The Great Divide: Which three unranked fighters have the best shot of being 2019’s Breakthrough Fighter of the Year?

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The Great Divide is a reoccurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which our own Shaun Al-Shatti and Chuck Mindenhall debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

Part one and part two of The Great Divide’s 2019 preview series dealt with the oncoming title picture. This week, in our final installment of this three-part preview series, our two heroes put their heads together and wonder: Which three current unranked fighters have the best chance of emerging as 2019’s Breakthrough Fighter of the Year?

Al-Shatti: Here we are, my friend. On the eve of Henry Cejudo and T.J. Dillashaw’s ESPN takeover, I can think of no better way to celebrate the launch of the 2019 mixed martial arts calendar than by wrapping a nice little bow upon our 2019 preview series.

So, Chuck, we’ve already prognosticated for the champs, we’ve already drafted a team of top contenders. Now? Let’s cap things off by gazing a little further south down the rankings. Who will be the next ’17 Ngannou or ’18 Adesanya? Who will be the next young blood to explode from anonymity and capture the hearts and minds of the MMA world by winning 2019’s Breakthrough Fighter of the Year award?

This is a tough one, probably the toughest slate of predictions we’ve had to make, simply by virtue of what we’re dealing with here. Because really, we’re dealing in unknowns. It takes a special, indescribable combination of ingredients — skill, charisma, and more than a little luck — to execute the kind of meteoric run that can rocket a prospect from obscurity to the verge of superstardom in just a 12-month span. But hey, we’ve both been around the block a few times — I think we’re up for the challenge. And since I’m a total degenerate and can’t help myself, there’s only one real way to solve this: One last fantasy draft!

Same rules as before. Three rounds, snake-draft style. For anyone confused, that means Team A makes the pick No. 1, then Team B gets the second and third picks, then it goes back to Team A for selections four and five, then Team B rounds things out with their final pick. The goal today is to pick the three-fighter roster most likely to end up carrying 2019’s Breakthrough Fighter of the Year once December rolls around. In the spirit of past winners like Cody Garbrandt, Francis Ngannou, and Israel Adesanya, only unranked fighters are available to be picked. I’ll be a gracious host and grant you the No. 1 pick, since I had it last time.

Sound good?

And with that, let’s get this party started.

They call you The Man In The Hat, but how good is your gauge on the prospect scene? It’s time to find out. Team Mindenhall is officially on the clock!

With the first selection of the 2019 prospect draft...Team Mindenhall selects…at lightweight... Gregor Gillespie!

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Mindenhall: Gillespie hasn’t lost yet in the UFC, and has finished the last four fighters he’s faced. That’s a damn good start to his UFC career. Granted, the last guy he beat, Vinc Pichel, isn’t exactly a world-beater (in fact, he looks like a cross between Freddie Mercury and Danny Segura, which isn’t all that ominous), but he was a good gauge to see how far “The Gift” Gillespie has come. Gillespie dominated the action from the opening horn, and submitted Pichel in the second round.

The thing is, he’s looked good in every single fight so far. That 21-second knockout of Andrew Holbrook at UFC 210 was like watching one of the old stadiums implode. It was step in, left hook to drop him, another big left once Holbrook was on the ground, and three free-swinging hammerfists — boom, over. He doesn’t waste a lot of time. He was fishing the Finger Lakes for a solid week after that, pulling in pike the size of your arms, Shaun. Fishing is his passion; but fighting comes in a very close second. He’s damn good at both.

Obviously we’ll know a lot more after he fights Yancy Medeiros this weekend in Brooklyn — but given that Gillespie is getting a fairly sizable bump up in competition, and that the fight is happening on the first highly visible first card of 2019, he has a chance to make his move. I can foresee Gillespie drawing a top-10 name if he makes a statement against Medeiros, and positioning himself for a big spot at Madison Square Garden late in the year. He has good hands, and his wrestling is there when he wants it, but what I like is he’s a smart fighter. He just knows what he’s up against each time, and knows what he has to do.

You know what’s more? He’s a kind of kooky charm. A fishing fanatic by day, he can tell you the reason to throw a chartreuse casting spoon ahead of an Eppinger Daredevle in the same breath as he can explain how to throw a lead right and to follow up with that deadly left. With that kind of personality, he can built a cult following quickly. All he needs to do is win, and so far he’s proven he knows how to do that.

