Next Gen November: Profiling 17 emerging UFC fighters age 27 or younger

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Next Generation of UFC Fighters (Getty Images)

Conor McGregor’s UFC debut aired on Facebook.

Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson’s first appearances in the UFC cage came in the days when preliminary card fights went unaired, though the latter’s win over Jared Hamman ended up making the UFC 105 broadcast.

Khabib Nurmagomedov fought Kamal Shalorus on the Fuel TV prelims, Max Holloway took on Dustin Poirier on short notice in a preliminary card fight on FX, and recent heavyweight title challenger Derrick Lewis’ debut took place on Fight Pass.

Despite being known commodities amongst fight fans, current titleholders Tyron Woodley and Amanda Nunes first competed on the FX prelims, while former champs Cody Garbrandt and Joanna Jedrzejczyk made their first appearances on FS1 and Fight Pass, respectively.

Of the current crop of champions and challengers, only eight fighters debuted on the main card of a UFC event.

Two of them were established stars, Cris Cyborg and Daniel Cormier, and four others — TJ Dillashaw, Robert Whittaker, Kelvin Gastelum and Rose Namajunas — were Ultimate Fighter finalists. Volkan Oezdemir landed on the main card in his debut as a short-notice replacement, while Darren Till competed in the second bout of a six-fight main card from Brazil.

Just one fighter — Cyborg — debuted on pay-per-view.

The majority of the UFC’s current champions and challengers fought on the prelims and were forged in the shadows, taking anywhere from two to 12 fights before they started garnering recognition for their upside and potential. Some were still dismissed and discounted as they were knocking off fellow contenders or standing in the cage in a championship fight.

All of them, save for Cyborg, an 11-year veteran who headlined one of the biggest televised events in MMA history against Gina Carano and was an established superstar within the MMA community, got their start on televised fight cards.

Over the next four weeks, the UFC will deliver four events, none of which will take place on pay-per-view. There isn’t a single championship fight scheduled to take place and depending on how you feel about “The Korean Zombie,” Neil Magny, and Rafael dos Anjos, there aren’t many (or any) major names scheduled to compete.

There are, however, 17 fighters age 27 or younger, poised to hit the cage. Some profile as potential contenders, while others show upside, but need more experience in order to get a real read on where their ceilings rest.

While pay-per-view events boast the biggest names, draw the biggest audiences and garner the most attention, it is cards like the ones taking place over the next four weeks where the next generation of champions and contenders will begin their journeys towards the top of their respective divisions.

These are the events that fans, critics and observers need to pay more attention to if they’re interested in learning about the emerging talents in the UFC and come to understand that the newcomers and lesser-known fighters they’ve never heard of before and opted not to watch could end up being contenders or even champions down the line and dismissing them now is a mistake.

Here’s a look at the host of young talent set to compete in the Octagon this month that fight fans should be paying attention to this month.

Yair Rodriguez (10-2 overall, 6-1 UFC)

A couple of years ago, the 26-year-old Mexican was considered the next big thing in the featherweight division, but a mauling at the hands of Frankie Edgar and an extended stay on the sidelines — coupled with the rise of fighters like Zabit Magomedsharipov — have turned Rodriguez into a question mark heading into his short-notice main event pairing with Chan Sung Jung this weekend.

But a dominant performance against “The Korean Zombie” would vault him right back into the thick of the chase in the 145-pound weight division and re-ignite the fervor for seeing him face Magomedsharipov or any of the other emerging threats in the featherweight ranks.

Thiago Moises (11-2 overall, UFC debut)

Stepping up to replace Chris Gruetzemacher this weekend opposite Beneil Dariush, the 23-year-old Brazilian gets the opportunity to make an instant splash in the lightweight division.

While Dariush has struggled over the last two years, he’s still a respected grappler and former Top 10 talent with wins over the likes of Jim Miller, Michael Johnson and James Vick, so a win for the newcomer Moises would be a clear sign that he’s someone to keep an eye on going forward.

Maycee Barber (5-0 overall, UFC debut) and Hannah Cifers (8-2 overall, UFC debut)

These two strawweights face off against one another early on Saturday’s main card.

