The UFC is well renowned for pitting the best against the best. Unlike in the world of boxing, hot prospects are rarely allowed time to build an extensive record before they face top competition. However, this isn’t always the case.
Over the years we’ve seen a number of hot prospects treated a little differently by the UFC, as they were brought along slowly rather than being thrown to the wolves.
Whether the promotion was protecting these fighters – as many fans have accused them of doing – is up for debate, but this differing approach is always highly noticeable either way.
Here are five prospects who the UFC was happy to build up slowly.
#5. Paddy Pimblett – UFC lightweight
One prospect that the UFC appears to be happy to build up slowly right now is UK favorite Paddy Pimblett. ‘The Baddy’ has quickly become one of the most popular fighters on the roster, drawing comparisons to Conor McGregor for his natural charisma. Unlike ‘The Notorious’, it doesn’t seem like the promotion want to rush him up the ladder.
Pimblett came into the octagon for the first time in late 2021 with plenty of hype behind him. While he had an extensive record of 16-3, it made sense for him to be matched with a lower-level opponent in the form of Luigi Vendramini, who had lost on two of his three previous trips to the octagon.
‘The Baddy’ duly dispatched the Brazilian in the first round via TKO despite being tagged with some punches in the early going. His performance and skills on the microphone were enough to turn him into an instant hit with the fans.
However, despite many fans expecting Pimblett to be shoved up the ladder quickly, that didn’t turn out to be the case.
The native of Liverpool was matched with another largely unproven opponent in his next bout – Kazula Vargas, who was 1-2 in the octagon – and didn’t waste any time in stating that he wanted a pay increase before facing tougher foes.
However, that hasn’t been the case yet, as after defeating Vargas with ease, Pimblett has been matched with Jordan Leavitt in his next fight. ‘The Monkey King’ does have a strong record – 10-1 – but he still doesn’t have the big profile of the opponent some fans expected for ‘The Baddy’.
Despite this, Pimblett’s treatment is a smart move from the UFC. Despite his experience, he’s still a raw fighter. Given the correct build, could become a major drawing card for the promotion – so why rush him?
#4. Islam Makhachev – UFC lightweight
Islam Makhachev’s next fight is now set, as it’s been announced that he’ll be facing off with Charles Oliveira for the vacant UFC lightweight title in Abu Dhabi in October.
Remarkably, though, it could well be argued that the fight is the first time that Makhachev has ever faced a fully proven top-level opponent inside the octagon, despite being part of the UFC’s roster since the summer of 2015.
Makhachev debuted in the promotion with an impressive submission win over Leo Kuntz. After being upset by Adriano Martins in his second bout, he took a year away from action before returning in September 2016.
Since then, the Dagestani has reeled off 10 straight wins in impressive fashion, but remarkably, his only win over a fighter who was ranked in the top 10 at the time came when he defeated Dan Hooker last October.
So have the promotion been protecting the Dagestani? Not exactly. In reality, from all sources, Makhachev was considered a remarkably talented and dangerous fighter from the moment he set foot in the octagon. So, if rumors are anything to go by, the promotion’s top lightweights were more than happy to avoid fighting him.
It’s a theory bought into by former middleweight star Chael Sonnen, who labeled the lightweight division’s top stars as “wimps” after claiming they were ducking Makhachev earlier this year.
However, if he can claim lightweight gold by defeating Oliveira, it’s safe to say that nobody will want to avoid the Dagestani any more. Instead, he’ll become the division’s number-one target.
#3. Greg Hardy – former UFC heavyweight
When former NFL defensive end Greg Hardy emerged into the world of MMA through Dana White’s Contender Series in the summer of 2018, it was clear that the UFC president thought that he’d discovered a special talent.
Hardy’s knockout win over Austen Lane showed that he was a hugely raw prospect, but that he had plenty of athletic talent and knockout power. That was all that was needed for White to ink him to a contract with the promotion.
