The title picture in any UFC division in the modern era is a flexible entity, whereby the landscape can evolve and transform on a dime, be that a single judge’s scorecard, an ill-fated decision made, or an outstanding performance in any given ranked contender’s fight.
The ever-changing nature means that contenders often emerge seemingly out of nowhere, firing themselves up the rankings in impressive fashion. This article seeks to identify one ‘dark horse’ in each division of the UFC, who could find themselves in the title picture by the end of 2021.
For the sake of uniformity, these fighters must be currently ranked outside of the top 5. ‘Dark horses’ can entail fighters who have been nowhere near the title picture thus far in their career, as well as former contenders who are on the turning point of fortunes that could propel them back into the picture by the end of the year with the right results in their upcoming fights.
Women’s Strawweight: Tatiana Suarez (Unranked), (8-0)
Tatiana Suarez is currently unranked in the official UFC rankings, due to inactivity stemming from a neck injury which has kept her out of action since June of 2019. However, Suarez recently stated that she is aiming to return to the octagon this summer. Undefeated at 8-0 in pro MMA bouts, Suarez has looked dominant in all her UFC appearances since winning season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter (throughout which she submitted 3 of her 4 opponents); most notably holding wins over no.5 ranked Nina Ansaroff; finishing no.4 ranked former champ Carla Esparza; and ranked flyweight Alexa Grasso. Her aggressive wrestling-heavy offense combined with serious submission threat provides real issues for anyone she fights. We can expect her to be facing off with the elite of the division upon her return, having previously been ranked at no.2 in her fight with Ansaroff, and a strong win in that return fight could set up a title shot by the end of the year.
Women’s Flyweight: Taila Santos (ranked no.13), (17-1)
Women’s flyweight is generally considered to be one of the shallowest divisions in the UFC, and whilst this is perhaps a reflection more of the dominance of the champion Valentina Shevchenko than the skillsets of the contenders, it is clear that a few good consecutive wins can push a fighter into title contention. Valentina’s last 4 unsuccessful challengers had win streaks of 1 (Jennifer Maia), 2 (Chookagian and Carmouche) and 3 (Jessica Eye) respectively going into their bouts with ‘the Bullet’. Traditionally a Muay Thai striker with 10 knockouts in her 17 wins, no.13 ranked Taila Santos showed depth in her skillset in her two victories since dropping a split decision in her UFC debut against Mara Borella. She utilised a smothering top game and strong submission defense to guide her to dominant decision wins over Molly McCann and Gillian Robertson. Her next fight will likely be against a ranked contender, and if Santos can continue to show depth in her game to support her strong Muay Thai background, she presents a stern challenge to anyone in the division. Whilst the 27-year-old stated she was “not in a rush” to challenge for the belt, that reality may not be as distant as it might seem.
Women’s Bantamweight: Ketlen Vieira (ranked no.6), (11-1)
Manaus native Ketlen Vieira holds black belts in both Judo and BJJ, utilising various trips against oncoming opponents to work them to the mat whereby she then uses her BJJ to control them and work for submissions, with 4 on her pro career so far. She suffered a significant setback when she was knocked out by a leaping left hook from Irene Aldana in December 2019, losing her ‘undefeated’ moniker, thus ending her 10-fight win streak. Despite this, she has since bounced back with a decision win against Sijaria Eubanks, a close fight in which the takedowns and control she utilised most likely won it for her on the judges’ scorecards. The shadow of ‘The Lioness’ Amanda Nunes looms as large as ever over the bantamweight division, as the champ holds two wins over no.1 ranked contender Germaine de Randamie, as well as a knockout win over no.2 Holly Holm. Vieira’s style presents a different kind of threat to these contenders, Holm largely chose to stand and trade with Nunes to her peril, and Nunes dominated De Randamie on the mat, racking up over 18 minutes of control time in their second bout. Consequently, a fresh contender for the best female Mixed Martial Artist of all time would be readily welcome, and if ‘Fenômeno’ can pass the tough test of no.7 ranked Yana Kunitskaya this weekend then she will be primed for a title eliminator bout with one of the top 5 later this year.
