A tough year for MMA, 2014 was always going to struggle to match what 2013 gave us. However, 2015 is guaranteed to be a more significant year, in every way.
First off, without the likes of Anderson Silva and Georges St Pierre, the sport was always going to go through a slight blip. Pay-per-view figures have told us that this has happened. Also, 2014 did not really produce the kind of overall awesome MMA shows on a consistent basis that we are used to either.
However, we saw the resurrection of some veterans, such as Tito Ortiz and Mark Hunt. We saw Anthony Pettis and T.J Dillashaw perform in a manner which says they have reached their potential. And across the globe we saw some spectacular fights, finishes and new fan favourites emerge. But in 2015 we will see more.
That is because 2014 was something of a transitional year for the sport, with the new replacing the old. However, with all the change also comes uncertainty. Can any of the new champions reign even half as long as the aforementioned legends that are St Pierre and Silva? Who are the new exciting fighters to watch? Are there stars good enough to actually replace these icons?
The MMA year of 2015 will begin to answer these questions, through the fists and feet of a new set of contenders. Champions will be challenged, gatekeepers will be gone and a new set of names will gain notoriety. Many will compete, but only a few will standout. And for you, here are five to watch in 2015.
Henry Cejudo – Bantamweight/Flyweight, 7-0 (three knockouts, one submission, three decisions)
Considering the hype that surrounded the signing of WWE star CM Punk, you’d think that the UFC bringing an American wrestling gold medallist would gain big coverage. However, unless you are one of MMA’s hard-core fans, it is unlikely you will have heard much about “The Messenger”.
A freestyle gold medal winner in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, had things gone a bit differently for Cejudo, he could now already be close to a UFC title shot in 2015. However, within a period of over a year Cejudo had weight issues resulting in him pulling out of fights four times (!), including for his UFC debut. Even when he did finally first fight in 2014, he still came in over weight, when competing in the Legacy Fighting Championship in January.
Many have attributed this to his outside of the ring activities, which includes him being a published author, motivational speaker and apparently even training in consideration of becoming a professional boxer.
Having wrestled at 121lbs, Cejudo has looked to compete in the flyweight division. But with consistent issues making this weight, Dana White forced him to make his UFC debut at 135lbs. In this debut Cejudo shocked many by refraining from using his wrestling consistently. Instead he completely dominated Dustin Kimora with his boxing, gaining a unanimous decision victory.
Although his motivation to succeed in MMA is questioned, his ability certainly isn’t. With world class wrestling, good MMA boxing and supreme athleticism, Cejudo may just be the best prospect in the MMA world today.
Thus, in either the bantamweight or flyweight division, Cejudo should end the year as a legitimate title threat to either champion – as long as he actually competes.
Eric Kelly – Featherweight, 11-1 (one knockout, nine submissions, one decision)
With Manny Pacquaio at the tail-end of his career, Eric Kelly is the heir apparent as the fighting star of the Philippines.
Whilst the nation is widely known for continually producing world class boxers, MMA has really taken off there too , as those who have seen the reception Georges St Pierre got when visiting the Philippines will know. This has seen Kelly headline events that have filled stadiums with up to 15000 fans, something that does not happen in too many other countries.
A genuine star in the making thanks to his exciting style and never-say-die spirit, “The Natural” is aptly named. Kelly has great MMA instinct, combining striking and grappling superbly, which is why he has finished 10 out of 11 of his victims. Nine submissions belies his power though, as with his unorthodox striking style he often hurts opponents and then jumps on them for a submission finish, showing a real eye for the finish.
Kelly’s only loss came via a strange TKO, with a punch hitting him directly in the eye. However, two wins on the bounce – including an epic come-from-behind against Rob Lisita in his last bout – have led the owners of One FC to promise Kelly a title shot in 2015 against Jadamba Narantungalag.
That fight will be a huge event and Kelly should have enough to defeat the 39 year old Mongolian champion. With that, Kelly may just become the biggest Asian MMA star in the world.
Liam McGeary – Light-heavyweight, 9-0 (five knockouts, four submissions)
Born in England but now training out of the USA in New Jersey under Renzo Gracie, McGeary looks like Britain’s next big hope in MMA.
