With the amount of turmoil seen in the upper echelons of MMA recently, it would be wise to keep an eye on the up-and-comers in 2016.
Champions were dethroned, contenders fell away and prospects petered out in 2015. As such, there is space for new names to emerge and challenge the new order. Questions remain in from last year; does the UFC have all the best featherweights in the world? Who will next challenge for the Bellator bantamweight title? After Holly Holm, are there any more emerging superstars in women’s MMA?
This list should answer these questions. So here are five fighters to watch in 2016.
Tom Breese: UFC Welterweight, 24 years old, 9-0 (Three KOs, nine subs)
The UFC welterweight rankings currently show that seven of the division’s top eight are all in their 30s, including champion Robbie Lawler. Thus, a new generation of contenders will inevitably emerge, and leading the crop could be Tom Breese.
The Englishman is a 6ft 3in MMA machine, currently 2-0 in the UFC, both coming via TKO in the first round. His UFC run has come after he won six out of seven of his previous fights via submission, showing his versatility as a fighter.
Aged 16 Breese dropped out of school and began training regularly in MMA. In 2013 he was picked out as a sparring partner for Georges St Pierre before the then UFC champion fought Nick Diaz. Breese ended up deciding to move to Montreal to permanently to train out of Firas Zahabi’s Tristar gym.
Since then Breese has looked like one of the best prospects in the welterweight division. Comfortable on the ground and on the feet, Breese is aggressive in both positions, always looking for the finish. Breese faces the vastly more experienced Keita Nakamura in his next scheduled bout in February and will be looking to fight at least two more times this year. Should he continue to win as impressively as he has done in all his other bouts, by the end of 2016 many will be calling for Breese to get a title shot.
Alexandre Almeida: WSOF Featherweight, 27 years old, 18-5 (Two KOs, 13 subs)
In the sport of MMA where there are so many ways a fighter can be defeated, it is not unusual to pick up several losses before coming into his own.
Becoming a well rounded fighter and more importantly, learning how to utilise your own strengths can take a lot of time in this sport which is continually evolving. However, Rafael Dos Anjos, Robbie Lawler and Fabricio Werdum are modern day examples that a fighter can still reach championship level status, even if they’ve previously looked very vulnerable.
Alexandre Almeida is one of a few fighters proving this outside the UFC. Having lost three of his first seven fights, Almeida has lost just two fights in his next 16, both decisions. With 14 first round finishes, Almeida is clearly a dangerous fighter and has also proven to be immensely tough too. Almeida fights in that typically Brazilian manner of using Muay-Thai to open opponents
Nicknamed “Capitao”, the Brazilian has begun sailing his ship in the right direction, picking up five wins in a row, including an upset win in his title fight against Team Alpha Male’s highly rated Lance Palmer.
At 5ft 11in Almeida is bigger than most of the world’s featherweights. In 2016 he is likely to show he is better than most of the world’s featherweights by defending his title in the WSOF and cement himself as a top 10 in his division across all organisations.
Valentina Shevchenko: UFC Women’s Bantamweight, 27 years old, 12-1 (Four KOs, five subs)
Holly Holm and Joanna Jedrzejczyk took women’s MMA up a notch in 2015 with their striking credentials. In 2016 Valentina Shevchenko will be hot on their trail as she looks to do the same.
Before joining the UFC the Kyrgyzstani amassed a record of 2-0 as a professional boxer and more noticeably 56-2 as a kick-boxer, winning multiple world titles in the sport and picking up notable wins against the likes of Joanna Jedrzejczyk. This is even more impressive considering she was fighting and winning MMA bouts in between her kick-boxing career.
As an MMA fighter Shevchenko has been training at the famed Gracie Barra School to improve her ground game, which highlighted as her weakness during a loss to top contender Liz Carmouche in 2010. Shevchenko has won five fights since, including an ultra tough UFC debut against one of women’s MMA most decorated fighters, Sarah Kaufmann.
There has been a noticeable improvement in her grappling but it is clearly on the feet where Shevchenko excels, with her footwork, kicking technique and hand-speed being comparable to Holly Holm’s. As such, a fight between the two would be tantalising; one of the most successful female boxers of all time against one of the most successful female kick-boxers of all time, fighting in MMA.
Shevchenko will be lined up to face top 10 opposition this year and should she get a win or two, by the end of 2016 her hype train will carry her right to a title shot.
Darrion Caldwell: Bellator Bantamweight, 28 years old, 8-0 (One KO, three subs)
Very few fighters are able to get a title shot before they have even had 10 pro fights, as very few are capable of making the necessary impact needed to get one so early into a career. However, Darrion “The Wolf” Caldwell may get a chance to do just that this year.
Caldwell is a classic product of American MMA, a seasoned collegiate wrestler that was good enough to compete for a spot in the 2012 USA Olympic wrestling team, before pulling out due to an injury. In the mould of many of MMA’s collegiate wrestling fraternity, Caldwell is a great athlete that likes to pressure opponents. He is a dynamic striker and great at forcing submissions from dominant wrestling positions. At 5ft 10in he is also a huge bantamweight. Yet ultimately – like most from his kind of background – it is his sheer determination which makes him so dangerous.
Caldwell faces former champion Joe Warren in March and win, lose or draw, Caldwell will walk away a better fighter and as such, 2016 should be Caldwell’s breakout year on the way to becoming an MMA superstar.
Ruslan Magomedov: UFC Heavyweight, 29 years old, 14-1 (Four KOs, two subs)
In a manner akin to his fighting style, Ruslan Magomedov is slowly but surely climbing through the UFC ranks on the way to big fights in 2016.
The Russian is not even ranked in the top 15 yet but is 3-0 after two years in the UFC. So far Magomedov’s opposition has been far from elite and some of his wins have been far from spectacular, which is why he is ranked so lowly. However, his potential is clear.
What stands out most about Magomedov is his ability to simply hit and not get hit. He is smooth, elusive and composed. The fact that over half of his fights have finished via decision emphasises just how good Magomedov is with this style. With this in mind, it will be no surprise to MMA’s hardcore fans that Magomedov has been training with the Jackson/Winklejohn MMA camp, notorious for their tactical approach to fights.
Something noticeable in his fights has been how solid his striking seems, turning aggressive fighters timid in their approach to beating him. He has also shown he is comfortable on the ground and in the clinch too. At 6ft 3in and lean with it, Magomedov is quicker on his feet than most of his division, making him a nightmare match up for anyone right now.
Thus far in his career he has comfortably beaten seasoned veterans, undefeated prospects and solid gate-keeper types. In 2016 we will see how the UFC’s top 15 heavyweights fair against the rising Russian contender.