Every sports association prides itself on its premier athletes, with names like Manning, Crosby, Lebron, and Jeter. The UFC is no different boasting names such as Shogun, Silva, St. Pierre, and Lesnar just to name a few. Possessing and building around such marketable talents as the UFC has is important, but what is just as important to the organization’s success is the creation of new stars. Developing new stars in the world of Mixed Martial Arts can be a difficult task, as months and even years of success can be derailed quickly by a flash knockout or even a decisive decision defeat. While some fighters finish their careers looking back at all that they have accomplished others simply look back at what could have been. Pulled from ranks of UFC warriors, these six fighters are now facing their own career turning points, will they rise to the occasion or simply fade back into the masses. Let’s take a look and see what they’ve accomplished so far and could be just around the corner should they continue their success.
John “The Hitman” Hathaway (14-0-0)
Notable UFC wins: Diego Sanchez, Paul Taylor & Rick Story
Next Fight: UFC 120 vs. Mike Pyle
First on the list is welterweight young gun John Hathaway, fresh off the biggest win of his career, a dominant unanimous decision victory over Diego Sanchez at UFC 114. Hathaway stumbled Sanchez with a knee to the head early in the fight and never looked back. His impressive performance, coupled with a perfect 14-0 record, certainly got people talking about where this kid is headed. Sanchez was certainly a step up for “The Hitman”, but there are many rungs still to climb on the welterweight ladder. Of the six fighters on this list, Hathaway is probably the furthest away from a title shot. That being said, with a run consisting of 3-4 wins over progressively bigger names, it would be hard to keep John Hathaway’s name out of the title conversation. His next matchup at UFC 120 against Mike Pyle is a dangerous one. Pyle is a veteran of the fight game, but his name does not carry the notoriety of the type of fighters Hathaway should be focussing on. A win is a win, but this fight is more of a step sideways in competition, where a defeat will certainly slow down Hathaway’s rise. Hathaway’s original 120 opponent, Dong Hyun Kim (next on this list), would have provided the step up in competition needed at this stage of a young career. If “The Hitman” earns a win at UFC 120, a matchup with a healthy Kim could be on the horizon, if not Kim then maybe another of one division’s hungry lions. Either way John Hathaway is on the verge of breaking into the top ranks of UFC welterweights or conversely falling out of them, the next months will certainly be interesting.
Dong Hyun “Stun Gun” Kim (13-0-1)
Notable UFC wins: Amir Sadollah & Matt Brown
Next Fight: unknown
Next on the list is the aforementioned Dong Hyun Kim, a second welterweight, at a similar place in his career. Where he differs from Hathaway is that he has had multiple opportunities to launch himself into contention but a string of bad luck has denied him those matchups. So far injuries has forced Kim out of fights with Dan Hardy, Chris Lytle and now Hathaway. At UFC 105 Dan Hardy defeated Kim’s replacement, Mike Swick, and went on to fight for the title. A victory for Kim in that fight probably would not have given him a title shot, but it would have certainly moved him closer. Looking now at the fights that he has fought Kim has looked very good. With six knockouts, one submission, and five of his six decisions being unanimous, to say the least Kim gets the job done when the cage door closes. Most recently against Ultimate Fighter winner Amir Sadollah, Kim dominated his opponent from start to finish earning a 30-27 score on the judges’ cards. Certainly one thing that will work in Kim’s favour is the UFC’s desire to expand into Asian markets. Along with former sparring partner Yushin Okami, Kim’s popularity in these new markets will surely put him front and centre when the inevitable happens. Kim was the first Korean fighter to pick up a win inside the Octagon, and he certainly would like to be the first to capture a title. In order for Kim to accomplish this he will need to do two things; stay healthy enough to fight more than twice a year which he hasn’t done since 2007 and when he does fight, take on the big names of the division. It’s reasonable to suggest 2-3 wins over names like Alves, Swick, and Kampman would certainly justify a title shot. Based on what Kim has done so far, it is not hard to believe that he is capable of competing with the upper echelon of welterweights. In order to prove that he does belong, Kim will need to enter the Octagon to face the best the division has to offer, and then take that title for himself.
