Alright, this is the part of the column where I go on a long diatribe explaining how the UFC is currently devoid of major stars, and why this is a problem for all of 2017. Well, I just do not have the energy to repeat the same tired take.
Unfortunately, with Jon Jones being presumably gone for the foreseeable future, the UFC is still searching for the next crop of regularly available starts. With Mayweather-McGregor firmly in the rear-view mirror the UFC’s mid season break is over, and the promotion must focus on their future.
In the spirit of looking to the future, here is a look at one fighter from every UFC division that could be a breakout star in the very near future. Instead of simply picking someone who the UFC could easily market, these projections will have certain specific parameters. The prospect must be ranked in the official UFC rankings, the fighter must not have been a UFC champion, nor have ever competed for a UFC championship. Also, this list will not necessarily be the best fighter in each division, but the fighter that the UFC would be willing to give a promotional push.
(Note: The women’s featherweight division will not be included here. Despite crowning a champion in February. The UFC does not provide rankings for the division, nor have they booked a non-title fight. Additionally, the featherweight division does not need a breakout star, they have one in their champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino.)
Men’s Flyweight Division
Current Champion: Demetrious Johnson
Potential Breakout Star: Sergio Pettis
Current UFC Divisional Ranking: 4
Path to a title fight: Sergio Pettis has a relatively clear path to face Demetrious Johnson. If Johnson is successful at defending his title against Ray Borg at UFC 215, Pettis becomes the next logical contender. Pettis might not be the second-best flyweight in the world, but he is a fresh opponent for Johnson. If Johnson takes on a contender from another division, Pettis might have to wait a little longer.
Star potential: Pettis has multiple reasons to be optimistic about his future. For one, his name has legitimate value. Being the younger brother of the popular former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, makes him appealing to UFC fans. Also, Pettis has a very exciting fighting style. While Pettis needs to improve his ground game, his Tae Kwon Do base lends itself to highlight reel kicks, and unique angles. Not to mention being only 24 is a serious boon for Pettis.
Men’s Bantamweight Division
Current Champion: Cody Garbrandt
Potential Breakout Star: Aljamain Sterling
Current UFC Divisional Ranking: 7
Path to a title fight: Aljamin Sterling might have to wait a while before getting in the bantamweight title picture. Sterling would likely have to wait until former champions Dominick Cruz and T.J. Dillashaw get a legitimate look at the title. In the meantime, Sterling must pile up wins against the top tier of the division. Sterling already has losses to Bryan Caraway and Raphael Assuncao; therefore, he must find a path where he can leapfrog fighters that he has struggled with in the past.
Star potential: Sterling is not the most exciting fighter, nor is he the most skilled, but he does have several other marketable qualities. Sterling embraces his role as a public figure quite well. His social media game is always strong, and his dating exploits tend to garner tabloid attention. Additionally, Sterling is very well-spoken. It also does not hurt that Sterling is coached by Dana White confidant Matt Serra.
Mens’ Featherweight Division
Current Champion: Max Holloway
Potential Breakout Star: Yair Rodriguez
Current UFC Divisional Ranking: 7
Path to a title fight: While Yair Rodriguez suffered a significant setback by losing to Frankie Edgar at UFC 211, he is far from a lost cause. If anything, the hiccup to Edgar may serve to benefit Rodriguez. As it stands, the likes of Edgar and Cub Swanson are more deserving of an immediate title opportunity. The time Rodriquez spends away from title contention could be used to refine his game while picking off the top 10 of the division.
Star potential: Despite his coronation being put off, Rodriguez remains a possible star for the UFC. As a native Mexican, Rodriguez might be the UFC’s most viable candidate to penetrate the Mexican market. At only 24 years of age, Rodriquez could have a decade of marketability left in him. Aside from demographics, Rodriquez has a very exciting and dangerous fighting style.
Men’s Lightweight Division
Current Champion: Conor McGregor
Potential Breakout Star: Justin Gaethje
Current UFC Divisional Ranking: 5
Path to a title fight: It is difficult to project how anyone in the UFC could land a fight with Conor McGregor. However, Gaethje landing a title fight with the future interim champion is highly likely. If Gaethje is successful in his eventual bout with Eddie Alvarez, Gaethje could easily be installed as the top contender no matter who that champion happens to be.
Star potential: If this list ranked every potential breakout star, Gaethje would be atop the mountain. Ironically, Gaethje’s greatest asset, could also undermine his star potential. Gaethje’s all-out reckless fighting style could ultimately lead to his undoing. Even Gaethje is self-aware that at some point he will be on the receiving end of a brutal knockout. A pair of violent losses could dim the potential that seems to be inevitable. In the meantime, the UFC will not stand in the way of a massive Gaethje push.
