Guitar legend and right-wing nutjob Ted Nugent once wrote a song titled “Separate the men from the boys, please.” In effect, that is what we are constantly doing in mixed martial arts.
MMA is a sport where one performance can turn you into a superstar or send you to the bottom of the pack. While the fight cards over the next few months feature an assortment of championship bouts and superfights that will titillate the fan base, perhaps just as appealing is the amount of young fighters who will be given the opportunity to prove themselves as legitimate contenders.
Some of these fighters will turn out to be championship caliber athletes while others will show themselves to be nothing more than talented prospects who simply do not have what it takes to compete at the top level.
After the jump: ten fighters to keep your eye on over the next few months.
10. Jason High (7-1, DREAM)
With only nine fights under his belt, High has already beaten UFC fighter Kevin Burns and Japanese journeyman Yuya Shirai. The single blemish on his record comes from perennial contender Jay Hieron. After being victorious in the first round of the DREAM welterweight Grand Prix, High will next meet the highly ranked Hayato Sakurai, BJJ wizard Andre Galvao, or hard-hitting Lithuanian Marius Zaromski, depending upon how the bracket is set up. No matter how you look at it, High’s next opponent will be the toughest he’s faced in his career, with the exception of Hieron.
9. Ben Saunders (7-0-2, UFC)
This TUF6 contestant looked like a talented prospect during his time on the reality show, but his 3-0 record thus far in official UFC fights has really made people take notice. After delivering an absolutely devastating Muay Thai clinic in his last fight against Brandon Wolff, Saunders will meet former middleweight contender and current welterweight standout Mike Swick in his next fight at UFC 99 in Germany.
8. Antoni Hardonk (8-4, UFC)
Hardonk entered the UFC with a reputation as a dangerous kickboxer, but started off his career with a paltry 1-2 record in the organization. Since then, he has gone 3-0, winning by TKO each time. He is scheduled to meet Cheick Kongo at UFC 97 later this month in a fight that will determine a new heavyweight contender. On top of that, we’ll find out if Hardonk has what it takes to beat a legitimate opponent.
7. Josh Grispi (12-1, WEC)
With a near perfect record, Grispi has obtained a finish in all but one of his victories. He entered the WEC as an unheralded prospect, but his recent stoppages victories over Micah Miller and Mark Hominick have put the division on notice. Grispi was recently given the opportunity to face former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver in a bout that will put his name on the map should he come out on top.
6. Hector Lombard (18-2-1, Bellator)
Lombard has been regarded as one of the best fighters you have never heard of for a long time now. In fact, he was scheduled to make his UFC debut against Karo Parisyan at UFC 78 before a visa issue stopped him from entering the country. With his only losses coming by decision to Gerard Mousasi and Akihiro Gono, Lombard is the favorite to win the Bellator middleweight tournament. If he proves the oddsmakers right, Lombard will earn a spot as one of the top middleweight fighters in the world.
5. Ronnie Mann (16-1, Sengoku)
Another fighter with a nearl perfect record, Mann’s next fight will be at Sengoku’s Eight Battle agaiinst Hatsu Hioki, who is regarded as one of the top featherweights in the world alongside Mike Brown and Urijah Faber.
4. Dan Miller (11-1, UFC)
The elder of the Miller brothers has already dispatched of Rob Kimmons, Matt Horwich, and Jake Rosholt in his UFC career. His brother Jim recently fought his first top level opponent in Gray Maynard and came up on the short end of a decision. If Dan is able to derail the surging Yushin Okami at UFC 98, Miller won’t be too far from a title shot.
3. Brian Bowles (7-0, WEC)
Bowles, a product of The Hardcore Gym in Atlanta, has looked nothing short of outstanding in his MMA career. He has finished every fight within the distance and is the number one contender to pound-for-pound king Miguel Torres’ bantamweight title. After rehabbing from a back injury, Bowles will finally meet Torres for the title sometime in the late summer/early fall. If he can pull off the upset, Bowles will truly shock the world.
2. Rafael Cavalcante (7-1, Strikeforce)
“Feljiao” was set to fight for the vacant EliteXC light heavyweight shortly before the organization went under, reportedly due to Jared Shaw’s stripper habit and Jerry Millen’s addiction to child porn. In any case, Cavalcante will meet his toughest test to date when he fights “Babalu” Sobral for the Strikeforce belt in June. Babalu, a perennial top 10 fighter, has been on an absolute tear as of late. If Feljiao scores the upset, he’ll likely not only take the Strikeforce champ’s title but his spot in the top 10 as well.
1. Jon Jones (8-0, UFC)
I had the pleasure of seeing Jones fight live at UFC 87 in August and, I can tell you first hand, the kid really makes this whole fighting thing look like an art form. After recently beating the consistently tough Stephan Bonnar, Jones will next meet Jake O’Brien at UFC 100. O’Brien is a tough fighter but he’s also a man that Jones should beat. If victorious, the Team Bomb Squad member will find himself in the middle of the UFC light heavyweight title hunt. Zuffa’s 205 lb division has more star power in it than any other division in the sport. If Jones can make an impact there, the sky is the limit for him.