Five MMA fighters to watch in 2017By Paul Fontaine | @PaulAceFontaine | Dec 30, 2016 3:15 pm
The UFC is coming off the biggest year in company history in terms of business, and it was all centered around two-division champion Conor McGregor. With four of the top 10 PPVs of all-time headlined by the Irish superstar in the last 12 months, there is no question who the sport revolves around.
But who is next on the horizon? Are there any young fighters who could take the throne of Mystic Mac in the coming years? It might seem unlikely -- but four years ago, McGregor was a highly touted prospect from the UK who had yet to step into the Octagon.
Not to mention that women had yet to debut in the UFC, so there was obviously no indication that Ronda Rousey would emerge as the megastar that she is.
In order to become that person who moves TV ratings and/or PPV buyrates going forward, fighters have to have that “it factor” as well as the fighting ability to back it up. Other than Kimbo Slice, it’s hard to find anyone with a sustained level of drawing power without also being an elite fighter.
There are five individuals who I think have the potential to emerge as big stars in 2017. With these people, I believe they have both the fighting ability along with some other factor that could push them over the edge.
UFC bantamweight Cody Garbrandt
At the time of this writing, it's only hours out from the 25-year-old Garbrandt’s first UFC title shot. Whether he wins or loses, I think that the future is bright for the powerful 135 pounder.
Garbrandt may have accepted this title opportunity too early into his career, but it was a natural given the long-standing rivalry between champion Dominick Cruz and his fight camp, Team Alpha Male. Garbrandt has won all five of his UFC bouts, four via KO to earn his spot in the biggest fight of his life.
In fact, he KO’d his last three opponents in the first round and two of those adversaries came into their fight with unbeaten pro records. This will be Garbrandt’s second UFC main event, and I think he has a chance to become a breakthrough star with a win on such a big stage.
Even if he loses, he’s still young enough that he can rebound, as George St-Pierre did, and become a big star a few years down the road. His combination of skill, power, and promo ability does not come along every day, and if I was investing in the stock of an MMA fighter, I'd have a lot of money on Cody Garbrandt.
UFC welterweight Mickey Gall (4-0)
Gall famously called out CM Punk after winning his pro debut in late 2015. He was rewarded for his “gall” (pun intended) with a UFC contract and a featured prelim fight against the biggest pushover in recent UFC history in Mike Jackson, and did as expected in destroying the MMA reporter who hadn’t even fought an amateur fight in over two years.
He then went on to beat Punk in the former WWE champion’s pro debut and recently dispatched Sage Northcutt, who would likely be on this list if he’d won that fight. Each of Gall's last two wins were in high profile positions and he seems to get this business in ways that many fighters don't.
He’s called out Dan Hardy, who he likely won’t get due to medical complications on the part of the former welterweight title contender. But he will most certainly figure out the next fighter to call out in short order, and if he manages to pick up another couple wins in 2017, he could be headlining cards by this time next year.
UFC strawweight Alexa Grasso (9-0)
Grasso made her UFC debut in November and scored a dominant decision win over Heather Clark. The 23-year-old Mexican came in with a lot of hype, having won four straight fights in Invicta, including a win over former DEEP champion Mizuki Inoue.
Grasso is very important for the Mexican market, and competing in a new division that is still maturing in UFC, she has a chance to be a title competitor in short order. She has a very engaging personality and was one of the most popular fighters on the card in Mexico City.
UFC will need to be careful with her opponents as a loss early in her run there could hurt her future drawing ability greatly. She is already the 14th ranked fighter in her weight class, according to FightMatrix.com, though, and with a couple more wins there will be talk of title opportunities for her.
Bellator featherweight James Gallagher (5-0)
Bellator’s answer to Conor McGregor, Gallagher is just 20 years old and has already been in the co-main event of a show in the company’s debut in Dublin. Gallagher submitted his American opponent, his fourth such victory in five pro fights, and the future could be now for the native of Northern Ireland.
He is very early into his career, though, and more than anyone on this list the company has to be very cautious of who he’s matched up against. He showed vulnerability against Anthony Taylor, who was only in his third career fight, and the opponents are not going to get any easier.
The man cuts one hell of a promo and seems to understand what he needs to do to become a star. The sky is the limit for him, and if he needs advice he can look no further than his training partner, the aforementioned McGregor.
ONE Championship strawweight Angela Lee (6-0)
Just 20 years old, the Canadian-born Lee now fights out of Singapore and has fast become one of the signature stars of that organization. In her last fight, Lee had one of the best fights of the year against Mei Yamaguchi and captured the strawweight title via a five-round decision.
This was the first time she failed to finish an opponent in her six career victories, but she was giving up a lot of experience to her 33-year-old opponent, who has been competing professionally since 2007, when Lee was still in grade school.
Lee is very charismatic, speaks perfect English, and could be a big star in the North American market should she choose to leave ONE. Or she could stay there and continue to expand her popularity in that region.
It’s notable that her younger brother, 18-year-old Christian, also fights for ONE. He suffered his first career defeat in his last fight after five straight first round finishes, all in the last year.
2017 will be an interesting year as we look at the paths of these five fighters on their road to stardom. Perhaps someone who hasn’t even debuted in a big company will take the MMA world by storm and try to stake their claim.
As the sport becomes more and more mainstream, it will be interesting to see if the UFC can create a new star who will eventually take the place of McGregor and Rousey.