The UFC is getting bigger year after year, and as it continues to expand we are beginning to see a lot more prospects emerge from the works. These prospects have the potential to do big things in the UFC for many years to come. In past years, we've seen former top UFC prospects become bonified champions. George St. Pierre, Brock Lesnar, and Lyoto Machida all were known simply as prospects even as recent as a year ago, and now each of them have the gold firmly strapped around their wastes and look to be virtually unstoppable. Though we've also seen our share of prospects who just can't seem to reach the very top. A few examples of these fighters (who are not included in this list even though technically they could still be considered 'prospects') include Mike Swick, Diego Sanchez, Joe Stevenson, Jon Fitch, Nate Marquardt, and Josh Koscheck. These talented fighters are still prospects; however, they have all had their chances at the ultimate success and were still not able to obtain it. Then there are the former prospects that still have yet to show any signs of proving their place among the elite of the UFC, or have just flopped altogether. Martin Kampmann, Clay Guida, and Gabriel Gonzaga to name just a few.
The list below contains the Top 20 Prospects of the UFC for 2009. For a more enjoyable reading experience for you, I put the Top 10 below on this page, and 11 through 20 is on the next page, that way you don't get sick of reading by the time you get to the top of the list. As an extremely avid MMA fan who thrives off of making objective and unbiased judgments in my articles and opinions, I spent a lot of time debating the order of this list. However, as we all know, lists like these are always subjective to personal opinions and are very likely to be argued about. I am confident that the Top 3 at the very least would satisfy most fans and readers. Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom, or rate the article based on how much of it you agreed with.
1.) Jon Jones
Weight: Light Heavyweight
Last year: 2-1
This 22-year old monster has gained popularity amongst MMA fans faster than Houston Alexander, and rightfully so. Jones is widely being talked about as the future of the division, possibly even the sport itself. He is virtually the epitome of an "Ultimate Fighter": fighter who is skilled, fast, explosive, well-rounded fighter with exciting and unorthodox striking that's actually effective, and some of the most dynamic wrestling in the UFC. Jones captured the attention of pretty much everyone after his first UFC main card bout against The Ultimate Fighter 1 co-winner Stephan Bonnar at UFC 94, where he showcased his unorthodox striking and incredible throws and slams, making the veteran Bonnar look like an amateur. Jones later one-upped himself at UFC 100 when he faced Jake O'Brien by finishing him with a spinning elbow to a modified guillotine in the second round. Talk about unorthodox, and O'Brien is no slouch, either. After gaining so much attention from fans and UFC matchmakers, Jones was offered to headline the TUF 10 Finale card against Matt Hamill, and once again put on an exciting and dominating performance. Jones expectedly beat Hamill in the stand-up game using his unorthodox style with a new twist to his stance. When Hamill tried to take the fight to the ground, Jones easily reversed the former All-American wrestler and instantly mounted him and proceeded with a vicious barrage of punches, forearms, and elbows. Unfortunately, Jones' unorthodox style bit him in the ass as he accidentally struck Hamill with an illegal elbow variation that ended up costing him the fight, as Hamill could not continue after that point. It was later revealed that there was some confusion about why Hamill wanted to stop the fight. It wasn't because of the illegal elbows or the blood in his eyes that resulted, but rather the initial takedown reversal from Jones that effectively dislocated both of Hamill's shoulders, rendering him helpless to fight back.
Even though he got a loss on his record for it, it was still blatantly clear that Jones was the much better fighter, and is improving at an alarming rate. At just 22 years old, the sky is the limit for this talented prospect. We'll see how well he does as he steps up in competition a bit for his next fight against Brandon Vera at Ultimate Fight Night 21. Win or lose, I think it's agreeable among most MMA fans that Jon Jones is going to be the most enjoyable fighter to watch evolve over the next 10+ years.
2.) Junior Dos Santos
Last year: 3-0
Junior Dos Santos is a talented new prospect emerging from the wings of world class grappler Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and world class striker Anderson Silva, and has quietly been racking up wins over big names without many fans seeming to take notice. The 25 year old undefeated and reigning 18-0 Brazilian Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion and purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu looks to have a very successful MMA career ahead of him. Over about the last year Junior has had two impressive first round KO's against the top ranked Fabricio Werdum and UFC newcomer Stefan Struve, barely staying in the octagon for two minutes total between both fights. After dismantling Mirko Crocop at UFC 103 it's become apparent that this quiet up-and-comer poses a serious threat to the top UFC Heavyweight contenders.
