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.
ZHANG TIE QUAN
NICKNAME: The Mongolian Wolf
WEIGHT: 155 lbs.
DISCIPLINE: BJJ, Sanda
NOTABLE WIN: Pablo Garza
UFC President Dana White is fond of saying that MMA is the only sport in which individual loyalties are more important than national or ethnic identity. That hasn’t stopped him, of course, from tying the UFC’s expansion efforts in the UK to British fighters such as Michael Bisping and Dan Hardy and using Roger Huerta, Efrain Escudero, and Cain Velasquez in the company’s campaign for the hearts and minds of Spanish-speaking combat sports fans. So when the WEC signed China’s premier MMA practitioner earlier this year, it’s safe to assume that the move was part of a larger strategy.
An ethnic Mongolian, Zhang Tie Quan won a regional wrestling championship at the age of 16 and was invited to train at a top Sanda academy. Sanda, also known as Sanshou, is a popular sporting form of Chinese kung fu that incorporates striking, throws, sweeps, and takedowns. “The Mongolian Wolf” was five years into a successful Sanda career when he met Andy Pi, promoter of the Beijing-based Art of War promotion and owner of Beijing Jiu Jitsu. Pi sold Zhang and a few of his friends on the idea of giving MMA a whirl, and five years later, Zhang had earned a purple belt in BJJ and racked up 11 first round stoppage victories for Art of War, Hong Kong’s Legend Fighting Championship, and the Filipino fight promotion Universal Reality Combat Championship.
Zhang’s resume is impressive, but given the relative immaturity of the sport in China and southeast Asia, it was impossible to know how he would stack up against the lightweights of the WEC. The Mongolian Wolf made his debut at WEC 51 against fellow promotional newcomer Pablo Garza, winning by guillotine choke at 2:26 of round one. Zhang returned to action against Danny Downes at the WEC’s final event, WEC 53 in Glendale, Ariz., and will likely face another step up in competition when the UFC absorbs the smaller organization in 2011.
There are no cans in the UFC’s lightweight division, but the company will likely choose to bring Zhang along slowly, considering the fact that Zuffa has a broadcast contract with a company in the fighter’s native region of Inner Mongolia. In addition, Zuffa opened an office in China and recently launched a Chinese-language version of UFC.com. If Zhang continues to perform and the UFC’s Asian expansion plans don’t hit any major snags, it’s likely that The Mongolian Wolf’s howl will be heard from the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea.
WEIGHT: 155 lbs.
NOTABLE WINS: Gabe Reudiger, Daisuke Nakamura, Shamar Bailey, Vitor Ribeiro
Justin Wilcox has already won a lightweight championship, just not in mixed martial arts. The Strikeforce prospect won the 2005 Musclemania Superbody competition at 165 pounds while competing as a natural bodybuilder.
Wilcox got into bodybuilding after multiple bone fractures and concussions cut his wrestling career short at Edinboro University.Having taken to the mat at the age of 5, the wrestler was adrift, wondering what to do with his pent-up competitiveness and unfulfilled potential. Then Wilcox remembered the He-Man action figures of his youth and his early admiration for the bodybuilder’s sculpted physique, and he decided to hit the weights. He started garnering national attention among natural bodybuilding enthusiasts, but Wilcox still wanted to test himself against an opponent. And then one night in 2005, the answer came to him while he sat on the couch watching television with his girlfriend.
That night, Wilcox watched as a college teammate, a cocky former national champion named Josh Koscheck, made a name for himself on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. Wilcox decided that MMA was going to be the third chapter in his athletic career, and just 14 months after Kos made his official UFC debut, Wilcox took part in a one-night Extreme Challenge welterweight tournament. He beat fellow Strikeforce prospect Bobby Voelker in his first match but fell to Chad Reiner in the second.He dropped his third fight to current Bellator welterweight Dan Hornbuckle before ripping off four wins in a row, the last coming against TUF castoff and current UFC lightweight Gabe Ruediger.
Wilcox’s exploits in MMA brought him back in contact with Koscheck, who invited him to San Jose, Calif., for an informal tryout at American Kickboxing Academy. After sparring with Phil Baroni and Jon Fitch, “Silverback” was invited—formally this time—to join AKA’s stable of fighters. After a hiccup in his first Strikeforce bout—a submission loss to Mitsuhiro Ishida—Wilcox has torn through four straight opponents. His last fight, a unanimous decision over Shamar Bailey, saw Silverback display vastly improved striking, peppering Bailey with head kicks and straight punches.
The wrestler-turned-bodybuilder-turned-fighter now trains at Koscheck’s Fresno, Calif., AKA-affiliate gym and is on the verge of title contention once again, this time in MMA. His recent win over Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro at Strikeforce Challengers 12 will likely fast track Wilcox for a shot to flex and pose with the Strikeforce Lightweight Championship belt.
WEIGHT: 155 lbs.
NOTABLE WINS: Steve Lopez
You wouldn’t guess it after watching him fight, but Waylon Lowe’s first love was boxing. The UFC lightweight conducted experiments in the sweet science while growing up in Tennessee but devoted himself to the grappling arts while still in elementary school. Lowe brought a state title to Jefferson City High School before becoming a three-time All-American at the University of Findlay.
Located in Findlay, Ohio, the small liberal arts college is a Division II wrestling powerhouse, and Lowe is one of their all-time greats, taking home national titles at 149 pounds in 2002 and 2003 and 165 pounds in 2004. He secured his place on the university’s top 10 list for all-time wins, wins in a season, career takedowns,and takedowns in a season.
After Lowe’s college career came to a close and he had gathered up a degree in business management and marketing, he traveled to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., in an attempt to make the U.S. Olympic Team. He fell short of his goal but met Matt Lindland while he was there and traveled to Oregon to train with Team Quest. Lowe then took up residence in Cincinnati, Ohio, 150 miles south of Findlay, to train with Team Vision and Team Jorge Gurgel, where he served as a wrestling instructor for several years.
Lowe made his pro debut in 2006, submitting to Hoosier journeyman David Love at a Hook’N’Shoot show in Evansville. Lowe went 2-2 through 2007 but went on a tear from 2008-2009, winning six fights and dropping just one more. That loss doesn’t appear on Lowe’s professional record but it was meaningful.
In 2009, Lowe got a shot at a spot on The Ultimate Fighter: Team USA vs. Team UK. The wrestler was submitted by Santino Defranco in a tryout bout that arguably should have been stopped earlier and in Lowe’s favor. But three more wins, including an appearance on a Bellator card and a King of the Cage win over UFC vet Stever Berger, earned him a chance at redemption when he was asked to step in as a late replacement for Thiago Tavares opposite Melvin Guillard at UFC 114: Rampage vs. Evans.
“The Young Assassin” finished Lowe with a knee to the body that night, but not before Lowe showed impressive athleticism and wrestling acumen, taking Guillard down with an impressive high leg sweep. After the loss, Lowe aligned himself with American Top Team and predictably used his wrestling to control Steve Lopez at UFC 119: Mir vs. Cro Cop, splitting Lopez’s face open with short elbows en route to a split decision.
Now living in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter, Lowe serves as a volunteer assistant coach on the University of Pennsylvania’s wrestling team. On Jan. 22, he will face hot Brazilian prospect Willamy Freire, who vacated his Shooto Welterweight Title to sign with the UFC.
UFC’s Fight for the Troops 2 at Fort Hood will be Freire’s coming out party and an opportunity for Lowe to prove that he has a future on MMA’s biggest stage.