Got next? Five potential breakout fighters

9/23/2021 12:35:44 PM EST

Dozens of new potential contenders pop up on the UFC's radar every year, but only a select few rise to the level of Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey.

So who has the ingredients to become the promotion's next big headliner?

Here are five to keep an eye on, listed in alphabetical order:

--Joaquin Buckley, middleweight
Last October the St. Louis middleweight delivered one of the most mind-blowing knockouts in UFC history, a gravity-defying spinning back kick finish of Impa Kasanganay which has to be seen to be believed.

Since then, Buckley has fought three more times. In two of those bouts, he delivered another pair of memorable knockouts, each of which earned Performance of the Night bonuses. But he also slipped up and got caught while he was headhunting in January against Alessio DiChirico and was on the other end of a highlight-reel KO.

While that's concerning, Buckley's upside and undeniable pizazz means he belongs on this list, preferably with the UFC giving him a slow and steady build so he can work out the kinks.

--Mackenzie Dern, strawweight
Young, confident, supremely skilled and good looking, Mackenzie Dern is basically a fight promoter's dream.

The Los Angeles resident of Brazilian heritage was a jiu-jitsu prodigy who won a pair of JIu-Jitsu World Championship gold medals by the time she turned 21.
Dern's path since entering MMA has been interesting. Her submission game was top-notch from the jump, and she's had seven wins via tapout, including four in the UFC. She also missed the strawweight limit on several occasions early on.

Then she had a baby and was out 18 months.

She suffered her only career loss in her return, but since, Dern has won three in a row, looks like a more complete fighter every time she steps into the cage, and her issues making weight seem well in her rear-view mirror.

Dern's class is the deepest on the women's side, so her next matchup is tricky, but there are several former title challengers who could provide a legit gauge.

--Islam Makhachev, lightweight
Khabib Nurmagemodov has retired, but his student and former training partner has picked up where the undefeated former UFC lightweight champion left off.
The 29-year-old out of Dagestan, Russia uses the same style as Nurmagomedov - think an angry mama bear mauling someone who got too close to her cubs - as he suffocates them with his grappling, then softens them up with striking when they tire.

Makhachev has won eight consecutive fights dating back to 2016, the past two via finish. The only thing that has kept him from breaking through with the masses yet is that the best in the division keep coming up with excuses not to fight him.

His UFC 267 matchup against former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos, who is past his prime but retains name value, should help.

--Sean O'Malley, bantamweight
The UFC clearly thinks O'Malley is the next big thing in the division.

The Helena, Montana, native has benefited both from favorable matchmaking and showcase spots on major events.

Fortunately for the 26 year old, he's upheld his end of the bargain to this point by winning six of his seven UFC bouts to date.

O'Malley has some of the flashiest and most inventive striking you'll see in the Octagon, and during his run, he's picked up three of the UFC's post-fight Performance of the Night bonuses and a pair of Fight of the Night awards.

O'Malley is going to have to prove his mettle by upping the caliber of his competition, and he didn't help himself in that regard when he turned down a fight with former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar for UFC 268 at Madison Square Garden.

--Bryce Mitchell, featherweight
This is mixed martial arts, and mixed martial artists have a particular knack for creating headlines out of the cage for the most absurd reasons.

With that in mind, featherweight Bryce Mitchell is still best known for making news after accidentally tearing his scrotum with a power drill.

He's just as nuts in the cage, employing a wild style which has made his fights worth seeking out.

The Arkansas native has won all four of his UFC bouts to date, and in his past two, he handily dispatched a pair of mid-level divisional gatekeepers in Andre Fili and Charles Rosa.

A matchup with popular brawler Dan Ige has been rumored for awhile now, and a strong performance there could be what vaults him into the division's top tier.

--Field Level Media


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