The UFC may have started slowly this year, but several fighters have hit their stride in the first half of 2017. A few stand out, and are well on their way to contending for “Fighter of the Year.”
Current UFC bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt showcased the heights a fighter can reach in 12-months in mixed martial art’s premier promotion. With a few consecutive wins and some solid promos, an up-and-coming contender can turn into a top-five talent in a hurry. Taking advantage of the opportunities sent their way, whenever they come, is a huge part of that process. The best way to make the most of those opportunities? Win.
Winning is what it’s all about. With wins, more doors open, and having options isn’t something many fighters have. Several fighters are opening doors with their impressive UFC performances this year, taking advantage of the opportunities shot their way with marquee victories. From short-notice fights to promotional debuts, making an impression and getting the job done has earned these five fighters the chance to take their careers to the next level.
5. Kevin Lee (16-2) – #7 Lightweight
Making headlines with his dress, his trash-talk, and most notably his ability in the Octagon, Detroit’s Kevin Lee is on a roll. The lightweight contender won his fifth consecutive fight in the main event of UFC Oklahoma City, defeating Michael Chiesa in a controversial submission finish in June. The least controversial aspect of the bout was Lee’s talent, which he’s showcasing to fight fans regularly.
While he’s won five straight fights, Lee has earned “Performance of the Night” bonuses in two of his last three bouts. He’s secured two victories in 2017, adding an impressive second-round submission of Brazilian veteran Francisco Trinaldo to his tally at UFC Fortaleza in March. The string of success has pushed Lee to the #7 spot in the UFC lightweight rankings, positioning him for a continued push from the promotion and another top-tier challenge at 155-pounds.
Lee himself reported that he was offered the chance to coach on the upcoming 26th season of The Ultimate Fighter, which he accepted, but the spots eventually went to Justin Gaethje and Eddie Alvarez. Instead, the pay-per-view card expected to take place in Detroit in December looks like a better landing-spot for the “Motown Phenom.” Regardless of whether Lee gets a bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov, Edson Barboza, or any other lightweight contender, he’ll be fighting for a shot a title-contention in 2018.
4. Volkan Oezdemir (14-1) – #5 Light Heavyweight
Debuting for the UFC in February, former Titan FC heavyweight title contender Volkan Oezdemir could find himself fighting for the light heavyweight title by the end of 2017. That is absolutely incredible.
After fighting in several promotions since making his professional debut in 2010, including twice for Bellator, Oezdemir is the perfect example of a fighter making the most of the hand he’s been dealt. In less than ideal circumstances, Oezdemir stepped-in on short-notice to fight Ovince Saint-Preux at UFC Houston in February. Taking the place of the injured Jan Blachowicz, Oezdemir got the job done. It wasn’t pretty, but earning the split-decision victory over the former 205-pound title contender secured his spot in the UFC.
His reward? A matchup with one of the best light heavyweights in the promotion. Tapped as the next challenge for the top-tier of the division, Misha Cirkunov was a test that many thought too tough for Oezdemir. They were wrong. It didn’t take long to learn that fact, as Oezdemir stopped the Cirkunov hype train in its tracks with a knockout 28 seconds into the first round. With two wins over the UFC’s light heavyweight top-10 in 2017, the Switzerland-native isn’t sneaking up on anyone. Especially Jimi Manuwa.
Oezdemir will face Manuwa in what again looks like the toughest test of his career. Now, ranked fourth, the expectations are higher for the 27-year-old. Fighting on the same card as champion Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones’s rematch at UFC 214 produces a natural pairing for the next title shot, utilizing the winners of both Cormier-Jones 2 and Oezdemir-Manuwa.
Of course, things like this in MMA rarely work out as planned. But another win, his third since joining the promotion in late-January, would place Oezdemir in an undeniable position in the thinning 205-pound weight class. Even with a loss, Oezdemir has placed himself in a great position going forward in the light heavyweight division, thanks to his impressive UFC run in 2017.