Evan Dunham (11-0-0)
Notable UFC wins: Tyson Griffin, Efrain Escudero & Marcus Aurelio
Next Fight: UFC 119 vs. Sean Sherk
Sliding down the weigh scales to the lightweight division, we find the next fighter on the list; Evan Dunham. Dunham has been methodically climbing the ranks of the UFC Lightweight division since making his debut in early 2009. Using his impressive Jiu-Jitsu skills, Dunham has frustrated his opponents on route to a 4-0 start in the UFC. Looking at the four victories that Dunham has complied inside the Octagon, it could be suggested that the young southpaw has followed a perfectly designed layout for securing a title shot. Dunham’s debut, an undercard matchup where he efficiently disposed of fellow UFC newcomer Per Eklund got things off to a good start. A few months later, a step up in competition and a second undercard victory this time over UFC and Pride veteran Marcus Aurelio. These two victories pushed him into the co-main event at UFC Fight Night 20, where after a rough first round he submitted Ultimate Fighter winner Efrain Escudero. It was this fight that really put the young kid on the map, when Escudero tapped for his first career defeat people began to take notice of what Dunham was capable of. His next contest would be against Tyson Griffin. A veteran of 11 UFC fights, Griffin had been with the company for over four years, squared off with some of the big names in the lightweight ranks, and just like Evan was looking to move one step closer to a title shot. The fight was aired on Spike TV as part of the live preliminary fights and Dunham was again victorious with a split decision win, smothering and outworking Griffin for the better part of three rounds. These four fights have left the 28 year old on the threshold of the biggest fight of this career: fighting on the main card of UFC 119 versus former Lightweight Champion Sean Sherk. Dunham will enter the fight as the odds on favourite by the betting standards, but this will certainly be another step up in competition. A win in this fight could potentially put Dunham in a number one contenders matchup next time he enters the Octagon. Evan Dunham might only be two wins away from a title shot, but simultaneously he could also be two defeats away from returning to the undercard and Fight Night Events. The next minutes and seconds spent inside the Octagon could be the most defining moments of Evan Dunham’s young career.
Jon “Bones” Jones (11-1-0)
Notable UFC wins: Vladimir Matyushenko, Brandon Vera & Stephan Bonnar
Next Fight: unknown
Moving now to a fighter that is even closer to the brink of superstardom, Jon Jones has certainly put himself at the forefront of young talent ready to take that next step. “Bones” has dismantled everyone the UFC has put in front him (excluding the hiccup that was the Matt Hamill DQ) and appears to be getting better every time he fights. Currently the ultra-talented 23 year old sits without an opponent following his main event win at UFC on Versus 2. Jones says that he would like to face a top-three opponent next, but the big question is who is available? The Champ, Shogun, is on the shelf and Rashad Evans the #1 contender would be risking his shot for the title by signing on to fight Jones. Former Champions Lyoto Machida and Rampage Jackson are scheduled to meet one and other at UFC 123 (It would be pertinent for Jones to be ready to step in should there be an injury). Jones could settle for a fight with another former champion Forrest Griffin. A dominant win over Griffin could put Jones inline for a title fight if the Champ wasn’t preoccupied until mid 2011 or later. Realistically, Jones could find himself faced with the winner of Machida/Rampage, whether he fights Griffin or not, as the UFC will not want this young super star to sit idle for too long. It will take a cataclysmic event, either the financial ruin of the UFC or a series of unexpected defeats for Jones not to get a shot at the title. He is a devastatingly exciting fighter that pushes the action in the cage and puts peoples’ butts in the seats. Further, he has only one fight left on his current contract and UFC management will do whatever it takes to keep this top Light heavyweight prospect away from their competition. Whatever it takes will obviously include money, but will also more than likely include the framework of desired fights that will get him a title shot. Either way, the potential for matchups between Jones and Griffin, Machida, Rampage, Evans, and Shogun will create quite a buzz around the UFC Lightweight division over the next year or more.
