Marc Diakiese was sensational at the O2 Arena in London in March
1) Marc Diakiese
Marc Diakiese came into the UFC as one of the most highly touted prospects in the UK, having claimed two spectacular first round knockouts on route to his Octagon debut.
‘The Bonecrusher’ added more passengers to his hype train this month in London with his third UFC win in as many outings. The right hand that stopped Teemu Packalen in the first round has led to calls for a step up in opposition for the Congolese Doncaster native.
Speaking after his spectacular stoppage win in London, Diakiese was quick to agree.
“I’m one of the best and I will keep proving it,” said Diakiese in his post-fight interview.
“I’m training at one of the best gyms (American Top Team) and I just keep proving that I am one of the best out there. I want to be fighting on the main card next.
“Being on the prelims is no good for me. I want to be fighting bigger names. I’m interested in fighting on the Sweden card in May and then put me on the Glasgow card in July. Whoever is next, I will be ready.”
Now backed by powerhouse gym ATT, Diakiese will look to push himself toward the title conversation for the remainder of the year. His athleticism, power and ever-evolving skill set make him a handful for anyone in the 155lbs division.
2) Tom Duquesnoy
Tom ‘Firekid’ Duquesnoy has been one of the most celebrated fighters outside of the UFC for a number of years, but this year the Frenchman finally put pen to paper and signed on the dotted line with the promotion.
Training out of Jackson-Winkeljohn, Duquesnoy first impressed at featherweight before hitting a completely new level at bantamweight.
Many feel that ‘Firekid’ can make an immediate impact on the UFC’s bantamweight division, which is one of the most exciting brackets the organisation boasts at the moment.
Duquesnoy’s debut falls on April 22 against Patrick Williams as the UFC makes its first visit to Kansas City. Although some called for a bigger name to welcome Duquesnoy to the mix, ‘Firekid’ intelligently explained that he wants to get some experience with the world’s biggest promotion before launching a title charge.
“I feel like I’m ready to take on the best, but at the moment, I want to get used to the process of the UFC events. It’s all about feeling for me,” said Duquesnoy shortly after his signing.
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Express Sport brings you 10 of the best UFC fighters to keep an eye on in 2017
3) Francis Ngannou
Francis ‘The Predator’ Ngannou arguably has more momentum than any other UFC heavyweight at the moment, having dispatched all five of his opponents since making his Octagon debut in December 2015.
The scariest thing about Ngannou is that he has only been training in MMA since 2013. It will be no surprise to any of his fans to hear that he is a big Mike Tyson fan with five of his last six wins coming by way of knockout.
Ngannou is pushing to establish himself in the heavyweight title fray, after coming off a first round knockout over former champion Andrei Arlovski.
Initially, the Cameroonian knockout artist was looking to align himself with a date with Cain Velasquez but with him injured, Ngannou told the gathered media in London that he has his sights set on two other perennial title challengers, Junior Dos Santos and Alistair Overeem.
Francis Ngannou means business this year
4) Michelle Waterson
Michelle ‘The Karate Hottie’ Waterson is tipped to challenge for the UFC’s strawweight title this year, despite having been on the sidelines for a year and a half prior to her emphatic win over Paige VanZant in December.
A mother of one, Waterson’s striking background makes her hot property in the 115lbs division given the dominance of Muay Thai standout Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who has reigned at the top of the division since her win over Carla Esparza in March 2015.
Waterson will face her most significant test to date when she locks horns with another strawweight that has been tipped for greatness, Rose Namajunas. It is likely that the winner of the April 15 co-main event will go on to take on the winner of the championship bout between Jedrzejczyk and Jessica Andrade, which takes place on May 13 at UFC 211.
5) Arnold Allen
Arnold Allen may have taken his UFC debut on short notice, but his three wins under the banner in as many outings have made him one of the key UK fighters to watch for the remainder of 2017.
Allen’s hype has been somewhat restricted to the UK, despite him recently switching camps to world-renowned Montreal gym, Tristar.
It appeared as though Allen, 23, may have bitten off more than he could chew when he was booked to meet Makwan Amirkhani, but Allen’s gritty style and dynamic skill set saw him come away with the win when the featherweights traded leather on in London in March.
Perhaps the most exciting thing for fans when it comes to Allen is that he always fights right up until the final bell. In all three of his UFC outings, he has put on monstrous displays in the dying embers of his fights, as evidenced by the rear naked choke he secured on Amirkhani in the final seconds of their clash last weekend.
At 23-years-old, there’s no real need to test Allen at the top of the bracket yet but, speaking after the event, the Suffolk man was adamant that he is ready to take on all comers.
