“I never think of the future — it comes soon enough.”
These were the words of famed physicist Albert Einstein, a man who never knew the sport we all love. But maybe he was onto something after all. In the spirit of the future being now, FIGHT! takes a look at six of the most promising fighters under 26 years old who are destined to solidify the foundational future of MMA. In no particular order, those men are Anthony Johnson, Jose Aldo, Dustin Hazelett, Gegard Mousasi, Junior dos Santos, and Carlos Condit.
Age: 25 Record: 8-2
Despite having trained in MMA for only 5 years, 25-year-old Anthony “Rumble” Johnson (8-2) is on the up-and-up in the UFC. Having come from a pure wrestling background, Johnson’s proficiency with grappling has allowed him to focus on developing the striking skills for which he is now widely known. And used those skills, he has. Since joining the ranks of the UFC, Johnson has never been to a decision in victory or defeat—something that is undoubtedly responsible for his rapidly growing fan base. In his UFC career thus far, Johnson has graced fans with highlight-reel knockouts of opponents Chad Reiner, Tommy Speer, and the always-game Kevin Burns, earning Knockout of the Night honors for the latter.
Also worth noting is the threat that Johnson’s stature poses to other welterweights in the division. Standing 6 feet 2 inches tall, Johnson is taller than the average welterweight to begin with, and his long, muscular frame only adds to the equation. Prior to the training camps that precede his bouts, Johnson has reportedly weighed more than 200 pounds before eventually cutting down to 170 pounds for the pre-fight weigh-in. Such numbers will certainly be a factor for future opponents, should Johnson stay within the welterweight division.
Aside from his explosive striking, raw athleticism, and sheer size, Johnson has the makings of a true champion when he’s on the post-fight microphone as well. Despite having arguably “earned” the right to be as cocky as he wants to be through his hard-fought battles and flashy finishes, Rumble remains humble in victory and level-headed in defeat, addressing the crowd and his opponents with a respectful and well-spoken demeanor. Only time will tell if all of these qualities will earn him the rights to UFC gold in the future.
Age: 24 Record: 27-2-1
Gegard Mousasi was born in Iran in 1985, but he grew up in the Netherlands from age 4, when his family moved to the city of Leiden. There, Mousasi’s molding into one of the world’s premier mixed martial artists began. Upon his father’s urging, Mousasi began learning judo at age 8 before branching out into boxing, where he quickly became the national amateur champion. Hungrier for a bigger challenge, Mousasi eventually moved onto what the Dutch are best known for, kickboxing. After developing his stand-up skills further, Mousasi found MMA, and, in time, fans found him.
Aside from having a name befitting of a slick assassin, Gegard Mousasi showed that he has the skills to boot. The veteran of Dream, PRIDE, and a host of other smaller MMA shows finally arrived in America by way of Strikeforce last August. And being a fighter who has been described as an “Anderson Silva with takedowns,” Mousasi certainly followed the lead of Silva, making his own continental U.S. debut an eye-opening one. In just 1 minute flat, the 24-year-old Armenian dispatched of the seasoned Renato “Babalu” Sobral with vicious ground and pound, thereby earning himself the Strikeforce Light-Heavyweight championship belt in the process.
As the sport continues to grow, Mousasi will continue to flourish with it. He has youth, technical excellence, and experience all working for him. Of Mousasi’s 25 victories that have come by either (T)KO or submission (out of 27 wins, total), more than 80% of those wins have occurred in the opening round. That type of excitement is just too hard to ignore.
Age: 23 Record: 15-1
If there is a phrase personified by 23-year-old featherweight fighter Jose Aldo, it would be, “Speed kills.” If you don’t believe us, just ask his last five opponents in the WEC, all of whom were battered by Aldo’s crisp striking on their way to defeat.
Jose Aldo has dwelled in MMA obscurity since 2004, mostly competing in his homeland of Brazil until deciding to fight in England, Japan, and now America in the WEC. As time would tell, deciding to compete in America would be one of the best career moves made by this Team Nova Uniao featherweight, as his first bout saw him dismantling Shooto legend Alexandre Franca Nogueira with superior striking and merciless ground and pound. Aldo would go undefeated in his next four bouts, decisively winning all of them by (T)KO, including his latest one-sided victory against Cub Swanson, who was left split wide open by an Aldo double flying knee eight seconds into the fight.
But as is the case with much of Brazil’s MMA talent, Aldo was actually built from the ground up, so to speak, claiming four Jiu-Jitsu championships and a world title in Jiu-Jitsu on his way to earning his BJJ black belt. Upon entering MMA, however, Aldo chose to shelve his grappling abilities in favor of showcasing his devastating stand-up, which has earned him 11 victories in contrast to just one victory by true submission hold. For an insight into the motivation behind such a strategy, one must look no further than the WEC website, where Aldo lists Mike Tyson as his lone hero.
For all of those fans out there who love to see a good stand-up war featuring power, creativity, and speed, we suggest you keep your unblinking eye on the promising career of Jose Aldo.
