Watching a UFC event, it can be hard to identify the true up-and-comers in each division.
With everyone who strings together a pair of wins deemed a contender during their introduction, and every fighter under 30 years of age on a winning streak tabbed as a prospect, compiling a list of emerging talents with championship potential in each weight class could be a daunting task.
To help distinguish between the sales pitch and the serious prospects you should be keeping an eye on, I thought I’d unveil the group I like to call “Generation Next,” a collection of the top emerging talents in each division. Some are a little more ready for prime time than others, but all have the potential to make an impact in their respective divisions over time.
Heavyweight: Stefan Struve
An intriguing combination of size, skill, and experience, Struve is a seasoned UFC veteran despite being just 24 years old. The seven-footer has already amassed an impressive 9-3 record inside the Octagon, and is currently in the midst of a four-fight winning streak.
What makes Struve stand out from the pack in the heavyweight division are his intangibles; the “you either have them or you don’t” qualities that can’t be taught. He has very good finishing instincts and takes advantage of opportunities to put his opponents away, with all but one of his career victories coming inside the distance. Struve has also shown his mettle in the cage on a number of occasions, enduring offensive barrages only to turn the tables and find a finish of his own.
Already on the brink of breaking into the top 10, Struve still has room to grow and develop as a fighter. If he continues at the rate we’ve seen during his first four years in the UFC, “The Skyscraper” has a chance to be heavyweight champion in the future.
Light heavyweight: Phil Davis
For whatever reason, people have jumped off the Phil Davis bandwagon (at least they did before his submission of an overmatched Wagner Prado Saturday in Brazil), scurrying to climb aboard fellow UFC 153 winner Glover Teixeira’s express train to contention or opting to saddle up with Alexander Gustafsson instead.
Well, Davis dominated the latter, tapping Gustafsson out when the two met at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi, and he’s five years younger than Teixeira; Davis just turned 28, while Teixeira hits 33 at the end of the month.
With his tremendous wrestling pedigree and solid submission game, Davis has a formidable base to build on, and has already worked his way into the top 10 in the light-heavyweight division. Now that he’s healthy and had a chance to spend some time in the gym developing his skills (rather than just preparing for fights), we could see Davis take another big step forward in 2013.
Middleweight: Alan Belcher
Since I consider Chris Weidman to be the top contender in the division, he’s no longer eligible to be listed as a prospect. As such, the sneaky-good, still somehow under-the-radar Belcher tops my list.
Injuries, not a lack of skills, have slowed Belcher’s climb towards the top of the middleweight division. After all, you can’t be nicknamed “The Talent” and not have an abundance of talent. Belcher most recently showed what he’s capable of when he went hold-for-hold with Rousimar Palhares, and came out with the win, stopping the Brazilian submission machine with some nasty ground-and-pound.
Currently riding a four-fight winning streak, Belcher is once again on the sidelines. Once he’s healthy, the Mississippi native will be in line for a top-10 opponent, and you shouldn’t be surprised if he comes away with the win.
Welterweight: Rory MacDonald
Even before the red-hot Erick Silva was taught a lesson by Jon Fitch at last Saturday’s UFC 153, I believed MacDonald was the best prospect at 170 pounds. In fact, in my opinion, the B.C. native is the top prospect in the entire sport.
Along with the aforementioned Chris Weidman, the 23-year-old Canadian is one of those fighters I think you’d be better off fighting now, rather than in six months, because six months from now, he’s going to be even better. MacDonald has a single-minded focus about becoming the best fighter in the sport, and all the skills needed to make that dream a reality.
Facing BJ Penn in December on FOX could very well be MacDonald’s coming out party; the moment where everyone else figures out that the quiet kid from British Columbia is on the verge of being one of the best fighters in the entire UFC.
Lightweight: Michael Johnson
Identifying prospects in the lightweight division is tricky because so many of the emerging talents have already had some serious time in the spotlight. Anthony Pettis has a very bright future, but would you still call him a prospect?
Rather than navigate those murky waters, why not tab an up-and-comer who has yet to compete on the main card in his post-TUF career? Michael Johnson showed all kinds of promise on The Ultimate Fighter, but then lost to Jonathan Brookins in the Season 11 finale. He’s been retooling his approach ever since, and appears ready to take it to the next level.
You have to like Johnson’s resiliency. In two of his last three fights, he’s been in bad positions, where other fighters might just give up. Instead, Johnson has battled through both times, and come away with his hand raised. If he can clean up those mistakes and maintains his momentum, “The Menace” could find himself breaking into the top 10 next year.
Featherweight: Max Holloway
Much like lightweight, there are a few fighters at featherweight who could make this list, but they’ve all enjoyed some time in the spotlight. Erik Koch, Dustin Poirier, and Cub Swanson are all young, hungry, and talented, but most people who follow the UFC are already familiar with that trio.
Holloway, however, is still an unknown to many, though that could change in the coming year. The 20-year-old Hawaiian has earned back-to-back wins in the UFC after dropping his debut to Poirier, showcasing very good striking in the process. Of particular note is the way Holloway works the body. He dropped TUF 15 standout Justin Lawrence with a body shot in their bout at UFC 150, and mixes up his combinations very well for someone with just seven fights under his belt.
The featherweight division has seen an influx of talent again in the past six months, with more former lightweight contenders making their way down the scale. That should allow Holloway time to develop slowly, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be keeping an eye on this impressive up-and-comer.
Bantamweight: TJ Dillashaw
Michael McDonald graduated from being a prospect when he blasted former bantamweight champion Miguel Torres at UFC 145. With “Mayday” now entrenched as a contender, Team Alpha Male’s Dillashaw becomes the top prospect in the 135-pound ranks.
Dillashaw has all the attributes you’d expect of someone coming from the impressive Sacramento, Calif., camp: very good wrestling, outstanding conditioning, good hands, and a little bit of swagger. He’s also fiercely competitive. Since losing to John Dodson on Season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter, Dillashaw has earned back-to-back dominant victories, and should find himself facing some bigger names in the near future.
Team Alpha Male has produced some elite competitors over the years, and Dillashaw looks to be next in line.
Flyweight: John Moraga
The division is still developing, and the pecking order is still being established, but John Moraga is definitely someone you’ll want to keep an eye on.
He made a tremendous first impression when he finished Ulysses Gomez in August, and sports a solid 11-1 record overall. It’s worth noting that Moraga’s only loss came against John Dodson, a far more seasoned competitor who just punched his ticket to a title shot last week on FX.
As the division continues to add depth, other prospects will emerge, but for right now, the 28-year-old Moraga looks like the one to watch in the UFC’s newest division.
E. Spencer Kyte is a regular contributor to ufc.com, UFC Magazine, and Fight Magazine, and writes the MMA blog Keyboard Kimura. Follow him on Twitter @spencerkyte.