The dark horse, the fighter no-one expects until it’s too late, the fighter who slowly builds their reputation in the shadows, biding their time.
Every competitor in the UFC is a threat, there are no easy fights, but these eight fighters are generally underrated and overlooked.
A few more wins and they could all transform from dark horses to serious contenders.
8. Kamaru Usman (Welterweight)
The unbeaten winner of the Ultimate Fighter season 21 has slowly been grinding out opponents whilst receiving very little attention. What’s more is that he has been taking out fellow prospects such as Sean Strickland and Leon Edwards with ease.
He is the self-professed ‘best grappler in the division’ and if he can get through his bout with Sergio Moraes and call out a fighter in the top ten then he could catapult himself into the top five. Don’t sleep on Usman just because he isn’t knocking people out.
7. Alexander Volkov (Heavyweight)
In a division full of dinosaurs, at 28 Volkov can bring some much-needed youth to the heavyweight roster. Long and rangy, Volkov demonstrated against Roy Nelson that he can execute intelligent game plans, using his crisp striking to outpoint one of the greats. As the heavyweight division is so desperate for challengers, Volkov could surge up the rankings after his brutal finish of the rangiest of them all, Stefan Struve.
He showed some excellent resilience as well, taking big shots from the underrated striker Struve. Could he join Derrick Lewis and Francis Ngannou as the next generation of heavyweight contenders?
6. Edson Barboza (Lightweight)
Nobody wants to fight this man. Stuck at number four, Barboza has dropped fights to only the very best of the lightweight division in Tony Ferguson, Donald Cerrone and Michael Johnson. Apart from that, he has delivered some of the nastiest Muay Thai performances on show in the UFC.
No-one wants to fight Barboza because of his brutal knockout power and the fact that his opponent normally leaves the octagon with a heavily bruised lead leg. He’s a serious threat lurking in the shadows.
5. Chan Sung Jung (Featherweight)
With military service out of the way, ‘The Korean Zombie’ is still sat at number five in the division and his blistering first round knockout of Dennis Bermudez has given everyone in the MMA world a timely reminder of his exciting talent (remember, he was the first man to submit anyone with the twister). With José Aldo dethroned, his chances of a title shot have improved massively.
He has never been to a decision in the UFC, which is a sure fire way to make him popular with Dana White. Once his injury problems are behind him, expect him to sneak up on the division. Watch out, the zombie is coming.
4. Al Iaquinta (Lightweight)
Dark horse may be the wrong term for ‘Raging Al’ who has been very vocal and causing the UFC all sorts of problems. But his talent is undeniable. With one loss in his last 9 and wins over contenders Jorge Masvidal and Kevin Lee, it is hard to see how Al is all the way down at number eleven in the rankings. His personality and confidence make him a great marketing tool and yet the UFC still seem to be ignoring him.
If the UFC can put aside their beef with Al for one moment they could really have a star on their hands. If he can sneak onto a big card in the near future and put on a show he could step into the spotlight. Imagine the trash talk between Al and Conor McGregor…
3. Cynthia Calvillo (Strawweight)
The UFC has definitely seen something in Calvillo, putting her on the main card of her last three bouts. Two impressive submission victories and her defeat of the gritty Joanne Calderwood later and we seem to have a star on our hands.
Joanna Jędrzejczyk is slowly becoming unbeatable, but if Calvillo can display her exciting jiu-jitsu and chew through the roster she will challenge for the belt in no time. She’s got a bit of swagger about her and backs it up with her skills.
2. Volkan Oezdemir (Light-Heavyweight)
Even after beating Ovince St-Preux in February, people were still saying ‘who?’ Now the aptly nicknamed ‘No Time’ is the name on everyone’s lips. Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa are not mugs and the way he ran through the pair of them has baffled everyone.
Where has he come from? How is he doing this? And is he really from Switzerland?! All these questions aside, there is no denying this man is dangerous and is probably one fight away from challenging for the title. No time, indeed.
1. Justin Gaethje (Lightweight)
The undefeated champion from World Series of Fighting is starting to make waves in the UFC – just watch his mental brawl with Michael Johnson. No doubt his best attribute is that the fans will want to watch him. He never has a boring fight and his mentality of kill or be killed has made him a very enticing prospect to the UFC community.
When Gaethje fights, people will tune in for a proper slug fest, with blood, guts and fireworks. If he can make an impact as a coach on this season of the Ultimate Fighter and perhaps knockout Eddie Alvarez, McGregor could have a new challenger waiting when he gets back home.
Max Hamid, Pundit Arena