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.
RECORD: 1-0 (7-0 amateur)
KEY VICTORIES: Kevin Croom, Aaron Carter
WEIGHT CLASS: 155 lbs.
COUNTRY: United States
With highlight-reel slams and a pedigree that includes three state championships and All-American status as a collegiate wrestler, expectations are high for Colorado lightweight Justin Gaethje. The transition from wrestler to successful MMA fighter has been something Gaethje has been looking forward to as he finishes up his career at the University of Northern Colorado this year. In eight fights, Gaethje is undefeated, including a 61-second destruction of Kevin Croom at Ring of Fire 41 in August.
“I have wrestled for such a long time that I’m ready to move on to different things,” he says. “I’ve been working on my boxing at the Grudge Training Center, and I am trying to become an all-around fighter, so I can take the fight where I want to.”
Working with UFC veterans Nate Marquardt, Duane “Bang” Ludwig, and Eliot Marshall, Gaethje has had to learn to adapt his game quickly. “They don’t mess around down there,” says Gaethje. “They get after it, and if I’m not at the top of my game, they make me pay for it.”
Adding striking skills to his résumé has been a tough challenge, but it’s one that he’s set to overcome. Until he does, his wrestling pedigree buys him some time to get more comfortable on his feet.
“I feel that my wrestling really helps me control a lot of positions,” he says. “Even when I’m not comfortable on my feet, I can get to the clinch and at least get comfortable enough to control the fight there. A lot of guys who have never worked the clinch don’t really know what to do with their hips. Being a wrestler, I like to throw people.”
After decimating Croom in his professional debut, Gaethje is on the fast track. He’s got an upcoming fight in October and a return invitation to Ring of Fire’s year-end show. Gaethje is moving quickly towards big things, and he doesn’t plan on backing down any time soon.
“I just want to keep fighting and hopefully knocking people out,” he says. “I love competing and whatever comes, comes. It doesn’t matter who they want me to fight, I’m always ready.”
KEY VICTORIES: Lumumba Sayers, Jeremy Hamilton
WEIGHT CLASS: 185 lbs.
COUNTRY: United States
Derek Brunson set out on a mission in 2011—to put his name in front of the MMA masses. A three-time Division II All-American wrestler from UNC-Pembroke, Brunson made the move to MMA in 2010, wining his first five fights. Now, three fights into 2011, he has improved to 8-0.
The biggest step this year is the venue where he’s able to ply his trade. He signed a multi-fight deal to fight under the Strikeforce banner. His last two victories— over Jeremy Hamilton and Lumumba Sayers—were both in the Strikeforce cage. Brunson credits his quick rise up the charts on his ability to focus.
“I’ve always enjoyed mixed martial arts, but I was focused on wrestling in college,” Brunson says. “When I was finished wrestling, I changed my focus to mixed martial arts, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Of his eight victories, seven have come in the first round. And while wrestling may be his pedigree, Brunson has shown tremendous striking power, knocking out four of his opponents.
“Jeremy Owens—a black belt in jiu-jitsu from the Nova Uniao—brought me in as a wrestler and taught me some BJJ defense, and that’s pretty much how I started,” he says. “Then I started to do a little bit of boxing to work with my takedowns. A lot of people are scared of my takedowns, so it set my hands up better.”
With fighters like Muhammed Lawal and Gerald Harris as models of how Brunson wants to perform in the cage, he has lofty goals for himself, and he’s off to a good start.
“I want to go out there and stay undefeated,” says Brunson. “I don’t want to go out there and do things half way. If I do it, I want to be the best in whatever I do. I want to stay undefeated and exciting.”
KEY VICTORIES: Jorge Gurgel, Saad Awad
WEIGHT CLASS: 155 lbs.
COUNTRY: Guam, United States
In the few short years he’s been in MMA, Joe Duarte has grown by leaps and bounds.
“I’ve always been naturally gifted and talented, but now I’ve got coaches that can lead me in the right direction,” Duarte says. “My MMA game is coming full circle now. I can fight anywhere. I’ve changed a lot over the last few fights, and it shows.”
It sure does, as Duarte displayed in his most recent victory, an impressive main event win over UFC veteran Jorge Gurgel at Strikeforce Challengers 18. It was a toe-to-toe battle that not only put Duarte’s physical skills on display, but also his mental moxie.
A lot of that mental toughness can be attributed to the discipline that Duarte learned on his way down from 200 lbs. to 155 lbs.
“The first couple of fights at 155 lbs. were really hard,” he says. “Nowadays, I don’t let my body get too heavy. I’ve got a strength and conditioning program that works better for me without having to carry so much muscle mass— yet, I still have the same strength as I would if I were 180 lbs.”
Duarte’s hard work has paid off with a five-fight winning streak that includes the aforementioned victory over Gurgel, as well as a second-round submission of Saad Awad in his Strikeforce debut.
That’s just the beginning for Duarte. The win over Gurgel put him on the map…or at least it may put him on the fight poster, which he missed out on for the biggest fight of his career.
“They didn’t even put me on the poster for the Gurgel fight,” he says with a laugh. “Strikeforce said they didn’t even have a photo of me, so that’s why they didn’t put me on it. The way I see it, if they’re not going to put me on the poster, I’m going to have to show that I deserve to be on it.”
Not only did he show that he should have been on the poster for Strikeforce Challengers, Duarte proved that he’s ready to play with the big boys and move on up to a Strikeforce main card.