Mixed martial arts is the fastest growing sport in the world. It garners more attention and new fans daily. The emergence of so many new athletes sometimes makes it hard for fans to notice some of the fighters on the verge of making it to the next level. MMAWeekly.com takes you deep inside the sport and presents you with some of the upcoming New Blood.
Key Victories: Antonio Banuelos, Sam Thao
Weight Class: 125 lbs.
Country: United States
Nickname: The Gremlin
Heading into his CFA Flyweight Title defense against Sam Thao at the promotion’s October event, Joshua “Gremlin” Sampo anticipated a tough fight, but he ended up getting more than he bargained for.
“I’m a little frustrated with that fight,” says Sampo. “We worked pretty hard on preparations, and the guy was extremely crafty and tricky. He had a very unorthodox style, and so I had to go back to my wrestling roots and jiu-jitsu to grind out a win. I think it’s a pretty ugly win, but a win nonetheless.”
Sampo admitted that the lack of information he had on Thao ended up making the fight more difficult than it could have been.
“My coaches had heard he was a hard striker and had heavy hands, but it wasn’t his hands that had me worried, it was the crazy kicks that had me baffled,” says Sampo. “He started out southpaw, then he would switch and throw unorthodox kicks, and we did not see that coming at all.”
Thankfully, Sampo’s gas tank allowed him to stay strong throughout all five rounds en route to a unanimous-decision victory.
“I’m pretty proud of my conditioning,” says Sampo. “It’s something I’ve relied on through wrestling. I knew I could go five hard rounds—that’s what I trained for—and it paid off. I think I could have probably gone another two or three rounds if I had to.”
With the win, Sampo retained his title and raised his record to 10-2. Now, he feels he’s ready for the main stage.
“I want to go to a big show and fight the toughest names out there,” he says. “I definitely want to make it to the UFC, but I look at it like a job promotion. I’ve got to work hard, be recognized, and have them make that decision to bring me up. Until then, I’m just going to keep training hard and fighting hard.”
Key Victories: Arnaud Lepont, Peter Davis
Weight Class: 155 lbs.
Country: Hong Kong
Nickname: The Magician
For Singapore-based lightweight Eddie “The Magician” Ng, 2013 was the year in which he proved to be one of the top up-and-coming prospects in the world. Back-to-back armbar submission wins, highlighted by his most recent victory against Peter Davis in October, has Ng on a five-fight winning streak with an overall record of 7-1.
“I am definitely happy with my performance against Davis,” says Ng. “I wanted to get a finish and I got it, so there is not much more that I can ask for. Peter is one of the toughest opponents I have ever faced.”
Ng credits his success to working with Evolve MMA, one of the sport’s premier international teams.
“I feel like I am constantly learning and improving, especially with the help of all the other world champions at Evolve MMA,” says Ng. “With the largest collection of world champions, the only direction that the Evolve Fight Team and myself are going is up. MMA is such a complex sport and there is so much to learn, I just need to continue improving myself during training and it will translate in the One FC cage.”
With Evolve teammate and One FC Lightweight Champion Shinya Aoki moving down to featherweight, Ng is prepared to go after the title should his teammate decide to vacate it.
“Shinya is a teammate and a close friend, so if he chooses to defend his lightweight title, I will respect his wishes, as the title remains within the Evolve family,” says Ng. “If he chooses to move to featherweight, I would love a title opportunity.”
After a successful 2013, Ng says he is looking forward to an even better year in 2014, as he takes his career to new heights.
“I just want to stay healthy and compete as often as I can,” he says. “If One FC gives me a lightweight title shot, I will be delighted, as long as it is not against Shinya.”
Key Victories: Bill Albrecht, Yusuke Sakashita
Weight Class: 185 lbs.
Country: United States
After three successful defenses of his King of the Cage Middleweight Title in 2013, Sean “Tarzan” Strickland is at an evolutionary point in his career, and it started with a victory over veteran Bill Albrecht in February.
“I had to really step it up against Albrecht,” says Strickland. “I’ve noticed in my recent fights that—it’s not so much my skill level or cardio—it’s more my mental preparation that has really been paying off.”
Since his win over Albrecht, Strickland has won two more fights, raising his record to 13-0 and making him one of MMA’s top 185-pound prospects. While his most recent win over Matt Lagler in August ended in a first-round TKO, it was the prior fight against Yasuke Sakashita in July that really tested Strickland’s resolve.
“The fight against Sakashita was one of the toughest fights I’ve had,” says Strickland. “That was my first 25-minute fight, and I wish more people could have seen that one. I think every fighter—especially when they’re first starting—has doubts in their mind about if they’re ready for the full five rounds, and I had that doubt. I’ve always trained for five rounds, but I had always wondered if it came down to it, would I be able to perform? After 25 minutes against Sakashita, it just clicked in my mind that I was ready and could handle it.”
Having won all of his fights, and owning a 77% finishing rate, Strickland feels he’s truly ready for primetime.
“I’m ready for a step up in competition,” he says. “I’ve been training hard, so I want to fight high-level guys. Now, I really want to prove myself.”