Fighters to Watch for in 2021

The UFC’s 2020 campaign shook up the rankings, the narratives, and the momentum of many fighters new and old. Being that 2020 will most likely have a huge asterisk on it, AJ and I have decided to compile individual short-lists (in no particular order) comprised of fighters that we think will have a breakout 2021 campaign.

Derick’s Fighters to Watch for in 2021:

Middleweight (185 lbs): #10 Kevin “Trailblazer” Holland

(MMA 21-5-0, UFC 8-2-0)

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – AUGUST 08: (L-R) Kevin Holland punches Joaquin Buckley in their middleweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on August 08, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Three words: Call Big Mouth! Honestly, Kevin Holland proved capable of becoming an absolute star for the UFC during his 2020 campaign. He strung together five wins (with four finishes) over the last twelve months and earned himself massive style points while doing so. Holland’s frame is Jon Jones-esque which poses serious trouble for the middleweight division and he has a propensity for answering the bell every time it is rung.

Call it a fluke, but I know one thing for certain – when Dana White needs someone to fill a void and bring attention to a card, he’ll be calling Big Mouth!

Welterweight (170 lbs): Shavkat “Nomad” Rakhmonov

(MMA 13-0-0, UFC 1-0-0)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – OCTOBER 24: Shavkat Rakhmonov of Kazakhstan celebrates his victory over Alex Oliveira of Brazil in their welterweight bout during the UFC 254 event on October 24, 2020 on UFC Fight Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Former M-1 welterweight champion, Shavkat Rakhmonov, had his hands full in his UFC debut against UFC veteran Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira, who at the time had 19 more professional fights than the Uzbekistan-born newcomer. Regardless, “Nomad” maintained his perfect record in outstanding fashion at UFC 254, submitting Brazil’s “Cowboy” in the first-round. Surprised? I think we all were at the time.

The lesson to learn is that international newcomers are bringing their A-game to the UFC. Rakhmonov, standing at 6’1” with a 77” reach, is tall for the 170 pound division, he uses his knees like roundhouse kicks, and including his win against Oliveira, he’s finished every single one of his opponents (7 KO/TKOs, 6 submissions).

Come the third or fourth quarter of 2021, I think Rakhmonov will be on the verge of becoming a household name.

Lightweight (155 lbs): Rafael “Ataman” Fiziev

(MMA 9-1-0, UFC 3-1)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – JULY 19: In this handout image provided by UFC, (L-R) Rafael Fiziev of Kazakhstan punches Marc Diakiese of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 19, 2020 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Though he only fought twice in 2020, Rafael Fiziev should be in consideration for the best campaign of 2020. The Tiger Muay Thai coach earned wins over both Marc Diakiese and Renato Moicano who hold a combined UFC record of 11-8-0 with 5 finishes. More impressively, he earned a TKO victory against Moicano in the first round, serving the Brazilian just the fourth loss of his 19 fight career.

In a post-fight interview with MMA Fighting, Fiziev noted (via a translator) that the left-hand he dropped Moicano with felt similar to a cabbage-punching routine he’d formerly use to work on his striking.  

“Every time when I feel that I punch guys, for example I feel like it’s throwing the cabbage and you kind of punch the cabbage, so it’s kind of the same feel as when you punch the cabbage… Before when I was younger, many times I practice for this. Boom. It feels nice. Anybody at home can try this now.”

It’s safe to say that when a fighter compares his opponent to a glorified human-cabbage patch doll, they’re poised to cause some real damage in their respective division. I expect “Ataman” to enter the top-8 in the 155 pound division come the end of 2021.

Bantamweight (135 lbs): Casey Kenney

(MMA 16-2-1, UFC 5-1-0)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – OCTOBER 04: (L-R) Casey Kenney kicks Heili Alateng in their bantamweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on October 04, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Former LFA bantamweight champion, Casey Kenney, has been on a tear since his UFC debut in 2019. After a minor setback against an incredibly hot contender in #12 Merab Dvalishvili, Kenney has put together three-straight wins against Louis Smolka, Alateng Heili, and Nathaniel Wood, who carry a combined UFC record of 14-12-0 with 9 finishes.

What’s most impressive about Kenney is his Muay Thai style and his propensity for inflicting damage to his opponent. For example, Kenney made his mark in the UFC after winning a unanimous decision against Alateng Heili where absolutely brutalized his body with numerous kicks and body punches, which resulted in a nasty hematoma in the right flank of Heili.

Kenney has a huge test in front of him as he’s scheduled to face former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz next, which is clearly an indication of how highly the UFC brass thinks of him. If you like technically orchestrated violence, you’ll quickly become a fan of Casey Kenney.

Women’s Strawweight (115 lbs): #9 Amanda Ribas

(MMA 10-1-0, UFC 4-0-0)

TAMPA, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 12: (L-R) Amanda Ribas of Brazil punches Mackenzie Dern in their women’s strawweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Amalie Arena on October 12, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Amanda Ribas has been more of less of a posterchild for the UFC in 2020. Her bubbly personality and camera-ready smile has helped gain traction from both the hardcore and casual fans of MMA. But if you think that’s why she’s on my list of fighters to watch for in 2021, you’re dead wrong.