Arnold Allen saw off Makwan Amirkhani in London earlier this month
6) Gunnar Nelson
Although Gunnar Nelson has been turning heads on the international scene ever since his UFC debut back in 2012, his performance in London’s co-main event has underlined his title ambitions and has led to calls for a top-flight clash for the Icelandic submission ace.
Nelson seems to be putting his karate and jiu-jitsu intellect together better than ever, which was clear from the crisp right hand and head kick that folded his opponent in London, Alan Jouban. After stunning the striker, Nelson locked up a guillotine choke that forced him to tap in the second round.
For the first time ever, Nelson was very vocal about ranked opponents not wanting to sign to fight him ahead of the O2 Arena event.
After the bout, Nelson’s coach John Kavanagh called for a bout with two-time welterweight contender Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson. The Irish coach also declared interest in seeing UFC make Nelson vs Dong Hyun Kim, a fight that was initially slated for Belfast before Nelson had to withdraw with an injury.
Gunnar Nelson left Alan Jouban in a heap at UFC Fight Night London
7) Ray Borg
Due to the lack of bona fide title challengers that the flyweight division boasts at the moment, the MMA world has every reason to be excited about surging prospect Ray Borg.
Borg’s grappling game makes him a nightmare to deal with. He couples his wrestling ability with a deceptively aware submission game. In his recent wins over fellow prospects Louis Smolka and Jussier Formiga, Borg has showcased a developing striking game, which can only help the 23-year-old fighter establish himself at the top of the division.
Borg is hoping to take a short break from competition but optimistically called for a clash with champion and pound for pound great Demetrious Johnson after he fights Wilson Reis, on April 15.
“It makes sense (to fight for the title),” Borg told MMAJunkie.com last week. “Formiga’s a high-level black belt and I’m just a kid from the ghetto in a small town, and I out-scrambled him, I out-grappled him, and he beat Wilson (in 2015). Wilson is fighting for the belt. Why wouldn’t it make sense?”
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Chrissy Blair, Brittney Palmer and Arianna Celeste
8) Valentina Shevchenko
The talent that exists in the UFC’s women’s ranks is obvious when you consider the praise that Jedrzejczyk, Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino and bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes have garnered all over the world. However, there are many that would argue that Valentina ‘Bullet’ Shevchenko is the best pound for pound female on the UFC’s books at the moment.
A decorated world champion in kickboxing and Muay Thai, Shevchenko had a baptism of fire in the UFC ranks when she drew future champion Nunes in her debut at UFC 196 in March. The duo fought to a draw and after looking outsized in the tussle, Shevchenko has added valuable muscle to her frame that has helped her to no end in the bantamweight division.
Shevchenko’s win over former pro-boxing and UFC champion Holly Holm underlined her outstanding striking ability and since then she has gone on to dispatch another title contender, Julianna Pena, with a second round armbar.
The 29-year-old Kyrgyzstani will likely get her rematch with champion Nunes in her next outing and, if UFC rolls out the female flyweight division, we may even get to see Jedrzejczyk and ‘Bullet’ face off again in a rematch from their Muay Thai competition days, when Shevchenko came away with the win.
Valentina Shevchenko is arguably the best pound for pound female in the UFC
9) Jimi Manuwa
At 37-years-old, now is the time for Jimi Manuwa to launch his assault on the UFC’s light-heavyweight title.
The Londoner took the majority of the headlines after his first round knockout of Corey Anderson at UFC London and, now boasting a two-fight win streak, it seems as though the time is right for ‘Posterboy’ to fight for a number one contender bout.
Manuwa showed his business acumen in his post-fight interview when he called for a bout with David Haye should UFC manage to co-promote a boxing card to facilitate the ever-floated Conor McGregor versus Floyd Mayweather super fight.
Even though the proposition got a big pop from the London crowd, Manuwa’s focus should stay on MMA due to his proximity to the title.
Manuwa spoke after his recent win about how both Glover Teixeira and Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua turned down fights with him in the lead-up to the London card. Perhaps one of the two Brazilians could meet him to decide the next challenger for the title.
10) Yair Rodriguez
Yair Rodriguez is arguably the most spectacular kicker that has ever competed in the UFC. Including his win to claim The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America tournament, the Chihuahua native has never tasted defeat in six visits to the Octagon.
After his second round demolition of pound for pound great BJ Penn, who returned to action after a lengthy absence, Rodriguez will next pit his skills against another all-time legend in Frankie Edgar.
While Penn’s relevance was in question when it came to the modern sport, Edgar competed for the UFC’s interim featherweight title just last year, when he came up short against Jose Aldo for the second time.
Should Rodriguez have his hand raised after the May 13 main event, he will be propelled into the title fray, a location that many top analysts felt he was destined for ever since his promotional debut.