Men’s Welterweight Division
Current Champion: Tyron Woodley
Potential Breakout Star: Neil Magny
Current UFC Divisional Ranking: 6
Path to a title fight: Thanks to Tyron Woodley’s active schedule over the past year, Magny may find himself in the title scene very soon. If Magny disposes of Rafael Dos Anjos at UFC 215, he realistically only needs one more piece to fall into place. At UFC 217, Stephen Thompson will take on Jorge Masvidal. Both fighters are clearly above Magny, but a Thompson victory at UFC 217 doesn’t guarantee a third title shot. If this scenario plays out, Magny will be the last man standing.
Star potential: Magny is not the most exciting fighter, but he is in a division with a slew of regular “Fight of The Night” candidates. If Magny can accent to the upper echelon of the division, he could very well pick off many of these fighters on the downswing of their respective careers. Of course, Magny does run the risk of playing the villain if he disposes of these popular fighters.
Men’s Middleweight Division
Okay timeout! Middleweight is also exempt from this list. Not because the division is not exciting, but on the contrary. The middleweight division is a deep division with a plethora of exiting fighters. However, for the sake of this list, current interim champion Robert Whittaker is the only viable contender that checks every box. If Whittaker finds himself opposite Georges St-Pierre in a title unification bout his stock will rise considerably.
Men’s Light Heavyweight Division
Current Champion: Jon Jones (maybe)
Potential Breakout Star: Volkan Oezdemir
Current UFC Divisional Ranking: 3
Path to a title fight: Predicting the future of the light heavyweight division is difficult until the status of the title is resolved. If Jones is presumably stripped of the title, the next logical title fight would be between Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson. Oezdemir would likely face the winner of Cormier-Gustafsson. If for any reason either of those fighters are not in a future title fight, the UFC could easily slide Oezdemir into that spot.
Star potential: Oezdemir has something that cannot be taught: heavy hands. Oezdemir may not be an ideal UFC star, but he could be a breath of fresh air in a stagnant division. The UFC’s “glamour division” has fallen on hard times thanks to Jones’s inability to remain an active fighter. Additionally, despite his many admirable attributes, Daniel Cormier has failed to captivate the UFC audience. Oezdemir could be the new life that that the division desperately needs.
Men’s Heavyweight Division
Current Champion: Stipe Miocic
Potential Breakout Star: Francis Ngannou
Current UFC Divisional Ranking: 4
Path to a title fight: If champion Stipe Miocic gets his contract issues with the UFC resolved, Ngannou would be a natural opponent. The only other contender that could possibly make more sense than Ngannou would be former champion Cain Velasquez. While Velasquez is certainly deserving of a title opportunity, it remains unclear if he can become healthy enough to have a title fight booked.
Star potential: If Derrick Lewis is not long for the UFC, Ngannou might be the only hope for a breakout heavyweight star. Since Brock Lesnar stepped away from the UFC in 2012, the heavyweight division has failed to produce a viable box office attraction. At 31, Ngannou is relatively young compared to his heavyweight counterparts. Ngannou is also the prototypical heavyweight that finishes fights before they go the dreaded distance.
Women’s Strawweight Division
Current Champion: Joanna Jędrzejczyk
Potential Breakout Star: Cynthia Calvillo
Current UFC Divisional Ranking: 8
Path to a title fight: Cynthia Calvillo does not have an overly impressive resume, but she might be two cycles away from title contention. Champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk has leveled off the division and may soon be out of top level competition. A Calvillo win over a top five contender could land her right in Jędrzejczyk’s crosshairs.
Star potential: Calvillo is still a relatively unknown on the MMA landscape. Despite being 30, she has limited experience in MMA. With that said, Calvillo is a submission artist that the UFC seems to have a vested interest in. If she gains a higher profile, Calvillo could position herself as the grappling counterpart to Jędrzejczyk’s reputation as a gifted striker.
Women’s Bantamweight Division
Current Champion: Amanda Nunes
Potential Breakout Star: Julianna Peña
Current UFC Divisional Ranking: 3
Path to a title fight: If Julianna Peña hopes to find herself in a title fight anytime soon, she is likely rooting for Amanda Nunes to retain her title against Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 215. Having already lost to Shevchenko in a title eliminator fight, Peña would need some luck to earn a rematch. She may also need to establish herself as a clear-cut contender over Raquel Pennington.
Star potential: Peña is not exactly a fan-favorite but she can get a UFC audience riled up. Peña will likely never be a marquee UFC name, but she can be a star maker for the company. Peña is never at a loss for words. Her comments often elicit an eye roll, but that is the reason she could be valuable in the future. Currently the bantamweight division is slightly stale. However, a fresh contender could build her name from engaging with Peña.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: MEDIA & BUSINESS: Streaming customers are the real losers in Mayweather-McGregor super fight