In 2008, Dan Hardy was a 26-year-old British kickboxer turned mixed martial artist with a 19-6 (1 NC) record. At that point Hardy had already lost to most of the notable (and some not-so-notable fighters) he'd faced, including Forrest Petz, Yoshiyuki Yoshida, David Baron and Pat Healy. Four UFC wins and two years later and Dan Hardy was fighting Georges St. Pierre for the UFC Welterweight title.
Hardy's 2-4 record in the UFC since losing that title bid shows just how impressive was Joe Silva's feat of cultivating him into a legitimate contender in the world's best MMA promotion. Some purists complain that limited fighters like Dan Hardy shouldn't be given clear paths to a UFC title shot, but from a promotional perspective, it's a must to develop new and interesting fighters into title contenders.
This past Saturday's UFC on Fuel TV 5: Struve vs. Miocic card featured a pair of UFC debutants who could potentially be groomed into popular title challengers in a couple of years. Light Heavyweight basher Jimi Manuwa smashed Kyle Kingsbury's face and improved his record to 12-0, 1-0 in the UFC. Welterweight Gunnar Nelson showed that his combination of blue-chip grappling credentials and karate training is a viable formula for UFC success by making quick work of an out-of-shape DaMarques Johnson.
However both fighters will require careful cultivation to make the most of their abilities and charisma in a promotional sense. Manuwa, who smashed Kingsbury's facial bones with a brutal series of punches, kicks and knees, showed a great deal of upside as a purveyor of brutal violence. But Manuwa also struggled with Kingsbury's wrestling, even after he had hurt him badly. Had the fight not been stopped by doctors between rounds, it's quite possible that Kingsbury could have gone on to win the third round and possibly a judges' decision.
Looking at the September Bloody Elbow MMA rankings, it's entirely plausible that Manuwa could more than hold his own with a number of fighters in the top 25 of the Light Heavyweight division, if not many in the top 10. Ryan Jimmo, Stanislav Nedkov, Brandon Vera and Stephan Bonnar are all fighters that Manuwa would stand a better than 50% chance of beating. Jimmo's wrestling would make him the highest hurdle for Manuwa.
If he can get past two fighters at that level, Manuwa would be ready to move up to the top 15 and face opponents like James Te Huna (I'm assuming Te Huna will move up by then), Thiago Silva, and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. A wrestler like Ryan Bader would be a formidable test for Manuwa and it might be better to keep him away from the better American grapplers in the interest of building him into a title challenger for Jon Jones.
If Glover Teixeira continues to develop apace, it could be that he and Manuwa could fight in a title eliminator bout much like Lyoto Machida and Thiago Silva did back in 2008.
Gunnar Nelson presents a similar opportunity for the UFC with a less glaring weakness. That's good because the UFC Welterweight class is a shark's tank filled with hungry killers. I would throw Nelson in against a couple of non-wrestling based fighters first, maybe Siyar Bahadurzada, Brian Ebersole or Paulo Thiago. Those guys are all sufficiently formidable to test Nelson without presenting a stylistic brick wall. I'd keep him away from the Mike Pierce or Rick Story grinder types as long as possible. Fighters like Mike Pyle, Thiago Alves and Demian Maia should provide more than enough credible competition for Nelson to prove himself without running him off the rails.
From there it will be tricky to get Nelson to the very top, but it might be well worth the trouble for Joe Silva to clear a path to contention for the charismatic young Viking.
If the UFC can't develop fighters like Manuwa and Nelson into contenders, they need to rethink their fight booking model. MMA isn't amateur wrestling or pro tennis that can run hundreds of matches and be a pure meritocracy. There's a place for some razzle dazzle and the cultivation of fighters with charisma and fan-friendly styles.