There’s been a lot of ink spilled over declining star power in the UFC. But the promotion’s roster is still brimming with talent in every division, with several up-and-comers on the verge of breakthrough, veterans climbing to the top and champions hitting their stride.
Below are 19 UFC fighters to keep a close eye on in 2019.
19. Maycee Barber
Wild-eyed enthusiasm doesn’t quite describe Barber’s energy. There’s something deeply ruthless and violent behind that cheery exterior, and we love watching the switch flip. Keep calling out big names and slicing open your opponents, and we’ll keep watching.
18. Johnny Walker
He’s only got two fights in the octagon, one of them in Dana White’s Contender Series. But the way he demolished knockout artist Khalil Rountree in less than 2 minutes was a hint of something special. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the 26-year-old Brazilian’s abilities stacked against the division’s best. We’d like to see them answered.
17. Alexander Hernandez
Another young face in the UFC lightweight division. He’s on an eight-fight winning streak and has put away Beneil Dariush and Olivier Aubin-Mercier, no slouches at 155 pounds. He’s got the biggest fight of his life against Donald Cerrone when the UFC goes curtains up on ESPN. If he can beat “Cowboy,” put Reyes on the fast track. And try not to cringe too much at his turns of phrase.
16. Dominick Reyes
Fresh talent at light heavyweight is a precious commodity, and Reyes, 29, got our attention after wins over Jared Cannonier and Ovince Saint Preux. With a relentlessly aggressive style and ability to find his opponent’s weak spots, he’s about to face former title challenger and apparent gatekeeper Volkan Oezdemir. He might not be ready just yet for the likes of Jon Jones, but 2019 could be Reyes’ breakout year.
15. Paulo Costa
The switch from the regional Brazilian scene to the big stage in the UFC merely added minutes to Costa’s finishing time. The 27-year-old, already raising eyebrows for his impossibly muscled physique, had none of the doubts that plauged his previous two opponents, Johny Hendricks and Uriah Hall, and knocked them down with seeming ease.
Costa has arrived at a time when many top middleweights have already peaked and may be suceptible to the quick finisher. A fight against Yoel Romero was a step in the right direction. Let’s make that happen and see how the upstart holds up.
14. Alexander Volkanovski
The former rugby player had quite a 2018, capping off a three-fight winning streak with a come-from-behind win over two-time featherweight title challenger Chad Mendes. He called his shot on beating big names and followed through. Up is the only direction now as he breaks into the top five.
13. Zabit Magomedsharipov
Man, featherweight really is the place, isn’t it? The sky appears to be the limit for the 27-year-old Dagestani, who picked up his fourth octagon win with a rarely seen Suloev stretch at UFC 228. We were this close to a collision of young supernovas with Yair Rodriguez. And yes, it would have been insane, but still a better move to hold off and let the tension build as they run parallel. If Magomedsharipov can do his thing against veteran tank Jeremy Stephens in March, the anticipation meter goes up another notch.
12. Marlon Moraes
The love triangle between T.J. Dillashaw, Cody Garbrandt and Dominick Cruz has been the chief impediment to any top bantamweight of late. But with Garbrandt taking a pair of Ls and Cruz benched again, it’s time for new challengers, and ex-WSOF champ Moraes is poised to capitalize. A sensational first-round KO of Jimmie Rivera settled the score of two young standouts, and if he can beat Raphael Assuncao, you’ve got to give him the title shot.
11. Raphael Assuncao
And here’s the flip side of that bantamweight coin. Assuncao has been perpetually dogged by politics and timing in his quest for a title shot. In truth, he’s already done enough to get a crack at Dillashaw. But if he can beat back the hottest contender in his division, it’s game over – he’s got next.
10. Tatiana Suarez
The “TUF 23” winner and Olympic wrestling hopeful has a Khabib-like ground attack that looks pretty unstoppable. With a recent finish of inaugural strawweight champ Carla Esparza, there aren’t many moves left before checkmate. Suarez’s takedown game and ground-and-pound is the most exciting stylistic challenge to Rose Namajunas. And at 28, if she doesn’t get it done the first time, she’s got time to climb back and try again.
9. Renato Moicano
We might not have seen the best of Moicano, but we probably got close when he tapped perennial featherweight contender Cub Swanson inside one round. A stumble against Brian Ortega seems to have infused new life into the 29-year-old Brazilian, and there’s no better way to cement his No. 1 contender status than with a win over once-dominant champ Jose Aldo in February.
8. Joseph Benavidez
Is this the year? “Joe B” is one of the biggest winners with Demetrious Johnson’s upset at the hands of Henry Cejudo. And now, he needs Cejudo to beat Dillashaw so he can save a flyweight division standing on a straw. Benavidez, of course, already owns a win over the champ. Give him another chance to prove he’s second only to Johnson in the history of 125ers.
7. Santiago Ponzinibbio
Seven-fight win streaks aren’t easy to come by in the UFC’s most populous division. Ponzinibbio has more than proved he stands above the pack at welterweight. The current cluster(expletive) at the top of the division aside, he’s the guy behind Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington. A title eliminator should come next, and then he’s undeniable.
6. Cain Velasquez
Injuries and elevation changes have been the ex-champ’s albatross, muting a legacy as the most talented and well rounded heavyweight in UFC history. If Velasquez can get anywhere close to his previous form, champ Daniel Cormier’s retirement could provide a perfect segue to another title reign. Yes, Velasquez is 36, and time is running out. But we can dream, right?
5. Ben Askren
How much funk does the former Bellator and ONE Championship champ have left in the ‘fro? He’ll get no easy fights now that he’s in the octagon, and a year-long retirement doesn’t do him any favors with ring rust. First up is Robbie Lawler, who’s a straight killer when he’s on and an easy mark for takedowns when off. We’ll see if Askren is still without peer when it comes to imposing his will on the mat.
4. Valentina Shevchenko
It’s hard to see any major threats on the horizon for the recently crowned flyweight champ. There are some standouts, for sure, like ex-champ Nicco Montano and the resurgent Jessica Eye. It’s just that nobody puts it all together like Shevchenko does. That’s why her recent crowning feels like the first stop on a quest to be the next two-division champ. After all, she’s one of the only competitive fights for history-maker Amanda Nunes.
3. Dustin Poirier
Three champs in a row. A knockout loss was the catalyst for one of the most impressive career turnarounds in Poirier. Of course, that wasn’t the only catalyst for the Louisianan. There was one in Conor McGregor, who used him as a stepping stone on the way to two-title glory. Put those two together today, and it’s sure to be a different story.
Poirier is peaking as a technician, and he’s got the fire to walk through the toughest at 155 pounds. Provided politics don’t get in the way, he could be the next champ.
2. Israel Adesanya
A fight with Anderson Silva is as cruel as it is obvious in promotional strategy. But hey, if you’re going to certify your best up-and-comer, matching him with one of his only analogues is the way to do it. Adesanya has already broken big with the hardcores, and if he performs as expected against Silva, he could do the same with casuals. The next pay-per-view star? Just might be.
1. Tony Ferguson
Don’t let this guy wait any more. We’ve waited through McGregor and through bizarre accidents. Don’t make us wait through more managerial posturing and Mayweather nonsense. Ferguson, 11 wins running, is the rightful challenger to the lightweight title and the most well rounded threat to Khabib Nurmagomedov. We’ve lost this matchup four times. Don’t let us lose a fifth.
For more on the upcoming UFC schedule, visit the UFC Rumors section of the site.
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Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie
Read the full article here: 19 UFC fighters to watch in 2019