UFC: Seven under 30

7 Mar , 2018,

Did you think based on the title that this article would be about seven hot UFC prospects under 30 years of age? Nope.  I am talking about the seven fighters with 27 or more UFC fights to their name – guys who are within three fights of reaching the record of 30 official bouts in the UFC Octagon. So who will be the first to achieve this record? Here’s the list of candidates, in the order of probability (in my opinion of course).

But first, a few notes:

  1. While for most purposes we ignore No Contests (i.e. treat them as if the fight never happened), for the purpose of this record they are considered as valid fights. Once the Octagon doors close and the referee signals the start of action, it’s a fight – no matter if it’s eventually ruled a No Contest. This gives a one-up to Jim Miller and Gleison Tibau (questionably – more on that later).
  2. ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ house fights – generally termed “pro-exhibition bouts” are not counted. If they were included, TUF alumni Diego Sanchez and Michael Bisping would have three and two additional fights each, respectively.
  3. Though Tito Ortiz and Frank Mir both have 27 UFC bouts, they are not included in this list as the probability of either fighting in the UFC again – let alone three more times – is infinitesimally small.
  4. The ‘Average Fights Per Year’ calculation does not include any fights which took place in 2018. The year of fighter’s UFC debut is included in the calculation only if the fighter fought two or more times in their first calendar year; any fights in other promotions in the same year but prior to the fighter’s UFC debut are not inocluded.

That said, here’s our magnificent seven:

[#7 MW] Michael Bisping
Age: 38
UFC Fights: 29
UFC Debut: Jun 24, 2006
Current Streak: L-2
Average Fights Per Year: 2.41

While the current record holder for most fights in the UFC will never be in consideration for one of the ‘GOATs’, he is guaranteed a future spot in the UFC Hall of Fame, and his accomplishments in this sport cannot be denied. For most of his UFC career, ‘The Count’ scrapped with the elite fighters in his weight class, but was never quite able to cross that threshold himself – he was good but not great, and seemingly always lost the fights that mattered the most. After a period between 2012 and 2014 where Bisping alternated wins and losses, he has had a late career resurgence, winning five straight in a streak that included capturing and defending the middleweight title, as well as scoring a decision victory over the former 185 lbs king Anderson Silva, and avenging two of his three stoppage losses at the time.

A victory over Georges St. Pierre would have been the crowning feather in Bisping’s countly headgear. Alas it was not meant to be, as Bisping was chocked unconscious in the third round, losing the middleweight title which GSP then promptly relinquished. Motivated by the loss, Bisping decided to get back in the cage as soon as possible, taking on the rising prospect Kelvin Gastelum a mere three weeks after the GSP fight. This proved to be disastrous for The Count, who suffered a brutal knockout loss in the very first round. It might have been the perfect opportunity for him to retire, but not many athletes can admit that it’s time to walk away from the sport they love – especially coming off a bad loss. Bisping has mulled retirement since then, but all signs point to him fighting at least one more time. More than a few middleweights threw their name in the hat to play the role of Michael’s final opponent, and it seems that Luke Rockhold trilogy is the matchup that interests Bisping the most. Should this fight happen some time in the near future, Bisping will almost certainly become the first UFC fighter to step into the Octagon for the 30th time.

[#5 FW]  Jeremy Stephens 
Age: 31
UFC Fights: 28
UFC Debut: May 26, 2007
Current Streak: W-3
Average Fights Per Year: 2.45 (includes one fight outside of UFC in 2007 – good old days when Zuffa occasionally let their fighters compete in other promotions)

At 31, Jeremy ‘Lil Heathen’ Stephens is the youngest fighter on this list – yet he has competed in the UFC for over a decade and racked up an impressive 28 fights in that time frame, tying for the second place with Jim Miller. Unlike many others on this list, Stephens does not appear one bit shop-worn or past his prime; in fact his recent three-win streak including two brutal knockouts and an almost equally brutal and one-sided beating of Gilbert Melendez indicate that Lil Heathen may just now be coming into his best form as a fighter. The slugger from Des Moines who was once thought to be a perennial mid-carder already fought twice in 2018, headlining both events and delivering the most enterntaining kind of violence, even if the finish of his last fight involved a bit of controversy. The long time gatekeeper is finally knocking at the door of a title shot, most likely next in line behind Brian Ortega for a chance to earn the featherweight strap.

