The Future Has Arrived: MMA Fighters To Keep An Eye On

From the days of “Fight Pass” prelims to the ESPN+ prelims, the new guard of the UFC has waited patiently for their chance the shine. With the coronavirus pandemic causing scheduling conflicts, young fighters have taken advantage of the opportunity to show their skills, whether it is in Florida, Las Vegas’ APEX Center, or “Fight Island”, which is coming soon.

Since returning to action at UFC 249 on May 9, the UFC has seen several of its young stars impress. Whether they are homegrown or coming over from a new organization, UFC President Dana White has been able to show off stars that are either established or pet projects that are waiting to be. FIGHT SPORTS looks into some of the top young stars within the promotion and what the future may hold for them.

Mariya Agapova

Hailing from Kazakhstan, Mariya Agapova (9-1) recently got to show what she could do this past weekend at UFC on ESPN 10. Only needing one round to submit Hannah Cifers, the 23-year-old earned herself the $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus. Following a run in Dana White’s Contender Series, the American Top Team member fought for Invicta twice, winning two in a row.

What does the UFC see in Agapova, a rising flyweight with three wins via knockout? Speaking with MMA Junkie, manager Alex Davis discussed her growth in just a short period of time.

“I think that she’s very young – she’s only 23,” Davis said. “She’s got a ton of potential. Besides her boxing, which everybody saw, it’s her attitude. She has a fearless, go-for-broke attitude in her, and it’s a question of developing and evolving.

“There’s a lot of tough girls. She has a lot of work to do in some martial arts areas, but yeah, of course, anybody that works as hard as she works and brings that fearless attitude to the ring has a very good chance to become a UFC champion, but to me, I’m not so much worried about her becoming champion as I’m worried about her changing her life. To me, that’s more important.”

Before her UFC debut, Agapova got hit by a car. A life-changing experience, Agapova will now begin the next chapter of her life with the UFC.

Bryce Mitchell

At only 25, Bryce Mitchell (13-0) is looking to take over a crowded featherweight division. Joining the UFC during The Ultimate Fighter, “Thug Nasty” has won all four of his fights. One of his most impressive performances was a twister against Matt Sayles back in December. He attempted to do it again in his unanimous decision win over Charles Rosa at UFC 249.

A big accomplishment for him was getting camo shorts from UFC-sponsored Rebook. Now that the hard part of his demands is out of the way, securing tough fights is the next step. The young grappler is already being called for a fight against Herbert Burns and Charles Rosa again.

The brown belt has nine wins via submission in just thirteen contests. If the UFC continues to develop him with a slow and steady approach, camo shorts won’t be the only reward Mitchell will receive from the promotion

Song Yadong

At only 22, Yadong (16-4-1, 1 NC) already has five wins in the UFC. Placed in the top fifteen in the UFC’s bantamweight rankings, Yadong has managed to take out his opponents in a variety of ways. He can take them out with his strikes and his submission game. The Team Alpha Male member has not lost a contest since 2016, the only blip on his record a draw against Cody Stamann in 2019 due to an illegal knee.

Yadong’s last fight was a unanimous decision win back in May against Marlon Vera. With limited time to prepare for the Vera fight, Yadong didn’t feel like his normal self. Reflecting on the moment, Yadong wasn’t down on himself but found it all fascinating.

“To nail down a fight unprepared and out of shape knowing that I am far from my best is really encouraging,” Yadong stated to China Daily. “I think I have a lot to reflect on and to learn from this fight. It will help me get stronger in the future.”

Yadong credits Urijah Faber’s teachings and the dominance of Zhang Weili as motivation factors. What’s next for the rising star?

Giga Chikadze

The 31-year-old from Georgia has turned into a lethal machine since joining the UFC in 2019. A former kickboxer for GLORY, Chikadze (10-2) lost during Dana White’s Contender Series but impressed enough to join the organization.

He is 3-0 with the promotion, and while he doesn’t have a knockout to his name, his striking capabilities are elite. Whether it is front kicks, powerful throws, or counter knees, the Kings MMA product has even impressed Michael Bisping. A featherweight, Chikadze just needs the right opponent to make it to the top fifteen of the division. By then, he may showcase the potential he believes fans have not yet seen.

“I think most fans have only seen Giga at 25 percent,” Chikadze said to Sherdog. “There is a lot more to see. My friends call it the ‘Giga Show.’ It will slowly come and when we reach 100 percent, you guys will be very happy to watch and enjoy a lot.”

Sean O’Malley

If it wasn’t for a suspension that derailed his career for two years, who knows what Sean O’Malley could have already done in the UFC.

“Sugar” Sean (12-0) debuted at Dana White’s Contender Series and quickly impressed. After beating Andre Soukhamthath at UFC 222, O’Malley needed hip surgery during his violation. Two tests later (one for having residual amounts of ostarine from the last test), and O’Malley was finally ready to return. Making up for lost times, O’Malley beat Jose Alberto Quinonez via TKO at UFC 248 and Eddie Wineland at UFC 250 in June via KO. Both fights were ended in the first round.

His confidence through the roof, O’Malley wants to be recognized with some of the best the sport has to offer.

“I think at this point I’ve proven I’m not a ‘hype train,’ but I don’t mind that title because Conor McGregor was a hype train; Israel Adesanya was a hype train,” said the undefeated 25-year-old rising star. “So if that’s what hype trains are, yeah — I want to be a hype train,” O’Malley stated, via Essentially Sports.

If he plays his cards right, the unorthodox O’Malley, along with several young stars, could break the door down and create some chaos within the UFC.

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