2018 was a strange year for the UFC and MMA as a whole, from cancelled title fights, to seemingly meaningless interim titles and multiple weight cutting disasters. On an entertainment level, though, 2018 delivered in spades - with some crazy fights and the emergence of some top prospects.
Here’s five UFC prospects to look out for this year:
5: Leon “Rocky” Edwards
Currently sitting as the tenth ranked contender in the UFC’s welterweight division, Leon Edwards had an impressive, slightly under the radar, 2018. Two impressive victories over Peter Sobotta and Donald Cerrone have him riding the crest of a wave, and possibly one or two fights from a UFC title shot. The UFC are always keen to push European and British talent, and Leon Edwards has been campaigning to fight in the UK for a long time. With no headliner announced for UFC London yet (there are rumours of Darren Till vs Colby Covington, although) Edwards could be called upon to main event his second card in a row, this time in his home country. One or two victories over top ranked competition could see him gain a welterweight title shot. Look for Leon Edwards to have a big 2019.
4: Gregor Gillespie
Undefeated lightweight Gregor Gillespie has just cracked the top 15 at 155 lbs in the UFC. The former NCAA All-American and National Champion wrestler has brought an unrelenting pace to his MMA career, currently on a five fight win streak inside the UFC octagon, with the last four being stoppages. If he gets past Yancy Medeiros this Saturday he will surely earn a fight against top ten competition. Don’t be surprised if we are talking about an impending title shot for Gillespie this time next year.
Gregor Gillespie defeats Jordan Rinaldi during UFC Fight Night at Spectrum Center on January 27, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
3: Aspen Ladd
Another undefeated fighter, this time 7-0 with 6 finishes. So far Ladd’s toughest challenger has been the scales, missing the 136 lb non-title limit twice in her seven fights. Inside the cage though, she’s looked nothing but impressive, scoring five KO/TKO victories and an armbar over UFC veteran Amanda Cooper. Currently scheduled to face Holly Holm in March, Ladd could find herself just one victory from a title shot. The woman’s 135 lb is short on challengers for Amanda Nunes’ title, and a victory over the number two ranked Holly Holm could catapult Ladd into a title shot in just her ninth professional fight.
Las Vegas , United States - 6 October 2018; Rreferee Chris Tognoni stops the UFC women's bantamweight fight between Aspen Ladd, top, and Tonya Evinger during UFC 229 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
2: Israel Adesanya
“The Last Stylebender” has had a very impressive first year with the UFC. In less than 12 months he fought and won four times, including a first round TKO of Derek Brunson, and is now the sixth ranked middleweight contender. Adesanya is slated to face Anderson Silva in what is being seen as something of a “passing of the torch” fight. Should Adesanya beat Silva impressively, and give another entertaining post-fight interview, he could easily find himself in a title fight before the end of 2019. He used 2018 to mark his territory, and he will want to use 2019 to claim his throne.
Israel Adesanya of Nigeria celebrates victory over Derek Brunson of the United States in their middleweight bout during the UFC 230 event at Madison Square Garden on November 3, 2018 in New York
1: Ben Askren
The number one prospect to look out for in 2019 also happens to arguably be the best welterweight fighter in the world. He is finally scheduled to make his UFC debut against Robbie Lawler at UFC 235 with a professional record of 18-0, at 34 years of age and a collection of world titles from nearly every major promotion outside of the UFC. For years he has terrorised the welterweight divisions of Bellator and ONE Championship but has historically not seen eye-to-eye with Dana White, which has prevented him making his way to the UFC. Finally, though, the questions about Askren can be answered. As a good friend and training partner of UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, don’t expect to see “Funky” fighting for the title anytime soon. What you should expect are high profile fights for Askren - the likes of Georges St-Pierre, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor have already been called out. Askren will look to prove his critics wrong by showing that he can hang at the highest level in the UFC in 2019.
Ben Askren lands several powerful ground strikes to TKO Shinya Aoki at ONE Championship: Immortal Pursuit at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on November 24, 2017.