Flyweight: Amir Albazi (ranked no.13), (14-1)
London-based flyweight Amir Albazi is a relative newcomer in the UFC, having a successful start, earning a first-round triangle choke finish over Malcom Gordon in his debut, and subsequently a competitive decision-win over Zhalgas Zhumagulov. A dual threat, Albazi displays high pressure combined with crisp boxing techniques when on the feet, and is a world champion BJJ purple belt, holding 8 submission victories across his pro career so far. Whilst it is still early doors in his UFC career, ‘The Prince’ has demonstrated a problematic skillset with which he can no doubt compete in the ever-improving, ultra-competitive flyweight division. The standard has now been set for the 125ers after reigning champ Deiveson Figueiredo’s 5-round epic with Brandon Moreno, which is likely to produce a rematch and thus enable time for new contenders to emerge whilst that potential trilogy plays out. Thus, with a quick turnaround after competing early in 2021, Albazi could capitalize on the momentum he has built so far in his UFC tenure and could well be aspiring to the top of the division before long.
Bantamweight: Casey Kenney (Unranked), (16-2-1)
The bantamweight division has recently undergone a real resurgence, now holding status as one of the most competitive weight classes in the UFC. The top 15 is rife with former champions such as Jose Aldo, Frankie Edgar, Dominick Cruz and Cody Garbrandt, as well as exciting streaking contenders such as Aljamain Sterling Rob Font and Cory Sandhagen working their way up to earn a shot at the gold. Consequently, there is a multitude of fighters who may fall under the radar. One such fighter is 29-year-old Indiana native Casey Kenney; a former two-weight champ in LFA, Kenney holds great potential to rise up the bantamweight rankings this year. He is currently riding a 3-fight win streak from throughout 2020; firstly submitting Louis Smolka in May; and then gaining two decision wins over Heili Alateng and Nathaniel Wood in the space of 20 days on ‘Fight Island’ in October. Kenney’s razor-thin decision win over Wood displayed his ability to stand and trade with threatening punchers (Wood has 9 wins by KO), as well as a high fight IQ, mixing it up in the final round with a takedown and subsequent control time that probably won him the fight.
Training out of the MMA Lab in Arizona under head coach John Crouch, Kenney is used to hanging with some of the top Mixed-Martial-Artists in the world, a trend that will translate into the octagon as he squares off with no.11 ranked former bantamweight king Dominick Cruz in his next bout at UFC 259. A strong performance there will only further his cause regarding cracking the top 10, and title aspirations surely to follow thereafter.
Featherweight: Arnold Allen (ranked no.11), (17-1)
English featherweight Arnold Allen has been sitting out on the side-lines since January 2020, much to his frustration, as he had 2 consecutive fights cancelled due to Josh Emmet and Jeremy Stephens respectively pulling out with injuries. This has caused Allen’s name to be largely left out of the conversation at 145 pounds. However, barring yet another unfortunate cancellation, ‘Almighty’ is scheduled to fight no.10 ranked powerhouse Sodiq Yusuff on April 10th as part of the undercard for high-profile middleweight match up Darren Till vs Marvin Vettori. In what promises to be an interesting matchup, Allen’s slick boxing and head movement will need to be at peak levels to avoid one of Yusuff’s thunderous shots. Wily BJJ tops off Allen’s game making him one of the most well-rounded fighters at featherweight, and should he be victorious in April he will extend his already impressive win streak to an outstanding 10, trailing only Champion Alexander ‘The Great’ Volkanovski and Dagestani dynamo Zabit Magomedsharipov at featherweight, with 19 and 14 respectively. Allen is most certainly one to watch at 145 pounds, representing British MMA’s most hopeful current prospects at claiming a UFC title in the near future.
Lightweight: Islam Makhachev (ranked no.14), (18-1)
Akin to Arnold Allen, Islam Makhachev is another fighter who sat out for the duration of 2020; firstly, missing out on fighting Alexander Hernandez at the start of the pandemic; followed by two cancelled bouts against former lightweight champ Rafael Dos Anjos due to RDA testing positive for Covid-19, and then Makhachev pulling out of the rescheduled bout due to a staph infection. Despite this lengthy period away from the cage, Makhachev has a great opportunity to reignite his mission for the lightweight belt (perhaps continuing the legacy of AKA teammate and close friend, Khabib Nurmagomedov) when he faces off against the surging Drew Dober, who has finished each of his last 3 opponents in impressive fashion.
A combat sambo world champion in 2016, Makhachev has an extremely strong grappling base as evidenced by his 7 submission victories throughout his pro career. Combat Sambo has in recent years presented a strong challenge to BJJ as a fundamental grappling art with which fighters can build the base of an MMA game, and Makhachev is a stellar example of this. Notwithstanding, the Dagestani is far from one dimensional, displaying the power in his hands with a clean left hook knockout of Gleison Tibau in 2018, as well as out-striking and dropping Davi Ramos in his most recent outing at UFC 242. In a notoriously competitive Lightweight division, it goes without saying that Makhachev is not first in line in the title conversation. However, he has shown thus far in his UFC career that the tools in his game are indicative of a fighter who has the potential to hang with the elite at 155 pounds.
