Warriors on the Rise: 2010’s Breakout Fighters

Every year, a handful of MMA fighters ascend from obscurity to contendership, from prospect status to championship gold — from nothing to something. In honor of The Warrior’s Way, which hits theaters next Friday, we’d like to salute MMA’s breakout class of 2010, whose careers exploded this year, and who are all poised for even larger accomplishments in 2011.


Phil Davis

Notable 2010 victories: Brian Stann (unanimous decision, UFC 109), Alexander Gustafsson (submission R1, UFC 112), Tim Boetsch (submission R2, UFC 123)

Between his pink shorts, action-figure physique, and aggressive grappling, Mr. Wonderful has become an unmistakable figure in the UFC’s light-heavyweight division. A year ago, he was a relatively unknown 4-0 prospect trying to re-invent himself as a cage-fighter after a brilliant collegiate wrestling career at Penn State, which culminated in a 2008 NCAA title. Davis made his Octagon debut this February, and has since sent four straight opponents back to the drawing board, beginning with former WEC champ Brian Stann, and ending with a Submission of the Night performance against Tim Boetsch. Having proven himself against gritty veterans and promising rookies, we’re about to find out if Davis can keep his dominant run going against the next level of UFC contenders.


Notable 2010 victories: Kris McCray (submission R2, TUF 11 Finale), Ryan Jensen (submission R3, UFC 121)

Court McGee’s life is an object lesson in never, ever giving up, no matter how dire the circumstances. A former drug-addict who was declared clinically dead after an overdose in 2005, McGee got clean and devoted his life to MMA. His stint on The Ultimate Fighter 11 this year was almost cut short after he lost a bum decision to Nick Ring, but McGee re-entered the competition as an injury replacement, and went on to choke out James Hammortree, Brad Tavares, and Kris McCray to earn the season’s middleweight trophy. In his first post-TUF test at UFC 121, he survived getting bombed out on by Ryan Jensen in the first round, and turned the momentum around when Jensen began to fade in round two. In the end, Jensen was tapping like the rest of them, and Court McGee had secured his reputation as one of toughest (and most likable) bastards TUF has ever produced.

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Notable 2010 victories: Rosi Sexton (KO R1, Bellator 23), Megumi Fujii (split decision, Bellator 34)
No, she’s not just on this list because of her “Warrior Princess” nickname. Frausto entered the MMA history books last month by putting an abrupt end to Megumi Fujii’s unprecedented 22-fight win streak. But that victory was only the last in a breakneck 6-1 stretch this year, highlighted by a Bellator run that saw Frausto score a thunderous knockout against Rosi Sexton in her promotional debut, then out-hustle three consecutive opponents in Bellator’s first 115-pound women’s bracket, despite having never competed at that weight class. (Her sole loss this year was to Miesha Tate in a 135-pound match for Strikeforce.) Zoila only began competing professionally in February 2009, and she’s already recognized as one of the world’s greatest female fighters. We can’t wait to see what she can accomplish when she finally hits her prime.


Notable 2010 victories: Darren Elkins (submission R1, UFC Live: Jones vs. Matyushenko), (submission R3, UFC Fight Night 22)

Oliveira may represent the next wave of young MMA fighters, but he started his career the old-school way — as part of an eight-man tournament in Brazil, which he ran through in vicious fashion. After nine more victories in regional promotions, “do Bronx” was invited to the UFC, where he debuted with an ultra-slick 41-second armbar of Darren Elkins. Just six-and-a-half weeks later, Oliveira was back in action, replacing an injured Matt Wiman against TUF 8 winner Efrain Escudero. It was one of those “nothing to lose, everything to gain” moments, and Oliveira rose to the occasion, aggressively attacking with his jiu-jitsu — even when it seemed that Escudero didn’t want to do much besides clinch against the fence — until he finally ended the fight with a flying rear-naked choke. Both of Oliveira’s Octagon appearances have netted him Submission of the Night bonuses. We’re not sure what’s scarier, his grappling prowess or the fact that he’s barely out of his teens. Oliveira will attempt to continue his dramatic rise against Jim Miller next month at UFC 124.

