MMA: Alexander Gustafsson and the Breakthrough Fighters of 2013

Kyle Symes@ksymes88Correspondent IIIJanuary 7, 2014

MMA: Alexander Gustafsson and the Breakthrough Fighters of 2013

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

    With Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre and Cain Velasquez expected to be away from the Octagon for part or all of the coming year, the UFC will be looking for fighters to fill the void—not only in terms of fighting ability, but also in terms of fans wanting to pay good money to see them compete.

    Perhaps no fighter broke out in 2013 like Alexander Gustafsson. After being marketed on his physical attributes, the Swede showed he has the technical prowess to give UFC champ Jon Jones a run for his money.

    Gustafsson wasn't alone in going from a relative unknown to a superstar. A number of fighters took a big step forward to propel their UFC careers. Even a few fighters who were already established names saw themselves jump up the ladder to become "must-see TV" for the UFC in 2014.

Honorable Mentions

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    Cat Zingano

    She became a popular face in women's MMA after her gutsy performance against Miesha Tate. An injury forced her out of a scheduled The Ultimate Fighter coaching gig and a showdown with Ronda Rousey for the belt. Look for Zingano to finally get her title shot in 2014 if she can return from injury.

    Matt Brown

    He was already on people's radar for dropping Mike Swick to end 2012, and he had some incredible fights in 2013. Brown would have made this list if he'd been able to square off and do well against Carlos Condit.

    Daniel Cormier

    He set himself up for a nice run in 2013 after beating Josh Barnett. His victories over Frank Mir and Roy Nelson weren't the most exciting fights, but they proved Cormier has the talent to compete in the UFC.

    Demetrious Johnson and Renan Barao

    Both guys already own UFC gold but managed to finish a few fights to increase their popularity. The knock on the smaller guys has always been that they can't finish fights, but "Mighty Mouse" and Barao threatened to end that critique.

    Zach Makovsky

    The former Bellator champion finally got his big break to join the UFC, but it came with a catch. He'd have to fight on two weeks notice and face one of the best bantamweights—Scott Jorgensenin Jorgensen's flyweight debut. Makovsky controlled the fight and took home a unanimous-decision victory.

Ali Bagautinov

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    Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

    Ali Bagautinov entered the UFC in 2013 with a 10-2 record and numerous grappling credentials including two World Combat Sambo championships. 

    He made a successful debut in September by stopping Marcos Vinicius by TKO in the third round. He then put on an impressive showing against a tough Tim Elliott at UFC 167.

    With those two wins, Bagautinov finds himself  in the mix for a flyweight title shot due to a lack of depth. A win against John Lineker at UFC 169 on Feb. 1 would give him the cache needed to warrant a title shot.

Joanne Calderwood

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    Joanne Calderwood made her MMA debut in 2012 after a successful career in muay Thai. After capping off 2012 with a Knockout of the Night performance at Invicta FC 3, she continued the good times in 2013.

    Although she only managed to secure one finish in 2013, her 4-0 run is something to tip your cap to. Calderwood is still new to the sport of MMA, but there's no doubt she's one of the rising stars.

    Women's MMA has often been criticized for fights turning into wild brawls that lack technical skill. That won't be the case with a Calderwood fight, as she's one of the best strikers in WMMA.

    Appearing on The Ultimate Fighter 20 with a number of fellow strawweights will only increase her fanbase. She also has the European appeal that the UFC will be quick to promote, given the emphasis on international cards for the new UFC Fight Pass.

Travis Browne

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    Travis Browne ended 2012 by suffering the first defeat of his MMA career. Although his leg injury contributed to his loss against Antonio Silva, Browne had fallen off the heavyweight radar.

    That all changed in 2013, when he laid waste to the heavyweight contenders put in front of him. It began with a devastating knockout (legal/illegal strikes discussion aside) of Gabriel Gonzaga. Browne next showcased the heart of a champion by surviving by the slimmest of margins against Alistair Overeem.

    He capped off an already impressive run in 2013 with a performance that left MMA fans speechless.

    At UFC 168, Browne faced the surging veteran Josh Barnett. "The Warmaster" pushed Browne against the fence but fell victim to a series of elbows that rendered him unconscious.

    Over the course of three fights, Browne went from interesting prospect to a solid contender who seems primed for a No. 1 contender's match with Fabricio Werdum in 2014.

