Justin Gaethje makes his eagerly anticipated promotion bow, next week against Michael Johnson.
‘The Highlight’ will be hoping to live up to his moniker when he makes his UFC debut against Michael Johnson. Long touted as one of the best prospects outside the UFC, Gaethje now gets his chance to pit his talents against the best in the world, in one of the deepest divisions.
Gaethje’s recent arrival in the UFC, along with Marlon Moraes’, was another example of the UFC hoovering up the top competition from smaller, rival promotions like World Series of Fighting, Rizin, One Championship, Bellator and KSW. Both men’s defections left me wondering: Who are the best fighters, currently not within the UFC’s ranks? Here’s the breakdown.
Honourable mentions: Douglas Lima, Kyoji Horiguchi, Andrey Koreshkov, Vitaly Minakov, Patricio Freire, Michael Chandler.
5. Angela Lee (8-0) atomweight, ONE FC
Angela Lee was born to fight. Both of her parents were well decorated martial artists and her brother, Christian is also a prospect in One FC. Lee was introduced to martial arts at just three-years-old and is a two-time world Pankration champion. Despite her tender years, The 20-year-old Lee has been ‘Unstoppable’ since the beginning of her professional MMA career.
In May 2016, Lee was crowned the inaugural ONE Women’s Atomweight World Championship, emerging victorious in a thrilling Fight of the Year winning effort against Japanese veteran Mei Yamaguchi. In doing so, she made history by becoming the youngest person to ever win an MMA world championship.
Seven finishes so far in her eight fights point to an extremely exciting fighter and one many feel will scale the heights of the UFC in the future.
4. Ryan Bader (23-5) light-heavyweight, Bellator
Ryan Bader was long the litmus test in the UFC, beat Ryan Bader and you were fit to challenge for the title. While he may be loath to agree, Bader was the the gatekeeper in the 205lb division. While he never scaled to the top of the UFC’s light-heavyweight division he has got his just rewards in Bellator, having defeated old foe, Phil Davis at Bellator 180.
The UFC’s willingness to allow Bader leave the promotion was strange. 205 is one of the lightest divisions on quality contenders. Bader’s exit, as well as Phil Davis’, sheared the UFC of some top contenders who could add depth to the top half of the rankings. While he may have been a bit off toppling Cormier, Jones or Gustafsson, Bader tucked into the rankings nicely being one of the best of the rest. A true test for any streaking up-and-comer, or a wake up call for one of the big boys, if they were losing momentum.
When you consider Bader’s only losses have come to men named Johnson, Teixeira, Machida, Ortiz and Jones, you may gain more respect for the guy. Over in Bellator, he has finally earned the rub of gold he may never have got in the UFC.
3. Bibiano Fernandes (20-3) bantamweight, ONE FC
Another plying their trade in Asia with One FC, Brazilian Bibiano Fernandes is an incredible fighter. His only downside is age. Now 37, Fernandes career is very much in its twilight. Not that it is slowing him down too much. He is currently on a 12-fight win streak!
Earlier this year, ‘The Flash’ toyed with the free agency market. The Brazilian explored options and fielded offers from multiple fight promotions, including the UFC, Bellator and Rizin. He said Bellator’s offer was the most attractive of the outside suitors, but in the end ONE Championship officials showed him how much they wanted him to stay put, he said.
2. Rory MacDonald, Welterweight, Bellator
‘The Red King’ is easily the most talented fighter to leave the UFC in recent years. MacDonald’s defection to Bellator, while still very much in his prime, signaled that the UFC’s complete monopoly on fighters was loosening.
The Canadian is one of the most talented 170lbers in the world. He holds wins over the current UFC welterweight champion, Tyron Woodley, and his next challenger, Demian Maia. He also took part in one the greatest fights ever with Robbie Lawler. MacDonald was hugely impressive on his Bellator debut, snuffing out the considerable threat of Paul Daley. After defeating Daley, MacDonald called out the winner of Douglas Lima and Lorenz Larkin, in typically cold fashion. Having overcome an issue with a severely broken nose, MacDonald is on the rise again. At just 27, he also has time to improve, which is a scary thought for all other 170lbers.
He will be the next challenger for the Bellator welterweight title, currently held by Douglas Lima. By the end of the year, he could very well be number one on this list.
1. Ben Askren (16-0) Welterweight, ONE FC
Ben Askren might just be the most ducked fighter in the world. Having held the Bellator welterweight title for three years, he left to join ONE FC, in 2013. He blitzed through the opposition there and captured the title in 2014. Although, since then, Askren has fought just three times.
‘Funky’ has had an extremely unlucky time with fighters missing weight and refusing to accept catchweights, a defence being waved off early due to an eye poke, the king of Thailand dying, prompting an event being cancelled to allow for mourning. The list of fights falling through goes on. Which is a travesty, as the unique grappling talents of Askren have not gotten the airtime they deserve.
Askren is probably the best wrestler in all of MMA. And yes, I’m including Daniel Cormier, Jon Jones, Chris Weidman, Yoel Romero, Khabib, and everyone else in that. He is a phenomenal grappler who has yet to meet his kryptonite. So, with the issues finding fights with ONE, why has he never made his way to the UFC? Issues with Dana White. The men have a long and storied beef.
Askren is not a fan of how White handles business with the UFC. He is also different to many fighters, in that he doesn’t see the UFC as the be-all, end-all. After White had slated Askren’s skills, Askren responded with the following:
“Him saying I’m not good enough for the UFC? I’ve got more skills in my pinky finger than half the damn guys in the UFC,” Askren said. “Have you seen some of these guys fighting lately? It’s ridiculous. Having the letters UFC behind my name is not the be-all, end-all it is for someone. Some people think once they get into the UFC, that’s it. I think with having more large organisations in the word, it’s going to be great for the fighters, because the right now the fighters are being underpaid greatly, in my opinion, and I was one who was able to step outside that box and go find a great paycheck somewhere else.”
The above interview took place three years ago. While he may not be a fan of White’s, given Askren’s difficulty in finding opponents in that time, his competitive spirit may get the better of him and he may challenge himself in the deeper waters of the UFC yet.
Noel Ryan, Pundit Arena