Of the 75 fighters making their UFC debuts in 2010, the big names were undoubtedly international stars Takanori Gomi, Jake Shields, Renzo Gracie, Mark Hunt and Gilbert Yvel. Yet most of the newcomers who truly made an impact in the Octagon were the fighters you may not have even heard of before the New Year began, but that you certainly know now. The Highly unofficial UFC awards season begins now…
10 – Claude Patrick
Winner of ten in a row (all finishes) when he stepped into the Octagon for the first time in June, Toronto’s Claude Patrick kept the streak going with a second round submission win over Ricardo Funch. And while his decision win over James Wilks four months later was far from a barnburner, the 30-year old jiu-jitsu ace is going to be a tough out for anyone at 170 pounds in 2011 and beyond.
9 – Rory MacDonald
Just 21 years old, Rory MacDonald entered the UFC with plenty of hype behind him, and he kept the buzz going with a first round submission victory against veteran Mike Guymon in January. But the kid from Kelowna, British Columbia, made believers out of the staunchest skeptics in June, when he battled tooth and nail with Carlos Condit, a legit and longtime contender who no 21-year old should be holding his own with. But MacDonald is far from your typical youngster, and though he got stopped in the third round of UFC 115’s Fight of the Night, expect big things from him in the future.
8 – Jonathan Brookins
Jonathan Brookins’ previous MMA claim to fame was a hard-fought loss to Jose Aldo back in a 2008 WEC bout. But two years later, the humble kid from Florida reinvented himself as a star in waiting, as he scored four victories on the 12th season of The Ultimate Fighter before winning the series earlier this month with a come from behind win over Michael Johnson. There are still holes in his game that need sewing up, but as he told me before the Johnson fight, “I’m embarking on a change process that is proving to take longer than I anticipated, so I think the best of me is still yet to come.”
7 – Daniel Roberts
With the way he fought in the early going of his UFC debut against John Howard in March, Daniel Roberts could have been 3-0 this year. Unfortunately, Howard ended Roberts’ first night in the Octagon via first round knockout. Undeterred, the skilled and creative grappler bounced back with a safe, but solid, three round decision win over Forrest Petz in July before showing off his goods with a 73 second Submission of the Night over Mike Guymon. Now scheduled for a Jan. 1st bout with Greg Soto in which he hopes to get 2011 off to a rousing start.
6 - Joey Beltran
Brought in on short notice to face highly-touted Rolles Gracie in February, Joey Beltran was expected to be the welcome mat for the latest unbeaten prospect from the first family of MMA. Beltran didn’t get the memo though, and he rebounded from a slow start to stop Gracie in the second round. Three months later, ‘The Mexecutioner’ traveled to Montreal to take on home country favorite Tim Hague and again he overturned the apple cart with an entertaining three round win. Beltran’s hot streak ended in September with a decision loss to Matt Mitrione, but with a Fight of the Night bonus and a growing fan base that knows just what they’re getting with Beltran – a fight – 2011 should be an exciting one for the Californian.
5 - Court McGee
A fighter whose inspirational comeback from the throes of drug addiction overshadowed his fighting ability slightly during the 11th season of The Ultimate Fighter, Utah’s McGee reminded the world just what he could do in the Octagon with his dominating second round submission win over Kris McCray. It was a victory that opened up the door to what should be an interesting run through the UFC’s middleweight division, and if his stirring third round comeback win over Ryan Jensen in October wasn’t enough to get your blood pumping, you’re watching the wrong sport.
4 – Kyle Noke
The fact that he split two fights with George Sotiropoulos and battled Hector Lombard to a draw in his pre-UFC life should tell you all you need to know about Kyle Noke, but in spite of this, the Australian veteran came in under the radar to the mainstream fans on season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter. Yet with two ultra-impressive post-TUF wins over Josh Bryant (TKO2) and Rob Kimmons (Wsub2) that have seen him look comfortable wherever the fight goes, Noke may be entering the ranks of middleweight contenders sooner than you think.
3 – Charles Oliveira
If he would have notched his third straight UFC win over Jim Miller last Saturday night in Montreal, Oliveira might have sailed up to the top of the list, but the New Jersey contender let the youngest fighter in the UFC know that a little bit more seasoning was needed before a move to the next level. But the loss far from diminishes what “Do Bronx” brought to the Octagon – energy, athleticism, skill, and a will to win that led him to submission wins against Darren Elkins and Efrain Escudero. If he’s able to take the Miller defeat as a learning experience, this 21-year old will be scary in 2011.
2 – Jake Shields
The credentials are impeccable – jiu-jitsu black belt, All-American college wrestler, pro wins over Dan Henderson, Robbie Lawler, Dave Menne, Yushin Okami, Hayato “Mach” Sakurai, Carlos Condit, Mike Pyle, Jason Miller and Paul Daley, among others. But whether Jake Shields’ success was going to translate into the Octagon was the big question heading into UFC 121 in October. Well, there was good news and bad news. The bad news was that it was far from vintage Shields in Anaheim that night as he struggled with fatigue from his weight cut. The good news is that he got a win over a tough contender in Martin Kampmann and paved the way for a title shot against Georges St-Pierre in 2011. Don’t expect to see a lackluster performance out of Shields on that night next year.
1 - Phil Davis
With his wrestling pedigree as a four-time All-American and 2008 National Champion, Penn State alum Phil Davis was expected to be good when he arrived in the UFC with a 4-0 record in 2010, but you know how expectations go. Yet “Mr. Wonderful” hasn’t disappointed anyone in doubling his pro record to 8-0, defeating Brian Stann, Alex Gustafsson, Rodney Wallace, and Tim Boetsch in Octagon appearances that got more impressive as they went along. Add in a Spartan work ethic, youth (26 years old), and an affable personality, and Davis is someone who has ‘star’ written all over him.
Honorable Mention: Rich Attonito, Edson Barboza, Dave Branch, Travis Browne, Chris Camozzi, Cyrille Diabate, Takanori Gomi, Pascal Krauss, Sean McCorkle, Nam Phan, Sean Pierson, Paul Sass, TJ Waldburger
Note – to be included on the list, the fighter must have made his UFC debut in 2010. I tried to stay away from fighters with just one UFC fight during the year, but the ones included (Shields, Brookins) have merited a spot after just one bout.