This isn't a list of fighters who I think are contenders for the belt in their respective weight divisions any time soon. Nor does it include any fighters who have really faced any serious competition yet. So that means incredible prospects like Rory MacDonald, Renan Barao, and Michael McDonald who have proven their mettle and stepped up to steeper competition won't be listed.
These are guys just flying onto the radar now, either with a dramatic entrance to the UFC, or by virtue of their absolute dominance on the undercards. I'm sure there are many notable mentions, including 23-year-old Ronny Markes who is fighting in three days time, but you can add those in the comments if you like.
6. Nick Denis, Canada
Disciplines: Black belt in Kyokushin karate, purple belt in Brazilian Jujitsu
Record: 11-2, 10 by knockout
Last Fight: Jan. 20, 2012, won by KO at 0:22 of round 1
Next Fight: Unknown
You don't make an entrance into the UFC more dramatically than Nick Denis did, more impressive because of the fact that he brutally knocked out his opponent in a division that only sees about a half dozen knockouts in a single year. Denis knocked out 6-1 Joseph Sandoval in just 22 seconds, using vicious elbows to the head at close range, which added his tenth knockout victim of his career.
A black belt in karate, Denis brings heavy power to the bantamweight division that's supplemented with a respectable ground game in not only the Brazilian pastime, but wrestling as well. Denis was 5-0 at bantamweight, winning the Canadian KOTC championship before jumping to featherweight and going 4-2. Since dropping back down he has added two more wins to his undefeated record at that weight.
Denis should face a much more serious challenge on an undercard now. An Yves Jabouin or even an Eddie Wineland sounds about right (although the UFC might not throw a winner against a guy on a two-fight losing streak).
5. Paul Sass, England
Disciplines: Brown belt in Brazilian Jujitsu
Record: 12-0, 11 by submission
Last Fight: Oct. 1, 2011, won by submission (heel hook) at 3:00 of round 1
Next Fight: Was scheduled to fight Evan Dunham Jan. 28 but was injured
Let's face it, Paul Sass might just have the worst standup in the Lightweight division. But it doesn't matter. He will submit you. Since entering the UFC he has two first round submissions, including a heel hook over TUF alum Michael Johnson, displaying an incredible amount of patience before sneaking in the hold.
Sass also holds a notable submission over fellow Brit Jason Young, expected to face Akira Corassani in Sweden. Another weird jujitsu prodigy who fights well above his belt colour, Sass has a diversity of ways to finish guys: 7 triangle chokes, 3 heel hooks, and an armbar. He's been to the judges only once, winning a split decision over BAMMA lightweight champion Rob Sinclair in 2009. With 10 first round finishes, Sass is no slouch.
Although scheduled to take a huge jump in competition against Evan Dunham, he was sidelined with an injury and replaced with Nik Lentz, who got mauled. An opponent of similar depth would be nice to see, like a Jacob Volkmann where his grappling would be tested, or a TJ Grant.
4. Diego Brandao, Brazil
Disciplines: Black belt in Brazilian Jujitsu
Record: 14-7, 8 by knockout
Last Fight: Dec. 3, 2011, won by submission (armbar) at 4:51 of round 1
Next Fight: unknown
Let's face it, Brandao may be a dark horse but he's a hell of a wild ride. His slick submission in the first round of the TUF Finale 14 against Dennis Bermudez was as quick as it was surprising. This isn't just a guy who goes headhunting with his wild punches, but a man who can finish a fight instantly on the ground. His transition into the armbar was as quick as any I've seen before.
Brandao may be 4-0 since his previous loss in May of 2010, but he has a history of being tagged. As well as being nearly knocked out by Bermudez, he has been put to sleep or had the referee step in to stop the beating on four occasions. And although his wild style is electrifying to watch, it's also frightening to think what might happen if he meets a technical fighter like a Dustin Poirier.
3. Khabib Nurmagomedov, Russia
Disciplines: International master of sports in combat sambo
Last Fight: Jan. 20, 2012, won by submission (rear-naked choke) at 2:08 of round 3
Next Fight: unknown
When Khabib entered the UFC and absolutely floored WEC veteran Kamal Shalorus with an uppercut in the first round, he made a dramatic announcement in the stacked UFC lightweight division. Finishing the notoriously tough Shalorus a few seconds quicker than Jim Miller, widely considered a top-five ranked lightweight, means that Khabib is for real.
As others have said before, Khabib is a well-rounded fighter with ridiculous power and quick attacks. He has wrestling, jujitsu, sambo and boxing and can beat a fighter in any of those areas. Although he looked a little tentative in his first UFC fight, let me reiterate that he finished a guy who had been previously undefeated until he met Jim Miller. The fact that he's only 23 years old makes it all the more frightening.
So who's next? Good question. Testing him against Edson Barboza might be fun, since both are undefeated. But whoever he fights next, it better be somebody with a great chin.
2. Jim Hettes, United States
Disciplines: Brown belt in Judo, purple belt in Brazilian Jujitsu
Record: 10-0, with 9 submissions
Last Fight: Dec. 30, 2011, won by decision (unanimous)
Next Fight: unknown
Nobody thought much about Jimy jumping into the UFC and subbing TUF fighter Alex Cacares. Most people assumed that "Bruce Leeroy" was simply another TUF can getting his ass handed to him by a ordinary fighter. But when Hettes absolutely dominated Nam Phan like nobody has ever dominated a fighter in a three round fight before, we knew different.
Perhaps the only thing that saved Nam Phan from being submitted in that 30-25 mauling was the fact that he owns a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu, though as it's been noted by several people already, it doesn't seem plausible that Hettes is only a purple belt. After starting his professional career with six first round submissions, he had three second round submissions before he faced Phan, and they were all as varied as they come: triangles, rear-naked, heel hook, armbar, guillotine. The kid literally does it all.
What Hettes needs now is clearly a giant step up in competition. Like, I'm talking a quantum leap. When you're winning fights 30-25 against an entry level UFC fighter like Phan, you need a Mike Brown or a Darren Elkins. One more win over a gatekeeper like that and Hettes is looking at the top of the division.
1. Erick Silva, Brazil
Disciplines: Black belt in Judo, black belt in Brazilian jujitsu
Record: 13-2 (some would say 14-1)
Last Fight: Jan. 14, 2012, lost by DQ (punches to the back of the head) at 0:29 of round 1
Next Fight: unknown
Whether or not you agree with the disqualification of Erick Silva at UFC 142 in Rio, one thing is certain. Erick Silva is an animal at welterweight. Among his first two UFC appearances, he has two stoppages in a combined 69 seconds and 10 of his 13 wins have come by knockout or submission.
Although he's had two fights in the UFC, it might surprise you to know that Silva has never actually left Brazil. Or maybe he has, but all 16 of his fights have taken place in his homeland. Well, it's probably time to test Silva on American soil against a tough opponent and see whether anyone can survive a full minute with him in the cage.
The good news for Silva is that the welterweight division is the weakest in the UFC outside of heavyweight. Josh Neer is on a huge winning streak and is the kind of guy who would provide a real well-rounded war for Silva. And if not Neer, then Dong Hyun Kim would be a slight step up. Either way, the power in his hands to date have so far been very impressive.
So, are there any prospects you're dying to see fight again? Leave em in the comments.