Over the last twelve months Amanda Ribas has put together two stock-raising wins against UFC veterans Randa Markos and Paige VanZant. She submitted the latter in less than a minute, effectively relegating VanZant to the minor leagues as she signed with Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship after losing to Ribas.

The Brazilian strawweight is dangerous on the feet or on the ground and has only lost one fight in her MMA career – Ribas lost via KO/TKO to Polyana Viana, who is 3-3 in the UFC, in the Jungle Fight MMA promotion in 2015 – which she could potentially avenge depending on how quickly both fighters rise up the rankings.

Scheduled to face the dangerous Marina Rodriguez next, I expect Ribas not only to get the job done, but to put herself in title contention come the end of 2021.

AJ’s Fighters to Watch for in 2021:

Bantamweight (135 lbs): Sean “Suga” O’Malley

(MMA 12-1-0, UFC 4-1)

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 07: (R-L) Sean O’Malley punches Jose Quinonez in their bantamweight fight during the UFC 248 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 07, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

The “Suga Show” is one of my favorite fighters and a fighter who I truly believe needs to put together a string of dominating performances to get regain some lost clout from the casual MMA fans of the world. O’Malley has all the right ingredients for stardom in combat sports – He’s scrappy, exciting, and knows how to gain media attention and stay in the spotlight.

All the “Suga Show” really needs to do now is deliver more knockouts, like his one-hitter-quitter against UFC vet Eddie Wineland, and soon enough he will be right back in the title-contention conversation.

Featherweight (145 lbs): Chase Hooper “The Dream” Hooper

(MMA 10-1-1, UFC 2-1-0)

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – DECEMBER 12: (R-L) Chase Hooper submits Peter Barrett in their featherweight bout during the UFC 256 event at UFC APEX on December 12, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Facing heavy criticism after his come-from-behind heel-hook victory against Peter Barrett, Chase Hooper has caught my intrigue; Not because he’s a good young fighter who knows how to secure a takedown and get a win, but because he has displayed a willingness to learn.

In a post-fight interview with MMA Fighting, Hooper acknowledged that his striking prowess was exposed both by his opponent and the UFC commentary team. He also added that hearing harsh criticism from people he idolized was “brutal.” But to remain composed, focus on the task at hand, and execute shows a mind well trained beyond Hooper’s 21 years.

I’m excited for the future of Chase Hooper as long as he stops throwing hands with Uncle Askren and finds himself a real striking coach.

Lightweight (155 lbs): #12 Beneil “Benny” Dariush

(MMA 19-4-1, UFC 13-4-1)

WICHITA, KS – MARCH 09: (R-L) Beneil Dariush attempts to submit Drew Dober in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Intrust Bank Arena on March 9, 2019 in Wichita, Kansas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Anytime you see a fighter get rocked, compose themself, calm their heart rate, and fire back in a calculated fashion, you should become a fan of that fighter. In the talent stacked lightweight division, Dariush has me looking forward to his next fight to prove if he is the real deal or simply lucky.

You need to make a big splash and gain fan notoriety to get the fairweather UFC fan to take notice. With the heart and chin Dariush possesses, I expect to see a lot of him in 2021.

Middleweight (185 lbs): #10 Kevin “Trailblazer” Holland

(MMA 21-5-0, UFC 8-2-0)

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – SEPTEMBER 19: (R-L) Kevin Holland punches Darren Stewart of England in their middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on September 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

My pick for Fighter of the Year, Kevin Holland, is just about all you can ask for as a fight fan. Not only does he talk the talk and walk the walk, but this dude is hungry and will take any chance to eat.

He will talk shit and make you laugh in the ring, which is a rare talent in the fight game and one you must respect as a fighter. The only thing worse than a guy who will tell you when he is going to punch you in the face and then do it, is the guy who encourages you to try harder next time then continues to punch you in the face.

Kevin Holland is both of those guys combined, but he’s also so nice that you want to be on his good side. I am extremely excited for what the future holds for Kevin Holland and I think he will be around for quite some time.

Light Heavyweight (205 lbs): #5 Jirí “Denisa” Procházka

(MMA 27-3-1, UFC 1-0-0)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – JULY 12: Jiri Prochazka of the Czech Republic celebrates after his knockout victory over Volkan Oezdemir in their light heavyweight fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

If you’re like me and forgot about Jirí Procházka – go watch his last fight against #7 Volkan Oezdemir. For the past five-years fighting in the Japanese MMA promotion Rizin, Jirí has steamrolled all but one of his opponents (Muhammed Lawal).

Coming over to the UFC and making light work of Oezdemir truly put Procházka on notice, most notably with the UFC match makers. He’s scheduled to face off against #3 Dominick Reyes in his next fight, which if handled well, could lead to a very prosperous 2021 campaign for the 28-year-old Czechian.

After Further Consideration is the blog space for the All Factors Considered camp. Fighters to Watch for in 2021 is subjective and represents the stances, views, and opinions of the All Factors Considered camp solely.


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