In a few weeks, the UFC will celebrate 30 years as an MMA promotion, helping drive the sport to new heights while introducing waves of future stars turned world champions to fight fans around the world.
When ESPN did this project six years ago, our experts looked at similar skillsets, data analysis and personality type to compare rising contenders like Robert Whittaker, Justin Gaethje and Rose Namajunas to MMA legends like Georges St-Pierre, Wanderlei Silva and Ronda Rousey, respectively.
ESPN MMA correspondents Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Dre Waters will use the same framework in 2023, as a new generation of rising contenders have emerged, and some of former contenders are now MMA legends. Lets kick off with a fascinating heavyweight prospect riding a 14-fight winning streak into a main event at UFC Fight Night (8 p.m. E.T. on ESPN+) in Sao Paulo on Saturday.
Daniel Cormier: This is a crossroads fight for Jailton Almeida
Daniel Cormier breaks down what’s at stake for Jailton Almeida and Derrick Lewis in their upcoming fight.
Waters: Almeida is still early in his UFC journey, having only five fights with the promotion. But the 32-year-old Brazilian has been dominant each time we have seen him inside the Octagon. With his aggressive style combined with superior wrestling and grappling, Almeida could be the most unique fighter in the heavyweight division.
Like former UFC welterweight champ Kamaru Usman, Almeida uses wrestling skills to get opponents to the canvas and dictate the fight from there. When Usman was making his way to the top of the 170-pound division, he did so by continually proving he could use his wrestling to control the fight. Almeida is doing the same now, as an undersized heavyweight. While most heavyweights come in at or near the limit of 265 pounds, Almeida (who fought at light heavyweight on Dana White’s Contender Series to earn a UFC contract and made his promotion debut in the same division) generally fights at 232 pounds.
In his limited Octagon time, Almeida has proven that when — not if — the fight goes to the ground, his ability to end fights with submissions or ground-and-pound is currently unmatched in the heavyweight division. In his five bouts, we have yet to see him spend an extended time fighting on the feet. Only one of Almeida’s fights inside the Octagon has reached the second round. Almeida has three wins by submissions and two wins via knockout.
There have been plenty of dominant wrestlers to come through the UFC, but few have had the start that Almeida has. The best part of the comparison is Almeida winning at a pace that suggests he could be not only a future champion but a fighter who sets new records in his division. He will face his toughest challenge when he takes on former title challenger Derrick Lewis in the main event at UFC Fight Night this weekend (9 p.m. ET on ESPN+). Don’t be surprised if he keeps the winning streak rolling and firmly inserts himself into the heavyweight title picture heading into 2024.
Raimondi: Edgar, the former UFC lightweight champion and a surefire future UFC Hall of Famer, was the consummate underdog because of his size. But he did everything well. He was a sharp boxer with great lateral movement and a wrestling base (Edgar wrestled at Division I Clarion University). More than anything, the New Jersey native was known for his grit and determination. He might not have been the most athletic or had the most power, but Edgar always rose to the occasion and battled back from near defeat on several occasions.
Topuria has all the skills of Edgar, but a more modern, souped-up version. He might be slightly short for featherweight at 5-feet-8, but he’s fast, athletic and strong. Topuria has some of the best — if not, the best — boxing in the division and has an excellent wrestling base that he developed while growing up in the Republic of Georgia. We have not seen Topuria overcome adversity just yet, like Edgar did many times, but that’s mostly because he hasn’t needed to. Topuria put on a clinic against Josh Emmett at UFC Jacksonville in June and seems poised for a title shot next.
With his well-rounded game, Topuria is the perfect example of the new generation of UFC fighters. In Edgar’s prime, there were a ton of well-rounded fighters, but very few who were supremely skilled in all facets of MMA. That is much more prevalent in 2023 and will continue moving forward. Topuria is a great representative of that. At 26 years old, Topuria has the tools to accomplish even greater feats than Edgar.
Miesha Tate thankful for rivalry with Ronda Rousey
Miesha Tate reflects on her rivalry with Ronda Rousey and winning a title against Holly Holm.
Wagenheim: Valentina Shevchenko once compared Blanchfield to a barking puppy, but that’s underselling the fully grown pitbull that symbolizes the 24-year-old’s game. In digging for the roots of Blanchfield’s doggedness, I keep picturing an early teen staying up on a non-school night to watch Rousey and Tate go at it, first in the Strikeforce cage in 2012, then in the UFC’s Octagon less than two years later. Blanchfield has some “Rowdy Ronda” swagger in her, and she also shares Rousey’s tenacious commitment to seizing on any opening to get a finish.
But Blanchfield does not have an unstoppable singular dimension, as Rousey exhibited during her run of dominance. Blanchfield is more well-rounded, like Tate, who had to know she was outclassed on the canvas by Rousey but kept wrestling and wrestling. That’s perseverance, and Blanchfield also has a good measure of it. What she doesn’t have — that both Rousey and Tate did — is a rival who will push her as a fighter and push her buttons. Bring it on, women’s MMA.
Okamoto: It seems wild to suggest that Nickal could be more marketable than the greatest heavyweight of all time, who also served as an active firefighter his entire career — but Miocic didn’t exactly love to promote himself during the extent of his career. He was always amusing, likable, and entertaining in the cage, but he had a knack for disappearing between fights and never put much effort into increasing his popularity in the media.
Conversely, Nickal is already showing up regularly on various media platforms, and he understands the value of promoting himself in and out of the cage. He likes to call people out, whereas Miocic couldn’t have cared less. He sets expectations for viewers and then goes out and exceeds them. His marketability is through the roof. He’s not an active firefighter like Miocic, but he’s a three-time NCAA Division I national champion wrestler. He’s a Midwestern family boy who is well-spoken and carries himself like a champion. Like Miocic, his wrestling pedigree will spearhead his success, but he’s been adding a lot of boxing firepower to it (as Miocic did).
