No more reminiscing!
With Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) closing out 2014 last weekend, many fans and pundits alike will use the off time to remember the year's best highlights. Instead of following the norm, I decided to focus on the future, compiling a list of unranked fighters from each division who could potentially make runs up their respective division's ladders over the next 12 months.
If you missed part one of this series, click here.
Without further ado, check out the second iteration of our "Fighters to Watch" in 2015:
Lightweight (114 fighters on UFC.com): UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis returned to the Octagon earlier this month at UFC 181, submitting Gilbert Melendez via guillotine choke in his first title defense after nearly 15 months on the sideline due to injury. With Pettis adamant on fighting at least three times in 2015, could an unranked contender battle his way up the rankings to face off against "Showtime"? Lets find out.
It has been over three years since Tony Ferguson knocked out Ramsey Nijem to be crowned The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) season 13 winner, and 2015 may be the year "El Cucuy" ascends the division rankings.
Ferguson has a stellar UFC career thus far, going 7-1 inside the Octagon against several tough opponents. Not only is he winning fights, but he is finishing his opponents as well. Ferguson capped off 2014 with a rear-naked choke finish over Abel Trujillo earlier this month at UFC 181, earning his fifth finish inside the Octagon.
If not for a 17-month injury layoff following his only UFC loss to No. 12 ranked Michael Johnson, Ferguson may already be ranked and competing against the division's elite. Currently riding a four-fight winning streak, expect Ferguson to take on a top 15 opponent his first time out in 2015.
The Dagestanis have a stranglehold on UFC's lightweight division.
Undefeated inside the Octagon, Rashid Magomedov has looked superb in his three UFC appearances. In his last outing, Magomedov took on the undefeated Brazilian prospect Elias Silverio in a critical fixture that determined who would be the "next big thing." After thoroughly dominating the first two rounds, Magomedov blitzed Silverio late in the final frame, knocking out the Brazilian with just three seconds left in the contest.
Magomedov's rousing victory in UFC's final event of the year certainly caught the attention of fans and pundits alike, and we can all expect to see Magomedov join his Dagestani brethren Khabib Nurmagomedov and Rustam Khabilov in the division's top 15 in the coming year.
Welterweight (112 fighters on UFC.com): 12 years after his UFC debut, "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler is UFC's welterweight champion. With Lawler likely rematching Johny Hendricks and Rory MacDonald in 2015, there is not much room for unranked contenders to make noise in the crowded division. Who could prove me wrong by year's end?
Neil Magny had about as good a year as you could possibly have in UFC, and the TUF product is still not ranked heading into 2015.
After losing two straight to end 2013, Magny returned to the Octagon in 2014 with a vengeance. Reeling off five straight victories, Magny tied a UFC record for most wins in a calendar year. In his last outing, Magny was given the "Prelims" main event spotlight, knocking out the durable William Macario in the third round.
With Magny set to face off against the streaking Kiichi Kunimoto this coming February, it may not be long before we see Magny earn a top 15 ranking.
As long as Brandon "Rukus" Thatch can stay healthy in 2015, there is no doubt in my mind that he will be ranked by year's end.
Immediately after his 83-second destruction of Justin Edwards in his UFC debut, it was evident there was something special about Thatch. The Colorado native brought a swagger into the Octagon we had not seen in quite some time, especially for a UFC debut. With his eccentric striking style and impressive overall game, the highly-touted prospect looks to have the skills to compete against the division's elite.
Thatch did not compete in 2014 due to injuries, but a February date with Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson has fight fans drooling in excitement. If Thatch defeats Thompson, expect "Rukus" to skyrocket up the rankings.
Middleweight (76 fighters on UFC.com): Middleweight champion Chris Weidman is going to be a busy man in 2015 as long as he remains healthy. Facing off against Vitor Belfort at UFC 184 in February, Weidman has contenders Ronaldo Souza, Yoel Romero, Luke Rockhold, and Lyoto Machida all vying for the next title shot. Can an unranked fighter shake up the division by year's end?