The focus on this week’s installment of Under the Radar, Barber is an elite emerging talent. The unbeaten 20-year-old keeps a countdown on the lock screen of her phone that tells her how long she has remaining before she’s a day older than when Jon Jones won the UFC light heavyweight title; that’s how focused she is on breaking Jones’ record.

Cifers, who is stepping up on short notice here, is 26 and riding a four-fight winning streak that includes a first-round finish of regional veteran Celine Haga, while her two setbacks have come against UFC competitors Heather Clark (in her pro debut) and Gillian Robertson.

Mike Trizano (7-0 overall, 1-0 UFC) and Luis Pena (5-0 overall, 1-0 UFC)

Lightweight is loaded with talent, so standing out is difficult, but the winner of this one will be someone to keep close tabs on going forward.

Trizano and Pena were supposed to meet in the semifinal round on Season 27 of The Ultimate Fighter, but an injury forced the Pena out of the competition. After both picked up wins at the finale — Trizano over Joe Giannetti in the finals to join the fraternity of Ultimate Fighter winner, Pena over SBG Ireland product Richie Smullen — they’ll square off in this weekend’s main card opener to settle the argument over who would have won had Pena been healthy.

While Trizano is a tough, scrappy newcomer who has been working alongside Barber with the team at Factory X Muay Thai, Pena enters with the higher profile and greater upside.

Sporting a bushy, red afro and tremendous size for the division, “Violent Bob Ross” has been training with his TUF coaching staff at AKA and has shown the kind of dynamic finishing skills early in his career that has many people wondering about how good he can become in the future.

Devonte Smith (8-1 overall, UFC debut)

One of a handful of graduates from this summer’s Contender Series set to compete this month, the 25-year-old Smith has won four straight heading into his promotional debut against former TUF contestant Julian Erosa.

It’s a quality litmus test for the quick-handed lightweight, whose lone professional loss came against fellow UFC Denver competitor John Gunther nearly two years ago. If he can extend his winning streak, “King Cage” will establish himself as a long-range lightweight prospect to take heading into 2019.

Joseph Morales (9-1 overall, 1-1 UFC)

Team Alpha Male’s Morales turned quality regional circuit wins over Josh Paiva and Sean Santella into an opportunity to compete in the Octagon, where he earned a first-round finish of Roberto Sanchez in his debut. While his sophomore appearance ended in his first career loss, it came to Deiveson Figueiredo, who has since gone on to establish himself as a legitimate threat in the flyweight division.

Despite the weight class’ future being in limbo, Morales remains someone to watch as the 24-year-old is much better than his last performance indicates and the Sacramento fight camp has a long history of developing elite lighter weight talents.

Mark De La Rosa (10-1 overall, 1-1 UFC)

“The Bumblebee” moved up to bantamweight to collect a second-round submission win last time out, but is back down at flyweight for this weekend’s bout with late replacement Joby Sanchez.

Regardless of whether he’s competing at 125 or 135 pounds, the 24-year-old De La Rosa has shown he’s worthy of a place on the UFC roster and someone to track going forward. With flyweight seemingly on the way out, a move back to bantamweight might be in the offing and could result in some interesting opportunities for the emerging grappler.

Tom Breese (11-1 overall, 4-1 UFC)

Once pegged as a potential contender at welterweight, Breese spent two years on the sidelines following his loss to Sean Strickland, but returned with force this spring. No longer making the taxing cut to the 170-pound limit, the Birmingham native returned to the aggressive, attacking style that produced first-round stoppage wins over Luiz Dutra Jr. and Cathal Pendred, garnering a similar result against Dan Kelly in May.

Scheduled to face Brazilian stalwart Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira later this month in Argentina, an impressive win for Breese should re-start talk of the 27-year-old Englander’s championship upside.

Curtis Blaydes (10-1, 1 NC overall, 5-1, 1 NC UFC)

Blaydes is, by my estimation, the No. 1 contender in the heavyweight division, and in a just world, he would have either fought Daniel Cormier or Stipe Miocic at UFC 230. But that’s not how things shook out and instead, he’s rematching Francis Ngannou in Beijing, China later this month.

