By Thomas Gerbasi
Thus far, 2009 has seen 40 mixed martial artists step into the Octagon for their proper UFC debuts, and these first-timers have ranged from WEC champions and international superstars to Ultimate Fighter alumni and young prospects looking to strike gold in the big show. And while some have made an immediate impact, others have been forced to regroup. Click below for the top UFC newcomers of 2009 as we kick off UFC.com’s highly unofficial half-year awards.
5 - (Tie) John Howard
You have to like anyone whose nickname “Doomsday” refers to the DC comics villain who killed Superman, but cool moniker aside, Howard fights in an aggressive style that immediately put him on the UFC map in January. On that night in Las Vegas, Howard entered the Octagon with little fanfare against veteran Chris Wilson, but the Boston product was no fall guy, as he pounded out an entertaining three round split decision win, showing heart, power, and determination in the process.
“I have a lot of heart, and I just go in there trying to fight,” he told me in a March interview. “I tell everyone, I don’t guarantee a win or a loss, but I guarantee a fight. I’m gonna fight with my heart, and that’s what I go in there with. So far I’ve survived with my heart, and that’s what I keep doing.”
5 – (Tie) Ross Pearson
Sure, his TUF 9 winning performance over Team UK buddy Andre Winner isn’t going to make it to the list for Fight of The Year, but the Sunderland native’s three wins on the show over AJ Wenn, Richie Whitson, and Jason Dent showed that he is always going to fight while moving in one direction – forward. That means more often than not, we’re going to see a battle, and at just 24 years of age “The Real Deal” is still getting better. Of course, in the ultra-competitive lightweight division, you either get better or get tossed to the side, and I’ve got the feeling Pearson is up to the task.
“I think I showed on the show that I’m a decent fighter at the minute, but I’ve got a lot of improving to do, and I just want to show that I’ve improved that little bit further in this training camp,” said Pearson before the victory over Winner. “I don’t want people to think that I’m a one trick pony – I want to be here for a long time and I want to entertain people with the way I fight.”
4 – James Wilks
One of Team UK’s elder statesmen on The Ultimate Fighter at 31, Wilks admitted earlier this year that he was an off and on fighter for much of his career.
“I’ve definitely gone up and down over the years – I want to fight, I don’t want to fight - and you could see that by the sporadic nature of my fights,” said Wilks. “I’ll fight one or two fights and have a year off or so. But this time I really thought, I don’t want to regret anything. I’m 30 years old, now is the time, the UFC is the place to be, and I really want to make a go of it, test myself and see how far I can go.”
The results were impressive, as Wilks finished Che Mills and Frank Lester (twice), before submitting DaMarques Johnson in the TUF9 Finale to win the show’s welterweight division. And considering not only that Johnson was an early favorite to win the show, but the way Wilks went through him, the ending was even more notable. Of course, given his age, he’ll have to move a bit quicker in the talent-rich 170-pound division, which means we’ll find out sooner, rather than later, whether the Leicester-born fighter is going to be a contender or not.
3 – John Hathaway
I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of John Hathaway and Tom Egan as they sat on the dais at a press conference before their UFC 93 fight in January. Surrounding them were UFC superstars Dan Henderson, Rich Franklin, Mark Coleman, and Mauricio Rua, and you could tell that they were in awe being around fighters they grew up watching. But then two days later, the bell rang at the O2 Dublin, and in front of a hostile crowd cheering for Irish favorite Egan, Hathaway showed the poise of a veteran in stopping his foe late in the first round. Less than five months later, Hathaway had UFC victory number two as he decisioned Rick Story. 2-0 in the UFC (12-0 overall) and he’s only 21. Look for Hathaway to follow behind current UK stars Michael Bisping, Dan Hardy, Terry Etim, and Paul Kelly as one of the leaders of the next wave of British MMA.
2 – Carlos Condit
After five straight wins in the WEC that included three defenses of the organization’s crown, it was no surprise that Carlos Condit’s migration to the UFC in April got fight fans amped up. Luckily, Condit was even more excited.
“For me, it’s more motivation,” he said. “I feel like I have to climb back up the ladder. I’m not the top dog anymore, so it actually it is a challenge. I felt like I had done pretty much everything there was to do in the WEC at the time, and now there are more challenges for me and it’s definitely more motivating. The UFC welterweight division is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, divisions in the whole sport, and I feel honored to be competing with some of the best guys in the world and I’m excited to make my mark and hopefully make a big splash in the UFC.”
He did, and despite losing a razor-thin split decision to Martin Kampmann in his exciting Octagon debut, it was clear that ‘The Natural Born Killer’ was ready to hang with the best the UFC had to offer. Should make for an interesting future for Condit.
1 – Yoshihiro Akiyama
All right, let’s not mince words here - when you wear a scarf in the Vegas heat and have been dubbed ‘Sexyama’ by your legion of fans, you’d better know how to fight. Luckily for us (and all kidding aside), Akiyama delivered in his UFC debut last Saturday against Alan Belcher, and not just by getting the close split decision win. What was impressive was the way he did it. First, Akiyama (a battle-tested star in Japan) hadn’t fought since September of 2008. Second, I was in the room when he met Belcher for the first time back at UFC 97 in April and Akiyama looked like a welterweight compared to Belcher. Third, if he would have taken Belcher down and blanketed him for three rounds, he probably wouldn’t be in this spot. Instead, he took on a talented young striker who had a big size advantage on him and everything to gain, and stood in front of him and traded punches and kicks. Even when he got Belcher to the canvas, he stayed active and pushed the pace. It was a gutsy strategy made even more impressive by the fact that by the end of the night, he was fighting with a left orbital fracture that swelled his eye nearly shut. Forget his entrance into the Octagon, the real show was the fight, and that makes me want to see Akiyama back in action real soon.
Honorable Mention - Nick Catone, Evan Dunham, TJ Grant, Nick Osipczak. Matt Veach, Aaron Simpson
The Highly Unofficial Half-Year UFC Awards - The Newcomers
Thomas Gerbasi, UFC - Thus far, 2009 has seen 40 mixed martial artists step into the Octagon for their proper UFC debuts, and these first-timers have ranged from WEC champions and international superstars to Ultimate Fighter alumni and young prospects looking to strike gold in the big show. And while some have made an immediate impact, others have been forced to regroup. Click below for the top UFC newcomers of 2009 as we kick off UFC.com’s highly unofficial half-year awards.