TUF 17 veteran Josh Samman fought nearly insurmountable odds to make his return to the Octagon in 2014. After a year littered with injuries, personal loss, and introspection, Samman returned from a 20-month layoff to take on the very tough and durable TUF winner Eddie "Truck" Gordon. After a tough first round, Samman pulled off one of the year's best finishes by knocking Gordon out cold with a highlight-reel head kick.
If Samman can stay healthy in 2015, they sky is truly the limit for this uber-talented middleweight. With a never say die attitude and the skill to back it up, I expect Samman to end 2015 ranked.
Uriah Hall may have folded under the mammoth hype train following his sensationally violent head kick knockout over Adam Cella during TUF 17, but the reality show runner-up has finally found his groove as 2014 comes to an end.
After starting off his UFC career 0-2, Hall responded to Dana White's criticism by dominating -- and retiring -- Chris Leben prior to winning a unanimous decision over Thiago Santos with a badly mangled toe (pic).
As long as Hall can continue to improve, as well as fight more than once a year, I fully expect the savvy striker to come into his own in 2015, potentially becoming a force to be reckoned with in the 185-pound division.
Light Heavyweight (47 fighters on UFC.com): After the top four fighters in the division (Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, Alexander Gustafsson, and Anthony Johnson), the light heavyweight division may be the thinnest in all of UFC. With embattled legends and mediocre talent taking up the latter half of the division, there is opportunity for an unranked contender to make his mark in 2015.
Corey Anderson may have the worst nickname in the sport, but "Beastin 25/8" sure knows how to fight.
With a strong wrestling base, the TUF 19 winner has improved his striking vastly in his short mixed martial arts (MMA) career. Anderson is still relatively a neophyte in the sport, and yet he already has won TUF and has two UFC victories under his belt.
With pundits comparing his potential to the likes of Jon Jones, the ceiling for Anderson is obviously very high. Considering how weak the 205-pound division is, UFC may push him a bit faster than he will be ready for, but we certainly can not count him out before he takes on his first true test.
Ultimately, with 205 a wasteland of washed up fighters and severely lacking in prospects, I expect Anderson to make his way into the top 15 in the coming year.
The former KSW light heavyweight champion had a stiff test for his UFC debut, and boy did he pass with flying colors.
Blachowicz was slated to take on the streaking Ilir Latifi in his home country of Sweden, but instead of allowing "The Sledgehammer" dictate the pace, Blachowicz blasted Latifi with a brutal body shot that took the Swede out early in the first round.
After his successful UFC debut, Blachowicz extended his winning streak to six in a row. With victories over UFC veterans Rameau Sokoudjou, Goran Reljic, Houston Alexander, and more, Blachowicz could be a surprise addition to the UFC rankings come 2015.
Heavyweight (36 fighters on UFC.com): Remember when I said "the light heavyweight division may be the thinnest in all of UFC?" Well, that would be the case if it weren't for the barren wasteland that is the heavyweight division. With an injured champion, washed up contenders, and seemingly no prospects on the horizon, can there be an unranked fighter that turns the division on its head in 2015?
While not long ago, it was unrealistic to ever expect Todd Duffee to fight for UFC gold, the heavyweight behemoth could certainly make waves in the division come 2015.
Duffee returned to the Octagon at UFC 181, obliterating Anthony Hamilton in just 33 seconds via knockout. The fight was Duffee's first in nearly two years, as he battled a rare neurological disorder named Parsonage-Turner Syndrome (PTS) that put his career in jeopardy.
With his health in check, Duffee can finally focus solely on his MMA career, and that could spell bad news for the division in the coming year.
Ruslan Magomedov truly has the ability to make a deep run in the UFC's heavyweight division in 2015. The Dagestani currently boasts a 13-1 record, including two victories inside the Octagon.
Training at Greg Jackson's, Magomedov is improving each time out, and his ceiling is extremely high for a heavyweight. If Magomedov can earn one more marquee victory to kick off 2015, it won't be long before he is ranked alongside the division's elite.
That's a wrap!
Plenty of fighters to keep your eyes on, Maniacs, anyone come to mind who didn't make the list?