Okay, so if you're reading this and you watched the event then you already know I'm going to talk about Sage Northcutt. The 19-year-old karateka has all the look and feel of the UFC's next "Big Thing." But, Northcutt wasn't the only young fighter to shine at UFC 192: Cormier vs. Gustafsson. Albert Tumenov, Yair Rodriguez, and Rose Namajunas also put on fantastic performances. Ruslan Magomedov, Sergio Pettis, Derrick Lewis and Julianna Pena did alright. And Viktor Pesta, Angela Hill, Islam Makhachev, and Alan Jouban fell flat. That's a lot of young talent experiencing a lot of different outcomes in one evening of MMA. So, what does it all mean?
Albert Tumenov had the really and truly brightest performance of the night. Alan Jouban wasn't an opponent just chosen to make him look good, but a tough, scrappy fighter that the UFC has a real interest in seeing succeed. It may not have been a step up in competition from Nico Musoke, but it wasn't a step back either, and Tumenov styled. Being able to beat decent competition handily is the kind of thing that really separates elite talent from the rest of the field and it looks like Tumenov is primed for the elite.
Yair Rodriguez didn't have a highlight reel finish to put the polish on his fight with Daniel Hooker, but he still looked damn good against an opponent who had the ability to make him look bad. Hooker isn't the athlete that Rodriguez is, but he's got a great chin and an able skill set in all areas. If Rodriguez got too wild too often, there was a good chance he'd end up submitted, or even just out-pointed. But, he showed that he can make his dynamic style work well enough to stay ahead of tough fighters. For the future it's all about Rodriguez's ability to refine that style into something he can easily maintain for multiple rounds.
Rose Namajunas needed a win and preferably an exciting one. She got thrown to the wolves for her TUF success and has an inflated rankings spot because of it. Angela Hill wasn't a bad opponent, after all Hill is a very good athlete, but she's not a great fighter yet. Hill doesn't have good tools to win tough fights, Namajunas does. Getting this win buoys Rose as the ranked fighter she's supposed to be, but until she beats some really stiff competition her place in the top 5 still feels unearned. She's athletic, she's aggressive, and she's opportunistic, and she has lots of time to improve. This win doesn't really say if she has or not.
Sage Northcutt was both the first and (relative to this list) last of the evening's great performing prospects. He got the win he was supposed to get, and he got it the way he was supposed to get it. It's worth noting here that he probably also had the most pressure on him, as the next "future star" that the UFC is looking to build. But, unlike past prospects it sounds like the UFC may be looking for a slow burn to the top with Northcutt. That's probably a very good idea. He's only a year into his pro career. The very best are ready for top competition after about three years, but that's an amazing exception to the rule. For most it's about five-six years (sometimes seven or eight) before they can start winning against the elite. The UFC's usual method is to assume everyone is on that three year track, and if you fall off it, you fall off it. If they can let Northcutt really work his way up the ladder, maybe he'll exceed expectations and they can book him big fights sooner, otherwise, giving him a lot of room to grow isn't a bad idea.
Derrick Lewis takes top honors for me in the field of fighters that got good, but not amazing wins. He got outworked and out-wrestled early in the fight, trying to show off his more evolved game. But, he adjusted, started to work from range and to focus on his sprawl and looked better than ever getting a late stoppage win. Is a win over Viktor Pesta earth shattering news? No. But, it's a fight he was expected to lose and expected to gas out badly in. By winning it, he showed real, appreciable growth in his game.
Sergio Pettis, Julianna Pena, and Ruslan Magomedov all had, to different degrees, the same kind of prospect building fight. Magomedov was the closest one to even odds, but all three fighters were facing reasonably polished veteran talent they were expected to beat. And despite some difficulties in getting the win, they all won. They're all on the slow track to prospect success. Given enough time and enough of the right match-ups, and not being thrown in way over their heads, they could end up as very good fighters. Considering all three of them fight in exceptionally thin divisions, it's unlikely that they'll get the time and room to grow that they need, so I wouldn't be surprised if setback losses are in their near future.
Islam Makhachev probably has the best chance of coming away from his loss with his confidence fully intact. Many people are saying his fight was stopped early, so he can tell himself that too if he has to. Sometimes a little lie is a valuable thing for a fighter. That's why you hear so many small excuses about MMA losses. "I was sick." "The ref/judges screwed me." "The mat was slippery." "My opponent was greased/cheating." "Things just didn't feel right that night..." These are important lies, because they keep confidence intact, and confidence is key to fighting. Makhachev has good tools, a good camp, and a good athletic base. He has to work on his striking, and he can't leap up the LW division, but a flash KO is something he can recover from.
As for Viktor Pesta, Angela Hill, and Alan Jouban, they've had much larger questions asked of them. All of them have the ability to be good fighters. All are tough, all are good athletes, all have some singular skills. But, they got beat, flat out. Pesta has to figure out how to generate real, consistent offense in his fights. He's powerful and has good positional control skills, but very little danger in his game. Angela Hill is a great athlete who is still very much learning how to MMA. She can strike a bit and wrestle a little, but can't do anything consistently enough to beat strong competition. And Alan Jouban is a fun action fighter. He's got a brawler's mentality and the arsenal to beat lower tier WWs, but top shelf prospects have beat him, none more handily than Tumenov. He's still got room and time to grow, but he's been shown he can't rely on his striking against top shelf talent and doesn't yet have the wrestling to make his grappling happen.
In short UFC 192 may not have quite made or broken anyone in particular. Albert Tumenov looks the most like a future title contender, and Angela Hill perhaps has the biggest problems to overcome, but all these fighters are still developing, and still have a lot of room to prove themselves. Fans in this sport have a tendency to get sold quickly and to lose interest too soon, so try to keep that in mind before you jump on or off these respective hype trains.