MMA is going strong into 2014, with the UFC hosting a bazillion events and other companies like Bellator and World Series of Fighting employing some top talent as well. More fighters than ever are making enough money to fight full-time and with so many talented guys and girls out there, there's bound to be a few that step up into prominent spots this year.
With that in mind, I figured it was worth looking at seven fighters that I think are going to have a big 2014. I'm not going to go with the obvious people that are already on top. I'm aiming more for fighters that are already signed to big organizations and are going to either earn themselves some attention with some big wins, or are going to break into the top tier of their respective divisions.
So, let's get onto it. In no particular order...
Cathal Pendred - You've probably heard about his exploits in Cage Warriors and his association with Conor McGregor. But the Irish fighter is set to be a contestant on TUF 19 under the tutelage of either B.J. Penn or Frankie Edgar, and he's my odds-on favorite to win the whole thing. He's already beaten three UFC vets, most recently stopping Che Mills. He might be the best prospect TUF has turned out in years, and by the end of 2014 I fully expect him to have two UFC wins under his belt. Check out this interview if you want to learn a little more about him.
Brandon Thatch - He's already got two wins in the UFC and it's not hard to see that Thatch is a welterweight to be taken seriously. Only one of his 13 career fights has even made it out of the first round. Because welterweight is so packed, they can either choose to bring him along slowly or throw some serious challengers at him right away and see if he'll sink or swim. I believe it will be the latter, and Thatch could be knocking on the door of the top 10 with a 5-0 UFC record by the end of the year.
Michael Page - The 26-year old English fighter has been dubbed the "British Anderson Silva" because of his striking, which is unique to say the least. The tall, lanky welterweight throws all sorts of crazy kicks and is surprisingly accurate with his hands. He made his Bellator debut last March and knocked out his opponent in 10 seconds. At 5-0, he could be a star in the making for Bellator if he can get more fights with the organization soon. If not, he'll probably make a name for himself in Europe either way in 2014.
Erik Perez - Yes, Perez already has five UFC fights and is 4-1. But the Mexican fighter is still only 24 and I think he's going to blow up the bantamweight division in 2014. He's well-rounded, with a great camp (Jackson's), and is still young enough to get his wrestling up to the point where he can challenge the top guys in the division. I see him in the top five at 135 by the time 2015 rolls around.
Albert Tumenov - My guess is that you haven't heard of this 21-year-old Russian yet. He was recently signed by the UFC and makes his debut at UFC Fight Night 36 against Ildemar Alcantara. He's 12-1 overall and has finished his last six fights by KO or TKO. His striking is off the hook and he's going to be a super entertaining welterweight in the UFC. If you want to learn more about him, check out what Zane Simon had to say when he signed with the UFC.
Kyoji Horiguchi - The natural flyweight made his UFC debut at 135 and toasted Dustin Pague in the second round. Horiguchi, a former Shooto champ, has cut through some of the best competition Japan has to offer on his way to the big time and his striking makes him an immediate threat in the UFC's flyweight division. He could easily reel off 2-3 more wins and be close to a title shot by the end of the year.
Justin Gaethje - The 25-year-old Grudge fighter already has three wins in WSOF and will compete for the promotion's lightweight title later this month. While the WSOF lightweight division isn't really all that deep, he has already knocked off quality competition and is the favorite to win the title. Eventually he's likely going to have to face Nick Newell for the belt, and a win over him will make Gaethje one of the top non-UFC 155ers in the world. WSOF needs a breakout star, and Gaethje might just be that guy.