Al-Shatti: You sonuva…

Gillespie was supposed to be mine. Mine, damnit! Effing hell. Solid pick there, Chuck. Respect. I won’t lie, you’ve got me all scrambled up right now.

Okay, let’s re-calibrate here. With the top name on my big board gone, I know which direction I’m looking with these next two picks.

With the second pick in the 2019 prospect draft…Team Al-Shatti selects…at welterweight... Vicente Luque!

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

I’m all about the BSA method with my first pick here (Best Situation Available), because aside from the random nobody who comes from God-knows-where to suddenly start blowing the doors off folks — something that is basically impossible to predict — there are three ingredients that contribute heaviest for me when calling my shot for breakthrough fighter of the year: 1) Talent, 2) Opportunity, 3) Outside Factors.

And for me, Luque absolutely checks all of those boxes.

Let’s start with talent. The 27-year-old New Jersey native has come a long, long way from the neophyte who first debuted on The Ultimate Fighter in 2015. By now it’s obvious he’s figured things out, having fine-tuned his explosive striking repertoire and shored up his defensive wrestling — and the results have been spectacular. Just check out this résumé since his UFC debut: 7-1 with seven stoppages. Of those seven stoppages, three were submissions inside two rounds and four were violent first-round knockouts. (Seriously, we’re talking about legitimate, violent-ass knockouts. No TKOs on this list. Hell, it took like three minutes for poor Jalin Turner to get up off the mat at UFC 229. Dude is no joke.) Luque’s strength of schedule is also surprising solid: Decisive finishes over super tough, borderline top-20 names like Niko Price, Belal Muhammad, and Chad Laprise. And his only loss over that span is a narrow decision to Leon Edwards (certainly nothing to sneeze at, and a setback he clearly learned from).

All of this leads perfectly into my second factor: Opportunity.

To be a Breakthrough Fighter winner, you often need to fight 3-4 times over the course of a calendar year. And Luque is prime position to do just that.

He’s already booked for a Feb. 17 dance date against another borderline top-15 welterweight in Bryan Barberena. One last win there and Luque will likely be thrown into the shark tank at 170 pounds — which brings me to ingredient No. 3 for this draft-winning recipe: Outside Factors. Now this one may be a tad inside baseball, but the managerial aspect of the game is an important yet rarely discussed factor when it comes to UFC opportunity. In the case of Luque, his manager is Ali Abdelaziz. I don’t need to tell you that things have been working out pretty well for Abdelaziz’s clients lately. He is the exact type of manager whose working relationship with the UFC could make the difference when it comes to securing scarce opportunities in one the sport’s most talent-rich divisions.

Altogether, Luque is immaculately set up to have a massive 2019 campaign, and because of that, he is the No. 1 pick of Team Al-Shatti.

Team Al-Shatti is back on the clock…third selection of the 2019 prospect draft…the pick is in… Sabina Mazo!

LFA

You know everything I just said about my BSA method? Yeah, I’m throwing all of that out of the window for this pick.

I don’t care.

Yes, Sabina Mazo just got signed by the UFC. Yes, she may not have a high-powered manager. And yes, she may not even have a fight booked.

But talent? Oh lord, does she have that.

If Mazo’s name sounds vaguely familiar to you but you can’t quite put your finger on why, you’re probably already aware of the 21-year-old “Columbian Queen” without even realizing it: Mazo authored two of the more ridiculous women’s head kick knockouts in 2017 en route to becoming LFA’s flyweight champion. Now, with an undefeated 6-0 record intact, Mazo is ostensibly slated to make her Octagon debut sometime in the first quarter of 2019.

Considering the wide-open and volatile nature of the UFC’s women’s flyweight division, plus the relative hype that’s gathered around Mazo and the youngster’s flair for the dramatic, it’s not much of a stretch to think that one or two good UFC wins could rocket Mazo into top-10 contention with a quickness. So sure, Chuck, this a pick based more on pure talent than anything else, but I feel good about it. With Mazo and Luque aboard Team Al-Shatti, the building blocks to a winning squad are already in place.

Mindenhall: With the fourth pick...Team Mindenhall selects... Geoff Neal!

And with the fifth... Brock Lesnar!

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

I know, I know. Lesnar? Breaking through? What? More on that in a second. Let’s stick to Neal for a minute, a cat who works as a full-time waiter in the Dallas area when he’s not punching somebody’s lights out. I was in his hometown when he flattened Frank Camacho with that head kick at UFC 228, and that was an eye-opener for me. There was much to love watching him set that fatal strike up after narrowly missing on it in the opening round.