Junior “Cigano” Dos Santos (12-1-0)
Notable UFC wins: Roy Nelson, Gabriel Gonzaga, Mirko Cro Cop & Fabricio Werdum
Next Fight: vs. winner of Lesnar/Velasquez
Moving up to the heavyweights, Junior Dos Santos is sitting on the precipice with his eyes firmly fixed on the top of the mountain. Who will be waiting for “Cigano” when he gets there is yet to be determine, it will either be current Heavyweight King Brock Lesnar or his next challenger Cain Velasquez. Either way, Dos Santos’ latest win over Roy Nelson secured him the next shot at the champ. Dos Santos has gone out and demonstrated his lethal striking ability every time he has stepped into the cage, but his last bout with Roy Nelson did create a little uncertainty around the big Brazilian. Nelson took all that Junior could throw at him and was still standing in front of Dos Santos when the final bell rang. There is no doubt that Nelson was battered and bruised at the end of the fight, but it seems as though some of Dos Santos’ superhuman mystique has faded away. The Black House member tired and slowed as the fight progressed, something not seen before as only 1 of his 12 previous bouts had escaped the first round. Regardless of this, he got the win and has put himself next in line. If Junior is going to continue his dominance in the UFC he will need to diversify his attack, potentially implementing the skills he learned while securing his brown belt under the Noguerias. It can only be to a fighter’s advantage for his opponent not to know what his game plan is entering a fight, but to this point Dos Santos has shown himself to be one-dimensional, effective, but still one-dimensional. In the end, one fight should not take away from what “Cigano” has accomplished in his career. His skills and success has put him on the verge of entering the greatest proving ground a fighter can be tested in, five rounds of a Championship bout, where he will either become a have or a have not.
Cain Velasquez (8-0-0)
Notable UFC wins: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Ben Rothwell & Cheick Kongo
Next Fight: UFC 121 vs. Brock Lesnar
Of all six fighters Cain Velasquez is officially there, as close as a fighter can be without winning the title. He is the number one contender for the belt and will fight for that title at UFC 121 against Brock Lesnar. Velasquez has left a path of destruction in his wake, using a combination of vicious striking, devastating ground and pound, and an un-relenting wresting attack. Most recently knocking out Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in devastating fashion, Velasquez has gone out and taken control of his future. He has been where every other fighter on this list has been or is going; fighting on undercards, mid-carding on Fight Nights, battling with other contenders, and taking out former champions to earn his shot. Each one of these stages has lead to the next, and now it is time to turn potential into championship gold. If Cain is unable to capture the title at UFC 121 his quest will turn to re-establishing himself as a contender. The process of rebounding after a title fight defeat can be a tough one, even more difficult than a fighter’s original push to the title (See the career of Frank Trigg; 10-1 prior to his first UFC title shot, 9-7 overall and 2-5 in the UFC post title fight) . Either way the next step in the impressive career of Cain Velasquez will play out at UFC 121. With a win, Velasquez will be starring at another young hungry challenger in the form of Junior Dos Santos looking complete his trek to the top of the title mountain.
Mixed Martial Arts in its most basic form is two competitors testing their skills against each other with the intent of being crowned the victor. Taking nothing away from the support team that helps prepare the athlete for their next matchup, MMA is decided by the individual. To this point in their careers, these six individuals have gone out and made names for themselves, taken what they desired, and created a future that is full of possibility. Where they will go from this point is anyone’s guess, but each sits at a vital crossroad in their career. If they succeed in taking that next step they will be forever remember in the world of MMA, if they falter they will simply become a footnote on another fighter’s rise to prominence.