2017 was an interesting year for the UFC to say the least.
It featured one of the greatest cards in UFC history in UFC 217, Demetrious Johnson defended his flyweight belt for a record eleven times – beating the previous record set by Anderson Silva in the middleweight division – while Conor McGregor failed to take to the octagon to defend his lightweight belt, opting to take to the boxing ring instead.
While the top dogs continue to compete for belts, there are many new talents working their way up their respective divisions with new fighters making a name for themselves in the UFC.
As the curtain closes on 2017, it will be fascinating to see what new gems are unearthed in 2018 and which established fighters will look at 2018 as the year to take it to the next level.
Here are a few to keep an eye on.
1. Francis Ngannou – Heavyweight
Ngannou took the Heavyweight division by storm in 2017. After a string of wins in 2016, he faced up against former heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski in January and breezed past the Belarusian with a first-round TKO.
After Junior Dos Santos was pulled from a bout with ‘The Predator’ in August, the Cameroon-born Ngannou was placed on the UFC 218 card to fight Alistair Overeem in the biggest fight of his career.
But the occasion didn’t faze him and he knocked out Overeem with a devastating uppercut in the first round.
19 Dec, 2015: Francis Ngannou makes UFC debut
20 Jan, 2018: Ngannou will fight for the heavyweight title
— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) December 10, 2017
The current number one contender is now set to fight Stipe Miocic in January for the right to earn the UFC heavyweight belt. Coming into his first title fight, Ngannou brings with him an unbeaten record of 6-0 in the UFC. All but one of his wins have been by KO/TKO, with his previous four fights all being first round victories.
If he can claim the heavyweight belt at the first attempt, it will be interesting to see how long he can dominate the 265 lbs division next year.
2. Paulo Costa – Middleweight
A former contestant on The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3, Costa was given a UFC contract in March this year, making his debut at UFC Fight Night: Belfort v Gastelum.
The Brazilian made an instant impact, defeating Garreth McLellan via first-round TKO and earned himself the Performance of the Night award.
After he followed that up with a second-round TKO win over Oluwale Bamgbose in June, he was given a spot on the mouth-watering UFC 217 card as he faced Johny Hendricks in his first professional fight outside Brazil.
With ten wins out of ten in his professional MMA career, he continued his flawless record with a superb second-round TKO victory against Hendricks.
— Rob Lopez (@r0bato) November 5, 2017
It has yet to be announced who ‘Borrachinha’ (meaning ‘The Eraser’) will face next but he requested after his win against Hendricks that he should fight No. 8-ranked contender Derek Brunson next.
3. Darren Till – Welterweight
Liverpool-born Darren Till is becoming one of England’s brightest new prospects in the UFC. A Muay Thai master and former professional kick-boxer, the 25-year-old debuted at UFC Fight Night: Condit v Alves in May 2015. With a second-round TKO he beat Wendell Oliveira on nine days’ notice.
He next faced Nicolas Dalby the following October at UFC Fight Night: Holohan v Smolka in Dublin. After a back and forth brawl, the fight was scored a majority draw and was awarded as Fight of the Night.
A shoulder injury kept him out action for over a year, but he defeated Jessin Ayari in May 2017 and Bojan Velickovic the following September, both by unanimous decision.
Just over a month later he was given shot against Donald Cerrone at UFC Fight Night 118 in Gdansk and he destroyed the American by TKO in the first round, earning him Performance of the Night.
Unbeaten in 17 professional MMA fights, his record stands at 16-0-1. His next fight hasn’t been announced but the No. 7-ranked contender has called for a fight with either Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson or Mike Perry.
4. Curtis Blaydes – Heavyweight
The controversial Curtis ‘Razor’ Blaydes has gradually made his way up the UFC heavyweight division since being signed in 2016. Although his debut was a TKO loss to Ngannou, he bounced back with a TKO victory against Cody East at UFC Fight Night: Lineker v Dodson, earning him Performance of the Night.
In February this year, he defeated Adam Milstead in a first-round TKO. The result was later changed to a no contest though, as Blaydes tested positive for marijuana.
A decision win at UFC 213 against Daniel Omielanczuk followed, with a bout against Oleksiy Oliynyk pencilled in for UFC 217. Although he was believed to have delivered an illegal kick on his downed opponent, the fight was ruled as a TKO win in favour of Blaydes.
Blaydes has now been given a match-up against No. 5-ranked heavyweight contender Mark Hunt at UFC 221 in February. A win in that contest could send shock waves through the division.
5. Sean O’Malley – Bantamweight
Although ‘Sugar’ Sean O’Malley is a relatively new name in the UFC world, he has shown he could quickly become a big one.
O’Malley appeared on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series in July this year, after his first-round spinning-wheel kick KO at Legacy Fighting Alliance 11 went viral, and it was O’Malley who stole the show with a dominating performance.
— IFL Fighting (@IFLfighting) May 7, 2017
His opponent, Alfred Khashakyan, was no match for him as O’Malley topped off his performance with a lethal KO, which even brought UFC president Dana White to his feet and earned the American prospect a contract in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
His UFC debut came when he co-headlined at The Ultimate Fighter 26 Finale on December 1. O’Malley beat Terrion Ware by unanimous decision, leaving his professional MMA record at 9-0.
A fight against Andre Soukhamthath has been recently scheduled for UFC 222 in March. The 23-year-old is fond of producing exciting, highlight reel knockouts so it will be fascinating to see how he performs as he begins his journey in the UFC bantamweight division.