Over two dozen fighters have made their UFC debut since the year started. Of this group, I’m not sure we have a surefire star in this bunch. I like a handful of them to be contenders, but there isn’t a man or woman on this list that is a lock. Some of them clearly have far better futures though and some will need more time and experience.
I knew who my top three would be, but I really debated the order. Here’s how I ranked the 10 prospects that we have seen enter the UFC big stage this year.
#1: Uros Medic (7-0)
Although I didn’t write about him prior to his debut, I was really high on Medic. I think “The Doctor” is a dynamic striker and has the ability in other areas too. I’m excited to see his next outing against a better fighter. Medic is here based on the division. I feel lightweight is weaker from 5-15 than bantamweight.
#2: Ronnie Lawrence (7-1)
I was wrong about Lawrence ahead of his Contender Series fight, like a lot of people in Vegas – he was a +270 underdog that night. Lawrence is going to win a lot of fights with solely his wrestling, cardio and pace. If he fights an opponent with weaker cardio or a guy that can’t defend takedowns, it’s over for them. Lawrence has a lot of the attributes of Merab Dvalishvili (12-4) who has been on a five-fight tear since his controversial loss to Ricky Simon. Lawrence can work his way up and work on his striking and BJJ game.
#3: Casey O’Neil (6-0)
I liked O’Neil before her debut and liked her even more after it. She has a great all-around game and competes in a shallow division. Outside of the champion and the current challenger, the flyweight division isn’t too strong at the moment. We saw what happened when other contenders got a shot at Valentina Shevchenko and it wasn’t pretty. O’Neil has top-3 upside in this division.
#4: Drako Rodriguez (7-2)
I was probably the highest on Rodriguez coming into the UFC and his debut loss will not change that. He is still only 24 and has a great wrestling and BJJ game. He looked decent before the knockout in his debut. I’m willing to bet he will look better the next time he enters the octagon.
#5: Marcelo Rojo (16-7)
Rojo showed a lot in his debut despite taking a loss. He brought everything he showed in Combate Americas and then some. He has the toughness to take a beating and did so against a great prospect in Charles Jourdain. Rojo will definitely get an easier assignment in the second fight and I believe he will look great.
#6: Monserrat Conejo (10-1)
Despite the fact that she won, I couldn’t put her any higher. What she used against Cheyanne Buys was a predictable game plan. Somehow though, it worked. Whoever fights her next has to know that same throw is coming. I still don’t see a special prospect, even though she dominated her debut.
#7: Phil Rowe (9-3)
Rowe has a way better level of competition than most prospects and dropped a decision to Gabe Green in his debut. The issue with Rowe is that if he doesn’t land a big shot and utilize his power, does he have a plan B? He might not. He has this great wrestling background at Iowa CC with Jon Jones and Colby Covington and he needs to use it. I think Rowe will win fights in the UFC, so I had to put him above a lot of the prospects below him.
#8: Cheyanne Buys (5-2)
Buys’ debut was an all-around disaster. From getting dominated and controlled by a shorter, smaller fighter to getting caught in the same move several times, it was a bad night. She is only 25-years-old and the UFC definitely liked her marketability when they signed her. How much did the debut sour them on her? I guess we’ll find out. If she gets a pure striker in her second fight, we will know they still want to push her. She is at a great camp in Fortis MMA and I think they have some work to do with her.
#9: Manel Kape (15-6)
Kape was a big get for the UFC and starting his career with a pair of losses isn’t a great look. Granted, Kape had two tough fights in his first two fights in the octagon. He needs to be more active and throw more output and get on the right side of these decisions. Some fighters don’t seem to ever have a concrete game plan and Kape appears to be one of them. He needs to be better prepared and get a win.
#10: Carlos Ulberg (3-1)
A lot of people questioned what we would see with Ulberg if he had to go three rounds. It didn’t even take two rounds. Ulberg gassed about as hard as anyone in the second round and was battered by Kennedy Nzechukwu, who not long ago was a prospect in his own right. Ulberg trains at a good team, is young in his career and can improve. He needs to work on his cardio though.