Every year features fighters that start under the radar or outside of the title conversation in their respective divisions only to end up as legitimate contenders that have used the last 12 months making a name for themselves.
Last year, Travis Browne emerged as a bona fide heavyweight force with three straight Knockout of the Night performances, while Irish featherweight Conor McGregor went from headlining events for Cage Warriors to having his own personal media workout leading up to his second appearance in the Octagon.
Continuing on in our Crystal Ball series, today’s installment looks at potential breakout candidates from each division.
Note: the women’s strawweight division has been excluded because it’s a new addition to the UFC in 2014 and all the athletes participating on The Ultimate Fighter will break out to a certain degree.
Women’s bantamweight: Jessica Andrade (10-3)
The compact Brazilian powerhouse made her UFC debut in a short-notice fight with former title challenger Liz Carmouche and acquitted herself well in a losing effort. Three months later she blasted veteran Rosi Sexton in one of the more one-sided contests of 2013.
Just 22-years-old, “Bate Estaca” (translation: pile driver) has big time potential and could thrust herself into the spotlight with a victory over TUF 18 winner Julianna Pena when the two square off at UFC 171 in March.
Flyweight: Justin Scoggins (8-0)
After collecting a first-round stoppage win over Richie Vaculik in his UFC debut, Scoggins proclaimed himself to be the best fighter in the flyweight division. He didn’t do it in a chest-thumping, braggadocio way but rather with the humble, respectful confidence of a 21-year-old fighter eager to prove himself.
Because the flyweight division is still relatively thin, Scoggins has the chance to make some noise in 2014. A couple more strong performances will put him on the fringes of contention. Given what we’ve seen so far, and the fact that he trains with the elite athletes and coaches at American Top Team, don’t be surprised if the self-confident youngster makes it happen.
Bantamweight: Sergio Pettis (10-0)
We’ll get a good indication of whether 2014 is going to be a breakout year for the younger Pettis right away, as the unbeaten 20-year-old hits the cage opposite Alex Caceres at the end of the month.
Should he get through “Bruce Leeroy” on the upcoming UFC on FOX card in Chicago, Pettis will be given every opportunity to blossom into a star alongside his brother Anthony, the current UFC lightweight champion. He has the skill set and the pedigree, and promoting him in connection to what big brother has done is an easy sell for the organization.
Featherweight: Andre Fili (13-1)
This is a no-brainer as Fili has a lot of things working in his favour heading into 2014.
He earned a stoppage win over Jeremy Larsen on short notice in his debut, and has a memorable look and nickname; “Touchy” Fili is one of the best in the sport right now. Add in that he’s a member of Team Alpha Male and you can see why the 23-year-old is my pick in the deep and talented 145-pound division.
Fili carries a nine-fight winning streak in 2014, is strong on the mic and Twitter, and has the potential to look even better next time out after a full training camp.
Lightweight: Rustam Khabilov (17-1)
Hardcore fans started paying attention the second Khabilov started tossing Vinc Pichel around the cage with a series of suplexes in his UFC debut. More people started taking notice when he bested veteran Jorge Masvidal over three rounds at the Fight for the Troops event in November.
At UFC 170 next month, Khabilov has a chance to break into the top tier of contenders in the 155-pound ranks when he takes on surging Brazilian Rafael dos Anjos. If he can run his UFC winning streak to four (and seven overall) with another strong showing, the 27-year-old Dagestani fighter from the Team Jackson-Winkeljohn camp will find himself in the spotlight in 2014.
Welterweight: Alex Garcia (10-1)
“The Dominican Nightmare” is someone Canadian fight fans have heard about for a couple of years now, as the 26-year-old Tristar product made a name for himself as a top prospect under the Ringside MMA banner.
After blasting Ben Wall in his UFC debut back in December, Garcia will return to the Octagon in March against Sean Spencer. A comparable performance there will have people talking. He may be two years away from contention but 2014 should be the year Garcia establishes himself as the next fighter to watch in the welterweight ranks.
Middleweight: Yoel Romero (6-1)
We’ll know if Romero is indeed going to be the breakout middleweight in less than a week, as the 36-year-old American Top Team product returns to action against Derek Brunson on the main card of next week’s UFC Fight Night event in Duluth, Georgia.
A silver medalist in freestyle wrestling, Romero has shown impressive power to go along with his legitimately world-class skills in the wrestling department. He transitioned to MMA late but is making up for lost time with his two impressive outings in the UFC so far, and could be a dark horse contender in the middleweight division before the year is out.
Light heavyweight: Jimi Manuwa (14-0)
Headlining an event opposite the guy that took Jon Jones to the limit will have that kind of impact on your level of recognition. So too will being unbeaten with every one of your victories coming by way of stoppage.
Manuwa’s name will be out there more based on his upcoming matchup with Alexander Gustafsson, but as long as he acquits himself well against “The Mauler,” the undefeated Muay Thai practitioner will find himself in the thick of the chase in the light heavyweight division.