Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) waved goodbye to 2014 this past weekend (Sat., Dec. 20, 2014) with UFC Fight Night 58 event that featured Lyoto Machida obliterating C.B. Dollaway's insides just 62 seconds into the final fight of the year (highlights here).
As the mammoth mixed martial arts (MMA) events of 2015 inch ever closer, it's hard not to ponder which fighters we may be talking about come next December. With 10 divisions stacked with talent in UFC today, let's take a gander at the current unranked contenders, compiling a list of potential stars who could climb the ladder over the next 12 months.
Is there another Conor McGregor?
Without further ado, check out the first part of our "Fighters to Watch" in 2015:
Women's Strawweight (23 fighters on UFC.com) UFC's newest division is sure to be a wild and crazy roller coaster in 2015. With dozens of fresh contenders, the 115-pound ladies will have the opportunity to make a ton of noise with victories in the early part of the year. With 23 strawweight fighters currently employed by UFC, there is sure to be a slew of changes and signings over the next several months that will radically change the division's landscape. With that being said, here are two current unranked competitors that may shock fans with a run up the ladder next year.
A torn ACL kept Kish from competing during her time in The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 20 house, but you can bet the undefeated strawweight will make a ton of noise once she gets her opportunity to make her Octagon debut. Considering ACL injuries are tricky business, there is no guarantee Kish will return to the cage in the first half of 2015, but if she does her fellow contenders better look out.
Boasting an undefeated (4-0) record, Kish has already defeated fellow TUF prospect Randa Markos via decision. While Kish has a lot of obstacles to overcome, including a hefty layoff that has not seen her fight since Jan. 2014, I expect to see her finish 2015 ranked, but far from title contention.
This one may be a stretch considering Aguilar is currently the World Series of Fighting (WSOF) women's strawweight champion. And she is already ranked atop most MMA polls. But, to be frank, how much longer is WSOF going to last with rumors swirling that the company is struggling? And yet the promotion continues to go head-to-head against UFC.
Anyhow, even if WSOF does not fold in 2015, can it really host the women's 115-pound division with basically only one notable fighter? The answer is probably not.
If Aguilar does get her opportunity to fight in UFC, she will almost immediately be among the top three contenders in the division. For years Aguilar has been considered the No. 1 women's strawweight in the world, and with UFC now hosting the division, it would be tragic for the ATT product not to get her chance inside the Octagon.
Oh, and did I mention Aguilar already holds a victory over UFC champion Carla Esparza? Here is to hoping we see that rematch in 2015.
Flyweight (39 fighters on UFC.com) With champion Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson nearly cleaning out the 125-pound division, 2015 better bring with it a bevy of new opportunities and fights for Johnson or fans will be forced to watch him rematch the same handful of competitors over and over. Here are my picks for potential contenders in 2015.
The former Olympic Gold medalist finally made his UFC debut at UFC on FOX 14 earlier this month, dominating Dustin Kimura in a Bantamweight contest en route to a unanimous decision victory.
The win was impressive for a number of reasons: 1. Cejudo overcame the complete and utter embarrassment of pulling out of UFC 177 because of a weight cutting issue. 2. Cejudo barely showed off his Olympic caliber wrestling, instead choosing to style all over Kimura on the feet with a lethal Muay Thai arsenal. 3. Cejudo proved right off the bat that he won't be just another contender in UFC, but he will more than likely be vying for titles in his future.
After the fight, Cejudo pleaded with UFC to allow him one more opportunity to cut to 125 pounds, and Dana White obliged. If Cejudo can, in fact, make the Flyweight limit, you can bet he will skyrocket up the rankings in 2015. Of all the people on this list, I believe Cejudo has the best opportunity to fight for a title in the coming year.
Justin Scoggins came into UFC with a ton of hype, and while he has not shined as bright as many had hoped, the 22-year-old is still improving and his potential is nearly boundless.
With his eccentric striking style and tenacious attitude, Scoggins is the perfect fit to make a run up the Flyweight ladder. His two losses inside the Octagon came against top contenders in John Moraga and Dustin Ortiz, and you can hardly say he was outclassed in either affair.
Scoggins has tasted what it is like to face off against the elite Flyweights inside the Octagon, and 2015 could be the year where he reaches his own potential to become elite.
Bantamweight (65 fighters on UFC.com) With Dominick Cruz and Raphael Assuncao both recently enduring injuries in training, Bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw lost two major title fights in the first half of 2015. Could any unranked fighter climb up the ladder and provide a fresh face for Dillashaw to mangle? Lets find out.
"Funk Master" has superstar written all over him.
