In the rapidly-evolving sport of mixed martial arts, talented fighters come and go. It’s about getting results and making the MMA fans care. Each year, a handful fighters manage to not only win but dramatically increase their stock by making an impact. Just look at what Cody Garbrandt did in 2016.
With that in mind, here are the top breakout candidates for 2017:
Michelle Waterson (No. 7-ranked strawweight)
With a nickname like “The Karate Hottie” and the ability to finish fights, Waterson has all the makings of a superstar. She is coming off a magnificent performance where she stole the spotlight from the UFC’s golden girl, Paige VanZant, submitting her within three minutes of the first round. Waterson opened eyes – 4.8 million pairs to be exact – that she might be the next title contender.
Vicente Luque (welterweight)
This spot could’ve also gone to Luque’s Blackzilian teammate Kamaru Usman but Luque has been doing something more spectacular than just winning fights. He’s finishing them. Luque is coming off back-to-back one-minute knockouts and is on a four-fight winning streak but still has to be tested by a proven veteran and top-15 fighter. With two or three more big wins in 2017, Luque should find himself ranked in the stacked 170-pound division.
Francis Ngannou (No. 11-ranked heavyweight)
The Frenchman traded in his “prospect” status for a “contender” one after dusting all three of his opponents in 2016. Ngannou has a physique reminiscent of his countryman and former UFC heavyweight Cheick Kongo but brings more firepower and killer instinct. At 30 years old, Ngannou has only been fighting since 2013 and has plenty more room to grow but if he knocks out Andrei Arlovski early next year, he’ll inch closer to a title shot.
Mirsad Bektic (No. 12-ranked featherweight)
Bektic has been a top prospect since he turned pro in 2011. The American Top Team product has flashed all the qualities a top-level fighter possesses: well-rounded skill set, great conditioning and mental strength. Bektic is unbeaten at 11-0 and a perfect 4-0 in his UFC tenure. Unfortunately, those four wins have come over a three-year span. If it’s anything holding back the Slavic fighter it’s his injuries but he’s a prime candidate to be a top-five 145-pounder by the end of 2017.
Kelvin Gastelum (No. 10-ranked middleweight)
Gastelum is a frustrating fighter to follow. On one hand, he’s a physical specimen who is 8-2 in the UFC and only 25 years old but on the other, he can’t decide if he’s a 185-pounder or a 170-pounder. Gastleum missed weight three times at welterweight if you include his no-show at UFC 205. But even in the bigger division he took out Nate Marquardt and Tim Kennedy, two former top-10 fighters. When he can get his diet on track, Gastelum might just be a world champion.
Kyoji Horiguchi (No. 3-ranked flyweight)
For a top-three fighter to even be considered a “breakout candidate” he must do one thing and one thing only: win the title. Yes, the Kid Yamamoto prodigy will be the one to finally dethrone Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. Horiguchi had his first crack at Johnson back in 2015 and was outgrappled and felled with a literal last-second submission loss. Working extensively with the American Kickboxing Academy, Horiguchi is refining his grappling and on the verge of another title shot. Where he shocks the world.
Honourable Mentions: Brandon Moreno (flyweight), Tom Duquesnoy (bantamweight), Lando Vannata (lightweight), Colby Covington (welterweight), Olivier Aubin-Mercier (lightweight)