He’s not exactly like Miocic for all the reasons discussed, but his career could look similar. He’ll likely have a rivalry or two (just like Miocic did with Daniel Cormier and Francis Ngannou), and he has the talent to stay at the top for a long time. His rivalries won’t revolve around trash talk, just serious, world-class competition. He’s a name you’ll get used to seeing, probably for the next decade.
If you liked Georges St-Pierre or Valentina Shevchenko, you’ll love Usman Nurmagomedov
Wagenheim: Perhaps the most interesting thing about comparing Usman Nurmagomedov to a legend of the past is that the comparison is not to his cousin Khabib. Last names aside, they have one other thing in common: undefeated records. Usman, the Bellator lightweight champion, is 18-0, whereas Khabib retired in 2020 at 29-0. But while Khabib did nearly all of his best work while horizontal on the canvas, Usman stands tall as a striker. He can hit an opponent from all angles and with multiple weapons, from feet to fists. In that way, he is somewhat like Georges St-Pierre, who was dangerous wherever a fight took place.
But Nurmagomedov is a bit flashier with his striking than GSP was. His high-flying aggressiveness might make him a better comparison to Valentina Shevchenko. Like the former UFC women’s flyweight champ, Nurmagomedov can be spectacular to watch, but when the situation warrants, he also can take a more measured approach via grappling attacks. Even though Nurmagomedov is a striker, first and foremost, he has had to round out his game simply to survive in the American Kickboxing Academy training room alongside UFC lightweight champ Islam Makhachev. Those sparring sessions must prepare Nurmagomedov well for whatever he might encounter inside the Bellator cage.
Raimondi: Cocky, brash, European. Excellent striker. There is a lot of Bisping in Machado Garry. Bisping was once a young hot head with a chip on his shoulder, coming into the UFC from a country — England — that was mostly unheralded in MMA. He overcame all that, won The Ultimate Fighter and went on to cap his career by winning the UFC middleweight title on 11 days’ notice. Before that championship win, Bisping was known mostly for his trash talk and inability to win “the big one.” And once he did win that, shocking Luke Rockhold by first-round knockout at UFC 199 in 2016, Bisping’s legacy — the first UFC champ from the United Kingdom — was set.
Machado Garry is from Ireland, but let’s be clear. Bisping, a European MMA pioneer, paved the way for guys like him from that area of the world. Machado Garry, still just 25 years old, looked up to Conor McGregor, his countryman, when he was younger. But Bisping came before McGregor and opened the door.
Machado Garry and Bisping are orthodox kickboxers who don’t have a ton of one-punch knockout power, but are durable and wily. Machado Garry has better kicks, a more polished all-around game and is a better pure athlete. But in 2023, that’s necessary to be able to hang in the UFC. Bisping got by a lot on toughness, guile and fight IQ. “The Count” made the most out of every physical attribute he had. If Machado Garry does the same, the sky is the limit for him at welterweight.
Waters: Tom Aspinall and Demetrious Johnson may reside in vastly different weight classes, but it’s hard to deny the similarities in their style.
If we’re talking about highly skilled, well-rounded fighters, “Mighty Mouse” should be among the first to come to mind. Johnson is one of the most decorated fighters in all of MMA, and he is widely regarded as the greatest men’s flyweight fighter in the sport’s history. That’s because he is good at everything. Through his first seven fights, Aspinall (6-1) has proven he is too.
Aspinall has wasted little time making waves in the UFC, having already headlined three UFC Fight Night cards. Two of which took place in England, his home country. Talk about star trajectory.
Aspinall has proven that he has put in the work in every aspect of the sport, and he has shown that he has the finishing capability to pair with it. His lone loss to Curtis Blaydes in July 2022 was due to a leg injury. Outside of that loss, Aspinall has finished each of his opponents (four by submission and two via knockout). If not for the injury against Blaydes, there’s a great chance that Aspinall could have already been booked for his first UFC title challenge.
Nevertheless, in his return, Aspinall picked up right where he left off with a first-round knockout over Marcin Tybura in July. Now, following Jon Jones‘s injury that forced him to withdraw from his upcoming title defense against Stipe Miocic at UFC 295 on Nov. 11, Aspinall will get his chance to fight for gold. He will take on fellow rising heavyweight Sergei Pavlovich for the interim title in the co-main event at UFC 295.
If you like Islam Makhachev, you’ll love Umar Nurmagomedov
Okamoto: I don’t mean to go with such an obvious comparison here, but it’s unavoidable. These two are cut from the same cloth, as you’d expect. They’ve trained together essentially their entire lives. They come from the same Dagestani system, founded by Khabib Nurmagomedov‘s late father, Abdulmanap. If Makhachev is a spin-off version of Khabib — similar wrestling ability, but more dangerous on the feet — Umar is just the next, updated version. Umar is a visibly terrific athlete. He has more speed and fast twitch capabilities than his lightweight counterparts. Khabib has told me he can be lazy, but Khabib’s definition of lazy is not the same as the rest of the world’s.
The 27-year-old’s potential is no secret. The UFC is so high on him, it talked about headlining him in on an ABC card this year and eventually booked him against the No. 4 ranked Cory Sandhagen. The UFC knows what it has and is ready to turn him loose. Like Makhachev, Umar is relatively soft-spoken. He’s an obvious contrast to the current champ, Sean O’Malley, in terms of personality. But he’s very, very good, and the Khabib relationship is a major plus. His ceiling is the same as Makhachev: No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, multi-divisional champ.