Alexis Davis

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    Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

    After struggling to maintain momentum in her career, Alexis Davis elevated herself to the highest stage possible in 2013.

    She entered the UFC with an unanimous decision over the veteran Rosi Sexton. As impressive as that was, she followed it up with a strong showing against Liz Carmouche in November.

    Although Sara McMann and Cat Zingano are lined up for title shots against Ronda Rousey, Davis has a basis for deserving a title fight as well.

    A win over fellow breakout fighter Jessica Eye at UFC 170 would assure her of a title shot in 2014.

Jessica Eye

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    Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

    Jessica Eye popped up on fans' radars by submitting Zoila Frausto Gurgel in 2012, but she firmly established herself as a contender in 2013.

    She picked up a win on the regional circuit before being called up to the big stage of the UFC. She drew a tough out for her first UFC fight by facing Sarah Kaufman. The former women's Strikeforce bantamweight champion gave Eye everything she could handle over the course of three rounds.

    Yet, Eye, not Kaufman, had her hand raised at the end of the contest.

    She also made headlines and caused a few "nerdgasms" with her statements about being single.

    She will have the chance to toss her name into the hat for a title shot with an upcoming bout against Alexis Davis at UFC 170.

Dustin Poirier

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    Dustin Poirier began 2013 with a bump in the road by losing a battle with Cub Swanson, but few slighted Poirier after the fight.

    "The Diamond" would use his bout with Erik Koch as a launching pad to prove that he belongs among the upper level of featherweights. Heading into hostile territory, he dominated Koch en route to unanimous-decision victory.

    He was then paired up against Diego Brandao, which had fireworks written all over it.

    The fight didn't disappoint, although Poirier was the only one to bring the fireworks. Brandao dropped Poirier in the opening minutes, but The Diamond's relentless pace broke his opponent. The fight ended with Brandao closing his eyes and attempting to block the onslaught with a hand over his face.

    With back-to-back impressive showings, Poirier is in the mix for a featherweight title shot sometime in 2014.

Tecia Torres

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    Invicta FC

    Although only competing professionally in MMA since 2012, Tecia Torres has quickly risen to be one of the prominent faces in WMMA.

    Going 4-0 over the course of 2013 will do that to a fighter's career.

    Not only did she win all four of her fights in 2013, she did so while only losing a single round on the scorecards. Even one of the judges in her fight with Rose Namajunas gave her all three rounds.

    However, perhaps no win was bigger for Torres than her most recent one over Felice Herrig. No matter what you have to say about Herrig's ranking, she came into Invicta FC 7 as arguably the better striker.

    Torres erased all doubt, schooling Herrig en route to a unanimous-decision win.

    Look for big things from the "Tiny Tornado" when she competes on The Ultimate Fighter 20.

Khabib Nurmagomedov

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

    2013 may be remembered as the "Year of the Russians" by some, and Khabib Nurmagomedov definitely led the charge.

    The lightweight went 3-0 in 2013 and put on a grappling clinic against Abel Trujillo and tough veteran Pat Healy. 

    With one of the more outstanding grappling backgrounds in the UFC's lightweight division, Nurmagomedov is a dangerous opponent for any fighter. He was supposed to face Gilbert Melendez at UFC 170 in a high-profile matchup, but those plans fell through.

    Now without an opponent, he is swimming in a shark-tank division heading into 2014.

Robbie Lawler

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    Robbie Lawler was already an established name through much of the MMA fanbase, but 2013 saw him emerge from the ashes of gatekeeper to become a UFC title challenger. 

    He kicked off 2013 by dropping Josh Koscheck at UFC 157 in a fight that many (myself included) felt was a matchup nightmare for "Ruthless." Lawler put an end to those talks with a first-round victory.

    He followed that up with a highlight-reel knockout against the overwhelmed Bobby Voelker in July. After two impressive showings, the UFC pushed him up to a top-level fight with Rory MacDonald.

    Taking advantage of MacDonald's tentative game plan, Lawler took home a split-decision win over the much younger challenger.

    When 2013 began, Lawler was nothing more than a big name that the UFC hoped to squeeze some more dollars out of. When 2013 ended, he had put himself in the position of competing for the vacant UFC welterweight title. That's a heck of a breakthrough run in the UFC.

Michael Johnson

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    Michael Johnson's 2013 didn't get off to a great start, as Reza Madadi tapped him out in April.

