Time to talk about UFC’s ‘Next Generation’ as the ‘Now Generation’

Time to talk about UFC’s ‘Next Generation’ as the ‘Now Generation’

How will the UFC’s 2017 campaign be remembered?

As the end of the year draws closer by the day, year-end retrospectives and summations will start to appear and it will be interesting to see how folks who follow the sport religiously choose to remember the previous 11 months and change.

For me, 2017 has been the year where youth was served – where a handful of talented young fighters made it clear that they were no longer content being a part of the next generation, but instead staked their claim to being the now generation.

Robert Whittaker claimed the interim middleweight title before getting promoted to being the undisputed champion last week.

Max Holloway unified the two halves of the featherweight crown and then cemented his place atop the division with an equally impressive encore performance against Jose Aldo in Detroit.

Darren Till stormed through Donald Cerrone to become a player in the welterweight ranks and just this past weekend, Brian Ortega showed he could finish before the third round by choking out perennial contender Cub Swanson in his first main event assignment.

Add in Rose Namajunas ascending to the top of the women’s bantamweight division, Volkan Oezdemir going from unknown to No. 1 contender in the span of six months and young in the sport (and young for heavyweight) monster Francis Ngannou further proving his legitimacy by nearly decapitating Alistair Overeem and you have an impressive collection of emerging stars across a number of divisions who seem poised to be factors in their respective division for years to come and the potential to become cornerstone figures for the company going forward.

What’s interesting about this collective (at least to me) is that it’s a mix of competitors who came out of nowhere and fighters everyone should have seen coming.

Last August, I put together a Top 5 list of the best UFC fighters under 25 – four of them have since won titles (Namajunas, Holloway, Whittaker and Cody Garbrandt) while the remaining member of the bunch (Yair Rodriguez) is still highly regarded.

I don’t include that reference to toot my own horn, but rather to point out that picking out the young talent with superstar potential in the UFC isn’t as difficult a process as we often let on and if we’re willing to commit energy to spotlighting emerging fighters as they work their way up the ladder, fans and consumers won’t be playing catch-up when someone like Holloway or Whittaker stakes their claim as the top fighter in their division.

While guys like Oezdemir and Till used 2017 to quickly make a name for themselves by collecting three victories in rapid succession and were long shots to be contenders when the year began, Namajunas was pegged for greatness upon arrival and Whittaker and Holloway very making steady gains in their respective divisions for a couple years; all that was missing was the backing of the company and more than passing attention from the media.

On last week’s edition of The MMA Beat, host Ariel Helwani had this to say about Holloway:

“He is just so much fun to talk to and be around and witness and observe since he became champion of the UFC’s featherweight division.”

I would posit that Holloway has always been fun to talk to and be around and witness and that the wider audience is only catching on now because he’s been afforded time in the spotlight.

The 26-year-old Hawaiian has been the same guy throughout his rise – engaging and awkwardly charismatic; passionate about his craft, his family and Hawaii and committed to taking on all challengers in order to prove his greatness.

The guy that went back-to-back against Jose Aldo in 2017 is the same guy who stepped up on short notice to fly to Sweden and starch Akira Corassani; people just weren’t paying attention.

Ortega is the connector between the two camps – an undefeated talent many have viewed as a potential contender in the future who capitalized on his first opportunity to climb into the title picture, probably a little sooner than most expected. He didn’t exactly come out of nowhere because he had earned four straight finishes in the UFC over the last two years, but few would have pegged him as a Top 5 featherweight when the year began either.

As much as I understand and recognize the importance of committing time, attention and column inches to the select handful of names that drive traffic on websites and get people to click links on social media, we also need to spend a good deal of time shining a spotlight on the up-and-coming set, especially given that we frequently talk about the UFC’s need to create new stars and build up fighters.

Rather than just outlining why they need to do it and how it could possibly be done, we can help lead the charge by instructing fans to pay attention to fighters like Holloway and Whittaker before they’re booked into championship fights and get as excited about the likes of Ortega and Till and Oezdemir as soon as they get a couple good wins under their belt like we’ve done for several others of varying degrees of skill who just so happen to help drive traffic.

We have to start taking a more long-range view of things and committing more time and energy to spotlighting up-and-coming talent when they first arrive in the UFC and start making headway.

The true “next generation” of potential UFC stars are the men and women who have already impressed in their first couple outings – Aspen Ladd, Brett Johns, Zabit Magomedshapirov – not the mid-20s talents who have already cracked the Top 10 in their respective divisions.

Those men and women are the now generation that we should be talking about already because even if you haven’t been paying attention, they’ve been kicking ass and taking names for a couple years now and have already established themselves as contenders or champions.

Talking about them as the future and finally give fans a chance to familiarize themselves with them once they’ve already reached the top of their division feels like a mistake since they’re not just the future, they are the present and in most cases, we’ve had plenty of time to get to know them already.

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