A new fighter signing in the UFC used to be cause for much excitement and discussion. With the UFC's expansion in both roster and event output, sometimes the news of a talented fighter signing a contract with the UFC is quickly forgotten. Over the course of the next few months, several UFC newcomers will attempt to establish themselves on the world's biggest MMA stage. Some are much hyped and well known, while others will be completely new to the mainstream UFC audience. I thought it would be cool to take a look at the recent additions to the UFC roster, analyze their upcoming bouts and predict their long term, potential impact in their respective weight classes.
Easily the biggest and most celebrated signing in recent weeks was former professional and amateur wrestler, Brock Lesnar (1-0-0). Lesnar unlike some of the other recently signed fighters does not need me to give you his full background, as it is well established. While he has only fought one MMA bout, it's his popularity and fame which has earned him what is certainly a lucrative contract, to fight in the UFC. His first match is versus former UFC HW champion Frank Mir, scheduled for UFC 81: February 2, 2008 in Las Vegas, Nevada at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Lesnar reportedly requested Mir as opponent, something that may prove to be a huge mistake. While Mir has been but a shell of his former self, since returning from a motor cycle accident that nearly ended his career, he is still one of the most dangerous HW fighters when fighting from his back. Unfortunately for Lesnar who's game plan will surely involve using his superior wrestling to take the fight to the floor and attempt to pound out a victory, Mir may have the antidote in the form of a submission.
It's a risky fight for Lesnar, but kudos to him for having the balls to make his UFC debut against a dangerous, even if now diminished, opponent.
Lesnar might be the highest profile signing by the UFC in recent days, but a flurry of recent contract signings have added several talented fighters to the UFC roster. Who will be the true "Next Big Thing" in the UFC?
Let's take a look at what's in store for Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou (4-1-0), Soa Palelei (8-1-0), Paul Kelly (6-0-0), James Lee (13-2-0), Justin Buchholz (7-1-0), Ricardo Almeida (8-2-0), Andre Gusmao (5-0-0) and Per Eklund (12-2-1)
Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou (4-1-0) absolutely shocked the MMA world in 2007, when as a relative newcomer to the sport he scored back to back 1st round KO victories over the highly ranked fighters: Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona. The African Assassin became an overnight sensation, much in the same way as Houston Alexander did, albeit against lesser ranked opposition. The difference here though comes in the knowledge that Sokoudjou is an elite judoka and Team Quest Temecula member, where he trains with the likes of Dan Henderson and Jason Miller every day. Unlike Houston Alexander, Sokoudjou is not an inept ground fighter.
Sokoudjou will however be tested in his first UFC bout versus the undefeated Lyoto Machida (11-0-0). They square off at UFC 79: Nemesis: December 29, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Mandalay Bay. This fight will answer many questions about Sokoudjou who hasn't fought in a year. He'll be battling ring rust as well as a highly skilled opponent. Whatever the fight's outcome, I expect Sokoudjou will become a LHW contender over the next year as well as a fan favourite.
Soa Palelei (8-1-0) a native of Perth, Australia hopes to add some excitement to the UFC's HW division. His lone loss came 4 years ago when he got his 1st break into the big time with a fight in Pride against Korean Choi Mu Bae. Soa took some time off and then joined Team Quest, where he has been training in preparation for his UFC debut. Soa Palelei (8-1-0) vs. Eddie Sanchez (7-1-0) will take place at UFC 79: Nemesis: December 29, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Mandalay Bay. Palelei seems to have all the tools needed to have a successful run in the UFC but I don't expect him to reach title contender status anytime in the near future.
Paul Kelly (6-0-0) is the latest Brit to be signed by the UFC. Kelly signed a four-fight deal and will join fellow Wolfslair teammate Michael Bisping in the octagon. Kelly is an undefeated, ground and pound machine, who has never gone to a decision. Kelly will make his UFC debut versus countryman Paul Taylor (8-2-1) at UFC 80: Rapid Fire: January 19, 2008 in Newcastle, England at Metro Radio Arena. I'll have to wait and see how Kelly fares in his debut before making any predictions as to what the future may hold for him. The reason being is that I can't recall ever seeing him compete.
James Lee (13-2-0) is the King of the Cage Light Heavyweight Champion and founder of the MASH fight team. Lee's highest profile bout was his one and only appearance in Pride, where he defeated Travis Wiuff via Guillotine Choke in less than 1 minute.Lee has won most of his bouts with submissions and will hope to out grapple Alessio Sakara (11-6-0) in his UFC debut at UFC 80: Rapid Fire: January 19, 2008 in Newcastle, England. Lee brings a good deal of experience to the UFC as well as the ability to show poise on bigger stage. I think that he has a decent chance in his octagon debut but don't see him excelling in the now stacked UFC LHW division.