Junior not only comes from a great camp, but he's also got some amazing striking credentials and is fairly well-versed in grappling training with the Nogueira brothers and holding a purple belt under Minotauro. His first fight in 2010 is going to be against another world class striker in Gilbert Yvel in just a few days at UFC 108. Regardless of the outcome of this upcoming fight, Junior Dos Santos has proven his worth as the #2 UFC prospect for 2009, and has many years to keep improving.
3.) Cain Velasquez
Last year: 3-0
The undefeated Cain Velasquez, former All-American wrestler for Arizona State and a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu prodigy comes in at #3 after his amazing year. Cain fights with such high intensity and aggression, his style is reminiscent of the "old" Shogun Rua from 2004-05., and he just keeps getting better. He went 3-0 this year with his Knockout of The Night over Denis Stojnic at UFN: Lauzon vs Stephens, his unanimous decision comeback win over Cheick Kongo at UFC 99 which displayed Cain's great chin, heart, cardio, and relentless determination, and finally his complete and absolute destruction of the much larger and more experienced former IFL star Ben Rothwell at UFC 104, where he showed just how ridiculously aggressive he can be as he tossed Rothwell around at will and quite simply just beat the shit out of "Big Ben" and dominated him like few others, if any, have done before. It was a brutal domination that left an imprint in many of our minds, that this kid is for real.
At just 27 years old and clearly still improving, Cain Velasquez could be the future of the UFC Heavyweight division. His main weaknesses are his technical striking and striking defense, which can easily be improved over a short amount of time, and his size, which could potentially never even affect him if he has enough skills to compensate - - after all, it hasn't been an issue for him yet. It's not an issue for Fedor Emelianenko either, just some food for thought.
4.) Anthony Johnson
Last year: 3-1
At one point this year, Anthony Johnson looked to easily be a Top 3 prospect in the UFC. Being just 25 years old, Johnson has been on a KO rampage since joining the UFC. This year alone he had 3 highlight reel knockouts over Kevin Burns at the TUF 8 Finale, Luigi Fioravanti at Ultimate Fight Night: Lauzon vs. Stephens, and Yoshiyuki Yoshida at UFC 104. However, as 2009 wore on, it became apparent that "Rumble" was relying a lot on his overall size advantage over opponents, admitting to cutting up to 50 pounds for a fight and missing weight in his fight against Yoshiyuki Yoshida by six pounds. After being choked out by Josh Koscheck in the first round at UFC 106, many started to question his ground game.
Anthony is hard to rank on this list because if he stays in the 170 pound division he still could pose huge threats to the top contenders if he develops a better ground game, but if he decides to move up to the Middleweight division (or even Light Heavyweight for that matter), his future is completely skewed because he would be losing a lot of size and strength advantages and would be facing bigger wrestlers, so there's no telling how well he would do, even though he does seem to have a good amount of natural talent and a good work ethic.
5.) Ben Saunders
Last year: 2-1
After first being showcased on The Ultimate Fighter 6, Ben Saunders seemed to be one of the top picks to win the show due to his size advantage, good grappling, and aggressive striking style. Then when he lost to the future finalist of the show, Tommy Speer, in the quarterfinals, fans stopped talking about him for the most part. However, since officially debuting about a year ago against Brandon Wolff at UFC Fight Night: Fight for the Troops, he has turned quite a few heads. His brutal Muay Thai clinic against Wolff was reminiscent of Anderson Silva vs Rich Franklin 1, and left fans in awe.
The UFC set him up with one of the top welterweights, Mike Swick, next at UFC 99 where Saunders would suffer a crushing loss in a fight that he just seemed to be lost in, or couldn't get comfortable. He has since made up for his poor performance against Swick by destroying another top welterweight in Marcus Davis at UFC 106, being the first man to KO the former professional boxer turned MMA fighter, once again displaying his dangerous Muay Thai using knees from the clinch to end the fight. After the fight he immediately and confidently requested a rematch with Swick, promising that his last performance was just a fluke. With Marcus Davis still bleeding and half conscious in the background, who are we to say Saunders isn't telling the truth? With Ben's size, aggression, dangerous Muay Thai, raw talent, and being just 26 years old, he could make some big waves in the 170 pound division in the future.
6.) Antonio Rogerio Nogueira
Weight: Light Heavyweight
Last year: 4-0
Having only one fight in the UFC, just a few weeks ago nonetheless, some readers might be wondering why he is so high on the list. Though, if you know your MMA, you know exactly why he is ranked so high as a top 2009 UFC prospect. "Little Nog" as he is dubbed by most fans, has been in the MMA game for years now, most famously fighting for PRIDE Fighting Championships, and was once ranked as a Top 3 Light Heavyweight in the world. He comes into the UFC with a wealth of experience, a laundry list of notable victims and fights, trains with one of the best camps in MMA right now, and knocked out rising Light Heavyweight contender, Luiz Cane, with ease just 2 minutes into the first round at UFC 106. Nogueira comes fully equipped with a great chin, world class grappling, and world class striking. There's no doubt what kind of impact he is going to have on the division. However, with two of his best friends in the title picture, Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida, "Little Nog's" ultimate success may be limited, unfortunately.
