March 5, 2018

UFC 222: The Youth Movement Pushes Through To Victory

By Raphael Garcia

During the past few days the NFL Scouting Combine has featured some of the top young college football talent that will soon be joining the National Football League. In the coming years these athletes are expected to supplant current veterans across the league. On Saturday night, something similar happened at UFC 222, when multiple prospects defeated well-known veterans to break through to the upper tiers of their respective divisions. This is the type of turnover that the UFC needs if it is going to cultivate the long term development of prospects that can one day become stars.
Brian Ortega (27), Sean O’Malley (23), Ketlen Vieira (26), Mackenzie Dern (24), Alexander Hernandez (25), Cody Stamann (28), and Jordan Johnson (29) all walked out of Las Vegas with key victories, and although this group of fighters in their twenties may not all become champions (or even contenders), they secured wins at a time for the UFC when the organization is struggling with inadequate divisional turnover.

Take the heavyweight division for example, which saw Andrei Arlovski score a victory over Stefan Struve on Saturday night. Arlovski (39) is a former UFC Heavyweight Champion that has already lost to the current champion, Stipe Miocic, via violent knockout back in 2016. The heavyweight division is nearly devoid of new contenders for Miocic, which is the situation that created the need for the superfight against UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Daniel Cormier. The UFC was clearly looking to create a path for the 30-year-old Struve, who defeated Miocic back in 2012, to get on the fast track to a title shot as a semi-intriguing contender for the belt. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, as Struve dropped a unanimous decision to the Belarusian fighter, pushing him out of the title conversation. 

But that conversation is completely different with these prospects who took home wins, like Ortega. The California native became the first fighter ever to stop the Hall of Fame worthy Frankie Edgar. Not only did he stop Edgar, but he looked composed while doing it and sang the praises of the former champion, earning wide-ranging respect across the industry Ortega’s performance cemented his place as the next challenger at featherweight, creating an uber-intriguing fight against Max Holloway at some point in the future. That is what divisional turnover is about -- the opportunity to create exciting matchups to further the progression of the sport.

The question now becomes what to do with these men and women next. Some are further ahead than others, as Ortega and Vieira should find themselves standing across the Octagon from champions in the coming months. Dern and O’Malley, however, are two prospects that the organization can build up through smart matchmaking as they develop their skills in the gym. The same goes for Hernandez, Stamann, and Johnson. This is when the promotion needs to get creative with its fight selection and promotion to keep these athletes relevant and active in a way that garners interest from fans and positions them for success.

The lack of star power on the UFC roster has become a talking point for observers of the sport in recent years. To combat this perception, the UFC needs to find a way to develop young talent that performs in the cage and is intriguing outside of it. UFC 222 was a success in that regard, as it saw seven under-30  prospects take necessary steps in that process when they garnered wins. Brian Ortega certainly punched his ticket to a main event and the cusp of stardom, but the organization still has to be careful with the next steps for the other prospects who saw their hands raised on Saturday night. Youth was served on that night, and the UFC needs to keep serving them.

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