Though Bisping is currently one rung up the ladder from Stephens, his most likely next opponent Luke Rockhold is facing a medical suspension of up to six months after taking a beating at the hands of Yoel Romero at UFC 221 – which means this fight won’t likely take place until early fall or late summer – assuming Bisping decides against retirement. Given Jeremy’s recent level of activity, it’s not inconceivable that he will fight two more times before Bisping fights again. Even if he doesn’t become the first UFC fighter with 30 bouts to his name, he will almost certainly pass this record within the next couple of years and may hold it for quite some time.

[#26 LW]  Jim Miller
Age: 34
UFC Fights: 28
UFC Debut: October 18, 2008
Current Streak: L-3
Average Fights Per Year: 2.8

Show me an MMA fan who doesn’t like Jim Miller, and I will show you a liar. A consummate professional, always enterntaining action fighter well rounded in every aspect of the sport, avid hunter & fisherman, and an all-around nice guy, Miller has been a constant fixture in the UFC over the last ten years and to the best of my recollection has never been in a boring fight. Racking up a seven win streak between 2009 and 2011, Miller was on the verge of a shot at the lightweight title; however a loss to Benson Henderson dashed Jim’s contendership hopes and he has never been able to repeat his previous success. In recent years, in addition to his opponents in the Octagon, Miller has been battling Lyme’s Disease – a serious affliction that can greatly affect a person’s physical condition. He claimed to have recovered from his illness and managed to win three straight in 2016; however he then dropped his next three outings. His recent loss to Francisco Trinaldo was the most concerning, as the once seemingly indefatigable fighter gassed badly before the third round.

Miller is the only fighter on this list who already has his next bout scheduled – in Atlantic City against Daniel Hooker on April 21st. While this means that he will soon tie Bisping’s record (as long as neither fighter gets injured in the weeks before the fight, and both manage to make weight), a fighter ten years younger who finished five of his UFC opponents seems like a very bad stylistic matchup for the quickly fading Miller. Should he somehow pull off a win, Miller will likely reach the magic number 30 before the end of the year, and even with a loss he may still get another fight in the UFC. However it’s clear that his career is coming to an end, sooner rather than later.

[#9 WW]  Donald Cerrone
Age: 34
UFC Fights: 27
UFC Debut: February 5, 2011
Current Streak: W-1
Average Fights Per Year: 3.71

Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone personifies the warrior spirit of martial arts.  This is a man willing to fight anyone, any time, anywhere – and preferably as often as possible, which makes him by far the most active fighter on this list, racking up 27 bouts in seven years with the UFC.  In fact I would wager that Cerrone is certainly one of, if not the most active fighter in UFC history.

Cerrone became a mainstay of the lightweight division after UFC and WEC merged, and at one point won eight consecutive fights to earn a rematch with the champion at the time, Rafael Dos Anjos. Cowboy came up short in his title shot, getting stopped in just over a minute, and decided to try his luck as a welterweight. He finished his first four opponents at 170, but had a rough year in 2017, losing three fights – two of them by TKO – for the first losing streak of his career. Cowboy rebounded by stopping Yancy Medeiros, showing that it’s not yet time to put him out to pasture. Cerrone talked about cutting back on his schedule a bit, but I have a feeling that when an opportunity to make some cash while kicking some ass comes along, he will find it hard to resist. While he may have peaked as a fighter, Cerrone has a couple of good years left in him, which at his pace could mean another 7-8 fights.

