1.) Jon Jones
Weight: Light Heavyweight
Last year: 2-1
This 22-year old monster has gained popularity amongst MMA fans faster than Houston Alexander, and rightfully so. Jones is widely being talked about as the future of the division, possibly even the sport itself. He is virtually the epitome of an "Ultimate Fighter": fighter who is skilled, fast, explosive, well-rounded fighter with exciting and unorthodox striking that's actually effective, and some of the most dynamic wrestling in the UFC. Jones captured the attention of pretty much everyone after his first UFC main card bout against The Ultimate Fighter 1 co-winner Stephan Bonnar at UFC 94, where he showcased his unorthodox striking and incredible throws and slams, making the veteran Bonnar look like an amateur. Jones later one-upped himself at UFC 100 when he faced Jake O'Brien by finishing him with a spinning elbow to a modified guillotine in the second round. Talk about unorthodox, and O'Brien is no slouch, either. After gaining so much attention from fans and UFC matchmakers, Jones was offered to headline the TUF 10 Finale card against Matt Hamill, and once again put on an exciting and dominating performance. Jones expectedly beat Hamill in the stand-up game using his unorthodox style with a new twist to his stance. When Hamill tried to take the fight to the ground, Jones easily reversed the former All-American wrestler and instantly mounted him and proceeded with a vicious barrage of punches, forearms, and elbows. Unfortunately, Jones' unorthodox style bit him in the ass as he accidentally struck Hamill with an illegal elbow variation that ended up costing him the fight, as Hamill could not continue after that point. It was later revealed that there was some confusion about why Hamill wanted to stop the fight. It wasn't because of the illegal elbows or the blood in his eyes that resulted, but rather the initial takedown reversal from Jones that effectively dislocated both of Hamill's shoulders, rendering him helpless to fight back.
Even though he got a loss on his record for it, it was still blatantly clear that Jones was the much better fighter, and is improving at an alarming rate. At just 22 years old, the sky is the limit for this talented prospect. We'll see how well he does as he steps up in competition a bit for his next fight against Brandon Vera at Ultimate Fight Night 21. Win or lose, I think it's agreeable among most MMA fans that Jon Jones is going to be the most enjoyable fighter to watch evolve over the next 10+ years.
2.) Junior Dos Santos
Last year: 4-0
Junior Dos Santos is a talented new prospect emerging from the wings of world class grappler Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and world class striker Anderson Silva, and has quietly been racking up wins over big names without many fans seeming to take notice. The 25 year old undefeated and reigning 18-0 Brazilian Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion and purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu looks to have a very successful MMA career ahead of him. Over about the last year Junior has had two impressive first round KO's against the top ranked Fabricio Werdum and UFC newcomer Stefan Struve, barely staying in the octagon for two minutes total between both fights. After dismantling Mirko Crocop at UFC 103 it's become apparent that this quiet up-and-comer poses a serious threat to the top UFC Heavyweight contenders.
Junior not only comes from a great camp, but he's also got some amazing striking credentials and is fairly well-versed in grappling training with the Nogueira brothers and holding a purple belt under Minotauro. His first fight in 2010 just a few days ago was against another world-class striker in Gilbert Yvel. The fight was an exciting slug-fest for the first few minutes but it didn't take long for Junior Dos Santos to find his range as he KO'ed the MMA legend in the first round, getting his 4th UFC win in a row. It's clear that JDS is more than worthy of the #2 spot, if we had seen his ground game at all like we did with Jon Jones, he might have made the #1 spot.
3.) Cain Velasquez
Last year: 3-0
The undefeated Cain Velasquez, former All-American wrestler for Arizona State and a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu prodigy comes in at #3 after his amazing year. Cain fights with such high intensity and aggression, his style is reminiscent of the "old" Shogun Rua from 2004-05., and he just keeps getting better. He went 3-0 this year with his Knockout of The Night over Denis Stojnic at UFN: Lauzon vs Stephens, his unanimous decision comeback win over Cheick Kongo at UFC 99 which displayed Cain's great chin, heart, cardio, and relentless determination, and finally his complete and absolute destruction of the much larger and more experienced former IFL star Ben Rothwell at UFC 104, where he showed just how ridiculously aggressive he can be as he tossed Rothwell around at will and quite simply just beat the shit out of "Big Ben" and dominated him like few others, if any, have done before. It was a brutal domination that left an imprint in many of our minds, that this kid is for real.
At just 27 years old and clearly still improving, Cain Velasquez could be the future of the UFC Heavyweight division. His main weaknesses are his technical striking and striking defense, which can easily be improved over a short amount of time, and his size, which could potentially never even affect him if he has enough skills to compensate - - after all, it hasn't been an issue for him yet. It's not an issue for Fedor Emelianenko either, just some food for thought.
4.) Paul Daley
Last year: 5-1
Paul "Semtex" Daley has only had one fight in the UFC so far, but he's gone 4-1 over the last year and made an impressive UFC debut by knocking out Top 10 UFC Welterweight Martin Kampmann in the first round. Daley has won 17 out of 22 wins in MMA by (T)KO, and possesses a refreshing style for the 170 pound division. Ninety-five percent of the UFC Welterweight division is made up of top notch grapplers with average striking, and Semtex is a knockout machine. Not much is known about this young prospect's ground game yet, though he has been submitted 5 times in his mixed martial arts career. Many of us thought we would see a glimpse of it as he most recently fought grappling whiz Dustin Hazelett just days ago at UFC 108, though we were wrong. Daley impressively knocked Hazelett out in the first round without ever having to even fend off a takedown.
When I first began writing this articles in the final days of 2009, I had Daley listed around the #8 spot. However, with him having a fight just 2 days into 2010 I figured I might as well wait and see how he does, because it's hard to say whether his KO over Kampmann was a fluke or not. After soundly defeating another big name in the UFC without hardly flinching, I had to move Daley up the list...way up. Going 5-1 over about the last year, and being just 26 years old with plenty of time to develop a good enough ground game to keep the fight on his feet, it's hard to deny Daley's potential as a top UFC prospect this year.
5.) Anthony Johnson
Last year: 3-1
At one point this year, Anthony Johnson looked to easily be a Top 3 prospect in the UFC. Being just 25 years old, Johnson has been on a KO rampage since joining the UFC. This year alone he had 3 highlight reel knockouts over Kevin Burns at the TUF 8 Finale, Luigi Fioravanti at Ultimate Fight Night: Lauzon vs. Stephens, and Yoshiyuki Yoshida at UFC 104. However, as 2009 wore on, it became apparent that "Rumble" was relying a lot on his overall size advantage over opponents, admitting to cutting up to 50 pounds for a fight and missing weight in his fight against Yoshiyuki Yoshida by six pounds. After being choked out by Josh Koscheck in the first round at UFC 106, many started to question his ground game.
Anthony is hard to rank on this list because if he stays in the 170 pound division he still could pose huge threats to the top contenders if he develops a better ground game, but if he decides to move up to the Middleweight division (or even Light Heavyweight for that matter), his future is completely skewed because he would be losing a lot of size and strength advantages and would be facing bigger wrestlers, so there's no telling how well he would do, even though he does seem to have a good amount of natural talent and a good work ethic.
Paul Daley got boosted up the rankings after his performance against Hazelett the other night. What do you guys think about the list? Do you guys agree that JDS should be ranked above Cain since he beat Yvel? Which prospect do you think will have the most success?