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Best UFC ‘New Blood’ of 2018 heading into 2019 (who aren’t Israel Adesanya)

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UFC 222: Dariush v Hernandez Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

One of my favorite features in mixed martial arts (MMA) media was Bloody Elbow’s “Welcome to the UFC” series, which broke down incoming prospects prior to their Octagon debuts. Sadly, that series has gone the way of their prospect rankings; as a result, I started the “New Blood” column last year in the hopes of generating the same sort of interest among you guys. Before we hit the first UFC event on ESPN+ and its requisite “New Blood” feature, I thought it fitting to look back on the many fighters profiled therein and make a list of which ones stood out.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Johnny Walker, Curtis Millender, Antonina Shevchenko, Montel Jackson and Sodiq Yusuff.

Petr Yan - ‘New Blood’

MMA: UFC 232-Silva De Andrade vs Yan Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This list isn’t ranked, but Yan is at the top anyway. “No Mercy” tore through the Russian circuit, losing only to fellow top prospect Magomed Magomedov in controversial fashion, and came into UFC with considerable hype behind him. He more than lived up to it, going perfect (3-0 in the Octagon with two technical knockout stoppages. Only the inhuman durability of Jin Soo Son stood between Yan and a perfect year of finishes.

The Russian slugger is the platonic ideal of efficient violence, stringing together crisp combinations and keeping just out of the way of incoming fire. His cardio is top-notch, his power considerable, and he fights so often that he’ll soon find himself among the Bantamweight elite despite the division’s logjam at the top. We’ll see him in February against John Dodson, and should he best “The Magician,” expect him to crack the top 5 by year’s end.

Weili Zhang - ‘New Blood’

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Zhang vs Aguilar Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

With Joanna Jedrzejczyk now plying her craft at 125 pounds, the Strawweight division is more open than ever, and Weili Zhang is in perfect position to capitalize.

Former Invicta champ Livia Renata Souza may have the superior pedigree, but Zhang is a superstar in the making. She’s an extraordinarily entertaining young talent, powerful and aggressive in every facet of the game. She handily outclassed Danielle Taylor, a top-notch spoiler, in her UFC debut, then completely obliterated Jessica Aguilar her second time out. “Jag” has lost before, but never in such one-sided fashion.

Given the opportunity, she should smash her way into title contention before long.

Magomed Ankalaev ‘New Blood’ / Darko Stosic - ‘New Blood’

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Craig vs Ankalaev Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports
MMA: UFC Fight Night-Hamburg-Kimball vs Stosic Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

I’m merging these two together because they’re set to fight next month, so whoever wins retroactively gets this spot.

The Light Heavyweight division has been in a rough spot for years, a small crop of elite contenders standing miles apart from the rest. Luckily, there’s a fresh influx of youngsters to keep things interesting in the future.

Ankalaev would have been perfect (2-0) this year, but for a massive brain fart leading him to tap against Paul Craig with literally a second left in the fight. He boasts a well-rounded game and some of the best ground-and-pound in the division. Stosic, meanwhile, is an acolyte of the great Mirko Cro Cop, a brick shithouse of a Light Heavyweight with crushing kicks and superior wrestling to his mentor.

Both are 26 years old and could make massive waves in the division in the coming years.

Hakeem Dawodu - ‘New Blood’

Frankly, Dawodu had about as horrific an Octagon debut as I can remember. Danny Henry, a lesser striker by practically every metric, clipped him with a right hand in the opening seconds, then damn near tore his head off with a guillotine. He’s since won a pair of decisions over Austin Arnett and Kyle Bochniak, though neither in his usual electric fashion.

As disappointed as I am by his 2018 efforts, I still firmly believe that Dawodu is a special talent. When firing on all cylinders, he is a force to be reckoned with, a genuine eight-point striker that calls to mind Thomas Almeida at the latter’s destructive best. Give him a couple years and he’ll be knocking on the door of a title shot.

Raoni Barcelos - ‘New Blood’

MMA: TUF Finale - Barcelos vs Gutierrez Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Brazilian is a little too old to be considered a prospect, but he’s an immediate threat to the Bantamweight elite. Combining a strong wrestling pedigree with lights-out counter boxing, he’s a threat in every facet of the game, standing out in a division choked to the brim with elite talent.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure he has enough time in his athletic prime to make a strong push into the ranks of the elite. It’s going to be a hell of a journey no matter what, though.

Alexander Hernandez - ‘New Blood’

MMA: UFC 222-Hernandez vs Dariush Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Hernandez, fighting out of my hometown of San Antonio, made an immediate impression with his 42-second wipeout of the very proven Beneil Dariush. He further showed his mettle by out-grinding Judo powerhouse Olivier Aubin-Mercier four months later, setting up a battle with Donald Cerrone this upcoming weekend.

“Effective” is Hernandez’s keyword. He’s an efficient, powerful grinder who boasts sneaky power with which to supplement his grappling offense. No individual technique is eye-catching, but rock-solid fundamentals bolstered by physicality make for a legitimate threat at 155 pounds.

Nathaniel Wood - ‘New Blood’

MMA: UFC 232-Wood vs Ewell Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Bantamweight is ludicrously stacked at the moment, if you haven’t noticed; with this influx of dangerous young talent, I’d say it easily measures up to Lightweight in terms of talent density. Now if only they wouldn’t occupy their champion with “super” fights.

Wood admittedly caught a break in his UFC debut, which saw Johnny Eduardo hurt him on the feet before inexplicably attempting a takedown, but he showed what he’s capable of against Andre Ewell. Ewell had defeated former division kingpin Renan Barao in his Octagon debut, but had zero to offer the Brad Pickett protege. Wood straight-up thrashed him for the better part of three rounds before Ewell finally surrendered his neck for the rear naked choke.

“The Prospect” has now won seven straight by stoppage, and at just 25 years old, looks fit to join the swarm of fresh faces looking to challenge the Big Three of TJ Dillashaw, Cody Garbrandt, and Dominick Cruz.