    However, Johnson's next two showings took him from the land of TUF washouts to being a future contender in 2014.

    It began when he demolished fan favorite Joe Lauzon at UFC Fight Night 26. Johnson looked light years ahead of Lauzon in the striking department, and I'm not sure how Lauzon survived the fight.

    Still, doubts remained about Johnson's skill level. After all, Lauzon had a lot of miles on him; fans weren't sure if Lauzon had declined or if Johnson had improved that much.

    Johnson silenced those critics by knocking out the tough Gleison Tibau at UFC 168. Tibau had become an effective gatekeeper in the division, and after a second-round knockout, it's hard not to deny that Johnson is finally on his way to realizing his full potential.

Julianna Pena

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    Credit should go to Julianna Pena. On a show that featured a number of established veterans at the outset, she took out one of the biggest names on TUF in the first fight after teams were picked.

    You knew Pena was a fighter when she took the best that Shayna Baszler had to offer and pulled off a submission victory against the "Queen of Spades."

    Pena went on to win TUF and become an up-and-coming star in the process. She has the skills for a bright future and the looks of a marketable fighter. It will be interesting to see how quickly the UFC pushes her up the rankings.

Conor McGregor

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    Anyone that kept his eyes glued to the international stage of MMA knew that Conor McGregor was destined to be a star.

    It only took 67 seconds for McGregor to blast his way to an UFC victory in his Octagon debut. The Irishman also pocketed a cool $50,000 for Knockout of the Night as well.

    He followed that up with a gutsy performance against Max Holloway, where McGregor tore his ACL but managed to pull out the victory.

    Although he showed he can be a star inside the cage, he's a much bigger star outside it. From riding with Dana White in a Ferrari through Las Vegas to angering most of the featherweight division (and even a few outside it), McGregor has become one of the most talked-about fighters in MMA despite being sidelined with an ACL tear.

Chris Weidman

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    Wait, the UFC middleweight champion is a breakthrough fighter of 2013? I know it's hard not to talk to anyone in the MMA world without mentioning Weidman's name, but that hasn't always been the case.

    He entered 2013 after sitting on the sidelines for nearly a year due to injuries and enduring Hurricane Sandy. His previous fight against Mark Munoz, although impressive, was viewed by a mere handful of fans. His biggest fight was a bout against Demian Maia, where he cut a tremendous amount of weight on short notice and looked visibly slowed by it.

    Still, Weidman earned the chance to write his name in the history books by becoming the first man to defeat Anderson Silva in the UFC.

    Not only did he become the first man to do so, he repeated his initial success. At UFC 168, he defeated Silva for a second time. Say what you want about the endings, but Weidman was clearly the better fighter.

    He was relatively unknown by the casual MMA fanbase entering 2013 but will become one of the key pay-per-view draws for the UFC heading into 2014.

Johny Hendricks

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    Johny Hendricks will be facing Robbie Lawler for the vacant UFC welterweight title at UFC 171, but it's a mute point for many MMA fans. In their minds, he is the rightful UFC welterweight champion.

    He fought Georges St-Pierre to a close decision at UFC 167. He worked a great game plan, utilizing his power punches and wrestling that nearly saw St-Pierre drop the title after an incredible run at the top.

    So many people talk about his fight with St-Pierre that they often forget his Fight of the Year candidate with Carlos Condit at UFC 154. The two engaged in an action-packed contest that could have went either way.

    He was already a popular fighter among the hardcore MMA fans due to his knockout power, but he gained a lot of casual fans with his performances against GSP and Condit.

Alexander Gustafsson

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    Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    Alexander Gustafsson conquered one of the rare feats in MMA: gaining more fans despite a losing effort.

    Such was the case at UFC 165, when he gave UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones everything he could handle. The five-round contest is considered an instant classic in MMA history and among the best light heavyweight title fights of all time.

    Gustafsson used technical stand-up striking to batter the champion on the feet and even stuffed the champ's wrestling for the majority of the bout.

    The fight with Jones propelled Gustafsson to such heights that he even won the cover vote to be opposite Jones on the cover of EA Sports' upcoming UFC video game.

    Gustafsson wasn't granted an immediate rematch, but to many fans, he's the rightful UFC light heavyweight champ. He'll likely get the chance to be the real champion if he can get past Jimi Manuwa at UFC Fight Night 37.