It seemingly didn’t even matter that Hardy had a checkered past thanks to a domestic violence charge – the promotion seemed convinced that they had a potential star on their hands. After he won two more bouts on the regional circuit, his debut in the big show was announced.
Hardy was matched with Allen Crowder, who had gone 1-1 in the octagon previously. It was understandable given his lack of experience, and after dominating the early going of the bout, Hardy used an illegal knee to knock his foe out, forcing the referee to disqualify him.
From there, Hardy was given a number of lower-level opponents, from Dmitry Smoliakov, who had never won a bout in the octagon, to debutant Ben Sosoli. The only higher-level foe he faced was Alexander Volkov, and that fight came on late notice for ‘Prince of War’.
Eventually, Hardy did step up, but ended up losing three fights in a row to tougher opponents in Marcin Tybura, Tai Tuivasa and Sergey Spivak before departing the promotion in early 2022.
In this case, it felt like the promotion believed they had a special talent and wanted to build the former NFL man up slowly – but due to his checkered past, the fans just wouldn’t buy in, forcing them to scrap the experiment altogether.
#2. Sage Northcutt – former UFC lightweight
Back in 2015, before Dana White’s Contender Series had become the UFC’s main vehicle for discovering prospects, the promotion’s Fight Pass service began to air a series called Lookin’ for a Fight.
The series documented Dana White, Matt Serra and White’s friend ‘Nick the Tooth’ traveling around the US, getting up to various hijinx, and watching regional shows in order to unearth talent to take to the big show.
One such talent was Sage Northcutt. Just 19 years old at the time, ‘Super Sage’ looked like a cross between a boy band member and an action figure. With a record of 5-0, it was unsurprising when White inked him to a contract.
Given his age and lack of experience, it was unsurprising when Northcutt was matched with a pair of lower-level foes for his first two wins in the octagon, as he ran through Frank Trevino and Cody Pfister in quick succession.
However, many of the promotion’s roster were then angered when it was revealed that Northcutt had made $80k, more than most fighters, for his victory over Pfister, with heavyweight veteran Matt Mitrione outright labeling it “ridiculous.”
Despite his high wage, though, the UFC seemed content to bring ‘Super Sage’ on slowly. None of his following six bouts saw him pushed up the ladder to face elite-level opponents, with Bryan Barberena, who defeated Northcutt in early 2016, being his toughest foe.
In the end, Northcutt departed the promotion in the summer of 2018, reportedly hoping to make more money elsewhere; a bizarre move considering the seemingly special treatment he’d received from White and company. He has only fought once since.
#1. Sean O’Malley – UFC bantamweight
It’s safe to say that few UFC fighters over the years have received quite so much backlash for not facing elite-level opponents as current bantamweight star Sean O’Malley. Whether ‘Sugar’ deserves such criticism, of course, is definitely up for debate.
When he debuted following a successful showing on Dana White’s Contender Series, O’Malley was just 23 years old, and his impressive wins over Terrion Ware and Andre Soukhamthath marked him out as a prospect to keep an eye on.
However, it was after his return from a USADA suspension due to a positive drug test that the hype around him really got going. ‘Sugar’ returned to action in 2020 and knocked out Jose Quinonez and Eddie Wineland, winning $50k bonus awards for both performances.
Suddenly, O’Malley was the talk of the bantamweight division. Even a defeat at the hands of Marlon Vera, which ‘Sugar’ blamed on a foot injury, didn’t stop the hype. Basically, the fans were desperate to see him against the division’s top fighters.
However, both the UFC and O’Malley had other ideas. ‘Sugar’ himself outright stated that he didn’t want to fight a ranked opponent until his pay increased. Sure enough, his following three bouts came against lower-level foes, including an octagon debutant in Kris Moutinho.
2022 has seen him step up somewhat, taking on top 10-ranked Pedro Munhoz in a fight that ended in a no contest, but whether the promotion will push him into another big fight next time around – or let him snack on a lower-level foe again – remains to be seen.