With little MMA going on at the moment due to the coronavirus outbreak, it’s time to get on our creative hats and ponder questions about the future of the sport. One of those questions is about who could be the next fighter to break through to the next stage of their career in the UFC. Someone always emerges from out of nowhere, but who exactly will that be?
Below, I’ll list five fighters who are currently unranked and who could be UFC champions in 2021. The only rule is the fighter cannot currently be ranked in the top-15 of the UFC rankings. And without further ado, let’s take a look at the top five:
Sean O’Malley (bantamweight, 3-0 UFC record)
If O’Malley hadn’t missed two years of his career due to a USADA violation he would absolutely be ranked right now. But because he missed so much time he is not a top-15 ranked fighter. It won’t be long until he is, though. O’Malley recently returned from his long layoff to finish Jose Quinonez at UFC 248 via first-round knockout. It was the most impressive performance of O’Malley’s career to date, and as long as he can stay in the good graces of USADA, we should see him have a lot more of these impressive showings inside the Octagon. The UFC loves O’Malley and will likely fast-track him up the rankings.
Abdul Razak Alhassan (welterweight, 4-1 UFC record)
Alhassan also missed a lot of time in the last two years, but due to a legal issue. Now that it’s cleared up and Alhassan is free to continue his career, don’t be surprised if we see him make a serious run up the welterweight rankings. Aside from a split decision loss to top-15 ranked Omari Akhmedov, Alhassan has looked fantastic in the UFC with knockout wins over Niko Price, Sabah Homasi (twice) and Charlie Ward. He’s a very exciting, dangerous knockout artist, and now that he’s free to fight again, look for him to make a title run.
Rodolfo Vieira (middleweight, 2-0 UFC record)
Vieira is one of the most talented Brazilian jiu-jitsu grapplers out there and since making the move to MMA in 2017 he hasn’t looked back. Vieira won the first five fights of his MMA career before getting signed by the UFC and defeating Oskar Piechota and Saparbek Safarov by submission. In fact, all seven of his pro wins have come by stoppage. Vieira has an incredible grappling pedigree and with his submission skills, he could win the belt.
Mackenzie Dern (women’s strawweight, 2-1 UFC record)
Another skilled grappler, Dern was one of the most highly-touted women’s MMA prospects heading into the UFC and she made good in her first two fights in the Octagon, beating Ashley Yoder and Amanda Cooper. However, a loss to Amanda Ribas kicked her out of the rankings. Although Dern didn’t look good against Ribas, we know now that Ribas is a very dangerous fighter. We also have to cut Dern some slack as she was coming off of a long layoff after giving birth. With her grappling skills, don’t be surprised to see Dern turn things around in quick order and make a run up the women’s 115lbs rankings very soon.
Fabricio Werdum (heavyweight, 9-3 UFC record)
Ok, so I admit that this one is cheating a bit, but I’m putting Werdum on this list. The former UFC heavyweight champ would be ranked in the top-15 if it wasn’t for failing a USADA drug test and being suspended the last two years, but that’s what happens when you take performance-enhancing drugs—intentionally or otherwise. Werdum is set to return at UFC 250 against fellow grappling specialist Aleksei Oleinik. It’s true that Werdum is 42 years old now. But he’s still a very dangerous, well-rounded fighter and we know that the heavyweight division has more upsets than any other weight class. It’s a long shot, but considering one punch can end any fight at heavyweight, Werdum has a chance to be a champ again.
What do you think of this list and who else would you put on it?
This article first appeared on BJPENN.com on 3/25/2020.