Take a moment to reflect on where we are today and it’s clear that 2018 was a special time in UFC lore. The year hosted thehistory and . It also welcomed some of today’s biggest stars for the first time. Fast forward and a new crop of UFC fighters have the potential to capture the same magic their peers did five years prior.
Zhang Weili, Israel Adesanya and Petr Yan scorched paths from debutant to UFC champions without a single loss in between. Zhang is currently enjoying her second stint as champion, Adesanya had two title reigns on his record and Yan enjoyed a brief run as interim bantamweight champ after his run with the title. They aren’t the only standouts from the class of 2018 either. Cory Sandhagen, Magomed Ankalaev and Sergei Pavlovich are among the best fighter fighters in their divisions and knocking on the door for title opportunities.
It’s a tall order to ask any debuting fighter to achieve the level of success experienced by the names aforementioned. It’s also a difficult task to assess who those fighters are from early impressions. There are four fighters who made their first UFC walks in 2023 and are most likely to have a UFC belt in their trophy cases in the next five years. Let’s examine who they are.
Can’t get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news.
Bo Nickal (5-0)
- Age: 27
- Division: Middleweight
- Last fight: def. Val Woodburn via TKO, Round 1 (July 8 — UFC 290)
- Next fight: unannounced
Very rarely does an athlete the caliber of Nickal make the jump to MMA. Nickal crossed the combat pond as a supremely decorated amateur wrestler. Nickal’s accomplishments read like attributions on an essay: three-time NCAA Division I champion, three-time Big Ten Conference champion, two-time Schalles Award recipient, 2019 Dan Hoge Trophy winner, 2019 Big Ten Athlete of the Year and 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials finalist. Nickal made his UFC debut in March just nine months after his first MMA fight. It’s too early to proclaim him as a surefire UFC champion, but he’s passed every test with flying colors.
Nickal is a perfect 5-0 in 13 months, including a pair of appearances on UFC pay-per-views and “Dana White’s Contender Series.” Nickal has stopped all five opponents in three minutes or less (two knockouts, three submissions) and it’s clear the promotion is not rushing his development. It’s a promising sign for a promotion that often drowns prospects in the deep end. Nickal was supposed to fight Tresean Gore at UFC 290, a gentle upward progression, but a late injury forced Gore off the card.
Nickal has the raw materials and a quality camp in American Top Team to mold him into an elite mixed martial artist. Nickal could skip wrestling practice every day for the rest of his life and still overwhelm most UFC fighters. What’s most exciting about Nickal is his willingness to apply non-wrestling techniques in competition. Nickal has natural KO power and an evolving submission game. He isn’t the only fast learner in MMA, but not every fighter can ignore instincts and apply new tactics on fight night. Nickal can and it bodes well for his future.
Gabriel Bonfim (15-0)
- Age: 26
- Division: Welterweight
- Last fight: def. Trevin Giles via submission, Round 1 (July 29 — UFC 291)
- Next fight: vs. Nicolas Dalby (Nov. 4 — UFC Fight Night)
MMA is a cyclical sport. Royce Gracie and his family brought jiu-jitsu to the forefront. Wrestlers and strikers would tussle for titles in the decades to come. Submission specialists have generally fallen behind in the modern era. Bonfim could be the change the BJJ community desperately seeks. Bonfim has stopped all 15 opponents to date, including first-round finishes in two UFC appearances and on “Contender Series.” A dozen of those stoppages come by way of submission.
What separates Bonfim from most submission specialists is his takedown prowess. Many BJJ fighters lack the wrestling necessary to take the fight into the realm. It’s an extremely small sample size, but Bonfim has been flawless in that department. UFC credits Bonfim with two takedowns leading to submission wins. Mounir Lazzez made the fatal mistake of shooting on Bonfim, immediately finding himself reversed, mounted and guillotined. His offensive striking output is overwhelming, averaging more than six strikes per minute in his last three fights. If Bonfim can improve his striking defense and maintain output across the long haul, he may be the best thing representing Brazil since Charles Oliveira.
Ismael Bonfim (19-4)
- Age: 27
- Division: Lightweight
- Last fight: lost to Benoit Saint-Denis via submission, Round 1 (July 1 — UFC Fight Night)
- Next fight: unannounced
Gabriel isn’t the only Bonfim busting up folks. Older brother Ismael Bonfim may not have a spotless record, but competing in the ultra-competitive lightweight division will have that effect. Bonfim is arguably the more well-rounded brother and certainly the better striker. He boasts superior striking defense and has a proven ability to win by any means. Endurance is a big question mark for debuting UFC fighters with a padded record, but Bonfim’s six career decision wins bode well.
Bonfim made a flashy entrance in his UFC debut, knocking out violent prospect Terrance McKinney with a highlight reel flying knee in January after picking him apart on the feet. The “Contender Series” alum was stopped by fellow offensive dynamo Benoit Saint-Denis in his second appearance, but there is no shame in losing to a man on the cusp of the lightweight top 15. Bonfim is swimming upstream due to his division’s depth. An impressive bounce-back is paramount to maintaining his spot on this list.
Ikram Aliskerov (14-1)
- Age: 30
- Division: Middleweight
- Last fight: def. Phil Hawes via KO, Round 1 (May 6 — UFC 288)
- Next fight: vs. Nassourdine Imavov (Oct. 21 — UFC 294)
A fight between Aliskerov and former middleweight title challenger Paulo Costa was announced despite Aliskerov not being ranked by the promotion. That points to either the UFC’s desperation to meet content demands or their belief in the Dagestani fighter. The bout never materialized and he’ll instead meet ranked contender Nassourdine Imavov in October.
Aliskerov was introduced to UFC fans through “Contender Series” much like his contemporaries on this list, a trend that will likely continue moving forward. He secured his UFC contract with a first-round submission win. Aliskerov subsequently debuted with the promotion at UFC 288 in May, emphatically knocking out a credible opponent in Phil Hawes. Aliskerov is a versatile threat with a near-equal split of KO, submission and decision wins. He also carries multiple gold medals in Combat Sambo, the discipline most closely resembling MMA. Interestingly, the only person to beat Aliskerov is the man who replaced him against Costa: Khamzat Chimaev. There is no shame in losing to a monster like Chimaev and a win over Imavov will validate Aliskerov as one to watch.
Honorable mentions: Rinya Nakamura, Steve Erceg