Welterweight: Vicente Luque (ranked no.10), (19-7-1)
American-born Brazilian welterweight Vicente Luque has gone 12-2 since losing his UFC debut in 2015, with those two losses coming in the form of decisions against Leon ‘Rocky’ Edwards and Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson, both championship-calibre fighters at 170. Luque’s fights are always exhilarating affairs due to the combination of his willingness to trade, granite chin and devastating power, especially dangerous with his knees and hooks. ‘The Silent Assassin’ also has the BJJ skills to ward off those who try to offensively wrestle him with varying neck attacks. This rounded skillset provides Luque with an ability to hang with the best at welterweight, and he will see his upcoming fight with former champ Tyron Woodley at UFC 260 as a potential stepping-stone towards a title eliminator bout at the top end of the division, whether that be a rematch with Thompson or Edwards, or a fresh challenge (perhaps a rebounding Gilbert Burns?).
Middleweight: Derek Brunson (ranked no.7), (21-7)
In August 2020, the stage was set. For highly touted undefeated middleweight prospect Edmen ‘The Golden Boy’ Shahbazyan, his first main event against long-time proverbial ‘Gatekeeper’ Derek Brunson was supposed to be the fight that would elevate him into the title conversation. Derek Brunson had other ideas. Out-striking and outworking Shahbazyan from start to finish, Brunson looked technical and intelligent, eventually earning the TKO in the 3rd round. At 37 years of age and with 17 fights in the UFC, Brunson has fought the who’s who at 185 pounds, however since relocating to Sanford MMA under the tutelage of Henri Hooft, he has evolved from the power-reliant aggression fighter that he once was. Currently riding a 3-fight win streak (Theodorou, Heinisch, Shahbazyan) since losing to Middleweight Kingpin Israel Adesanya, Brunson squares off next with another surging prospect- Kevin ‘Trailblazer’ Holland. The breakout fighter of the year with 5 wins in 2020, Holland presents an extremely dangerous threat. Could Brunson play spoiler yet again for the second fight in a row? If so, Brunson will be well placed in a division that could very well soon have a vacant title (depending on proceedings at UFC 259 in March), and will no doubt be staking his claim sooner rather than later, given at 37 years of age one can assume there are not too many years left in his storied career.
Light Heavyweight: Magomed Ankalaev (ranked no.11), (14-1)
Russian powerhouse Magomed Ankalaev has been a dominant force throughout his relatively young MMA career, smashing his 8 opponents in the Russian regionals before making the move to the UFC in 2018. This trend continued in his debut as he outstruck and controlled Scottish Jiu-Jitsu ace Paul ‘Bearjew’ Craig for 3 rounds until he was caught in a sneaky ‘Hail Mary’ triangle choke in the final second of the final round in London. Since this initial setback, Ankalaev has finished 4 of his 5 wins (if you count referee Kevin MacDonald’s bizarre stoppage the first time round against Cutelaba as a finish) and has looked like a world-beater doing so, preferring to use his powerful hands and dynamic kicking game to remove opponents from consciousness, but also utilising world-class combat sambo game to control and batter opponents on the mat. 205 pounds looks as competitive as it has been in a long time, wherein new contenders such as Aleksander Rakic and Jiri Prochazka have emerged to join resurgent veterans Glover Teixeria and Jan Blachowicz at the top of the division. Thus, with a bout scheduled against no.8 ranked Nikita Krylov, Ankalaev looks to throw his name in the hat and contribute to the swathe of Russian contenders and champions taking over the UFC.
Heavyweight: Tom Aspinall (Unranked), (9-2)
The second English fighter to grace this list, Team Kaobon Heavyweight wrecking ball Tom Aspinall has just 2 fights in his UFC career to date, both first round finishes- form he will look to continue this weekend against Heavyweight legend Andrei Arlovski. ‘The Pitbull’ will stand to be Aspinall’s sternest test to date, fighting with a reinvigorated smarter approach in his last two fights against Phillipe Lins and Tanner Boser, much opposed to the onward-rushing slugfest merchant fight fans grew to know and love over the past 20 years. However, Aspinall is extremely fast for a heavyweight and holds clear power, having finished 8 of his 9 pro wins by knockout, and is also a BJJ black belt with a lifetime of experience on the mats led by his father. Aspinall has a well rounded and dangerous skillset which has the potential to carry him far in a relatively shallow heavyweight division. Still young in his career, Aspinall has time on his side too, and as long as he should continue to finish opponents in the manner he has so far, the ranked contenders will beckon.