Age: 23 Record: 12-4
At 23 years old, Dustin Hazelett represents a walk of life that most natural-born fighters never had to deal with. A repeated target by schoolyard bullies, Hazelett used his frustration and a love for martial arts to literally transform his life in a rags-to-riches-type fashion.
After making the jump from smaller MMA shows into the UFC, Hazelett remained relatively unknown for a good chunk of his early career, as only one of his first four bouts was aired during the UFC 72 broadcast—an event that played in the middle of the day in America instead of its usual nighttime slot, due to it taking place in Ireland. The next bout to be televised at UFC 82 did more good for Hazelett’s opponent, Josh Koscheck, than it did for Hazelett himself, as he was finished by a head kick and subsequent punches from the TUF alum. But clinging to the determination that led him to pursue fighting in the first place, Hazelett rallied and started gaining some well-deserved interest in his next two bouts.
Fulfilling his personal quest to “make Jiu-Jitsu the cool style again” amid an upsurge in popularity of striking finishes in MMA, Hazelett earned back-to-back Submission of the Night honors for his whizzerto- flying-armbar submission of Josh Burkman at The Ultimate Fighter 7 finale, and a reverse armbar submission of Tamdan McCrory at UFC 91. The flashy finishes gained Hazelett some much-needed fans, attention, and money—not to mention his BJJ black belt, awarded to him by his coach and UFC veteran Jorge Gurgel in-between the two bouts.
With success coming at such a young age, and after overcoming childhood adversity, it’s hard for anyone to dislike Dustin Hazelett. To date, he remains a growing MMA star whose future in the sport promises to be just as exciting as his improvised Jiu-Jitsu finishing moves.
JUNIOR DOS SANTOS
Age: 25 Record: 9-1
As a fighter who lists “[being] on [his] back” as his favorite grappling technique, the UFC’s Junior dos Santos might be called a liar by a naysayer. A wise m
an, however, would keep his mouth shut.
With legit knockout power flowing from both of his fists, Junior dos Santos represents a great hope for the UFC’s thinning heavyweight division, as well as for fans who love to see big dudes slinging leather. So far, the 25-year-old Brazilian has used his striking prowess to fell three opponents in just one year with the UFC, including Jiu-Jitsu ace Fabricio Werdum and the alwaysfeared Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic.
The fight with Filipovic in particular showed fans what dos Santos is made of, as it featured two-and-a-half rounds of standing and banging, with dos Santos coming out on top following 11 unanswered knees sprinkled amid tight punches that had his Croatian opponent seeing stars and waving off the fight. For his wins, dos Santos thanks his coaches and training partners, particularly Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Anderson Silva, and boxing coach Luiz Dorea.
Although he is a purple belt in BJJ under the Nogueira brothers, and he improves his wrestling every day, it is in Luiz Dorea—A Brazilian Olympic boxing coach —who dos Santos seeks to gain an edge over all other heavyweights in the division. The call for more technical boxing within MMA has been a long time coming, and it is a call that Junior dos Santos looks to be answering just fine.
Age: 25 Record: 24-5
Twenty-five-year-old Carlos Condit has been competing longer than anyone else on our list, taking his first pro fight in 2002.
Despite garnering attention with hard-core MMA fans for beating UFC vet Frank Trigg by triangle choke in 2006, Condit wouldn’t taste mainstream fame until fighting in the WEC after its purchase by Zuffa. There, Condit quickly gained the reputation of being a well-rounded fighter with a knack for pulling off submissions on his opponents, with the most prominent example being against Brock Larson at WEC 29.
Just minutes into the fight, Condit used his long limbs and skillful grappling to snatch up one of Larson’s outstretched arms, threatening to break it off before referee Steve Mazzagatti stepped in. The victorious title defense would be short-lived for Condit, as he defended it only once more before Zuffa dissolved the division and moved any worthy WEC welterweights to the UFC to start all over again in their quests for a belt. But “The Natural Born Killer” doesn’t seem to mind.
Since joining the UFC, Condit has put on two back-and-forth fanpleasers with worthy opponents Martin Kampmann and Jake Ellenberger, losing the former and winning the latter, both by split decision. Condit recently made the move to Greg Jackson’s MMA, a scary thought for the rest of the welterweight division.
With so many young fighters making waves in MMA, it was hard to limit our list to just six fighters. Here are two other warriors under the age of 26 who are worth watching:
If one thing is true about this 25-yearold Xtreme Couture fighter, it’s that he eliminates the supposed boredom that plagues a decision victory. His excellent wrestling and aggressive stand-up make him a dangerous man, no matter where the fight goes In nine UFC bouts, Griffin has received five Fight of the Night bonuses, making him one of the most exciting lightweights in the UFC today.
Lyman Good is 24 years young, undefeated at 10-0, and Bellator Fighting Championships’ first Welterweight Champion. Not bad for someone who grew up in New York City’s Spanish Harlem.
Good has the potential to become not only one of MMA’s best fighters, but one of the most unique as well. In the months leading up to his championship bout with Omar De La Cruz, Good reportedly slept in the cage at his training facility in order to help him focus on the task at hand!