Having talked to him and members of his camp during fight week, I think he has the demeanor and the talent to do some damage this year. The sample size is pretty small so far, but he’s been impressive each time out in the UFC. A TKO of Chase Waldon on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series; a rear-naked choke of Brian Camozzi towards the beginning of last year; then that detonation of Camacho’s head in Texas. Can he make it four in a row against Belal Muhammad? If he does, he can begin to sniff that top-15 space and end up making a name for himself by Thanksgiving.

What I particularly like is that Neal’s very levelheaded. He knows it’s a difficult trek to the top — and that it’s improbable he’ll ever get there — but he doesn’t delude himself into believing he can’t get there, either. In fact, he doesn’t strike me as a guy who is all that intimidated by whoever the UFC presents him to fight. A guy who is up for the challenge, and has the kind of closing power he does? That’s a guy who should be on people’s radar.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

As for Lesnar, here’s the thing — he hasn’t officially won a fight since 2010. The lone victory he’s had since then, against Mark Hunt at UFC 200, was converted into a “no contest” when it was learned he’d popped for PEDs. He is 41 years old, and he still committed to his pro wrestling career. He lives in rural Canada, and is grumpy AF. Where does that leave him? As a punch line in most MMA circles.

Still, we discount the fact that Lesnar was the heavyweight champion at one point, and that he held a share in the UFC record for consecutive title defenses (2) before Stipe Miocic came along and finally beat it. We know he can fight. And we know the people most interested in fighting him — Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones — would be massive favorites to win.

But, I can’t help but think…what if he gets that fight with Cormier, and somehow wins…whether it’s by accidentally falling on DC, or perhaps by bull-rushing him right through the links? What happens if Lesnar then turns around and defends the heavyweight title at the end of the year? He did have that diverticulitis, you know, which sapped him of power back when he was losing in the UFC.

These are incredibly stupefying “what ifs,” I realize. But he’s currently not ranked, that much is fact. I can guarantee you that, Shaun. He’s definitely not ranked. And he if he comes back, it’ll be a fight of severe magnitude, only the highest of stakes, thus paving the way for him to break on back through with one big upset. Is this a long shot? The full-length of the court, my man, and it’s veering left. Still, you never know.

Al-Shatti: Wow. Just wow. You done changed the rules on me, Chuck. That Lesnar pick… I must admit, that was a shrewd move.

You painted the corners with a curveball there, but I’m a grizzled veteran of this fantasy drafting game — I can adjust on the fly. And by abandoning our prospect criteria, you’ve opened the door for me to nab what could be the steal of the draft with my last pick.

And for the sixth and final pick of the 2019 prospect draft…Team Al-Shatti selects…oh my…no…it’s not…YES… IT’S BEN ASKREN!

ONE Championship

Ha. Oh yes.

Chuck, let’s be honest here — and I think you would agree — 2019 is shaping up to be Funky’s year. Hell, with Tyron Woodley talking about a potential move to middleweight, there’s a chance Ben Askren is wrapped in UFC gold by December. How about that?!

What a turnaround for the man who was once persona non grata in UFC circles. From the outhouse to the penthouse — the phrase has never fit better. Suddenly Funky Ben is Dana White’s favorite new toy, and with a March 2nd date already in place against Robbie Lawler at UFC 235, combined with Askren’s clear desire to make up for lost time, there’s a very realistic timeline out there where this man serves as the ultimate spoiler in 2019. Not only does he talk the kind of big game that lends itself to big-time UFC matchmaking, but his style — at least up to this point in his career — has been so dominant that he’s barely ever been touched. Obviously that could and likely will change as Askren works his way up the ladder, but even still, “Funky” has the potential to own the 170-pound conversation in 2019.

I was originally debating between Nasrat Haqparast, Kron Gracie, and the returning Sean O’Malley. But getting a value pick like this with the final selection of the draft? Yes please.

In past editions of The Great Divide, Shaun Al-Shatti and Chuck Mindenhall debated UFC 230’s main event, Tyron Woodley’s UFC 228 dilemma, Daniel Cormier’s potential retirement fight, the winner of the DJ-for-Askren trade, the ill-fated Bellator 214 vs. UFC 233 duel, and the chances for a major UFC 232 upset. Join the debate in the comments below!

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