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Notable 2010 victories: Danny Castillo (KO R1, WEC 47), Shane Roller (submission R3, WEC 50)

From the “lowest low” of a traumatic adolescence to the brink of stardom — that’s the life of Anthony “Showtime” Pettis. Coming off a split-decision loss to Bart Palaszewski last December, the WEC lightweight contender surged back with three consecutive stoppage victories, securing a #1 contender spot with his triangle choke of Shane Roller at WEC 50. Pettis’s profile grew the following month as he was featured on the MTV documentary series World of Jenks. Next month, Pettis will challenge Ben Henderson for the WEC lightweight title; if he wins, he’ll get a crack at the winner of the Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard title scrap on New Year’s Day. In other words, Pettis is two fights away from potentially becoming the UFC lightweight champion of the world.


Notable 2010 victories: Dan Hornbuckle (unanimous decision, Bellator 22), Lyman Good (unanimous decision, Bellator 33)

Coming from a legendary wrestling career at the University of Missouri, where he picked up two consecutive national titles, “Funky” Ben Askren already had a lot of hype behind him when he began competing in MMA last year. After finishing his first three opponents before the two-minute mark of the first round, Askren signed up for Bellator’s 2010 welterweight tournament, defeating Ryan Thomas twice (long story) and then winning a unanimous decision over Dan Hornbuckle in the finals. With an oversized check in hand, Askren went after the title in October, using his takedowns and top control to fluster Lyman Good for five rounds, winning another unanimous decision and a shiny new waist-accessory. Though Funky Ben has caught a lot of flack from MMA fans for his methodical wrestling style, he’s sure to become more well-rounded and confident as his career progresses — until then, he’s the last guy you want on top of you.

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Notable 2010 victories: Brian Bowles (doctor’s stoppage TKO R2, WEC 47), Joseph Benavidez (split decision, WEC 50)

“Weird angles” doesn’t begin to describe the way Dominick Cruz comes at you. With footwork that follows a chaos theory only he can understand, the WEC bantamweight champ dodges unpredictably from point to point, leaping in to deliver damage and exiting just as quickly, leaving his opponents to swing at shadows. Cruz entered 2010 with a 4-0 record at bantamweight, and an impending title shot against Brian Bowles, who stunned WEC fans last year by knocking out the seemingly unbeatable Miguel Torres. Bowles was a heavy favorite in the fight, and Cruz utterly clowned him, pot-shotting him at will until Bowles quit on the stool with a broken hand after two rounds. His first title defense was a rematch with Joseph Benavidez, who he’d beaten by decision the year before. Cruz outwrestled and outlanded Benavidez once again, retaining the belt by split decision. Cruz’s next challenger will be Scott Jorgensen at the WEC’s final event next month; the winner will become the UFC’s first-ever 135-pound champion.


Notable 2010 victories: Joe Stevenson (unanimous decision, UFC 110), Joe Lauzon (submission R2, UFC 123)

Thanks to his stint on TUF 6 and impressive submission victories over guys like George Roop and Jason Dent, we’ve known who George Sotiropoulos was for quite some time. But 2010 was the year that Sotiropoulos proved he was one of the best 155-pound talents in the world. Kicking things off with a thrilling war against Joe Stevenson that earned him a decision victory and a Fight of the Night bonus, the Aussie vet went on to outpoint Kurt Pellegrino, then twist perennial contender Joe Lauzon into a knot at UFC 123 — which pocketed him another FotN award. Sotiropoulos returns to his homeland at UFC 127 in February, where he’ll face German rising star Dennis Siver; another dominant performance could put him dangerously close to a lightweight title shot.


Think any other rising stars deserve mention for their accomplishments this year? Let us know in the comments section…