Justin Buchholz (7-1-0) trains out of the Bull's Pen in Hawaii and made a name for himself with his first-round stoppage of Ikaika Choy-Fu at EliteXC: Uprising on Sept. 15, 2007. Buchholz's performance earned him a multi-fight contract offer from Pro Elite but the ICON Sport lightweight champ turned down that offer to sign a four-fight deal with the UFC. Buchholz is a young and talented fighter who is still learning the game while racking up an impressive record in his young career. Buchholz has drawn Matt Wiman for his UFC debut at UFC Fight Night 12: January 23, 2008 in Hollywood, Florida. This should be a competitive bout but I have to give Wiman the slight edge if for nothing else his octagon experience. If Buchholz can improve his striking game over the next year or so, he can become a lightweight contender by 2009.
Ricardo Almeida (8-2-0) is not a newcomer to the UFC. In fact he was once considered to be a top ten middleweight in the organization. Almeida left the UFC in 2002 to continue his fighting career in Japan, where he won six straight fights and then suddenly announced his retirement in 2004. After three years as a full time instructor, the BJJ blackbelt under Renzo Gracie has signed a reported 6-fight contract with the UFC. "Cachorrao" as he is called will help to fill the gap in the UFC's middleweight division, where the lack of championship contenders is becoming a problem. Almeida is scheduled to face Alan "The Talent" Belcher (11-3-0) at UFC 81: February 2, 2008 in Las Vegas, Nevada for his return. Almeida will have to shake off 3 years of ring rust as well as a rising UFC star in order to have a winning comeback but his outstanding jiu-jitsu should provide him a more than decent shot at defeating Belcher. Almeida's six-fight deal guarantees that he will have an opportunity to rebound from an early stumble in his comeback should that occur. I predict Almeida will become a force in the UFC and probably get a title shot before the end of his contract.
Andre Gusmao (5-0-0)
The secret weapon was how Andre Gusmao was described when called in as a replacement for Renzo Gracie’s Pitbulls in the International Fight League. Hailing from Goiania, Brazil, Andre Gusmao has lived and worked as a capoeira teacher in New York for seven years, leaving behind life as law student in his homeland. In New York he came under the tutelage of Renzo Gracie, earning his brown belt in BJJ.
From relative obscurity Gusmao has taken the IFL by storm, culminating with a well placed right knee by Andre that made the New York Pitbulls IFL champions. The 53 second knockout over Mike Ciesnolevicz earned his team a 3-2 victory over the defending champion Quad City Silverbacks in the IFL Championship Finals.
Gusmao’s victory also thrust him into the IFL Grand Prix Tournament. The same knee strike which won him a championship ring, broke the nose of opponent Ciesnolevicz, whose place he will now take in the tournament.
Some would call this karma, good or bad will be decided by what happens next. As the fourth seed in the light heavyweight division, Gusmao will be fighting Vladimir Matyushenko. The Tokyo Sabres light heavyweight has destroyed all IFL competition he has faced thus far with his superior wrestling skills. The Grand Prix opening round on November 3rd will definitely be Gusmao’s greatest test in his MMA career. Should he prevail over the veteran Russian fighter and advance to the Grand Prix finals, Gusmao will easily win my imaginary award for "best performance by a late replacement fighter" in 2007.
Whatever his fate in the Grand Prix, Andre Gusmao’s unorthodox capoeira stand-up skills and BJJ credentials should keep him a fan favourite and a fighter to watch for a long time.
That's what I said about Gusmao in an article I wrote at FightOpinion.com a couple months ago. While plans have changed with Gusmao leaving the IFL for the brighter stage of the UFC, the sentiment remain the same. Gusmao is slated to face David Heath (7-2-0) at UFC 81 on February 2, 2008 in Las Vegas, Nevada. I predict Gusmao will prove to be too skilled and athletic for the plodding Heath to handle and for Gusmao to earn a victory in his UFC debut. The UFC 205 lbs division is becoming a more dangerous place to ply one's trade by the day. Signing Gusmao adds a new shark to already deeply infested waters.
Per Eklund (12-2-1) of Hilti NHB in Stockholm, Sweden is considered by many to be one of the top lightweight fighters in all of Europe. His last bout was a unanimous decision victory over ATT's Rafael Dias at bodogFIGHT-Vancouver in late August. Eklund has a wealth of international experience and a well rounded game. As Sweden's first UFC fighter, Eklund will hopefully garner some more attention for the sport in that country during his 4-fight contract. Eklund's scheduled debut is a fight versus Canadian, Sam Stout (12-3-1) at UFC 80: Rapid Fire: January 19, 2008 in Newcastle, England. This fight should prove to be a good test on where he'll fit into the UFC's talented lightweight division. Eklund's a very good fighter and can hang with the best, how he will fair in the talent laden UFC is hard to predict.