The 27-year-old has grown by leaps and bounds since his first meeting with “Big Francy,” which was halted after the second round because Blaydes’ eye was swollen shut, and enters off back-to-back dominant victories over veteran standouts Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem. If you’re not excited about Blaydes’ upside already, there might be something wrong with you.

Sergey Pavlovich (12-0 overall, UFC debut)

You know how everyone is always saying how heavyweight is devoid of exciting, young prospects? How does a 25-year-old, unbeaten Russian newcomer sound?

Pavlovich, who gets the chance to make major waves right out of the gate with a co-main event assignment against Overeem in China, has won a dozen straight, with his last two wins coming against Kiril Sidelnikov and Mikhail Mokhnatkin.

Those names might not mean much to you, but they’re both quality wins for the UFC newcomer and there will be a ton of interest in Pavlovich if he extends his winning streak to a baker’s dozen in Beijing… and rightfully so.

Song Yadong (13-4 overall, 2-0 UFC)

Focus on the 2-0 in the UFC and not the 13-4 overall mark, though that’s not bad either. Yadong is a 20-year-old rising star from China who beat the holy heck out of veteran Felipe Arantes last time out and has the potential to become the face of the country’s emerging wave of MMA talent.

Yadong passes the eye test in every way and his effort against Arantes was the kind of effort that made it clear he wasn’t just a local fighter getting favorable matchups on hometown cards. He was supposed to face veteran Frankie Saenz in Beijing, but the former Arizona State wrestler was forced out of the contest and replaced by Vince Morales.

Regardless of the opponent, you’re going to want to pay attention to Yadong later this month and throughout next year.

Lauren Mueller (5-0 overall, 1-0 UFC)

“Princess Tiger” was one of the breakout graduates from Season 1 of the Contender Series, where she dominated Invicta FC veteran Kelly McGill-Velasco to earn her UFC contract. In her promotional debut, the 26-year-old Mueller did the same to TUF alum Shana Dobson.

Training with the quality crew at Alliance MMA in San Diego, Mueller has steadily worked her way to the big leagues and has shown the kind of toughness and tenacity that could propel her into the rankings in 2019. Think Raquel Pennington, but without the early career struggles.

Arnold Allen (13-1 overall, 4-0 UFC)

The 24-year-old Allen has already proven to be an entertaining fighter through his first four UFC appearances, pulling out a pair of third-round submission wins in bouts he was clearly going to lose on the scorecards.

But with featherweight being flush with talent, people haven’t been talking about him as a potential future contender, but Allen fits the bill. That late-round poise and opportunistic finishing ability are things you can’t teach — the same goes for his toughness — and as he continues to gain experience and refine his approach, the youngster from Felixstowe, England could make a run up the rankings.

Edmen Shahbazyan (7-0 overall, UFC debut)

Shahbazyan will be 21 by the time he makes his first foray into the Octagon and you’re bound to hear a bunch about him in the lead up to that bout with Darren Stewart because the unbeaten middleweight trains under Edmond Tarverdyan at Glendale Fight Club and is managed by former UFC champ Ronda Rousey.

The youngster looked impressive registering a 40-second knockout win over Antonio Jones on the Contender Series this summer and has never been out of the first round, but results like that are always a little suspect. Temper expectations with the green neophyte, but be sure to tune in to see his debut because keeping his unbeaten run intact by beating Stewart would speak volumes about his potential going forward.

Roosevelt Roberts (6-0 overall, UFC debut)

Roberts closed out Week 7 on the Contender Series this summer with a second-round submission win over Garret Gross that pushed his record to 6-0 overall. Boasting quality size for the lightweight division and compelling backstory, Roberts is an intriguing addition to the 155-pound weight class.

He’s set to take on Darrel Horcher in his promotional debut at the TUF 28 Finale, which will serve as a great chance to get a baseline reading of where Roberts fits in the division. Like Shahbazyan, the 24-year-old newcomer is a long-term prospect who still has a lot to prove, but the raw potential is there and it will be fun to track his progress going forward.