In sports, this title is given to those athletes who are deemed likely for future success. However, only a small number of those anointed prospects actually go on to achieve further success in their fields. A much larger number fall by the wayside on their quest to become successful.
This is no different in MMA. As the years have gone by, we have seen fighters enter the game with a 'prospect' label attached. In recent times, hot prospects such as "King' Mo Lawal, Cain Velasquez and Jose Aldo have worked their way up into championship level. Others, such as Jon Jones and Phil Davis are consistently rising in stock as they continue to rattle off impressive performances.
However, there are some fighters who were labeled as prospects, who have never quite reached the standards of which they were predicted; fighters who have not lived up to their initial early promises. This article, part one in the series, will look at some familiar faces who have never really lived up to their initial hype in MMA.
Upon entering the Zuffa ranks in 2005, Brandon Vera proceeded to decimate the first 6 opponents that the WEC/UFC gave him, which included a first minute knockout over a strangely despondent Frank Mir. As a result, and quite justly, Vera was labeled as the 'next big thing' at heavyweight, despite holding a size disadvantage against a majority of his heavyweight opponents.
Just as he seemed destined to achieve great things in the sport, Vera's career started to plummet. A contract dispute occurred, which resulted in almost a year off from fighting. Upon his return, Vera was welcomed back by the 6'8, former heavyweight champion, Tim Sylvia, a fight where 'The Truth' lost for the first time via unanimous decision. In the next match, Vera was TKO'd for the first time in his career by Fabricio Werdum. With two consecutive losses, Vera dropped down to LHW, where many felt that his frame was better suited. After going 3-1 against mediocre opponents, Vera began reviving his talk on holding two championships, a claim that made many realists laugh.
In his subsequent match, Vera dropped a dubious decision to Randy Couture. That loss, coupled with his past failings, convinced the fans that Vera's ambitions were out of grasp, and that he had now fallen into the 'middle-tier' category. This was recognised by the UFC, who matched him against the surging phenom, Jon Jones. For Vera, it was an all too familiar situation: an established fighter being used as a test for a young phenom, a position that he himself was in all those years ago. Vera ended up losing to Jones via a vicious elbow which broke his facial bone in three places.
Vera's face was not the only thing that was smashed that night, for his loss to Jones also smashed his ambitions of holding the light-heavyweight belt. For now, Vera has filled the spot vacated by Keith Jardine, a divisional gatekeeper with skills to separate the 'elite' from the mid-tiered. His chances of capturing one title now is unlikely, his ambition to hold two is impossible. For me, Vera will remain one of the more recent blue-chip prospects to never fully live up to his full potential.
Perhaps one of the most interesting characters on this list, Filho is unique from many other fallen prospects because his fall from grace did not involve old age nor did it involve dropping consecutive losses to higher-level opposition. Infact, the instrumental factor in Filho's rapid descent from 'prospect' status was Filho himself.
Having made waves in Japan fighting in Pride, Filho bought his undefeated streak to the WEC where he captured the vacant middleweight title in his first match. After beating Chael Sonnen in the subsequent match (although there was a dispute of whether Sonnen's screams of pain actually constituted to 'tapping out'), Filho had amassed a 16-0 record and was being touted as one of the best fighters in the division, and an entrant in many pound-for-pound rankings.
As attractive as his record was inside the cage, stories that surfaced outside about Filho's depression and drug-addiction were causes for concern to his fans. With a rematch against Chael Sonnen scheduled, Filho made a statement that all was well, which provided some assurance to those who were doubtful about his well-being. However, the assurance would be a mere short-term comfort, and disappointment would strike again as Filho weighed a hefty 4lb over the limit, making the fight a non-title bout.
The fight itself would go on to become one of the most infamous matches in WEC history. Throughout the fight, Filho looked confused, disorientated and just plain bizarre. His behaviour - repeated glances to the outside of the cage and apparently murmuring to himself - baffled Sonnen, who would spend the whole fight peppering Filho with jabs (perhaps out of sympathy); baffled Frank Mir, who was commentating the match and questioned: "what is he looking at?" and lastly, confirmed the fans' fears that Filho was not completely stable.
Unsurprisingly, Filho's antics during the fight meant that he was not recruited into the UFC when the WEC folded its middleweight division, but unfortunately, Filho's notoriety and questionable antics would continue to accompany him as he seeked to re-establish his career, from getting facial tattoos, to fighting out of shape at 205lb and heavyweight, and to pulling out of fights because of 'personal problems'. When it was announced that Filho's most recent bout would be at middleweight, many fans secretly hoped that it would be the return of the 'old' Paulo Filho. Unfortunately, he failed to make weight at the initial attempt, and only after completely disrobing did he make it within the 186lb limit, thus leaving fans bemused and with an all too familiar feeling of disappointment.
The fight with Kang is a fight that he should have won. It was a fight where I have no hesitation in saying that the 'old' Paulo Filho would have won. Unfortunately, the good times have all but passed for him, and it just saddens me to see so much potential being wasted because of an individual's fragile state. For me, Filho, along with Mark Kerr, remains one of the most tragic cases of fallen prospects within the sport of MMA.
Part 2, Part 3 and possibly Part 4 coming soon.
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