In the last few years, the top prospects in mixed martial arts, guys like Jon Jones, Junior dos Santos, Cain Velasquez, and Phil Davis, skyrocketed to success as soon as they were given their chance to shine on the sport’s biggest stage – the UFC Octagon. Will that be the case for 2011’s Unofficial UFC Newcomer of the Year? We can’t wait to find out.
10 - Costa Philippou
A former pro boxer, 32-year old Costa Philippou garnered a solid reputation on the east coast MMA scene, but after losing on season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter and then dropping a late notice UFC debut to Nick Catone, many questioned whether he was cut out for the big leagues. But in the second half of the year, the New Yorker defeated veteran Jorge Rivera by showing off his ground game, and then he brought the big guns out for his UFC 140 bout with Jared Hamman, knocking his foe out in the first round. Now Philippou is a player in the middleweight division, and this year he’ll get his shot to go from prospect to contender.
9 - Walel Watson
Too small to play Division I college football, Walel Watson instead found his niche in mixed martial arts, and after putting together a solid record in California and Mexico, he was brought to the UFC in October to see if he could hang with the best bantamweights in the sport. Well, so far he has, impressively stopping Joseph Sandoval in 77 seconds in his Octagon debut, and then going toe-to-toe with veteran Yves Jabouin in an entertaining December bout that saw “The Gazelle” lose a close split decision, but gain plenty of fans in the process. See both fights on UFC.TV
8 - Che Mills
Expected to make a run for The Ultimate Fighter season nine crown, Che Mills instead lost to eventual winner James Wilks and was sent back to the local British MMA scene. Undaunted, Mills put together a solid winning streak and earned an invite to the Octagon for November’s UFC 138 card. And while it took him years to get to this point, he only needed 40 seconds to make an impression as he knocked out Chris Cope. Now it’s off to Montreal and a UFC 145 bout against Rory MacDonald, and if Mills scores his second UFC win, his road to the top may be shorter than most.See Mills' scrap with Chris Cope
7 - Dave Herman
The best line of 2011 may have come from heavyweight Dave Herman, who wrote on his UFC bio form that he didn’t start training until two years ago. That was after he ran up a 15-1 pro MMA record. But that loss to Choi Mu Bae in 2009 sparked Herman to go chase after his potential, and in his UFC debut in June, he showed just what he brings to the table as he won an exciting Fight of the Night against John-Olav Einemo, stopping his foe in the second round. Now we’ll see what he can do in 2012.
6 - Mike Easton
A 10 year journey finally put Washington D.C. bantamweight Mike Easton in the UFC, and after a slow start, “The Hulk” erupted in front of his hometown fans in Octagon, with the Lloyd Irvin jiu-jitsu black belt showing off his striking as he halted Byron Bloodworth in the second round. In a crowded 135-pound weight class, Easton has a charismatic presence that makes you want to see him throwing hands with the best the division has to offer, and he’s likely to get that chance this year. Watch Easton's bout with Byron Bloodworth
5 - Diego Brandao / John Dodson
It’s only fitting that The Ultimate Fighter season 14’s two winners (and Jackson MMA teammates) share the fifth spot, given their friendship and spectacular debut victories on December 3rd. That night, featherweight Brandao came back from almost certain defeat to submit Dennis Bermudez, and bantamweight Dodson took less than two minutes to knock out favored TJ Dillashaw, earning each a UFC contract. More importantly though, it means that we’re going to be getting even more excitement from these two standouts in the next 12 months and beyond. Watch the TUF 14 Finale
4 - Jimy Hettes
Jimy Hettes’ UFC debut in August (a submission win over Alex Caceres) flew under the radar a bit. But his second Octagon bout against Nam Phan last weekend on the UFC 141 main card certainly didn’t, as the world got a dose of one of the featherweight division’s top prospects in spectacular form. Going the distance for the first time in his career, the unbeaten submission ace showed off a complete MMA game in dismantling a veteran who simply doesn’t get taken apart the way he was that night in Las Vegas. See Hettes' submission win over Alex Caceres
3 - Tony Ferguson
The Ultimate Fighter season 13 winner, Tony Ferguson won his crown by leaving no doubts in the eyes of fight fans, knocking out Ramsey Nijem in the first round. Next up was a drop to 155 pounds and back-to-back wins over two of the sport’s most respected veterans, Aaron Riley and Yves Edwards. It’s the type of old-school upbringing that bodes well for the future of “El Cucuy,” as he’s proving that he’s not afraid to earn his keep in the Octagon. Watch Ferguson battle Aaron Riley
2 - Brian Ebersole
It’s a little odd to call a veteran of 65 pro fights a newcomer, but Brian Ebersole was new to UFC fans when he made his organizational debut in February against Chris Lytle. But by the time the UFC 127 bout was over, his unorthodox, yet entertaining style had made an indelible impression, and after 15 minutes, he had scored an upset victory over “Lights Out” and even earned a Fight of the Night bonus. Two more wins followed in succession, a TKO of Dennis Hallman and a close decision victory over Claude Patrick, and amazingly, at 31, the US native and Australia resident may just be entering his fighting prime, making the future an interesting one for the man with the most creative chest hair in MMA.
1 - Chris Weidman
Long Island, New York’s Chris Weidman has been saddled with the “Next Big Thing” tag from the time he turned pro in 2009, but even his staunchest supporters had to be a little concerned when he accepted a UFC fight against veteran Alessio Sakara on two weeks’ notice (and with injured ribs) in March. But Weidman proved that the high expectations for him were justified as he scored a clear-cut decision win over “Legionarius” in Louisville. Next up was a June showdown against Jesse Bongfeldt, and he delivered his first UFC finish, submitting the Canadian with six seconds left in the first round. But the biggest impression left by the unbeaten Weidman came in November, when he put fellow prospect Tom Lawlor to sleep in with a D’arce choke in a little over two minutes. If you had questions about the second Serra-Longo team member to make this list, they were likely answered that night. See why Weidman earns the No.1 slot by watching his fights on UFC.TV
Honorable Mention - John Cholish, Stanislav Nedkov, Stipe Miocic, Edwin Figueroa, Erick Silva, Robbie Peralta, Darren Uyenoyama, Lance Benoist, John Maguire, Johnny Bedford, Hatsu Hioki, Vagner Rocha
Ten Best - 2011 Newcomer of the Year
Ebersole? Weidman? Hettes? Ferguson? Who was 2011’s Unofficial UFC Newcomer of the Year?