It took UFC middleweight prospect Joaquin Buckley less than 10 combined minutes to capture the attention and curiosity of the MMA world after rattling off back-to-back knockout performances in his sophomore and junior appearances in the UFC.
After compiling a 10-2 record outside the UFC and competing in notable promotions such as Bellator and the Legacy Fighting Alliance, the 26-year-old Missouri native made his Octagon debut in August when he faced notable UFC middleweight Kevin Holland on the undercard of UFC on ESPN+ 32. Despite staying competitive for rounds one and two, Buckley eventually suffered a third-round knockout at the hands of Holland after being hit with a perfectly accurate straight hand that sent Buckley to the canvas. For many UFC newcomers, confidence and spirit would have been undoubtedly shattered after suffering a brutal knockout in their first appearance with the most significant MMA promotion in the world. For Buckley, however, this would only serve as a minor bump in the road and a valuable learning experience for the next time he would step into the Octagon.
Buckley was given a second chance only three months later when he was tasked with facing undefeated UFC prospect Impa Kasanganay. Kasanganay entered the bout favored and on an eight-fight undefeated streak after a successful UFC debut of his own in August. Yet again, the odds seem stacked against Buckley. The first round primarily consisted of Buckley landing multiple flurries on Kasanganay in addition to a takedown in the latter half of the round, likely resulting in a 10-9 frame for Buckley. About two minutes into the second round, Buckley threw a powerful left kick that Kasanganay caught. Reacting swiftly, Buckley instinctively rotated his hips and threw a spinning right kick as Kasanganay continued to hold onto his leg. The kick landed flush to Kasanganay’s jaw and resulted in one of the most spectacular knockouts in UFC history as Kasanganay was out cold before his head even hit the canvas. The stunning knockout resulted in a performance bonus for Buckley and the first professional loss of Kasanganay’s career. The finish went viral and quickly became the most viewed UFC video in the company’s history, sending Buckley into a new wave of fame and stardom. The Missouri native had rebounded impressively in his sophomore UFC appearance while earning high praise from fans and UFC President Dana White. Many wondered what was next for this middleweight prospect.
In an effort to continue his rise to stardom, Buckley accepted a bout with Jordan Wright the following month on the undercard of UFC 255, which was headlined by Deiveson Figueiredo and Alex Perez. Many people were eager to see Buckley compete again so they could try to determine just how much potential this young competitor had.
Buckley and Wright started off fast by meeting in the center of the Octagon and exchanging heavy blows for the majority of round one. With about 20 seconds left in the frame, Buckley hurt Wright with a short right hook that quickly sent Wright into survival mode before he was saved by the bell. Between rounds, Wright was still visibly hurt. Some people remarked afterwards that there was enough evidence to call an end to the bout before the start of the second round. However, the action continued. Buckley, picking up where he left off in round one, came out aggressively at the sound of the bell and landed another vicious right hand on Wright before the ref had seen enough and called an end to the contest. The result was another brutal knockout victory and another performance bonus for Buckley.
After a rocky start to his UFC career, the 26-year-old is now on a two-fight winning streak and considered one of the most interesting current prospects on the UFC roster. However, his historic rise into UFC stardom poses two questions as the UFC prepares to put a wrap on a wild year: Is Buckley a UFC middleweight contender in his short time with the promotion, and what is next for the UFC’s surging prospect?
Despite completely dismantling two undefeated prospects in his two UFC victories, Buckley has a way to go before being considered a contender in the world’s best MMA organization. Kasanganay and Wright were both ranked well outside the top 40 of current active UFC middleweights despite their respective undefeated records. To reach contender status, a UFC fighter should need multiple wins against the top 25 of a division’s roster while also showing consistent improvement with every performance. Thus far, Buckley has shown he has immense power and a wild willingness to engage in all-out brawls with the opponents he faces. While that may work when facing the lower tier of competition in the UFC, it will certainly not fly against the top 15 or even the top 25 of the roster, all of whom are vastly experienced and well-rounded fighters with numerous weapons in their arsenals. Thus, Buckley’s focus should now be on further developing his MMA well-roundedness as he prepares to face tougher competition in his future UFC bouts.
Many past UFC fighters have built illustrious careers by establishing themselves as notorious knockout artists. Chuck Liddell, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, and Jimi Manuwa are but a few names that come to mind. However, if one thing is certain, it is that the level of competition in MMA has never been greater than it is now. Fighters are quickly becoming more well rounded and capable of negating one-trick fighters in the Octagon. To compete with the likes of Derek Brunson, Jared Cannonier and Robert Whittaker, Buckley will need to shift his focus to improving his overall game in an effort to become a complete fighter.
After two stunning performances from Buckley, the UFC will be eager to get the rising middleweight scheduled for an early 2021 bout. James Krause has been extremely vocal about his dislike of Buckley, which prompted a combative response from Buckley after his win over Wright at UFC 255. However, Krause is generally a welterweight fighter, and the UFC would likely not book these two rivals due to the significant size variance. Instead, current middleweights Dricus du Plessis, Andre Muniz and Tom Breese all seem like favorable candidates. These men represent a step up in competition as Buckley looks to continue his climb in the rankings. The most compelling would be Breese, a seven-fight UFC veteran who has finished four of those wins via knockout. Breese, who resides just outside of the division’s top 25, is a suitable jump in tier for the rising star in his fourth UFC appearance.
In the past, the UFC has accelerated the careers of fighters who dazzled fans early in their careers before suffering numerous losses as they faced stiffer competition. Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt are prime examples of aspiring prospects who were elevated to contender status by the UFC well before they should have been, which resulted in disappointing endings with the promotion. Will Buckley be the latest surging prospect to go down this road? Maybe, or maybe not. If there is one thing that is for certain, it is that Buckley is a marketable fighter who has the potential to become a star if he continues to improve and mature as a fighter.
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