Aljamain Sterling was long touted as the best prospect outside UFC before being signed by the promotion in early 2014, and after improving his undefeated record to 10-0 following two impressive outings inside the Octagon, it won't be long before you see Sterling taking on marquee names.
In fact, if it wasn't for an injury earlier this year, Sterling would have taken on top ranked contender Mitch Gagnon back in October.
With his beautiful striking arsenal and all-around game, I wouldn't be surprised to see Sterling's first fight in 2015 against a Top 15-ranked contender.
Okay, so it is unlikely for the former TUF winner to face off against his Team Alpha Male teammate, Dillashaw, anytime soon, but that doesn't mean you should sleep on Chris Holdsworth.
Another undefeated Bantamweight, Holdsworth boasts a 6-0 record with five submissions to his name. In his last outing this past May, "Holds It Down" sent notoriously tough-out Chico Camus down to the Flyweight division as he beat him down in a three round contest.
Injuries stunted the second half of TUF winner's 2014, but you can bet Holdsworth will return with a vengeance in 2015. With Holdsworth improving in each successive fight, and training alongside the best lighter weight fighters in all of MMA at Team Alpha Male, I expect to see him take a similar path as fellow TUF winner Kelvin Gastelum in the coming year.
Women's Bantamweight (31 fighters on UFC.com) "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey has had a stranglehold on this division since its inception in early 2013, and the contenders on the horizon look to be no match for the former Strikeforce champion. Could an unranked female make waves in 2015 en route to a shot at Rousey? Probably not, but lets guess anyways!
Lauren Murphy looked damn impressive in her UFC debut as she took on former No. 1 contender and former Olympic medalist Sara McMann. And if it wasn't for a horrendous scorecard, Murphy could still be undefeated today.
Even though Murphy technically lost to McMann via split decision this past August, her stock rose and she proved she is worthy of a Top 15 ranking.
While I don't expect Murphy to be making a title run inside the Octagon, she certainly has a lot of fight in her to put on shows for the fans in attendance. Could she be ranked by the end of 2015?
Larissa Pacheco is still only 20 years old, so it may take a bit longer than just 2015 for her to make noise inside the Octagon. But, there is no question in my mind that Pacheco will be a Top 15-ranked fighter sometime in the future.
Pacheco really got the short end of the stick for her UFC debut, getting matched up with the seasoned and very tough Jessica Andrade this past September. While Pacheco was submitted in the first round, there is obvious talent there that will need to be molded over the next several years.
Prior to her Octagon debut, Pacheco had compiled a 10-0 record -- in two years! -- finishing all ten of her opponents in violent fashion. I suspect fans will witness the aforementioned violence from Pacheco at least once in 2015. Will that be enough for the young gun to be ranked?
Only time will tell.
Featherweight (78 fighters on UFC.com) In one of the most exciting divisions in UFC today, Jose Aldo junior has utterly dominated his competition en route to seven straight UFC title defenses. While Aldo will likely take on a fresh face in Conor McGregor -- and rematch Frankie Edgar sometime in 2015 -- lets take a look at who could potentially rise up the ranks in 2015.
Doo Ho Choi
"Korean Superboy" is a dangerous man.
Doo Ho Choi was highly touted coming into his UFC debut this past November, and he showed the reason as he separated Juan Manuel Puig from his consciousness in just 18 seconds. While Puig is certainly no world-beater, the victory showed off Choi's dangerous striking and penchant for finishing fights.
Choi boasts a 12-1 record, with nine victories coming by way of (technical) knockout and one via submission. While Choi has yet to face any stiff competition in his career thus far, the 23 year-old has shown a lot of promise that could lead to success inside the Octagon. Will that turn into an impressive run in the coming year?
We can only hope he has the opportunity to provide us with more highlights.
When a fighter makes his UFC debut on 10 days notice, fans and pundits alike are usually pre-emptively excusing said fighter's performance because of lack of preparation for the short notice bout.
Well, Renato Moicano threw out everyone's preconceived notions this past Saturday night as he utterly dominated UFC veteran Tom Niinimaki en route to a rear-naked choke finish in the second round.
UFC jitters? What jitters!
Moicano came out firing early, never giving Niinimaki the space to breathe or get into a rhythm throughout the fight. Heading into the bout, the word on Moicano was his significant edge in jiu-jitsu, but the Brazilian barely utilized his grappling advantage until the finish. Instead, Moicano showed off his savvy striking, landing consistently on the stunned Niinimaki.
Just two weeks ago Moicano was relatively unknown, and now I believe he could be a top 15 ranked contender by year's end as long as the unheralded prospect continues to improve. With his abilities, the sky is the limit for Moicano.
That's a wrap!
Be sure to check out part two "Fighters to Watch" in 2015 sometime soon!