3. Cynthia Calvillo (6-0) – #8 Strawweight
Cynthia Calvillo became a professional fighter in August of 2016. In less than a year, she’s totaled six wins, three of which coming in the UFC. The first fighter in the promotion to record three wins in 2017, Calvillo is already ranked #8 in the official UFC strawweight rankings. At 30-years-old, she’s not as young as other prospects, but has all of the tools to make a run at the 115-pound title. In a weight class needing fresh contenders for champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Calvillo checks the boxes a fighter on her way to the top of the division.
She could use a marquee victory, or two, before challenging the likes of Claudia Gadelha and Jedrzejczyk. As long as she keeps performing as she has in 2017, those matchups won’t be far off. Considering her push from the promotion, being featured on the main card of back-to-back pay-per-view events at UFC 209 and UFC 210, we can expect to see Calvillo in similarly high-profile bouts in the future.
In the top-10 of the strawweight division, there’s plenty of intriguing options. From Tecia Torres and Michelle Waterson to Carla Esparza and Randa Markos, Calvillo will continue to be tested in the UFC, and we can’t wait to see how she progresses.
2. Robert Whittaker (19-4) – Interim Middleweight Champion
Defeating Ronaldo “Jacare'” Souza and Yoel Romero in the same year deserves an award in itself. So, the fact that Robert Whittaker is the UFC’s interim middleweight champion makes all the sense in the world. Whittaker is undefeated (7-0) at 185-pounds since making the move from welterweight in 2014, cementing his credentials at the top of the division. He’s earned five “Performance of the Night” bonuses in those seven fights, showcasing to everyone that the decision to move up a weight class was the right one.
There isn’t a fighter with two more impressive victories in the UFC in 2017, and Whittaker isn’t done. Now that he has the strap, there isn’t anywhere for champion Michael Bisping to hide. Except, the arms of Georges St. Pierre. While the UFC and Bisping seem focused on a bout with Whittaker, you never quite know what Dana White and co. will do next.
Whether he faces Bisping, or has to wait for his shot at unifying the middleweight titles, Whittaker isn’t going anywhere. He’s fought his way to the top of one of the promotion’s deepest divisions, and took the toughest route there. Currently in pole-position for “Fighter of the Year,” Whittaker’s run in the UFC’s 185-pound weight class is the most impressive we’ve seen in 2017, and it isn’t over yet.
1. Justin Gaethje (18-0) – #5 Lightweight
Although he’s only fought once in 2017, it’s hard to make a bigger impression than lightweight contender Justin Gaethje did against Michael Johnson. Fighting in the main event of the TUF: Redemption Finale, Gaethje brought all of the hype from his reign as lightweight champion in World Series of Fighting, and stole the show at International Fight Week. Constantly pressing forward, absorbing combinations, and throwing bricks of his own, Gaethje became a fan-favorite in his first 10 minutes in the Octagon. He recorded his 18th win since turning pro in August of 2011, and 15th via KO/TKO, earning two “Performance of the Night” bonuses in his UFC debut.
Now that the UFC, and broader MMA audience, are well aware that Gaethje is legit, what’s next for the 28-year-old will have everybody’s attention. Well, maybe not. The UFC is sticking Gaethje on the upcoming 26th season of The Ultimate Fighter, as one of the coaches to the incoming class of women’s flyweight fighters. He’ll be opposed by Eddie Alvarez, leading to what is bound to be another high-quality matchup. Going from WSOF champion to coaching a season of TUF, and then fighting Eddie Alvarez, means Justin Gaethje has arrived, and his impressive trajectory is one we’ll all be watching.
With impressive wins and winning streaks, these fighters have laid the foundation for strong finishes to 2017. Collecting victories and performing consistently is easier said than done, and doing so while taking advantage of the opportunities afforded creates the environment for booming success. From Kevin Lee and Justin Gaethje to Cynthia Calvillo and Volkan Oezdemir, several of the UFC’s hottest prospects are turning into title-contenders thanks to their performances in the first half of the year.