Many fighters have made a name for themselves in 2016. The explosion of young talent and the resurgence of some veterans has 2017 shaping up to be an interesting year in most weight classes. There are a ton of fighters who could take what they did in 2016 and build on that success into an even better 2017.
Yair Rodriguez (Featherweight)
Yair is one of the most exciting young prospects in the UFC. At only 24 years old, Yair sports a perfect 6-0 record in the UFC and an 8-1 record overall. Yair has a striking style that is not only hard to prepare for, but is also one of the goofiest and awesome things I’ve ever seen. The only way I could describe his style is like, when you watch a Taekwondo demonstration and people are doing like 540 spinning back kicks and you’re like, “No way would that ever work.” With Yair though, somehow it works. He can do it all and he does it at a blistering pace that can be matched by very few in MMA. His next fight is scheduled against legendary fighter BJ Penn. Although BJ is well past his prime at this point in his career, he is still a fighter with a dangerous skill set that could be very dangerous for a young guy like Yair. If he can pass the test against Penn, I see no reason why his next fight can’t be against a guys like Dennis Bermudez, Jeremy Stephens, or any other established top 10 guy in the division.
Gegard Mousasi (Middleweight)
Gegard had a huge 2016 going 4-0 with three finishes. Since the beginning of 2015, Gegard is 6-1, with his one loss coming via a crazy spinning kick and knee KO from Uriah Hall. If not for that one extremely unlucky KO that he suffered in a fight that he was winning, he would be undefeated over the last two years. Out of all the top five contenders in the middleweight division, I find that Moose is talked about the least, which is a shame because I think that he is arguably the most deserving candidate for a title shot next to Jacare. In a perfect world, I would like to see Moose go up against Jacare to decide the next number one contender in the division, but from what I read, it looks like the UFC would rather match up Luke Rockhold with Jacare instead. If that is the case than I would love to see Moose take on a guy like Robert Whittaker and if he wins that fight than I think the UFC would be doing him a disservice by not including him in the talk for a title shot in 2017.
Francis Ngannou (Heavyweight)
In a weight class that is light on new and exciting prospects, Francis Ngannou is a shining beacon of hope for the UFC’s heavyweight division. So far his record in the UFC is a perfect 4-0 with all four of his fights being ended before the third round. As far as looks go, Ngannou is easily top five in the UFC. He is an absolutely massive man that looks like he spends his off time slaying hydras. Unlike many huge dudes though, he has the skills to back up his massive looks. Ngannou has great boxing and really heavy hands that he has used to knock out two of his four UFC opponents. Also in his last fight, he showed a surprising submission game when he locked up a kimura from a standing position and then dragged his opponent on the ground and finished it which was really impressive. Ngannou’s next fight is scheduled to be against perennial top ten fighter, Andrei Arlovski. This is a big step up for Ngannou, but I think he has what it takes to break into the top ten and take on some of the older guys and clear out a nice spot for himself in the top five of the division before 2017 ends.
Gunnar Nelson (Welterweight)
Gunnar Nelson might just be one of the best grapplers in the UFC right now. Couple that with his great karate based stand up and you have a guy who could make a lot of noise in 2017. So far in his UFC career Gunnar holds a record of 5-2, with his two losses coming against Rick Story by split decision and Demien Maia. I don’t really hold those two losses against him. The Story fight was close and Demien Maia is a top 3 welterweight so losing to him is nothing to be upset about. In his last fight in May, Gunnar demonstrated just how great he was by dominating Albert Tumenov in all phases of the fight. I knew he had the ground advantage going into that fight, but what really surprised me was how well he did on the feet against a guy in Tumenov who leading up to the fight was supposed to be the better striker. We were supposed to see Gunnar again this year in November against Dong Hyung Kim, who is a legit top 10 guy, but unfortunately Gunnar had to pull out of the fight. If that fight would have taken place I think we would have been surprised by Nelson. 2017 could very well be the year that he puts all of his tools together and we see him crack the top ten and stay there for a long time.