly evolving lightweight division has kept marching on.
Though not yet a contender, Jury has the potential to advance to that point, and this will be another chance for him to show it. Nijem is a well-rounded fighter who always comes prepared, and brings a three-fight winning streak into the cage. Ending another solid run of success while extending his own unbeaten streak would certainly continue to bolster the Alliance MMA product’s profile in the deep lightweight ranks.
Prior to earning a decision win over Johnson, Jury had collected 10 consecutive stoppage wins. This will be a chance to see if he was simply putting away over-matched opposition or if he’s a true finisher.
Fighter: Tim Means Record: 18-3-1 Opponent: Jorge Masvidal
Means really intrigues me, and I was bummed to miss out on seeing him live in Seattle last December, when he slipped in the sauna the day of weigh-ins and was, as you’d expect, pulled from the card.
He’s 2-0 since entering the UFC and looked tremendous last time out against Justin Salas, needing just 76 seconds to disarm and dismantled “J-Bomb” back in June. What makes Means such an interesting fighter — at least to me — is that he’s massive for the lightweight division, standing 6-foot-2 with a lengthy reach. More importantly, he uses every bit of that height and reach when he’s fighting, and it gives him a distinct edge in the cage.
Saturday will be a big step up in competition for “The Dirty Bird,” as he takes on former Strikeforce title challenger Jorge Masvidal. “Gamebred” is a quality boxer who, when he’s on his game, does a great job of mixing up his strikes and keeping foes hesitant.
Having said that, Means has shown good power in his two UFC appearances, and is much more of a finisher than Masvidal. If he catches the former Strikeforce contender with a good shot, the underdog from Albuquerque, N.M., could collect his third consecutive UFC victory.
Romero earned a silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2000 Summer Olympics, and started his MMA career with four straight stoppage victories before being rushed up the ladder too far, too fast in his Strikeforce debut, where he lost to former light-heavyweight champion Rafael (Feijao) Cavalcante.
The 35-year-old Cuban is now competing at middleweight, and remains an intriguing addition to the UFC roster. Given his age and lack of experience, a run to the top of the 185-pound ranks is highly unlikely, but that doesn’t mean that Romero isn’t capable of delivering a couple standout performances along the way.
Starks hasn’t competed since losing to Ed Herman in February 2012, and is a much more suitable opponent for the former Olympian. The overall talent and athletic ability is there for Romero to put together a strong performance in his UFC debut.