In 2015, the UFC saw the changing of titleholders in seven of its divisions, a feat never before seen in the history of the promotion. With a burgeoning roster and a talent pool that is ever increasing, the challengers are rising thick and fast, creating headaches for champions who are intent on keeping UFC gold strapped tightly around their waist. While there is no doubt about the number of prospective opponents, Combat Press has identified five fighters who may very well be challenging for a title by the close of 2016.
Thomas Almeida is at the top of most lists as a potential title contender. The bantamweight division is becoming hotly contested with fast, explosive and exciting fighters that are making this, finally, a division that is of interest to fans. This weekend, T.J. Dillashaw will defend his belt against veteran and former champion Dominick Cruz. While many have noted that Urijah Faber will be next in line to fight the winner, there is very little doubt that Almeida’s name will be thrown into the mix over the course of the year.
Almeida currently has a 21-0 professional record and is one of deadliest strikers in the UFC. At only 24 years of age, he brings to the table aggressive Muay Thai and a spectacular finishing ability. He has earned “Performance of the Night” bonuses in his last three fights. In his one and only decision victory against Tim Gorman, he took home “Fight of the Night” honors, proving that even his fights that go the distance are worth watching
Almeida is in a unique position. He is ranked seventh in the division, but the fighters above him in the pecking order don’t appear to be any threat for a title shot. Raphael Assuncao has been on the sidelines since 2014 with injuries, Aljamain Sterling’s contract is up and he is currently testing the market outside of the UFC, and Michael McDonald had his first fight earlier this month in over two years. Yes, it was an impressive submission victory, but McDonald will have some work to do to before getting back into contendership after such a long layoff. This leaves the door wide open for Almeida to potentially take one more fight while Faber gets his shot and then he’ll be ready to slip right in there for title contention before the year is out.
Tony Ferguson is a veteran of mixed martial arts. He found his way into the UFC after winning The Ultimate Fighter 13 with a beautiful TKO finish of Ramsey Nijem in the first round. Ferguson has since gone on to win nine more times since 2011. His only loss in this span came to Michael Johnson in 2012. His last three fights picked up “Performance of the Night” bonuses.
Ferguson is one of the most underrated lightweight fighters in the UFC despite having beaten the likes of Danny Castillo, Mike Rio, Abel Trujillo and, most recently, Edson Barboza. He is one of the more well-rounded fighters in the division, with exceptional striking and knockout power in which he uses his long reach to his advantage. Ferguson is also a really good wrestler and has no issues with the fight going to the mat. He also has ultra-impressive cardio and a strong chin, which makes him a hard fight for anyone in the top 10.
In terms of prospects, there are plenty in the lightweight division. There’s Anthony Pettis, who is fighting this weekend against Eddie Alvarez. There’s also Khabib Nurmagomedov, who has been very injury prone over the years and is a flight risk for any fight he is matched up in (but he does hold a win over current champ Rafael dos Anjos). There’s Donald Cerrone, who was recently defeated in devastating fashion in his first title fight. The only risk to Ferguson’s run at the title at this point, however, is if Nurmagomedov can stay injury-free and string together some impressive wins. If Alvarez manages to secure a win over Pettis in Boston, then he too may be of interest. Regardless, there is little doubt that Ferguson is a top contender in the division and will have his name mentioned as a challenger to the title in 2016.
Rose Namajunas capped off 2015 with a spectacular victory over the highly touted Paige VanZant. The 23-year-old was considered one of the top talents in the strawweight division after she steamrolled her competitors in The Ultimate Fighter 22, including submission victories over Joanne Calderwood, Randa Markos and Alex Chambers before being defeated by Carla Esparza in the finale. Despite only fighting twice last year, Namajunas finished both her opponents via submission and earned a “Performance of the Night” bonus in her last fight.
Namajunas is obviously a submission specialist, but she is a rangy striker too who uses her considerable reach to touch up her opponents, whether that be with kicks or a strong jab. She’s a very unorthodox fighter, utilizing creative footwork that allows her to bounce in and out of range and gives her the opportunity to land a flurry of strikes before removing herself from risk. She also showed, during her fight against VanZant, that she has improved the mental side of her game, not looking to push for the finish but letting it come when the time is right. Fight IQ is always important as a fighter moves their way toward title fights, and in the Colorado-based fighter’s case, she has improved leaps and bounds, showing a calm and mature demeanor in recent fights.
Ideally, Namajunas, before challenging for another title, would get a rematch against Tecia Torres, who defeated her in 2012 when they both fought for Invicta. A win against Torres would surely cement her as the top contender in the division behind Claudia Gadelha, who is likely to get the next shot at Joanna Jędrzejczyk. Many might argue that she’s already had her opportunity at the belt and should go to the back of the line, but it’s safe to say that given her fan base, marketability and the fact that she is clearly a different fighter, those reasons may now be unfounded.
When Max Holloway made his debut for the UFC in 2012, he was the youngest fighter signed to the promotion. Since that day, he is gone on to amass 11 victories with two “Performance of the Night” bonuses and a “Knockout of the Night” against Will Chope. The “Blessed” one is also the last person to take Conor McGregor the distance, losing via unanimous decision, proving he can cut it against the best in the division.
Holloway is a dangerous striker who doesn’t mind mixing in some flashy technique with the base fundamentals. He can fight in both stances and you can see him transition between southpaw and orthodox throughout his fights, but his greatest gift as a striker is his understanding and control of range and being able to throw impressive, effective combinations. Holloway has added spinning back kicks and flying knees to his arsenal over time. His weakness lies in his ground game, which has yet to see much evolution in his career. He does boast good takedown defense that helps alleviate the issue, but should his opponent get him to the mat, he tends to struggle.
Holloway is without a doubt a title contender in 2016. McGregor is obviously testing the waters as a dual weight class champion by fighting dos Anjos in the earlier part of the year, and Frankie Edgar is poised to fight McGregor as seemingly the No. 1 contender at featherweight. However, looking past these fights, Holloway seems destined to fight for a title in the very near future.
Last, but not least, there’s Valentina Shevchenko. The bantamweight burst onto the UFC scene when she dismantled veteran Sarah Kaufman earlier this month to get the decision victory on just 10 days’ notice. While many expected this to be a stand-up brawl between two great strikers, Shevchenko used the opportunity to display her grappling skills by dominating Kaufman on the mat for the majority of the fight.
Shevchenko is a southpaw with over 70 professional Muay Thai fights and has only one blemish, a loss coming against Liz Carmouche very early on in her career, on her 12-fight professional MMA record. Shevchenko comes from exceptional fighting stock. Her sister is a multiple-time kickboxing and Muay Thai champion and her mother is a third-degree black belt in taekwondo. It’s no surprise that Shevchenko is reaching new heights in her career after dedicating her life to fighting. She is great at controlling range and has excellent counter striking. She has speed, precision and tremendous combinations. Throw in impeccable striking defense and an above-average ground game and you have a serious fighter on your hands.
It’s no secret that the next title fight is between Holly Holm and Miesha Tate, and that Ronda Rousey may be back down the line (when that is, who knows). If Shevchenko can get at least one more fight under her belt, with an impressive win, she could find herself in the same position as Holm, fighting for a title after only two outings in the UFC.