[#6 WW] Demian Maia
Age: 40
UFC Fights: 27
UFC Debut: October 20, 2007
Current Streak: L-2
Average Fights Per Year: 2.6

The elder statesmen of the group at 40, Demian Maia is a unique fighter, somewhat a throwback to the style-vs-style beginnings of the sport. Widely recognized as one of the greatest modern BJJ practitioners, Maia transitioned his grappling skills well into the MMA arena, submitting his first five UFC opponents before suffering his first loss in a title eliminator against Nate Marquardt – a monumental knockout that will be seen in highlight reels for the eternity. Maia did eventually get a shot at the champion Anderson Silva, and lost by decision in a bizarre fight where Silva was more interested with toying with and humiliating his opponent than getting a finish.

After floating around the middleweight division for a bit, Maia decided to try his luck at welterweight. The lower weight class was apparently better suited for his frame and Demian gathered a 10-2 record at 170, but dropped lackluster decisions in his last two outings with the champion Tyrone Woodley and rising contender Colby Covington. After disappointing performances in his title shots at both 185 and 170, Maia realizes that he will not get another crack at the gold; however he stated that he would like to fight another time or two before retiring. Make it three, and Maia will join he exclusive 30-fight club.

[#206 LW]  Gleison Tibau
Age: 34
UFC Fights: 27
UFC Debut: November 18, 2006
Current Streak: L-3 (Arguably… Tibau’s 2015 submission win over Abel Trujillo was retroactively overturned to a DQ by the Brazilian MMA Comission (CABMMA) due to Gleison’s failed drug test. Until this becomes a common practice world wide, we typically recognize such outcomes as a No Contest, rather than a DQ loss.)
Average Fights Per Year: 2.36 (through 2015, includes a single fight outside of UFC in 2007)

If not for the two year suspension which he received after failing two drug tests in 2015, Gleison Tibau would have been a lock to hold the record for the most fights in UFC. However the time spent on the sidelines allowed other fighters to catch up and pass Tibau’s 26 bouts at the time. His 2018 return from the USADA exile did not go as well as planned, as Gleison was flattened with a punch from Islam Makhachev in under a minute. Getting knocked out cold by an opponent with only two other T/KO wins on his record does not bode well for the grizzled veteran who’s been the quintessential gatekeeper of the lightweight division since 2006.

Tibau will likely get another couple of fights in the UFC, and is still well within reach of the 30 bouts. However his return fight raised a number of questions about his durability after a long layoff, as well as his ability to perform at the same level as before with the enhanced PED testing in place. Gleison will need to shake off the ring rust and make a major turn-around of his career slide to get back into contention for the record.

[#92 WW]  Diego Sanchez
Age: 36
UFC Fights: 27
UFC Debut: April 9, 2005
Current Streak: L-2
Average Fights Per Year: 2.08

The least active fighter among this group, Diego ‘Nightmare’ Sanchez is also the one with the longest UFC career, and his longevity more than made up for his periods of inactivity. The middleweight winner of the original Ultimate Fighter series came into UFC as an undefeated prospect, and sliced through the TUF house competition and his first few opponents in official UFC bouts like a hot knife through butter, as well as having all-time classic battles with Nick Diaz and Karo Parisyan. Sanchez dropped to welterweight immediately after his TUF stint, and once fought as low as featherweight, however the peak of his career was arguably at lightweight when he received a shot at the champion BJ Penn.  Diego was absolutely brutalized in that fight, and didn’t look like the same fighter ever since. Instead of being a well-rounded fighter who could do it all early in his career, Sanchez became a brawler without knockout power, and has failed to finish an opponent since 2008.

After getting blown out by BJ Penn, Sanchez went on a streak of ten straight decisions, fluctuating between three weight divisions.  However he was finished three times in his last four fights – all first round knockouts, with the most recent one at the hands and elbows of Matt Brown being particularly brutal. It’s clear that the punishment taken over the course of a 15+ year career has caught up to Sanchez, and after each one of his recent knockout losses the voices of fans calling for his retirement grew increasingly louder. However the only contestant from TUF season one who is still active in the sport remains defiant in his determination to continue fighting, even though these days it seems like he’s not capable of either taking punishment or dishing it out. I find it hard to imagine that he will fight three more times in UFC, hence placing him in the last place on my list. However WME-UFC has been reluctant to release veterans with any name value, no matter how awful they look in the cage, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Sanchez will join the 30-fight club soon.