Huge for his weight at 6ft 6in, McGeary has been compared by many to Jon Jones for the way in which he utilises his range and huge limbs. Looking just as adept at knocking opponents out as he is at submitting them, McGeary has built up a mightily impressive record on the way to winning the 2014 Bellator 2014 tournament, thus earning himself a title shot.
This all comes just two years after McGeary decided to move to the US to try and get further in his MMA career. At that point, McGeary was just 3-0 and was seemingly chucked in at the deep-end by Bellator. Matched up against much more experienced opponents, McGeary has run through six in a row, stopping all in the first round, averaging around two minutes per fight thus far. Now seen as one of the best light-heavyweight talents in the world, McGeary could really establish himself by winning a title in 2015.
Facing him will be Emanuel Newton, the unorthodox and explosive Bellator champion. However, McGeary has claimed he has been ready for this level for a while and will hold no fear about challenging for the belt. At this early stage in his career, even a loss will not be too damaging for the giant Brit. Yet, if he wins as he is expected to, by the end of 2015 the comparisons to Jon Jones will get a lot more interesting.
Marcin Tybura – Heavyweight, 12-0 (four knockouts, six submissions, two decisions)
With an absolutely superb year in 2014, nothing except a huge 2015 is expected for the Polish heavyweight that is one of MMA’s most sought after commodities.
With the general standard of heavyweights in MMA highlighting the excellence of a select few and the averageness of the rest, all the big organisations are constantly on the lookout for a quality up-and-comer, and Tybura fits perfectly into this category.
Aged 29 and only having been a pro three years, Tybura is fresh and in his prime. Competing in M1 (Russia’s premier MMA organisation) since 2013, Tybura has picked up six straight stoppages, with five of them coming in the first round. In 2014 he despatched three high level opponents (each sporting respective records of 23-3, 20-1 and 9-0 prior to fighting him) in emphatic fashion, leading to cries for the UFC to sign him immediately.
Powerful and skilled, Tybura likes to stalk opponents to unleash big shots and grapple. Not too dissimilar from Randy Couture, Tybura works especially well against the ropes (M1 do not use a cage), where he can use dirty boxing and work for a submission.
Tybura has already proven deserving of being part of a bigger organisation and his ability shows he is a legitimate threat for nearly all heavyweights. Nevertheless, whether he is part of a bigger organisation or not, Tybura’s reputation as one of the best heavyweights in the world should continue to grow next year.
Thales Leites – Middleweight, 24-4 (four knockouts, 13 submissions)
Once seen as an MMA prodigy and a legitimate threat to Anderson Silva, the 6ft 1in Brazilian was quickly forgotten when cut after two poor performances in back-to-back losses in the UFC.
However, Leites did not forget MMA, nor did he forget about the UFC. Instead Leites improved and grew as a fighter, becoming stronger and going into fights with more conviction. Anyone that has seen his last two knockout wins in the UFC will attest to this.
A black-belt in jiu-jitsu and member of the super-camp that is Nova Uniao (which features the likes of Junior Dos Santos, Jose Aldo and Renan Barao), Leites has always had the grappling skills to test any middleweight on earth. However, he has now made his stand-up a lot slicker and more aggressive since departing from the UFC.
Leites has already avenged his last loss against Matt Horwich, whilst previous losses to Alessio Sakara and Martin Kampman were back-and-fourth affairs. A timid and lopsided loss against the aforementioned Silva remains the real blemish on his career thus far. However, with wins against fighters like Dean Lister, Ed Herman, Nate Marquardt and Jesse Taylor on his record, Leites has proven he can hang with dangerous opponents.
Next for him will be Tim Boestch in late January, which is a test that will tell us exactly where Leites is in the division. Leites should prove to be too smart and too fluid for the rugged Boestch, and thereafter the division opens up and a title shot will only be a few fights away.
Honourable mention to the many that came close to making the list; Joanna Jedrzejcyzk, Sean Strickland, Justin Gaethje, Jan Blachowicz, Tom Breese, Bubba Jenkins and Joanne Calderwood.