As we head towards the final two months of the year, this is the period where emerging talents often find a way of making the kind of impression that puts them on everyone’s radar
Last October featured a plethora of dynamic finishes from fighters that have continued to shine and climb the ranks in their respective divisions this year, including Phil Hawes, Shavkat Rakhmonov, Miles Johns, and Adrian Yanez, as well as hard-fought victories from additional ascending names like Nassourdine Imavov, Loma Lookboonmee, and Sean Strickland, who has climbed his way into the Top 10 at middleweight just a year after making his return from a two-year hiatus.
The year before that featured debut wins for Brad Riddell, Brendan Allen, Sean Brady, and Miguel Baeza, as well as the sophomore appearances of strawweight hopeful Amanda Ribas and current interim heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane. While there were just two events in October 2018, they still produced noteworthy efforts by emerging talents like Aspen Ladd, Vicente Luque, Dominick Reyes, and Calvin Kattar.
So far this month, we’ve already seen breakout efforts by Jamie Mullarkey, Casey O’Neill, Loopy Godinez, Mariya Agapova, and Marina Rodriguez, and there are at least three more athletes stepping into the Octagon this weekend looking to join that talented collective on the come-up.
Here’s a closer look at those competitors.
This is the October 23 edition of Fighters on the Rise
SeungWoo Choi looks to give himself an early birthday present as he steps into the cage for the second time this year just 10 days ahead of his 29th birthday for a pivotal clash with Alex Caceres.
The South Korean featherweight dropped his first two appearances inside the Octagon, but each of those losses have aged well, as the first came against unbeaten and ranked Movsar Evloev on short notice, and the second opposite gritty and technical Canadian Gavin Tucker three months later. Since then, Choi has collected three straight victories, putting his solid height and reach for the division to good use in decision wins over Suman Mokhtarian and Youssef Zalal before flashing his power against Julian Erosa last time out.
The aptly nicknamed “Sting” has sharp, quick hands and has looked increasingly comfortable and confident with each successive trip into the Octagon, which is something that doesn’t get discussed enough when dissecting the efforts and upside of emerging talents. Jumping from Double A or Triple A to the major leagues is daunting, with many athletes stumbling out of the gate. But everyone struggles at some point, and the key is keeping tabs on the ones that learn from those miscues and start showing signs of progress, as Kim has done over his last three fights.
This pairing with Caceres is an outstanding opportunity to get a better read on where the 28-year-old stands in the 145-pound weight class, as the 33-year-old veteran enters in the best form of his UFC career, riding a four-fight winning streak and finally blossoming into a stalwart in the featherweight ranks.
If Choi can push his winning streak to four while turning back Caceres, he’ll head into 2022 as one of the top names to watch outside the Top 15 in the ultra-competitive featherweight division and primed for another step up in competition next time out.
Similar to Choi, fellow South Korean Junyong Park landed on the wrong side of the result to begin his UFC tenure, getting submitted late in the second round by Contender Series graduate Anthony “Fluffy” Hernandez in Shenzhen, China on August 31, 2019. Since then, “The Iron Turtle” has put together a three-fight winning streak, grinding out a close win over Marc-Andre Barriault before dominating John Phillips on Fight Island, and edging out Tafon Nchukwi earlier this year.
Two things stand out about Park’s recent results, the first being that despite earning 30-25 scores across the board for his mauling of Phillips, very few people reacted with the same level of excitement as when Khamzat Chimaev throttled the Welsh veteran. The second is that while he only earned a majority decision against Nchukwi, the fight wasn’t that close, with the first two judges seeing the fight 29-26 and 30-25 for the South Korean, while the third had it 28-28.
The first two got it right.
This weekend, Park steps in against Brazilian Gregory Rodrigues, who pushed his record to 10-3 and extended his own winning streak to three with a unanimous decision win over Dusko Todorovic in his promotional debut in June.
Between the way Barriault has looked since their encounter and the promise Nchukwi showed in returning to light heavyweight earlier this fall, a fourth straight victory for Park this weekend should push the promising 30-year-old closer to the Top 15 in the middleweight division and secure him an opportunity against an established name in the 185-pound weight class next time out.
Glory MMA & Fitness has been one of the top emerging gyms in the sport for the last couple of years and the next up-and-coming name to watch from the Missouri outfit is Jeff Molina.
“El Jefe” earned his UFC contract with a hard-fought, unanimous decision win over Jacob Silva last summer on the Contender Series, but had his promotional debut pushed back four months as a result of a bout with COVID. When he did step into the Octagon for the first time at UFC 261, Molina made sure to make an impression.
Paired off with Chinese newcomer Aoriqileng in the second bout of the night, the dueling bantamweights fought on level terms for the opening 10 minutes, each looking a little hesitant and a little jittery through the first round before settling in and opening up in the second. Knowing he was in a close battle heading into the final stanza, Molina cranked up the output and the pace in the third, landing an astounding 127 significant strikes — two more than his opponent threw in the round — to win the fight going away.
Saturday night, Molina faces promotional newcomer Daniel Lacerda in another tough assignment.
If Molina even comes close to replicating his effort from April this weekend — or tops it by getting the once-beaten Lacerda out of there inside the distance — the 24-year-old will stamp himself as someone to watch very closely in the flyweight division next year and beyond.