7.) Yoshihiro Akiyama
Last year: 1-0
Yoshihiro Akiyama is not new to MMA, however he is a new face to the UFC. And what a sexy face it is, I might add. Gaining a strictly heterosexual reputation amongst the hardcore online MMA community as being known as "Sexyama", Yoshi's infamous good looks are not what make him a top UFC prospect. As probably the most decorated Judoka to step into the Octagon, holding 8 notable Judo competition awards, he has acquired a large cult fanbase by racking up impressive wins over the years in Japanese MMA organizations against the likes of notable fighters like Denis Kang and Melvin Manhoef.
After winning his UFC debut against the always game kickboxer, Alan Belcher, at UFC 100 via an action-packed 3 round split decision, Akiyama's bandwagon has added even more fuel and passengers. We'll find out in due time whether or not "Sexyama" is just hype, or if he is the real deal and can perhaps become a contender in the thin UFC Middleweight division. Being 34 years old already, time is not so much on his side compared to other prospects. Even if he does turn out to be a flop, at least he still has his modeling and singing careers to fall back on.
8.) Matt Brown
Last year: 3-0
For someone who nearly died of a heroin overdose and had such horrible drug and alcohol problems, Matt Brown has come a long way and has put in his work. After bursting on the UFC scene via The Ultimate Fighter 7, Brown has clearly been taking the game very seriously, training with both Matt Hume's camp at one point and now Wanderlei Silva's. Since losing a close split decision to Dong Hyun Kim at UFC 88 in a fight that he took on short notice, Brown has been on a rampage and is showing mass improvement with each and every fight. He looks to be a version of fellow welterweight, Jon Fitch - very well-rounded, tough, and aggressive. Going 3-0 in 2009 arm barring Ryan Thomas at UFC 91, completely dominating UFC veteran Pete Sell at UFC 96, TKO him in the first round, and most recently putting on an exciting display of both his striking and grappling in his war against James Wilks at UFC 105 where he knocked Wilks down with a flying knee at one point, narrowly escaped a near fight-ending submission, and wound up winning by TKO in the third round, Brown looks to be an up-and-coming force in the stacked UFC Welterweight division.
9.) Paul Daley
Last year: 4-1
Paul "Semtex" Daley has only had one fight in the UFC so far, but he's gone 4-1 over the last year and made an impressive UFC debut by knocking out Top 10 UFC Welterweight Martin Kampmann in the first round. Daley has won 17 out of 22 wins in MMA by (T)KO, and possesses a refreshing style for the 170 pound division. Ninety-five percent of the UFC Welterweight division is made up of top notch grapplers with average striking. Semtex is a knockout machine. Not much is known about this young prospect's ground game yet, though he has been submitted 5 times in his mixed martial arts career. "Semtex" is still only 26 years old and has plenty of time to develop good enough grappling skills to keep the fight on his feet so he can use his opponent as a punching bag. We may find out soon enough how good his ground defense is as he is set to to on a top notch grappler in Dustin Hazelett just a few days from now at UFC 108. Regardless of the outcome of this upcoming fight, Daley made a name for himself in 2009 and has plenty of time to keep improving.
10.) Terry Etim
Last year: 4-0
Terry Etim is not a name that rings too many bells for most casual American fans, but his presence is most definitely known among the British fans as well as the more avid non-British fans. Etim debuted in the UFC in 2007 at the tender age of 21. He did okay, going 1-2 against some solid competition. It wasn't until his match with Sam Stout in October of last year at UFC 89 where he shocked viewers by soundly defeating the favorite, highly-touted striker, earning a unanimous decision win. This was the fight that started his current streak. In 2009, Etim went 3-0, with a TKO over Brian Cobb at UFC 95, a second round submission over Justin Buchholz at UFC 99 which was dubbed both Submission of the Night as well as Submission of the Year according to UFC.com, and another Submission of the Night in his second round guillotine victory over Shannon Gugerty at UFC 105.
Etim is only 23 years old, and potentially has a very successful career ahead of him. He has good striking, grappling, and has never been finished in 16 fights. The UFC Lightweight division needs to be keeping their eye on this young up-and-comer, he seems to have all the tools and looks to be a champ in the making.